Adapted from a talk I gave at Clay McLeod Chapman’s “Fear Mongers” in March 2012, in which the participants are asked to talk about the one horror movie or show that really scared the Bejesus out of them. We share it now, just in time for Hallowe’en!
I want to talk about this tv show that was on when I was around 9 or 10 years old called Kolchak: The Night Stalker. It starred Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak, a pain-in-the-ass reporter for a fly-by-night news wire service. Simon Oakland played his apoplectic editor Vincenzo, who always seemed about one burst blood vessel away from a stroke, thanks to his star reporter, who — no matter what case he was initially investigating — invariably would end up embroiled in a nocturnal world of undead monsters.
The series had started out as a tv movie called The Night Stalker (1971) adopted by Richard Matheson from a novel, concerning a serial killer who turns out to be a vampire. Two years later there was a sequel, The Night Strangler, set in an underground city underneath Seattle.
The series was launched in 1974. Like all the very best shows, this one was cancelled before the first season was out. They shot 20 of a planned 26 episodes. McGavin quit, saying that it had become a “monster of the week” show, and had become ridiculous. Some people did and do find the show ridiculous, and it did quickly exhaust itself and become so. McGavin’s characterization was at least partially at fault, whether he admitted that or not. But it wasn’t that at first.
The key to its effectiveness as horror was my young age. I was 9 or 10. Parents at the time were forbidding children to watch it, so naturally kids at school were daring each other. My sister and I were forbidden and we definitely snuck down after bed time and watched it. Actually, she only did a couple of times (she was only 7 or 8).
Most of the time I was alone. My father worked the 3rd shift, and my mother worked in a factory so she would be asleep, exhausted at that point, 9 or 10 at night. So I really wasn’t going to get busted. So there were no grown ups around, no one around, doing this, forbidden, wrong mysterious thing. It was a very intense solitary, formative experience.
The show had this great theme music, mixing a moody melodic cello motif with the rhythm of a reporter’s typewriter. Kolchak would go off on these assignments (always some other story) and then he would get into trouble for following leads unrelated to his assignment because he was on to something vastly more fascinating. It usually began with people dying from highly bizarre causes.
And it would always be night (and it wasn’t day-for-night, it was that pitch black contrasty 70s lighting). I re-watched the entire series recently and saw one very good reason for them to have all those night scenes (other than simply for atmosphere). The show is set in Chicago, but they filmed most of it in LA, so sometimes in the daytime, you get these shots of Kolchak driving past rows of palm trees in what is supposed to be the Windy City.
Kolchak was very funny and smart so you liked him, but no one else did, so he would always be completely alone, in an alley, or a parking garage, or a hospital corridor or a roof, with some creature stalking him, a vampire or a zombie or a mummy. And then when it was all over and he’d killed the monster and told his story no one would believe him. And he’d always be typing up his story or dictating it in the newspaper office all alone at night. Even that seemed creepy.
During my recent re-viewing I was astounded at how much I remembered from the show., and what an impact the show made. I was also impressed by the fact that I had seen every single episode!
And now, without further ado, the show’s eerie opening sequence: