Theme music composer Gil Mellé
|Created by Jeff Rice|
Country of origin United States
|Starring Darren McGavinSimon OaklandJack GrinnageRuth McDevitt|
Composer(s) Robert CobertGil MelléJerry FieldingGreg McRitchieLuchi De Jesus
Similar The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., The Six Million Dollar Man, Wonder Woman (TV series)
Kolchak: The Night Stalker is an American television series that aired on ABC during the 1974–1975 season. It featured a fictional Chicago newspaper reporter—Carl Kolchak, played by Darren McGavin—who investigated mysterious crimes with unlikely causes, particularly those that law enforcement authorities would not follow up. These often involved the supernatural or science fiction, including fantastic creatures.
- The Night Stalker
- The Night Strangler
- Unproduced scripts
- INS characters
- Other recurring characters
- 2005 television series
- Other projects
- Home media releases
The series was preceded by two television movies, The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973). Although the series only lasted a single season, it remains popular in syndication. It is often cited as the inspiration for the popular series The X-Files. Following the success of The X-Files, the franchise was resurrected in 2005 in a second television series with a new cast and characters, as well as subsequent novels and comic books.
The main character originated in an unpublished novel, The Kolchak Papers, written by Jeff Rice. In it, a Las Vegas newspaper reporter named Carl Kolchak tracks down and defeats a serial killer who turns out to be a vampire named Janos Skorzeny. Although the reporter uses the name "Carl", the novel reveals that his birth name is "Karel". After the success of the TV film and its sequel, the novel was published in 1973 by Pocket Books as a mass-market paperback original titled The Night Stalker, with a photo of Darren McGavin on the cover to tie it to the film.
The second television film, The Night Strangler, was also turned into a novel (written by Jeff Rice but based on a script by Richard Matheson), published in 1974 by Pocket Books.
Both novels were republished in 2007 by Moonstone in an omnibus edition called The Kolchak Papers. Moonstone Books continues to produce Kolchak comic books.
The Night Stalker
ABC approached Rice with an offer to option The Kolchak Papers, which was adapted eventually by Richard Matheson into a television movie, The Night Stalker. It was produced by Dan Curtis and directed by John Llewellyn Moxey. Darren McGavin played the role of Carl. The cast also included Carol Lynley, Simon Oakland, Ralph Meeker, Claude Akins, Charles McGraw, Kent Smith, Stanley Adams, Elisha Cook Jr., Larry Linville, Jordan Rhodes, and Barry Atwater as the vampire Janos Skorzeny.
The Night Stalker first aired January 11, 1972, and garnered the highest ratings of any television movie at that time (33.2 rating – 54 share). Matheson received a 1973 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best TV Feature or Miniseries Teleplay.
The Night Strangler
Impressed by the success of the first television movie, ABC commissioned Richard Matheson to write a second movie, The Night Strangler (1973), which featured another serial killer in Seattle who strangled his victims and used their blood to keep himself alive for over a century. Kolchak recruits exotic dancer and psychology student Louise Harper (Jo Ann Pflug) to assist him in tracking down the eponymous strangler.
A fictitious version of the Seattle Underground City was used as a setting for much of the movie's action, and provided the killer with his hiding place. Dan Curtis both produced and directed the second movie, which also did well in the ratings. Rice wrote a novelization based on Matheson's screenplay. The novel was published in 1974 by Pocket Books as a mass-market paperback original under the title The Night Strangler with a close-up photo of the monster's eye to tie in with the movie.
Simon Oakland reprised his earlier role as Kolchak's editor, Tony Vincenzo. The cast also included Richard Anderson, Scott Brady, Wally Cox, Margaret Hamilton, John Carradine, Nina Wayne and Al Lewis.
Several scenes were filmed with George Tobias playing a reporter who recalled a series of murders he had investigated during the 1930s. These scenes were cut before airing because of time constraints.
The first four episodes had the title The Night Stalker, with Kolchak: The Night Stalker being used for the rest of the episodes, although home video releases were changed to reflect the same title. (The series theme had originally been part of the music score which Gil Melle had composed for The Questor Tapes.)
In late 1973, Matheson and William F. Nolan completed the script for an intended third television movie, to be titled The Night Killers, a story about android replicas. ABC decided that it wanted a weekly series instead.
After some negotiation, McGavin agreed to return as Kolchak and also served as the series's executive producer, though he was not credited as such. However, ABC did not obtain Jeff Rice's permission, and he sued the studio. The suit was resolved shortly before the series aired in the fall 1974 season, replacing The Brady Bunch. Rice received an on-screen credit as series creator. The first four episodes aired under the title of The Night Stalker. After a month-long hiatus, the series was renamed and returned as Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
The show featured a wide range of guest stars and many Hollywood veterans, including: Ken Lynch, Charles Aidman, Randy Boone, Scatman Crothers, Dick Van Patten, Jan Murray, Larry Storch, Jeanne Cooper, Alice Ghostley, Victor Jory, Murray Matheson, Julie Adams, John Dehner, Phil Silvers, Bernie Kopell, Marvin Miller, Carol Ann Susi, Jesse White, James Gregory, Hans Conried, Mary Wickes, Henry Jones, Carolyn Jones, Jackie Mason, Stella Stevens, Abraham Sofaer, David Doyle, Jim Backus, Kathleen Freeman, John Hoyt, Dwayne Hickman, Eric Braeden, Tom Skerritt, Erik Estrada, William Daniels, Jamie Farr, Lara Parker, Pat Harrington, Jr., Larry Linville and Richard Kiel. Jimmy Hawkins appeared on the series as a Catholic priest on November 1, 1974, in what was his last acting appearance. McGavin's wife and assistant, Kathie Browne, appeared in the final episode as Lt. Irene Lamont.
In addition, the series provided the first professional writing credit for Robert Zemeckis and his writing partner Bob Gale, who wrote the script for the episode "Chopper." David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, also worked on the series as a story editor, his first regular crew position in Hollywood. Though Chase is credited on eight episodes as story editor, he also helped rewrite the remaining 12, and McGavin and others attribute much of the show's quirky humor to his creative input.
The show's ratings were mediocre and McGavin was growing dissatisfied, resulting in its cancellation after one year. The series aired on Friday nights at 10pm - a virtual graveyard for most TV series, particularly one aimed at a younger audience. In January 1975, the show was moved to Friday nights at 8pm, where it remained until August when it was cancelled. McGavin found himself rewriting scripts and doing much of the work of a producer, but without getting either the full credit or the full compensation of one. McGavin had been unhappy with what he felt was the show's "monster of the week" direction, and an exhausting filming schedule. He asked to be released from his contract with two episodes remaining to be filmed, which the network granted in light of the show's dwindling ratings.
Two television movies, The Demon and the Mummy and Crackle of Death, were cobbled together in 1976. Each contains new footage as well as previously-screened episodes from the series. McGavin provided a voice-over for both, which allowed the narrative to maintain some continuity.
The series was cancelled with only 20 episodes completed but the initial order of 26 meant there were scripts that were completed but unproduced for the series. Three additional scripts commissioned before the series was cancelled still survive.
The story is summed up by Kolchak's opening narration: "What if I told you that a deranged feminist murdered a Casanova lab technician, a sex goddess, and her purveyor?"
Kolchak is assigned to cover a miners' strike in the mountains of West Virginia. He uncovers gruesome murders associated with a backwoods family and Kolchak suspects that they have some sort of inbred monster living with them.
Kolchak is demoted, and is given the choice of writing obituaries or writing articles for the arts section. He chooses the latter, and discovers a painting tied into a series of murders that Vincenzo is covering. These murders occur in a series of three, in which the first victim is hanged, the second executed with an ax, and the third poisoned. Working with an art expert, Kolchak attempts to unravel who or what is behind these bizarre murders and what they have to do with the painting, without alerting Vincenzo that he is working on the same story.
The series features Kolchak as a reporter for the Chicago branch of the Independent News Service (INS), a small wire service.
Other recurring characters
In the series' short run it managed to tackle most of the major monster myths, including classics such as vampires, werewolves, mummies and zombies. It also included stories about a doppelganger, witches, a succubus and a pact with Satan. Four episodes focused on monsters and spirits based in native folklore (two involving Native American legends, one Hindu and one Creole).
The series also dealt with creatures from science fiction, including a killer android, an invisible extraterrestrial, a prehistoric man thawed back to life and a lizard-creature protecting its eggs.
The series also featured some more esoteric antagonists, including a headless motorcycle rider that hinted at the headless horseman myth, and an animated knight's suit of armor possessed by a spirit. A story about Jack the Ripper was one of the few based on an actual historical figure, though the series provided a supernatural explanation. An episode about Helen of Troy dealt with immortality and aging.
Robert Cobert scored the music for the original television movies. Gil Mellé wrote the music for the TV series, beginning with the theme that begins with Kolchak whistling in the opening credits. Mellé was hired and the theme was written in 20 minutes, just before the opening credits were shot.
Mellé left the series after the fourth episode, saying it was becoming too light-hearted. Composer Jerry Fielding took over scoring music for the remaining series, augmented by one score each from Greig McRitchie (best known for his collaborations with Fielding, and James Horner), and Luchi De Jesus. Music Supervisor Hal Mooney re-used much of Mellé's score in various later episodes (most notably The Spanish Moss Murders which has no credited score composer) along with material from the other composers.
Two soundtrack albums have been produced. One released in 2000 by Varèse Sarabande features two suites of Cobert's music from the TV movies. The other, a bootleg copy of Melle's private tapes, features his theme and scores written for the first three episodes (The Ripper, U.F.O. and Vampire), and two cues from TVmovie "The Questor Tapes."
The Mellé theme also appears on the TVT Records' Television's Greatest Hits Volume 5. However, all licensed soundtrack recordings of the theme use an otherwise rare original recording alternate take of the theme. Initially identifiable by the altered opening whistle, an off-key electronic note is seemingly randomly introduced towards the end, but when synchronized with picture it corresponds to a specific visual. Mellé was known for his innovative use of electronic orchestration (which was used throughout the series), however the producers chose not to include this stylistic element in his main title for broadcast, instead opting for a more conventional all-orchestral sound.
Though Kolchak was short-lived as a series, its impact on popular culture has been substantial. In particular the series has been described as a predecessor to The X-Files (1993–2002, 2016). The X-Files creator, Chris Carter, has acknowledged that the show had influenced him greatly in his own work. In one interview when mentioned that the majority of the viewing public considered the success of The X-Files series as being inspired by other such past shows such as The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, Carter mentions that while those shows were indeed an influence on Files, it was only about ten percent, with another thirty percent coming from the Kolchak series, with the rest derived as being based upon original 'pure inspiration'. Carter paid tribute to Kolchak in a number of ways in the show. A character named "Richard Matheson", named for the screenwriter of the pilot films, appeared in several episodes. Carter also wanted McGavin to appear as Kolchak in one or more episodes of The X-Files, but McGavin was unwilling to reprise the character for the show. He did eventually appear in several episodes as Arthur Dales, a retired FBI agent described as the "father of the X-Files". In the third episode of the 2016 revival series, a character prominently featured in the episode Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster is conspicuously attired in Kolchak's trademark seersucker jacket, black knit tie, and straw hat.
Gary Gygax has cited an episode of the series as part of the inspiration behind the Rakshasa in the Dungeons & Dragons game.
2005 television series
Though Rice retains the rights to written Kolchak works, and Universal Studios owns the rights to the TV series, ABC maintained dramatic rights to the character and ownership of the two TV movies. The network began airing a new Night Stalker series on September 29, 2005, with the character Carl Kolchak portrayed by Stuart Townsend. On November 14, 2005, ABC and creator Frank Spotnitz announced that the new series was being cancelled due to low ratings. The 2005 series is available on DVD.
In a nod to the original series, the pilot episode has a brief shot from the original TV series of Darren McGavin in the INS newsroom, as the new Kolchak (Townsend) is walking through it. Inserted digitally, McGavin is dressed in the same frumpy clothes he wore as Kolchak in the original series and smiles knowingly while touching his hat. The satchel in which Kolchak carried wooden stakes and a cross to battle Skorzeny is shown. In another shot, when fellow reporter Perri Reed (Gabrielle Union) is searching through Kolchak's room, the hat McGavin wore in the original series is seen hanging on a coat rack. Other character names from the TV movies are referenced in various episodes, and one episode ("Timeless") recycled much of the plot of the TV movie The Night Strangler. In the 1970s, the Kolchak character was often seen in his yellow 1966 Ford Mustang convertible while in the new series' Kolchak drives an orange Mustang from 2005.
In 1991, author Mark Dawidziak wrote Night Stalking: A 20th Anniversary "Night Stalker" Companion detailing the production of the movies and TV series. In 1994, Dawidziak worked with Rice to produce the first official "Kolchak" material since the end of the TV series. The novel, Grave Secrets, moved Kolchak from Chicago to Los Angeles where he obtained a job at the Hollywood Dispatch newspaper (nicknamed the "Disgrace"). Most of the recurring characters from the TV movies and series also appear. Kolchak investigates a ghost who is killing those responsible for the destruction of the cemetery where its body is buried. An expanded and updated version of Dawidziak's "Night Stalking" was published in 1997 by Pomegranate Press as "The Night Stalker Companion." In 2003, the scripts for "The Night Stalker," "The Night Strangler" and the unfilmed "The Night Killers" were published by Gauntlet Press as "Richard Matheson's Kolchak Scripts" (edited with introductions by Dawidziak).
A comic book based on the property was published in 2003 by Moonstone Books with some commercial success. Moonstone continues to publish both a bimonthly serial magazine and a series of prose novels and graphic novels featuring the characters. Moonstone also adapted Rice's original The Night Stalker script as well as two unfilmed scripts for the TV series: "The Get of Belial" and "Eve of Terror".
In 2006, Moonstone published a short fiction anthology, The Night Stalker Chronicles, with short stories contributed by writers such as Peter David, Mike W. Barr, Stuart Kaminsky, Richard Dean Starr, C. J. Henderson, Dawidziak and Max Allan Collins. A second volume, Kolchak: The Night Stalker Casebook, was published in January 2007 featuring new short fiction by authors including P. N. Elrod, Christopher Golden, Richard Dean Starr, Dawidziak and Elaine Bergstrom. Between 2007 and 2012, Moonstone published several Night Stalker novels and novellas, including The Lovecraftian Horror, The Lovecraftian Damnation, A Black and Evil Truth and The Lost City, all by C. J. Henderson. A Black and Evil Truth was later released as an audiobook.
Home media releases
Twentieth Century Fox released the first TV movie on VHS, "The Night Stalker," as part of it's "Selections" series. MGM Home Video released the two TV movies on DVD on August 24, 2004. Universal Studios Home Entertainment released Kolchak: The Night Stalker – The Complete Series on DVD a year later. Madman Entertainment released the complete series on DVD in Australia and New Zealand on July 15, 2009.