These days you can’t swing a dead (or cursed, or possessed…) cat without hitting yet another series about some shady gumshoe type getting mixed up in supernatural shenanigans on the reg. There’s always someone in a trench coat delving into the shadows, battling vampires, werewolves, ghosts, aliens, or some other critter hauled from the rich depths of the collective unconscious.
We can trace this back to stone cold spooky ’90s classic The X-Files, the most prominent of a glut of supernatural procedurals that hit the airwaves nearly 30 years back. But X-Files creator Chris Carter didn’t create his cult series in a vacuum. The X Files’ honcho has been quite vocal about his series owing a lot to the early ’70s adventures of down-on-his-luck wire journalist, Carl Kolchak.
Played by top-notch character actor Darren McGavin, Carl Kolchak is a dogged, determined investigative reporter working for a national news syndication service. Never seen without his seersucker suit and porkpie hat, the hangdog Kolchak is no square-jawed hero, but a rumpled, middle-aged guy with a keen mind and a keener sense of justice, trying to work a tough gig in a mean world – think James Garner in The Rockford Files or Peter Falk in Columbo and you’re not too far off.
The character sprang from an unpublished novel by Jeffrey Rice that was adapted by genre legend Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man) into the 1972 TV movie The Night Stalker. A second TV movie, The Night Strangler, followed in 1973.
Both were hugely successful, with The Night Stalker being the most watched TV movie ever at the time of airing. In fact, for a brief shining moment, Kolchak was so popular that American TV network ABC dropped plans for a third film (provisionally titled The Night Killers) and instead took the property to a series, with Kolchak: The Night Stalker debuting in 1974.
The monster of the week
The gist is simple: every week our man Kolchak is on the prowl for a noteworthy crime story to type up, and every week he winds up going toe to toe with some inhuman threat, normally to the consternation of the local cops, who would much rather pin the crime on a more earthly suspect.
Like a certain show that followed in its footsteps, Kolchak spread a wide net in search of each episode’s antagonist, and in doing so caught a real mixed bag. One week Kolchak might be on the trail of a werewolf stalking an ocean cruise, on another night it’s a vengeful zombie killing black gangsters (Antonio Fargas and Scatman Crothers guest star in that one, FYI).
Aliens, androids, the Native American manitou, the Indian rakshasa, Satan himself? All make an appearance, with poor Kolchak facing them down armed with only his wits and a knack for sniffing out the unnatural (at least Mulder and Scully had guns).
Why? Bad luck, maybe. Back in the day plot arcs were generally relegated to soap operas, so for the average viewer it was enough to know that every week Carl would run across some kind of ravening critter. It was a simpler time.
The sensational, sleazy ’70s
Indeed, although it was a modern series at the time, some four-plus decades later part of the charm of Kolchak is its early ’70s setting.
That’s early ’70s, mind you – around the time of the Watergate scandal – and the grim cynicism of the times imbues the whole series. Kolchak’s world is full of weary, bleary-eyed journos asking hard questions, put-upon cops trying to solve impossible crimes, late-night diners patronised by taxi drivers, pimps and pros, back-alley crime scenes demarcated by yellow hazard tape. Everyone drinks. Everyone chain-smokes. The neck ties are very wide. You can imagine hardboiled detective Philip Marlowe (the Elliot Gould version, not the Humphrey Bogart version) standing just out of shot in almost any given scene.
That gives the show a wonderful, intoxicating sense of contrast, setting the inexplicable and macabre against a gritty, hardscrabble world of human corruption. It’s like All the President’s Men with monsters.
The whole X-Files thing
Which is, as mentioned, not a million miles away from the frisson engendered by The X-Files.
While Kolchak’s popularity dwindled so quickly that the show was actually cancelled after only one season, it sure made a hell of an impression on Chris Carter, who estimated that his show owed at least 30% of its DNA to the old series.
He paid his dues, too; Darren McGavin guest starred in The X-Files as retired FBI Agent Arthur Dales, dubbed “the father of the X-Files” while in the 2016 revival series Rhys Darby shows up in one episode as a shapeshifting creature who dresses exactly like Kolchak.
So now, with all 20 episodes coming to SBS on Demand, here’s your chance to meet Mulder’s spiritual father: a beleaguered truth teller battling demonic forces and tight deadlines with equal aplomb, searching the underbelly of ’70s America and finding magic, monsters and mystery.
Kolchak: The Night Stalker is an absolute blast; while some cult classics don’t live up to their storied reputations, this one is all killer, no filler.
Watch Kolchak: The Night Stalker now streaming at SBS On Demand: