Kolchak: The Night Stalker – pulpy midnight-movie tales that almost make journalism seem cool

When creating a supernatural crime thriller, the obvious hero wouldn’t be a middle-aged journalist. But such counterintuitive strokes are exactly what makes 1974’s short-lived Kolchak: The Night Stalker such enduring comfort food.

Spawned from a popular pair of TV movies based on a then-unpublished novel by Jeffrey Grant Rice, the series already had an offbeat birth. The premise itself follows suit, tracking the mostly nocturnal exploits of Chicago wire-service reporter Carl Kolchak. Donning his signature straw hat as a humble everyman touch, Kolchak faces off against outlandish adversaries ranging from vampires and werewolves to more obscure creatures gleaned from folklore.

Kolchak’s salty, quip-ready charm is all down to Hollywood veteran Darren McGavin, who’s best known for playing father to Candice Bergen’s Murphy Brown and Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison. Aged 52 at the time – and reprising the title role from those TV movies – McGavin is the biggest draw here, attacking these pulpy midnight-movie tales with a determination that actually makes journalists seem almost cool. In any other show he would be a faded cop, but the backdrop of mundane journalism allows for a lot of (now quite timely) questioning of what becomes news and what doesn’t.

In another twist on the usual formula, there’s no love interest in sight for our downtrodden hero, who’s loathed by local police and barely tolerated in his own workplace. Yet the show is a wincing pleasure to watch, between its low-budget 70s scrappiness and its resistance to any satisfying closure. Kolchak carries a camera with him everywhere but his photos are always either taken, destroyed or otherwise prevented from public consumption. He abandons his proper assignments to pursue more uncanny leads, but those reports never actually make it to the wire service. Anziché, he dictates conclusions to himself via tape recorder at the end of each episode.

Every week Kolchak is right back where he started, chasing some new threat without reward. He never tires of his Sisyphean task, glued to his police-band radio and always ready to impersonate an authority figure. Kolchak is what we’d call a conspiracy theorist today, and Night Stalker was a key influence for The X-Files: cue the fringe-dwelling believer who never gives up. One of that show’s producers helmed a disastrous Kolchak reboot in 2005, and McGavin’s final TV credits were for playing a Kolchak-esque guest across two episodes of The X-Files. The rebooted X-Files paid even more explicit tribute to the character in the 2016 episode Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster.

As for the monsters, they range from killer robots and Aztec mummies to shapeshifting animals and a near-immortal Jack the Ripper. But the best creatures give us a glimpse into the culture behind them, with Kolchak consulting experts in specific cultural lore to gain the upper hand. For all the potential absurdity of a light-hearted horror series, the show has real writerly pedigree: Sopranos creator David Chase and Oscar-winning filmmaker Robert Zemeckis both got their start here, while revered author Richard Matheson (I Am Legend) penned the novel-to-movie adaptation that sparked the series.

The show was cancelled after just one season, and its final episode (The Sentry) offers no trace of resolution, though it does feature a laughable lizard costume that proves the old adage about not showing too much when aiming for scares. (Something that the show otherwise handles quite well.) A character running on sheer persistence, Kolchak now lives on in comics and novels still being produced for a loyal cult audience.

That’s exactly how it should be for Kolchak: always on the hunt and never any closer to success. Just a wrung-out reporter who treats the most over-the-top occurrences (devil worshippers, swamp monsters, a prehistoric proto-human) as simply another day on a never-ending beat that’s all his own.

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