Kolchak: The Night Stalker and its long lasting influence on modern horror shows
When tracing back the sources of inspiration behind our favorite movies and shows, it’s always cool when that source turns out to be so…unlikely. Something that is relatively humble yet somehow manages to inspire the weaving of a large piece in the fabric of pop-culture.
Take Ridley Scott’s Alien as an example; an undisputed masterpiece of sci-fi/horror that takes its inspiration from a couple of noteworthy low-budget B-movies. Those movies are IT-the Terror from Beyond Space, and, Planet of the Vampires. Both movies are far from being classics, but were still more than memorable enough to leave a deep impression on what is arguably Scott’s masterpiece of claustrophobic space-bound horror.
But Alien is not the subject here, just an excellent example of an epic being inspired by something small. This is a preamble for a retrospective on a cheesy 70s TV show that ran for only one season and yet had an almost unfathomable affect on future shows of the same genre. That show is Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
Based off two highly-rated and successful pilot movies, Night Stalker follows the misadventures of Carl Kolchak, a callously outspoken reporter for a lowly Chicago newspaper who always finds himself investigating violent supernatural activity plaguing the city. Vampires, werewolves, Aztec mummies, Native American demons, and cyborgs dressed like postmen. The show is much like Scooby-Doo, except the monsters are real and the body counts are high.
Despite the carnage inflicted on the populace by these otherworldly fiends, the police never believe their existence and thus are never capable of taking proper action against them. Kolchak, despite being a cynical paparazzi, is always left being the one to deal with these creatures of the night.
He is a grubby little shutterbug who almost never changes his clothes and mostly looks out for himself, but he does have a redeeming sense of responsibility for dealing with the problems the ignorant masses are unable to recognize and deal with themselves. And even when the authorities do manage to acknowledge the supernatural, there is always a suspicious government cover-up which leaves Kolchak without a scoop and chasing shadows.
Sound familiar? That’s because Night Stalker, despite only running for one season, went on to become the inspiration for The X-files. Something that series creator Chris Carter has always been proud to admit and occasionally pay direct homage to in a few episodes. A couple of those episodes even had Carter bring back Darren McGavin, the actor who played Kolchak.
The intention was that McGavin would reprise his role as Kolchak, effectively turning The X-files into a sequel to Night Stalker, but McGavin had no interest in revisiting the character.
Though it became one of the all-time great cult TV shows, McGavin didn’t care much for Night Stalker or the character he popularized in the end. That was probably due to the show running out of steam pretty quickly in its only season. I can’t say why this happened, whether it was because the show runners lost interest and/or money and were left stuck adhering to the standard ‘monster of the week’ format instead of raising the stakes and scope in a way that The X-Files succeeded at nearly two decades later.
Whatever the reason, it became apparent in the later episodes of Night Stalker, like when Kolchak was investigating a reptile monster that looked worse than something you’d see in a bad Godzilla flick, that the energy they were channeling in the early-to-middle episodes had run out.
But man, those episodes! Jack the Ripper! A psychically-powered swamp monster! Voodoo zombies! Night Stalker hit all the horror sweet spots while setting them on the gritty streets of 70s Chicago and proving the classic monsters could still hack even among the hustlers, drug-dealers, and pimps. While the show, arguably, could not have worked for long, it still worked well enough to pave the way for The X-files and other subsequent seminal horror/sci-fi shows like Buffy, Supernatural, and Fringe. Great things really do come from small places.
Image credits: Universal Television, 20th Century Fox