Monday, July 18, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: Kolchak: The Night Stalker

Once again, I stretch the terms "pulp," "fantasy," and perhaps even "library" beyond the breaking point in an effort to write about an entertainment that nevertheless exercised an influence over Dungeons & Dragons. In this particular case, I offer no apologies, since I've been intending to write (again) about the 1974–1975 television series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker and this space seemed as good a place to do so as any. The show was, along with Star Trek, a favorite of mine as a child – influenced, in both cases, by my paternal aunt, who had a love for things scary and science fictional, hence her also taking me to see Star Wars in June 1977. 

In the early part of this century, a friend gave me a DVD collection of the entire series, whose twenty episodes I've regularly watched and re-watched in the years since. Sadly, the collection was a poor one. The video transfers were grainy and the DVDs themselves were double-sided. It's a cheap, money-saving measure on the part of the manufacturer that all but ensures the discs will eventually become smudged and scratched, as mine eventually did. But I loved the series enough that I suffered through the slow degradation of my discs.

Fortunately, in 2018, a company called Kino Lorber released a high definition restoration of the original 1972 TV movie, also called The Night Stalker, followed soon thereafter of a similar restoration of its 1973 sequel, The Night Strangler. These were amazing pieces of work in every possible way and I hoped the company might eventually turn its attention to the television series as well. My wish was granted in the fall of 2021, when Kolchak: The Night Stalker received a similarly lavish HD restoration. It took me a while to get my hands on a copy, but I eventually did, which is why I wanted to write this post.

The original TV movie was based on an unfinished novel by Jeff Rice and adapted by Richard Matheson (best known for I Am Legend and his work on Roger Corman's various Edgar Allan Poe movies from the early 1960s). The movie was, in turn, directed by John Llewellyn Moxie (who'd directed several films starring Christopher Lee) and produced by Dan Curtis of Dark Shadows fame. Both it and its sequel were presented as straight-up horror movies, albeit with a "crusading reporter" edge that was very relevant to post-Watergate America. 

By contrast, the television series was an odd bird, equal parts horror, comedy, and social commentary. The precise mix of these three elements varied from episode to episode – and sometimes scene to scene – and that's probably why, as a child, I had such a fondness for the show. Though, like most children, I enjoyed being frightened, I nevertheless appreciated the breaks from terror afforded by Darren McGavin's comedic hijinks (and those of the show's terrific guest stars, like Jim Backus, Phil Silver, Larry Storch, and Keenan Wynn, among many, many others). As I've said previously, the show was scary but not too scary

The series only had twenty episodes before it was canceled. Its cancellation was largely the result of Darren McGavin's dissatisfaction with its direction. While many of the people involved with the show wanted it to be more serious and genuinely frightening, McGavin preferred a lighter, more comedic tone. There were thus many behind-the-scenes tussles between the show's star and its production staff regarding the content and feel. This background tension sometimes gives episodes a schizophrenic quality. At other times, though, I think it actually contributes to the success of certain episodes. I also think it's fair to say that Kolchak: The Night Stalker is an "uneven" series, whose high points nevertheless more than make up for its lows.

Among its high points are:
  • "The Zombie," which presents a frightening, Voodoo-inflected version of the zombie (that Holmes references in his D&D Basic Rules)
  • "The Devil's Platform," in which Tom Skerrit plays a politician who's sold his soul to the Devil.
  • "The Spanish Moss Murders," Forbidden Planet's creatures from the id meet Cajun folklore (and the inspiration for a foe in my Dwimmermount campaign)
  • "Horror in the Heights," the episode that introduced Gary Gygax to the rakshasa
  • "Chopper," a story of a headless motorcycle writer, written by Robert Zemeckis
That said, I enjoy even the less well regarded episodes, because many of them contain interesting characters, situations, and characters. And, of course, Darren McGavin is fun to watch. One of the pleasures of the Kino Lorber remastered collection is that each episode includes commentary, often by film and television historians, who shed light on aspects of the show's production and influence. It's fascinating stuff if, like me, you enjoy learning about all the work that goes into making popular entertainment. Likewise, it's remarkable to discover just how many individuals who worked on Kolchak: The Night Stalker would later go on to success later in their careers. 

I may still write further posts on the series in the weeks to come, but, now that I've had the chance to gush a bit about it today, I can resume making more "traditional" posts in this series next week. Thanks for your indulgence.


  1. We received this a Christmas or two ago. I remember watching it as a kid. I remember the werewolf episode. When I watched the set this time and saw the one about the Rakshasa, he was killed by a bolt that was blessed by a holy man who was chasing it. I'm not D&D know it all, but even I had an 'aha' moment then.

  2. I had the same feelings as you watching this show as a young lad in the 70s with my brother. It was must see TV, the perfect show for boys who were wanting to be frightened.

    Having seen some of the episodes in the past year or so (I think on MeTV), I'm a bit less enthusiastic about them now, but I think it was the pilot episode, where Kolchak is on the trail of a vampire in Seattle, that still holds up well today, and is still very enjoyable.

  3. I loved this series when it was on, but it was cancelled before I could see every episode. Years later I bought the series on VHS.

  4. is matheson now known for corman's poe movies, and not twilight zone?

    1. I keep forgetting he did more than a dozen Twilight Zone episodes (not to mention lots of other TV, including Star Trek).

    2. Matheson rocked. if you like mystery, highly recommend Noir (a collection of his pulp mysteries)

  5. The show was also a big influence on Chris Carter, creator of the X-files.

  6. I recall the Rakasha episode since when I later read about the creature in the MM I knew here I'd first saw it. I also recall the episode that took please in Seattle's "under-city" which I had always thought was way cool.