While he will always be remembered as the perpetually grumpy patriarch (and proud owner of a certain long-legged lamp) in A Christmas Story, actor Darrin McGavin endeared himself to audiences as the frumpily dressed reporter, Carl Kolchak, who tracked various supernatural serial killers in the fondly remembered series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Although the series was relatively short-lived at the time, its popularity and influence were felt long after it left the airwaves.
Based on an unpublished novel by author Grant Rice called The Kolchak Papers, audiences were first introduced to the character through a pair of made-for-television movies. The first, The Night Stalker, aired in 1972 and told the story of a reporter investigating the presence of a murderous vampire in Las Vegas. It would become the highest-rated television movie of the era and spawn a sequel called The Night Strangler. The combined success of these two films made a television series inevitable. And, in 1974, Kolchak: The Night Stalker debuted on ABC.
As in the films, Kolchak was a reporter obsessed with investigating supernatural menaces that go bump in the night. With his ever-present blue seersucker suit and tropical straw hat, and a sarcastic and abrasive personality, he was a unique character, one that was always at odds with his editor, Vincenzo, who rarely believed his strange stories. Luckily, he could rely on a fellow reporter, Emily Cowles, whose friendship was one of the few that he trusted.
In each episode, a series of mysterious killings would occur, with the evidence pointing to a not-of-this-world perpetrator. With the local authorities and his boss remaining skeptical, it would be up to the fearless reporter to shed light on the story, all while risking life and limb from these creatures of the night in the process.
Perhaps most frustrating to Kolchak is that evidence of the creatures always remained elusive and caused his superiors to look upon him with constant disbelief. But they were out there – the werewolves and aliens and vampires – and Kolchak was their lone adversary. Many fans, in particular, remember his encounters with a Hindu demon called the Rakshasa, who was responsible for a series of grisly murders in the elderly community. This episode, called “Horror In The Heights,” showed the demon as one who could appear in the form of a person that the victim most trusted, right before ending their life.
Considering the impact of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, it is amazing that the series only ran for a lone season before being canceled in 1975 – due to low ratings. Its influence was undeniably felt, particularly in such future shows like The X Files and The Dresden Files, and the original series still boasts a large fan base in the science-fiction/horror community.
An attempt was made to revise the beloved series in 2005, in an all-new show simply called, Night Stalker. Actor Stuart Townsend portrayed the Kolchak character in the mere six episodes that were produced before the show was canceled. Fans just didn’t feel that it lived up to the original, which remains one of the most frightening spectacles to ever air on television.
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