Kolchak: The Night Stalker – The Genealogy of a Classic Horror TV Series

Kolchak: The Night Stalker was a classic piece of horror television. Remember when reporters were viewed as heroes?

While leaving the courtroom after being sentenced to death in 1989, serial killer and rapist Richard Ramirez turned to the waiting television cameras and announced, “I’m goin’ to Disney World!”

Well, no he wasn’t. Not in the way we usually think about it. Ramirez, 53, died in 2013 of natural causes while still awaiting execution.

During a Los Angeles crime spree in 1984 and ‘85 that eventually left 13 dead, some clever newspaperman, noting the Satanic and vampiric trappings of some of the murders dubbed Ramirez “The Night Stalker.” The moniker, consciously or not, was lifted from a 1972 made-for TV movie about a suave modern vampire terrorizing a major metropolitan area, and the frumpy, wisecracking reporter who finds himself with the thankless job of tracking him down. At the time it was the most-watched TV film in history, and went on to spawn a series.

While in the original film “The Night Stalker” referred to the vampire, once it became a series it was applied to the reporter instead, so at first I was annoyed someone would dub Ramirez “The Night Stalker,” thinking it was somehow robbing something from a show that meant so much to me. But the more I thought about it the more it made sense, and the more I even came to appreciate the plug. Ramirez may not have been a real vampire, or a headless, sword-wielding biker, or an Aztec mummy, but in this day and age he was close enough.

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I’m not ashamed to admit that Kolchak: The Night Stalker, in which the above-mentioned reporter uncovers weekly evidence that a monster of some kind is loose in the city, had a profound influence on me. Now some 40 years after the fact (and after 25 years in journalism) I’m even more impressed.

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In 1972, TV producer Dan Curtis, creator of ’60s horror soap Dark Shadows, had an idea for a made-for-TV movie. The resulting film, The Night Stalker, it’s sequel, and the series they spawned became not only a weekly destination for monster-hungry kids like myself—they also became a regular destination for a number of the best-known character actors from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. This was lost on most of the young viewers in the mid-’70s, but returning to the show later, it became a drawing point.

Curtis began probing his own movie memories long before production got underway, by approaching Richard Matheson to write a screenplay about a world-weary investigative journalist tracking a vampire in contemporary Las Vegas. Matheson’s novels and short stories had inspired a number of films, from Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man to Roger Corman’s The Last Man on Earth. He’d also written the scripts for some of the most memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone. He would write both pilot films as well as several of the 17 hour-long episodes of the regular series. Matheson’s script was an adaptation of an unpublished novella by Jeff Rice.

For the lead, Curtis signed film and TV veteran Darren McGavin (The Case Against Brooklyn), whose characterization of the monster-hunting Carl Kolchak was in many ways a reprise of his role as Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer in the late-’50s TV series. Not just through McGavin’s standard mannerisms and delivery, but also in the show’s dialogue, voiceover, story structure and side characters as well. Careful observers might even see more than a hint of Alan Jenkins in the wisecracking intrepid reporter with a healthy disdain for authority.

As Kolchak’s editor and foil, Simon Oakland (I Want to Live, Psycho), would have been another familiar face to audiences after his countless supporting roles on film and television. He was the standard big-city newspaper editor with a short fuse and no patience with a reporter who insisted on finding evidence of zombies, aliens, werewolves and mummies at the scenes of what were clearly run of the mill murders.

As the show progressed through the pilot films and the series, and McGavin and Oakland moved (often unwillingly) from Vegas to Seattle before settling in Chicago, the monsters followed. The familiar faces followed as well. During its brief run, the show featured appearances by the ubiquitous Elisha Cook, Jr., Ralph Meeker (who perhaps coincidentally played Mike Hammer himself in Kiss Me Deadly), Margaret Hamilton, Claude Akins (Shield for Murder), Wally Cox, Al Lewis, horror icon John Carradine and many others.

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Beyond the actors, and despite the color and contemporary setting, the show had the look and tone and overall feel of a classic noir horror film. The costumes and sets could have been lifted directly from a Columbia or Warner Brothers release from the ‘30s—consider specifically a film like Doctor X. Again, apart from the early-’70s setting and some details, the language, production design, and characters (bums, informants, mobsters, cops, doctors) are decidedly anachronistic.

This was not accidental. Curtis, who departed after the TV movies that launched the series, but whose influence was still felt, made it clear that he was drawing from the films he saw as a child. Kolchak himself, in his cheap white suit and straw boater, seems to be operating in a different era—one in which stories of evil spirits, lizard men, and vengeful headless motorcyclists were not always met with brutal skepticism.

It’s also interesting to note that Kolchak’s run on network television coincided with the Watergate investigation, perhaps the last time in our history when journalists were considered heroic figures, willing to risk everything to get the truth out and save us all from monsters of all sorts.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2013. It has been updated and corrected since then.