I would’ve been a year and a month old when TV screens first showed Kolchak for the first time, so I see the world that 1972 Las Vegas represents as the world I was born into. Perhaps this is why I have such a fondness for the shows made in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. The world which saw me for the first time also saw these shows and the optimism they often represent was the optimism people may have seen in my fat baby features.
I didn’t watch anything Kolchak until many, many years later and it wasn’t until a showing of the whole series one Halloween week that I saw the whole of his adventures from beginning to end.
But the sense of profound deja vu I felt the first time I saw The Night Stalker, Kolchaks first adventure, still stays with me until this day.
The fist time I saw the dark side streets off the Las Vegas strip I knew I had seen them before. I’ve come to think that my baby eyes had seen them and my baby brain had hard wired the images into it as it grew.
Ahh, you see..?! As always Its ALL Kolchaks fault…
No show has ever evoked a sense of place for me as Kolchak does, and though Las Vegas of The Night Stalker may be in no way an accurate portrayal of the real Las Vegas of 1972 theres no way I could shake the idea that it is.
Reality would surely have to be faulty to contradict Kolchak.
Though its irrational to think that there are people who have never seen Kolchak’s adventures I know that these people exist, which only goes to show that the world is a stranger place than even Kolchak realises…
So I’ll try to explain.
Carl Kolchak is a reporter, not the modern type of reporter who copies and pastes articles from other people or trawls Twitter for bits of scandal, but an actual reporter who searches leads and investigates for things that want to remain hidden.
He’s the kind fo reporter who broke Watergate or tried to track down the Zodiac killer.
He’s the kind of reporter who we could sometimes use the term “hero” in respect of.
He’s also irreverent, sarcastic and more than a little bit of a trouble maker. He’s well liked and well hated in equal measure by the very same people and his greatness is only ever overshadowed by his ability to screw up a situation.
He was once a contender and worked legitimate news but has fallen from grace. We never learn why this happened but we suspect his fall was probably well deserved, we’re also sure Kolchak did whatever he did for the right reasons.
Thats the kind of guy Kolchak is.
So when he finds out that a series of murders all have the obvious marks of a fictional creature of the night he can’t help but follow the story to its very end. Partly this is driven by his adherance to the maxim “the public has a right to know”, partly its driven by his need to return to the mainstream news, but partly…
..and this probably more than Kolchak would ever admit, or perhaps even know…
… partly its because its the right thing to do.
Kolchak is a complex man masquerading as a simple man, and the show that surrounds him is very much the same.
The Night Stalker is more than a fantasical take on a vampire stalking the streets, its a reaction to the very raw crimes perpetrated in the latter half of the 1960’s. Most notibly by the Manson Family who were very topical in the media in ’71, the year The Night Stalker was being developed.
1971 was the year Charles Manson was convicted.
Those of the time also suffered through the Zodiac Killer in the years immediately preceding the creation of Kolchak and in the years following the Watergate Scandal broke.
Kolchak was a reaction to the times and the monsters he chased were not too fer removed from the reality in which the viewers lived. All The Night Stalker did was transform the monster into something comfortable, making it the product of fantasy rather than the all too real monsters the public had began to fear.
This is why in spite of its otherwoldly antagonist The Night Stalker has a reality to it thats uncommon for its type, and at times more than a little uncomfortable. Though the streets of Las Vegas are given near gothic sensibilities to match its more than a little gothic villain there remains a rawness to those streets that feel authentic.
Carl Kolchak adds quite a bit to this reality as well, as do the colourful supporting characters.
Antonio Vincenzo is his long suffering editor in chief, a rotund and usually jolly man who Carl tortures to distraction at every opportunity. I’d like to think that we all know an Antionio Vincenzo, that friend who we don’t know as a friend but who would watch our back regardless.
Even when Vincenzo has to turn his back to Kolchak theres pain in the action.
Antonio Vincenzo tries to walk the line that Kolchak constantly trie to push him from, and a viewer can clearly see how Vincenzo wold sometimes love to follow Kolchak down those less trod paths Kolchak frequents.
Then we have Kolchaks sometimes girlfriend Gail Foster, a local dancer with an interest in Kolchaks work. Their relationship fall in the healthy space between lovers and friends and Kolchak is attentive enough to her arguments to be convinced that in order to catch this killer, he must treat him as though he were a real life vampire.
Other characters filling the film that are no less considered, the Kolchak universe adding strangth to the old saying “there are no small roles, just small actors” with their depth and reality.
The Night Stalker mix of horror, humour and social commentary has rarely been matched on the small screen, even though Kolchak’s influence can still be seen in TV and movies ’till this very day.
The writing and directing is excellent for this low budget TV affair, but the true strength of the film lies squarely on the actors back who plays the iconic character.
Darren McGavin plays Kolchak with constrant humour and willingness to learn, he’s no know it all and consistently bows to greater understanding than his own. In spite of his wit and ne-er-do-well persona McGavin never allows Kolchak to fall into morose self reflection or thoughtless cruelty.
Though he is pretty thoughtless at times.
Carl Kolchak was a strong enough character that he wet on to headline another movie and a twenty episode TV series that should have gone on far longer.
In recent years there have been new novels, several comic book series and a remake of the TV show but, as good as some of these versions of the character are, non could come close to the marvelous performance that Darren McGavin gave in the original series.
A second movie was made in 1973 and a TV series almost two years later and half a century later people are still watching them and wondering what adventures Carl Kolchak got into after the show ended.