by Ted S. McGregor Jr. & r & The Night Stalker & r & One of the few TV shows I remember looking forward to watching as a kid was The Night Stalker. Darren McGavin's jaded journalist had a knack for running into one supernatural story after another. I guess I wasn't the only one; turns out, Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files, was inspired by The Night Stalker to create his own franchise devoted to all the stuff we can't explain.
Now there's a new Night Stalker series on TV, and the old classic stuff is hitting DVD. The 20 episodes of the TV series were released this month, but I decided to go back to the originals -- the two made-for-TV movies, The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, which were released last year.
These films are charming relics of mid-1970s television, complete with over-the-top music, slow-building suspense and voice-over narration. Of course, the chills are pretty cheesy by modern standards, but McGavin's character, Carl Kolchak, is a classic blend of cynicism, idealism and bad clothes (white sneakers, a seersucker suit and a straw derby hat). He spends just as much time arguing with police chiefs and his editor as he does tracking the villains. Both films are campy fun, in a Scooby-Doo-for-grown-ups kind of way.
The Night Stalker has Kolchak tracking a murderer in Las Vegas who bears a suspicious resemblance to Dracula -- apparently, it was the highest-rated movie-of-the-week ever when it aired on ABC in 1972. But The Night Strangler is even better, as Kolchak moves to Seattle to cover a series of murders by a man who has been alive since the Civil War. The scenes of 1970s Seattle are great -- Pioneer Square, the Space Needle, floating homes on Lake Union -- and the story, set in old, underground Seattle, is pretty clever, too.
So how did the Hollywood machine, circa 2005, update such a classic? Naturally, they screwed it up. The new Kolchak is a dandy young heartthrob with really snazzy clothes -- boring! And rather than turning actors into characters and developing suspense, the new Night Stalker relies on gory scenes. (Has TV gotten really gross lately, or is it just me? Axe murders were shocking in The Shining, but now they seem to be on at 9 pm just about any night of the week.)
Thanks to DVD, you can compare and contrast: Has Hollywood really improved TV since the days when Kolchak ruled the ratings?