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The Night Stalker walks

March 8, 2006

Darren McGavin, who played Carl Kolchak, investigative reporter of all things occultic in the memorable 70’s TV show Kolchak: The Night Stalker, died on 25 February, aged 83.

The Night Stalker was originally conceived by Richard Matheson, the celebrated horror fiction writer and author of the seminal vampire story I Am Legend, which provided the basis for one of the best post-apocalypse films of the 70’s, The Omega Man. (In the book, the hero was the last human in a world given over to vampires. In the film, Charlton Heston played the last remant of humanity in a post-WWIII world inhabited by CBW-deformed psychotics.) Matheson wrote the first of the two Kolchak films that gave rise to the 20-episode series.


World-weary, derisive scepticism was
a Kolchak trademark

The appeal of the series really centred on Kolchak. The monsters, to be honest, were pretty ho-hum, by today’s CGI standards. So were some of the plots, although they did feature ingenious reworkings of vampire, werewolf, witchcraft, Bayou monster and voodoo themes — all neatly transposed to 1970’s Chicago.

But it was Kolchak who carried the show. Irascible, unfashionably straw-hatted and crumpled white seersucker-suited, a perpetual thorn in the side of the local police, an impatient loner with unlikely allies (a venal mortuary assistant, an Indian restauranteur, a Bayou folk fiddler), he was perpetually in conflict with authority in all its forms. He saw off a succession of police commanders, who deployed anti-Kolchak strategies of anger management, feminine charm and outright venom, all without success. He had a love-hate relationship with Tony Vincenzo, his editor at the Independent News Service (the love-hate thing was on Tony’s side), and a touching fondness for INS’ resident elderly agony aunt, Miss Emily.

Chris Carter has been quoted as saying The Night Stalker provided the template for his own horror series, The X-Files, in one episode of which McGavin featured as a kind of original Fox Mulder. Yet the two series could not be more different. The X-Files took itself very, very seriously. The Night Stalker did not. Kolchak’s mannerisms and voice-overs combine shlock horror with conscious self-derision. Thanks to McGavin’s deadpan comic talent, the show sent up the very genre of which it was so excellent an example. It was as though the writers knew their audience was too worldly-wise to fall for their faux horror stories, and leavened the plotlines with gags, repartee and — not rarely — acute satiric insights into the nature of modern consumer culture.

Darren McGavin, who was a talented and versatile actor, deserves to be remembered for much more than just The Night Stalker. But it was his most remarkable achievement. So:

Vale Carl Kolchak, tireless combatant of nameless dread. May you rest in peace alongside all those monsters you once bested.
_____________________________________

An excellent introduction to the series, for those not familiar with it, is here.

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5 comments

  1. Hey, Rob. Nice requiem for Darren. I only saw The Night Stalker as a very tiny lad, and though it made a strong impression, I can no longer remember the details. Maybe they’ll bring it back on DVD! (There was an attempt to do a remake this year on American television, but I think maybe it has failed.)

    btw, Richard Matheson –if i remember correctly– also wrote the story that later evolved into the great “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” An enduring classic, that like all classics is true in every generation, as it were, in different ways.


  2. j_p_z, the whole series is out of DVD – a three disc set. Worth every cent of the purchase price, and nicely packaged, too.

    Yes, I believe the remake failed and was shelved after a few episodes. Silly thing to try, really.

    Body Snatchers is one of the all time greats. I always thought it was a parable about McCarthyism, but wasn’t sure which side Don Siegel came down on. But in an interview included on the DVD version, Kevin McCarthy (!) specifically denied that Siegel had any political allegory in mind. Hmm.


  3. Wow, thanks for the tip on the DVD. I’ll have to go look for it.

    w/r/t “Body Snatchers” — yeah, that’s the great thing about art instead of propaganda. The work stays fresh, and can mean all sorts of things, even ones the artist(s) didn’t have in mind.

    Personally, I always read it as a parable about Communist infiltration — which was, shrill denials notwithstanding, a real thing at the time; and the facts of which have a tendency to partly vindicate McCarthy (Joe, not Kevin), though he himself remained an odious tree-branch-wielding cretin (as they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day).

    However it stands, the art of the film (even P. Kaufman’s remake is pretty good!) is enduring. Aliens from another civilization infiltrate our society, learn to look and act like us, and promise a weird care-free utopia… but their secret agenda is to destroy and replace the locals, and do things we can’t even really understand. Hmmm, where have I heard about this before? Truth is, many societies, all throughout history, and in the most varied circumstances, have heard this one before. Some survived it. Others didn’t.


  4. I recall reading somewhere – but I can’t recall where – that the final scene, which vindicated the McCarthy character, was inserted at the insistence of the studio. Had it not been included, the last scene would have been that of Miles in the middle of the freeway, frantically warning the traffic not to go to Santa Mira. If that was Siegel’s original intent, I’d say he came down on the anti-McCarthyite side – that McCarthyism was a paranoid fantasy.

    Which, as you say, it wasn’t – but anyone at the time could have been forgiven for thinking it was. They did not then have the benefit of the Venona decrypts or access to the Soviet archives (albeit partial and limited).


  5. Whether or not Siegel had the studio’s foresight in that last scene, one can now certainly go and look at the 101 Ventura freeway, at any particular point one chooses, which features the now-cliche hordes of Mexican illegals ‘y sus ninos’ crossing illegally into El Norte with impunity on a (quite literally) minute-by-minute basis.

    Meantime I have to go to the ATM machine on my corner and select “Ingles” as simply one out of a host of potential languages in which they’ll do business. As if anything other than more ‘ninos’ came out of the languages that couldn’t grok Ingles.

    If I were youse guys down in Oz, I’d put a lot more money into strengthening me Navy.



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