It’s that time of year again: every time you turn on the television, A Christmas Story is playing. I don’t have cable and haven’t in something like six years, and I don’t even think I’ve been in a place that did have cable in over a year (although given that I’ve barely left the house in nine months, that figure is bound to be skewed), but even without access to TNT or TBS, I know that right now, as I write this (although perhaps not as you read it), Alfie is deciphering an advertisement for Ovaltine hidden in his Little Orphan Annie program, or he’s turning in his thesis about what a responsible gun owner he would be, or saying something that’s similar to “fudge” as lug nuts scatter in the road. But this Christmas season, I’m asking you to think about my favorite Darren McGavin role, which is much greater than “father obsessed with a sexy lamp.” I want to tell you about Carl Kolchak, the unlikeliest vampire slayer.
The Night Stalker was a made-for-TV movie that aired on ABC in 1972. It was a ratings smash, prompting a sequel telefilm, The Night Strangler, which in turn led to the creation of one-season wonder TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker (confusing, I know, as the titular night stalker of the first film is the villain), which I’ve sung the praises of in a few different episodes of the lagniappe podcast with Brandon. Kolchak was an early influence on the genre of mysterious urban fantasy/sci-fi on television, although I don’t think it would fall very easily into that category (think X-Files, not Dresden Files*). What it is, above all things really, is a noir, with all of the tropes of the 1940s adapted for a trashier 1970s world: it’s ambiguous as to whether Kolchak’s girlfriend is a prostitute or a showgirl (or both), the traditional noir voiceover is here embodied by Kolchak’s omnipresent journalistic dictaphone narration, etc. And did I mention that the screenplay was written by Richard Matheson? But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Carl Kolchak is employed as a reporter by the Daily News, operating out of Las Vegas, albeit reluctantly according to his long-suffering editor, Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), who claims that Kolchak’s continued unlikely employment is owed solely to a soft spot on the part of the paper’s owner. As we later learn when Kolchak is talking to his girlfriend Gail Foster (Carol Lynley), he’s been fired twice in Chicago, once in New York, twice on the West Coast, and, somehow, he was fired from three different papers in Boston. Whatever the journalistic equivalent of an ambulance chaser is, that’s Carl Kolchak, and although “sleaze” isn’t the right word for what he’s got, he cuts a particularly slovenly figure in his powder blue seersucker jacket and straw porkpie hat. He spends his evenings driving from crime scene to crime scene as directed by the police scanner, often arriving at the same time as backup, and he’s forever throwing himself right into the middle of the action with his camera with no regard for his own safety. He’s a complete disaster, and I love him.
Our feature opens with the murder of a swing-shift casino cashier as she walks home alone at night, which turns out to be only the first in a string of slayings—and exsanguinations—of young women, all at the hands of someone oddly strong. Things get even weirder when a hospital is robbed of its entire blood supply, and the local law enforcement briefs the press with the news that the latest victim of the serial killer was bitten on her neck, that the body was completely emptied of blood, and that there was human saliva in and around the wound. Kolchak tries to file a piece with “vampire killer” in the headline, and although he makes it clear in the body of the article that there’s simply a killer on the loose who’s suffering from the delusion that he’s a vampire, Vincenzo refuses to print it. It’s only when Gail starts to express concern that Carl might end up running afoul of a real life vampire that he starts to consider this as a possibility, which is further cemented when Carl arrives at the scene of a second blood bank burglary in process and watches a man fight off nearly a dozen cops and shrug off multiple gunshots.
The Night Stalker clocks in at 72 short minutes, which I must assume is an average length for TV movies of that era, and it’s a perfect little time capsule of mishmashed genres and tones that come together in an unlikely, brassy symphony. What I love about Kolchak, the show, is that our title character occupies a world in which every single person that he encounters is shockingly hostile, from fellow reporters to every LEO that crosses his path to random citizens who happen to be on the same sidewalk. Carl Kolchak is a walking magnet for two things: supernatural weirdness and people on the verge of boiling over, and it really gives the impression that every person in an urban environment in the early seventies was a ticking time bomb. The broad strokes of the show that is to come exists here in this early feature form: Vincenzo will carry over into the show (albeit as the editor of the International New Service based out of Chicago, were the series was set), and Kolchak’s stable of informants are here in a primordial version as well: the coroner with the big mouth, the switchboard operator with the weakness for a Whitman’s sampler, Bernie the FBI buddy with who’s willing to give the benefit of the doubt—you know, the usual suspects.
It’s not hard to see why this was so successful as a telefilm, or why it had potential as a franchise. I mean, a TV movie of the week where two sweaty, middle-aged men, one with a potbelly, defeating a vampire isn’t necessarily such stuff that dreams are made on, but despite what one must assume was a fairly minimal budget, there are several great action sequences. Although the climactic defeat of the undead is fun, I was very impressed by the hospital scene in which vampire Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater) fights off a several hospital employees, including one orderly being thrown out of an upper floor window in some nice stunt work for the time, followed by a shockingly well-executed bit of automotive choreography as several police cars and even a motorcycle cop glide around in an alley.
Other than the increased budget (you’re not gonna see Kolchak going Baja across lanes of traffic in the show, or an intense six-car ballet like you do here, and the occasional defenestration, such as in the opening of “The Trevi Collection,” creates the action through editing, not practical effects), there’s one other thing that the film has over the show, which is that its presumption of finality allows the film to fully commit to having a bleak, noir ending. We see, multiple times, that modern (or at least contemporary, as this was produced fifty years ago) police forces are just as incapable of defending the neon-filled oasis of Vegas from an old world vampire as a Transylvanian village, and they’re hopelessly outmatched despite their manpower and firearms. This makes for an interesting backdrop, as each skeptic is forced to accept the reality of the situation, and Kolchak shares his knowledge with law enforcement. In the end, however, despite the authorities’ full understanding of the situation, they use the threat of an arrest for homicide of Skorzeny to run Kolchak out of town permanently. His bags are delivered directly to the D.A.’s office where his lawkeeping nemeses wave a warrant in his face, present him with the supernatural-free article that they’ll be running instead of his correct piece, and tell him not to bother trying to reach Gail, as they’ve already ejected her from Vegas as an “undesirable element.” It’s a grim conclusion for our newspaperman, who has seen the truth and had it denied by the powers that be, and we close on his recollection of the events with the narration telling us that Carl and Gail never found each other again.
Of course, as an audience, we know that Kolchak will have many** more adventures, but it’s a fittingly depressing final note for our hero, all things considered. Ironically, had this not done so well, this would have been Kolchak’s end, and while I’m glad it wasn’t, had this been all the Kolchak that the world was given, it would still be solid.
*I’m just kidding. No one thinks about The Dresden Files.
**Well, one season’s worth.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond