Monsters and Matinees: A Tribute to Carl Kolchak, Monster Hunter

A Tribute to Carl Kolchak, Monster Hunter

Let’s be honest creature feature fans. We may love the monsters, but we enjoy the hunt, too.

Van Helsing, Hellboy, Solomon Kane and yes, the Scooby Gang, are among the most well-known of that special breed of monster hunters, but tops on my list is Carl Kolchak.

Without this fictional newspaper reporter who battled monsters to save the world on 1970s television, we wouldn’t have the likes of Mulder and Scully (The X-Files), Buffy (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and the Winchester brothers (Supernatural).

Kolchak debuted in the 1972 TV movie The Night Stalker and is immortalized as a pop-culture icon in his trademark straw hat, seersucker suit and white sneakers.

That was 50 years ago, yet new books, graphic novels and home video releases continue to be created; fan art and watch parties are shared through Facebook groups dedicated to Kolchak. Pilgrimages are still made to the Old Colony Building in Chicago, which was the exterior for Kolchak’s office, the International News Service.

One reason for the continued interest is that Kolchak reminds fans of their childhood, said Gregg Davis, founder of the “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” Facebook group. “So many have memories of watching with a parent and being terrified – it was the first really scary show many members ever watched. Those memories are burned into their minds and finding others who share those memories is exciting,” said Davis who started his group, which now has 29,000 members, in 2005. 

Played by the engaging Darren McGavin, Kolchak battled more than 20 different creatures all in the name of getting a good story. There were the “usuals” like vampires, werewolves and witches, along with creepy creatures like an energy-eating entity, invisible aliens, a headless motorcyclist, succubus and ape-man.

Darren McGavin is Carl Kolchak.

But the emphasis through two TV movies and a 20-episode series was on Kolchak, not the monsters, and that “solidified the character of Kolchak in the history of television,” said Kendall R. Phillips, author of the new book “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” part of the TV Milestones series from Wayne State University Press.

“Previously the focus was on the victim or the monster, or it would bounce back and forth between the two. If you had a monster hunter like Van Helsing, he showed up in the third act,” Phillips said, adding that focusing on Kolchak, “changed the face of horror.”

And, let’s be honest, that was an accomplishment for a character who was learning monster hunting on the job. Luckily, he was a darn good reporter. So, while he didn’t know science, folklore or mythology, he expertly wielded tough questions which usually got him in trouble but also provided answers.

“I ask a lot of questions; seems nobody likes that – cops, voodooists or politicians,” Kolchak says in The Zombie.

He was persistent and stubborn, sticking his nose where it didn’t belong. He wouldn’t let go of a good story, not even for a ticket to see the Cubs in the World Series. And he was willing to explore the most unbelievable possibilities to solve murders and investigate strange phenomenon.

Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) may be afraid of his shadow, but he still puts himself at risk by going alone into dangerous areas, to get his story.

Like the modern-day horror character who walks into the dark basement, Kolchak was always going where he shouldn’t – into an old house, an abandoned property, the sewers or the woods. Stumbling and bumbling, he knocked things over and made noise, drawing dangerous attention to himself. If there was a closet or doorway, Kolchak will surely back up against it and into the deadly arms of whatever terror awaits.

He was a fraidy cat who would jump at his own shadow, but he was somehow also foolishly brave. My favorite moment, if you can call it a favorite since it’s so creepy, is the scene where a clearly terrified Kolchak crawls into a hearse to “kill” a zombie by putting sugar in its mouth and sewing its lips shut (The Zombie).

He’s usually out of his league and that perennial underdog status is another aspect his enduring appeal, Davis of “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” Facebook group said.

“Kolchak always fights back and always triumphs, even if no one ever believes him,” Davis said. “His sense of humor makes him especially likable. Lots of great writers and directors were a part of the show, and it was generally a step above other TV shows of the time.”

While reporting, Kolchak discovered things so fantastic that authorities made sure his stories never saw the light of the day. They ripped film from his camera, the tape from his recorder and confiscated photos from his office. Stories were pulled and replaced with safe, sanitized versions of the “truth.”

Carl Kolchak is on the other side of the crucifix as he fends off vampire Janos Skorzeny (played by Barry Atwater) in The Night Stalker movie.

Since he couldn’t share his stories with readers of the International News Service, he told them to TV viewers in the always entertaining and mood-setting monologues that opened and closed each story.

“Chicago was being stalked by a horror so frightening, so fascinating, that it ranks with the great mysteries of all times. It’s been the fictional subject of novels, plays, films, even an opera. Now, here, are the true facts,” he tells us in the opening of The Ripper, the first episode in the TV series.

He knew how to grab our attention and we were happy to give it to him. It’s no wonder that Chris Carter was so inspired by watching Kolchak as a kid that he created his own truth-seekers in The X-Files.

The history of Kolchak

Carl Kolchak was introduced in The Kolchak Papers, an unpublished novel by Jeff Rice who was a reporter at the Las Vegas Sun. Though it failed to garner the interest of publishers, it was picked up by ABC Studios and turned into the made-for-TV movie The Night Stalker written by Richard Matheson for producer Dan Curtis.

In the movie, Kolchak is working for the International News Service in Las Vegas and complaining, as is his nature, about his latest assignment, a “two-day-old, third-rate murder.”

It quickly becomes his No. 1 priority when he learns the enticing news that victims were drained of blood. When the suspect is identified as a 70-year-old man named Janos Skorzeny (played by Barry Atwater) with superhuman strength and a body that can withstand point-blank bullets, Kolchak’s Spidey sense goes up.

It doesn’t take long for him to say the “V” word, nor to pull out a hammer and stake, imploring police authorities to “proceed under the assumption that he’s a vampire.”

“Are you suggesting that we pound one of those in Skorzeny’s chest?” Kolchak is asked.

“No, into his heart,” he says, speaking the language of horror fans.

Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) explains to police how they can kill a vampire in the TV movie The Night Stalker.

The Night Stalker was an overwhelming yet unexpected success, becoming the highest-rated TV movie at the time. (It’s puzzling that anyone would be surprised that a collaboration between Matheson, who wrote such classics as the vampire/zombie novel I Am Legend and many of the most memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone, and Curtis, the man responsible for Dark Shadows, would be a success.)

A sequel was quickly ordered, and The Night Strangler followed in 1973. Kolchak, banished from Las Vegas, was now in Seattle where his reputation – and trouble – followed. Young female murder victims are found with a needle puncture at the base of their scull and rotting pieces of flesh on their neck. With some research and old newspapers, Kolchak finds similar murders have taken place every 21 years going back a century. A trip into Seattle’s fascinating but spooky underground city is the next stop on Kolchak’s agenda.

The Night Strangler was another success, leading ABC to order a series. Kolchak: The Night Stalker premiered on Sept. 13, 1974 with The Ripper and a serial killer, who, you may have guessed, has disturbing similarities to Jack the Ripper.

From there, the episodes kept it fun with talk of a man with X-ray eyes, an Elixir of Life, ancient frozen cells, cursed tablets and oozing substances.

But it also followed a monster-of-the-week format, one reason that star Darren McGavin was so unhappy that he left the series before it completed a full season. But it still made its mark.

“For a show that didn’t last even a full season, it imprinted itself on American popular culture,” Phillips said. “People know that iconic straw hat and that seersucker suit. When he died, virtually every obit mentioned two of his parts: the father in ‘Christmas Story’ and Kolchak. Kolchak took a huge part of America’s imagination – and it continues to keep our imagination.”

Richard Kiel plays a sinister shaman who towers over Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) in the episode Bad Medicine from Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

The guest stars

The Kolchak movies and TV series all boasted great supporting casts led by Simon Oakland as Kolchak’s beleaguered and blustery boss Tony Vincenzo.

The list of police captains Kolchak frustrated and alienated were played by the likes of Keenan Wynn, Charles Aidman, John Marley and Larry Linville.

He also cultivated his reporting sources well. A favorite was Wally Cox who was perfectly cast as mousy researcher Titus Berry. I get caught up in their kid-like excitement as they discover the pattern to a murderer who strikes every 21 years in The Night Strangler. “Shall we try for 1889?” Titus asks.

Villains included Richard Kiel who played different creatures in The Spanish Moss Murders and Bad Medicine, soap star Eric Braeden was the title character in The Werewolf and Cathy Lee Crosby as a lovely woman who retained her youthful beauty at the expense of others in The Youth Killer.

Other familiar faces (and voices) are J. Pat O’Malley, Alice Ghostley, Julie Adams, Jim Backus, Erik Estrada and the wonderful Ruth McDevitt as the news agency’s puzzle maker and advice columnist, Miss Emily, who had an very sweet relationship with Kolchak.

Look for special guest star Kathie Brown, McGavin’s wife, in the episode Sentry.

 Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Toni’s Monsters and Matinees articles here.

Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.

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2 Responses to Monsters and Matinees: A Tribute to Carl Kolchak, Monster Hunter

  1. Darren McGavin was the best!! Whether he was Bossing Burt Reynolds around in Riverboat to all his Movies ( any body get a BB gun for Christmas ?) and TV but Nobody could do Kolchak like him. I remember that they tried it later with a sequel , I don’t even remember who the actor was but he couldn’t touch him THERE IS ONLY ONE KOLCHAK May he rest in peace !! NUFF SAID!!

  2. Betty Peyton says:

    I’ve always loved Kolchak since it first appeared; luckily I was able to acquire the DVD’s of the series. When I get lonesome I can just bring out my set and revisit. I have always been a fan of Darren McGavin so that’s the other reason I love the series. And of course I love Christmas Story since I grew up in the neighborhoods and time represented in the movie.

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