Most people know that the 1974 television series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, is directly responsible for Chris Carter's X-Files. Based on the character introduced in two television movies, The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, the series on aired for a single season. The two movie screenplays were written by Richard Matheson and received record-breaking ratings. Unfortunately, the charm of Darren McGavin in his trademark seersucker suit battling increasingly unbelievable monsters-of-the-week wasn't enough to retain an audience. For eleven-year-old me, however, it made a lasting impression.
Kolchak was my introduction to modern-day horror. Sure, I'd seen all Universal monsters and the Hammer films. But those movies were old, some filmed in black-and-white. Kolchak was in color and the action took place in Chicago, not some old English castle or foggy moor. And - don't forget I was eleven - there were some good-looking ladies that needed Kolchak's help.
Fast-forward almost fifty years, and I revisited the entire series. Yes, all twenty episodes are now streaming on Peacock. While the special effects are pretty lame - most notably in "Chopper" - the show still holds a spell over me. It's probably nostalgia severely impacting my objectivity, but part of me still wants a straw hat, a camera, and a tape recorder to go out and hunt monsters.
Watching the series this time, I found myself searching IMDB to figure out where I'd seen many of the then-young guest stars. The series is a who's-who of seventies television. The list includes:
Erik Estrada (CHiPs)
Tom Bosley (Charlie's Angels)
Larry Linville (MASH)
Phil Silvers (Sgt. Bilko)
Jamie Farr (MASH)
Dick Van Patton (Eight is Enough)
Jim Backus (Gilligan's Island)
Bernie Kopell (Get Smart, Hogan's Heroes, Love Boat)
Richard Kiel (Moonraker)
Tom Skerrit (Alien, Picket Fences)
Dick Gautier (When Things Were Rotten)
Julie Adams (Creature from the Black Lagoon)
Cathy Lee Crosby (Love Boat, Hotel)
Pat Harrington Jr. (One Day at a Time)
Alice Ghostly (Mayberry RFD, Bewitched, Grease)
George Savalas (Kojak)
Antonio Fargas (Starsky and Hutch)
Scatman Crothers (The Shining)
The first several episodes of the series featured some of the traditional monsters found in film and television but usually with a bit of a twist. A serial killer who may be the original Jack the Ripper. A zombie resurrected to seek vengeance on the mobsters who killed him. A female vampire. A werewolf on a cruise ship. And one of my favorite episodes, the creature feature, "Spanish Moss Murders."
Then, things started to decline. While many of the concepts were great, the low budget and time constraints of a television series weren't able to do them justice.
"Primal Scream" - ancient cells discovered frozen in the Arctic spawn a murderous creature
"Mr. R.I.N.G." - a military-developed robot uses deadly force to protect itself
"The Sentry" - Kolchak battles a reptilian monster two miles underground in a top-security storage facility
These are all solid plot lines that, with proper budget and length, could have been great. Instead, they helped make Kolchak a one-season wonder. But those twenty episodes were enough to make me a life-long horror fan.