Off the Beaten Path | Kolchak: The Night Stalker

Who’s ready for an extra special edition of Off the Beaten Path? I bet some of you are wondering what makes this one post extra special. Well, this particular post is special to me because it marks the first anniversary of Off the Beaten Path.

I know, crazy right?

Within these 12 months, I’ve written 66 posts, chronicling 13 seasons and 96 episodes of underseen TV. Plus, that’s not even getting into just how much of a whirlwind the last 6 months have been. So, to celebrate the fact that I’ve managed to keep this blog active while the world started falling apart in slow motion, I decided to review a big show for you guys. That show is the influential 1974 paranormal investigation cult classic Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

So, has Kolchak: The Night Stalker stood the test of time and proved it’s a quality show worthy of its influence on the television landscape? To that – in a refrain that’s not exactly lost on me – I’d say kinda.

On the Status Quo

After watching all 20 episodes of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, there’s one topic that needs to be addressed before I can launch into what makes an episode good or bad. That, like Planet of the Apes: The Series before, is adherence to the status quo. I go back and forth as to whether or not Kolchak: The Night Stalker is more ham-strung by the status quo than Planet of the Apes: The Series.

An example of Kolchak zip-zoppin’ around town

On the one hand, I’m not all that bothered by Kolchak: The Night Stalker’s status quo adherence like I was with Planet of the Apes: The Series.

One reason is narrative momentum. It helps that compared to Burke, Virdon, and Galen, Kolchak is constantly on the move. Whether he’s chasing leads or hunting the paranormal, Kolchak is constantly zip-zoppin’ his way across unique Chicago locations (that’s right, we’re covering a Chicago show). So between that and monster based mayhem, on-screen boredom is never much of an issue within an episode itself. 

Plus, unlike Planet of the Apes: The Series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker never feigns having an endgame.

Outside of a few references to previous episodes and the movies, an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker is a complete story unto itself. There is no grand unifying conspiracy, no underlying personal mystery Kolchak tries to solve in the background, nothing. If there’s a bad episode, you can skip it during a rewatch and not miss a beat.

And you know what, I find that refreshing. After the broken long-game promises of Planet of the Apes: The Series and the knowledge that The X-Files itself fell into this trap, it’s good that Kolchak: The Night Stalker is unabashedly a pure “monster of the week” show, nothing more and nothing less.

On the flip side of the status quo adherence coin, Kolchak: The Night Stalker is even more rigidly bound than Planet of the Apes: The Series when it comes to episode structure.

You can tell the writers never thought people would eventually watch more than one episode a week. Watch a few episodes in a row, and you’ll become painfully aware that Kolchak: The Night Stalker runs on a formula. It’s so fine-tuned you can determine how an episode will play out almost to the minute. In a way, the stories were the same. Sure, the surface elements – the monster, the investigation, the character interactions – differed, but it was the same meta-story every time. Hell, I could only watch three episodes in a row before I had to stop myself because they started to blur together.

I’d go as far as to say Kolchak: The Night Stalker is the perfect anti-binge show.

The Three Things That Make or Break an Episode

One of Kolchak’s patented episode wrap-ups

So, knowing the positive and negatives of this status quo adherence, we can’t depend on story variance to determine if an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker is a home-run or is a strike-out. We also can’t depend on examinations of thematic depth. I say this because outside of Kolchak’s foundational belief (and the show’s as a whole) that people have a right to the truth, whether it’s good or bad, there isn’t much in the way of thematic explorations like Planet of the Apes: The Series attempted. Sure, Kolchak gave little fourth-wall-breaking lessons at the end of each episode, nominally him dictating the events of the episode for a write up at a later time. That said they were always pretty minor, pithy words of wisdom with nothing too much of philosophical value.

So we are left with what I think are three things we can use to tell an individual episode’s quality. Those three things are the characters, the investigation of the mystery, and the quality of the monster. 

One thing I need to get out of the way in regards to Kolchak. Out of the three pre-90s shows I’ve covered, Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak is easily the most fun to watch. The only person who comes close in my mind is Jane Badler as Diana in V: The Original Miniseries – and even then, she’s subdued compared to her hamtastic turn in V: The Final Battle. This is imperative, since in all reality – apologies to Simon Oakland’s turn as Tony Vincenzo, even if he’s credited as one – Kolchak is the only star, and a solid 90% of scenes at a minimum in an episode features Kolchak on screen.

Even now, but especially back then, Kolchak is an atypical protagonist. He’s not conventionally attractive and he’s not some romantic paragon of virtue. Instead, he’s an ornery middle-age reporter in an unfashionable outfit who’s as liable to screw himself over as he is to screw over others to get a scoop.

Despite that though, McGavin consistently manages to make him a character worth rooting for. Maybe it’s his thankless Sisyphean struggle to spread the word about the truth despite the costs to his career (which as we see is all he has). Maybe it’s the moments Kolchak is thrust into awkward situations he has to navigate. Hell, maybe it’s just him being that kind of asshole that’s as fun to watch fail as succeed. Sure, he doesn’t exhibit a wide range of emotions, but I don’t mind. It’s not like this is a character drama akin to The Wire. Honestly, I’d doubt Kolchak: The Night Stalker would have gathered the cult following it has without McGavin’s steady performance anchoring the series.

Updyke and Vincezo asking Kolchak just what in the hell he’s working on

So, with McGavin’s performance consistency, an episode is more liable to be made or broken with his interactions with the greater cast. Most often this is with his co-workers at INS. Like, you can always count on Kolchak to get into an argument with Tony (his editor), to waging a workplace rivalry against Updyke (the society columnist), to sharing kind words with his one and only real friend Ms. Emily (the cross-word editor).

That said, the qualities of these interactions can vary episode by episode, and while they don’t expressly drag an episode down, they can help elevate one. 

In a similar vein is Kolchak’s interactions with the side cast. For instance, I’m always down for an appearance of undertaker/gambling addict Godron “Gordy the Ghoul” Spangler (John Fielder) and recovering rage-o-holic Captain “Mad Dog” Siska (Keenan Wynn), and that’s just two characters who show up in a few episodes. All that to say Kolchak bouncing off a good side character can markedly improve an episode.

But you know what? Kolchak wouldn’t have the impetus to interact with a fun side cast if it wasn’t for the actual investigations. 

On the one hand, this is where the plot formula becomes apparent. First, Kolchak hears about some crime on the police radio or is on a different assignment when something strange happens nearby. As Kolchak carries out his investigation he will have a run-in with the monsters that will often – I’d say at least half the time if not more – leave him in a highly incriminating position with the local authorities. After being bailed out or escaping, Kolchak will learn not only the truth about the monster but the key to defeating it. Rather foolhardily, he’ll then confront the monster on his own without back-up. In the end, he will emerge victoriously but the resulting story – aka the fruits and labors of the investigation – will be buried, keeping the truth hidden from the public.

Carl Kolchak
Kolchak developing one of his many photos of the paranormal

All that said, the investigation can easily be the most satisfying part of an episode. It’s here when Kolchak will interact with the bulk of the cast. It’s here when we see Kolchak wandering around Chicago – or wherever the episode is set if it’s outside the city. Lastly, it’s here where we see Kolchak truly get tested ethically, personally, and philosophically, which helps foster character development.

It’s no surprise to me then that some of my favorite episodes – The Vampire, The Devil’s Platform, The Energy Eater, and Chopper – also have the best investigations. Hell, in the case of The Energy Eater, it’s the investigation that lifts the episode to the top. Conversely, if an investigation is middling, or if there’s too much going on, it can drag an episode down.

If the show had gone on, I’d have liked to see the writers taking greater risks and venture away from the formula. Just using TV story forms, why not throw in a bottle episode and/or something in real-time? Maybe Kolchak, instead of just investigating a monster, has to prove his innocence by digging up an old investigation of his? Maybe the mystery turns out to not be supernatural at all? Hell, why not have Tony go out into the field with Kolchak once or twice. 

Now, I can’t talk about how good an episode is without mentioning the last piece of the puzzle; the monsters.

Some of the monsters are rather conventional. For example, Kolchak investigates a vampire, a werewolf, an alien, etc. Others are either based on folklore. For example, there’s the Native American Diablero and Matchemonedo, and the Hindu Rakshasa. Conversely, they could be simple monsters given a non-Eurocentric spin like the voodoo zombie or the Aztec mummy. We even get some unconventional monsters like a possessed suit of armor and the ghost of a headless biker.

Who will win: the indestructible spirit of a sword-wielding biker, or some schlub lobbing a skull at it?

More than anything, an episode rests on whether the monster is effective as, well, a monster. Like, is it scary aka does it provoke terror in ways other than just being a killing machine? Does it have a weaksauce weakness? Is there an elaborate ritual involved in defeating it, or can you just poke it with a stick? Can it separate itself from the other monsters? Is it killing for something other than sustenance, vengeance, or sheer bloodlust? Is it based on an actual legend, or did the writers just make shit up?

To me, my favorite monsters fall into two camps. There are simple yet threatening ones like the vampire, the werewolf, Jack the Ripper, and the android. There are also unique monsters like Matchemonedo, Senator Palmer aka Satan’s Best Boy, and Harold “Sword” Baker. Conversely, if the monster is too complicated or isn’t all that interesting, either because it’s a middling threat or it isn’t all that much different from other similar monsters, the episode suffers in kind. 

If the show had continued into a second season, I’d like to see a mix-up of the types of monsters and supernatural phenomena. I mean, there are more things they could write about than just supernatural serial killers that are either invisible or a man in some kind of costume.

So, in other words, an episode is best when it has Kolchak investigating a good monster and interacting with interesting people.

There’s Got to Be More to the Show

That said, while a good episode has all those three qualities, there are more things that I haven’t mentioned yet that can bring an episode down.

The biggest of these complaints to me is the racial attitudes at play.

More than one episode features a monster from another culture – The Zombie, Bad Medicine, and The Trevi Collection are a couple of the big offenders for me – and in the process end up portraying that culture using tropes that are incredibly tone-deaf, if not outright racist. It’s to the point where even if the episode is otherwise good – The Zombie in particular – I don’t think I’ll ever rewatch them because they feel gross. It’s to the point some of these episodes feature stories and characters that I highly doubt could be made today. It’s one of those things that highlight the show’s age, placing it firmly in the early ’70s.

Speaking of age, you can tell the show’s age through the make-up effects and cinematography.

One of the reasons why I said earlier that the simpler monsters tend to be better is not only because of name recognition and ease of concept but because they’re also easier to portray on a TV budget. Like, a vampire or Jack the Ripper is easy to portray on screen. Then there are monsters like the Frazetta-man from The Primal Scream or the lizard-man from The Sentry that look incredibly cheap. Conversely, if they’re too difficult to portray, then they’re straight up invisible – Matchemonedo and the alien are good examples of this.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why this is the case – you can only do so much on a TV budget even now, let alone the ’70s – and for the most part I can look past it. That said it’s something that ought to be addressed.

An example of a climactic scene nearly too dark to be effective

On a related note, I highly doubt it’s a coincidence that many of the climaxes, especially during the front half of the season, are shot in near-total darkness. There’s a difference between a lack of lighting to enhance suspense and just being too dark to see to hide shoddy effects. On the whole, it feels like the episodes can veer too much into the latter, which tends to kill the suspense for me. That and the sheer number of freeze-frames during monster attacks. Those always made me chuckle.

That said, none of these make Kolchak: The Night Stalker unwatchable on the whole. Like how easily half the episodes of Star Trek are at best mediocre, just because Kolchak: The Night Stalker has a non-insignificant number of mediocre episodes that I plan to never watch again doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact, after watching Kolchak: The Night Stalker it’s easy to see why it has become such an influential show, especially to The X-Files and the paranormal investigative shows in its wake.

If anything, if you kept the ethos the same but make some tweaks to the formula, you could easily remake Kolchak: The Night Stalker today and I bet it’d do gangbusters. 

In Conclusion

So that’s Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

After watching all twenty episodes, both good and bad, I can see why this is so foundational for every paranormal investigation show that followed in its wake. It may be rough, but I recognize the same soul that would shine later in The X-Files. So if you’re a fan of old school horror TV and/or paranormal investigation shows, or you just need something for the Halloween season, I’d give Kolchak: The Night Stalker a go.

My Recommendation: Recommend

My Episode Recommendations

  1. The Ripper: Recommend
  2. The Zombie: Recommend With Caveats
  3. They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be…: Recommend
  4. The Vampire: Recommend
  5. The Werewolf: Recommend
  6. Firefall: Recommend With Caveats
  7. The Devil’s Platform: Highly Recommend
  8. Bad Medicine: Don’t Recommend
  9. The Spanish Moss Murders: Recommend With Caveats
  10. The Energy Eater: Recommend
  11. Horror in the Heights: Recommend
  12. Mr. R.I.N.G.: Recommend
  13. Primal Scream: Don’t Recommend
  14. The Trevi Collector: Don’t Recommend
  15. Chopper: Recommend
  16. Demon in Lace: Recommend With Caveats
  17. Legacy of Terror: Recommend With Caveats
  18. The Knightly Murders: Recommend
  19. The Youth Killer: Recommend With Caveats
  20. The Sentry: Recommend

In Case You’re Interested in Watching Kolchak: The Night Stalker

If you’re interested in checking out Kolchak: The Night Stalker on any of the major streaming services, you’re out of luck. In terms of free ways to watch episodes, there are some available on YouTube, and the whole series can be watched, surprisingly enough, on the NBC website. If you don’t mind paying for episodes, you can purchase them on Amazon Prime.

Joseph MacMaster

Writer extraordinaire in progress who hangs out with the Chicago Film Scene crew. I screenwrite for my fellow CFS filmmakers. I also write TV and movie reviews, and am a co-host/main writer of the Chicago Film Scene: Live! podcast.

Joseph MacMaster

Writer extraordinaire in progress who hangs out with the Chicago Film Scene crew. I screenwrite for my fellow CFS filmmakers. I also write TV and movie reviews, and am a co-host/main writer of the Chicago Film Scene: Live! podcast.

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