Thursday, February 9, 2012

Kolchak Reborn!

This is it—the last scheduled post for It Couldn't Happen Here. After careful consideration, we have decided to forgo an episode-a-day analysis of The Night Stalker revival. Instead, we leave you with this thoughtful overview of the short-lived series by David J. Schow.

Kolchak Reborn
by David J. Schow 
            Reboot The Night Stalker.  How dare they, right?

            Revamp Kolchak into post-McGavin Tormented Hero With A Dark Secret mode; lose the seersucker, lose the hat, lose the yelling matches with Vincenzo, subtract the idiosyncratic byplay — in fact, stomp cruelly on childhood recollect of everything that made Kolchak: The Night Stalker memorable.  Bad, bad TV people!  Evil reivers of cherished youth!


            ABC sure thought their 2005 series was a massive fail, canceling it after only six episodes aired.

            Fans of “Classic Kolchak” had plenty to bitch about, too, whining and stamping their hooves about each and every microscopic deviation from what they were convinced was some kind of gospel.  And in the middle of the first decade of the 21st Century, internet comment boards gave even the least literate of these champions ample space in which to wheeze and poot their displeasure … as though their opinions mattered for anything.

            But Classic-K was abundantly available by that time, in the form of comics and tie-in books of new tales that played by the old rules.  For the most part, they did not preserve or perpetuate Carl Kolchak so much as shellac him in amber, the way John Gardner’s “modernized” novels tried to preserve the Playboy Philosophy-era James Bond — accurately, but at the airless cost of repeating what had already been done.  Or they recombined him with other fictional sleuths such as Sherlock Holmes in mashups.

            Upside:  These still-ongoing works kept the flame burning.

            Like many other Kolchak acolytes, producer Frank Spotnitz had begun his career as a journalist, before he fell into The X Files for a marathon nine-season run.  When offered The Night Stalker by ABC and Touchstone Television, he grabbed it with both hands … because he had been 14 when the original series debuted, and freely admits he was one of the show’s biggest fans.  Accordingly, he had attempted to write Carl Kolchak into The X Files, a plan scuttled by Darren McGavin, who initially felt ripped off.  Once McGavin got a proper taste of The X Files, he came onboard as a thinly-disguised Kolchak-manque for two episodes.  In “Agua Mala,” McGavin points out to Fox Mulder:  “If I had had someone as savvy as (Scully) all those years ago … I might not have retired.”

            While it is fair to say The X Files helped enable a Kolchak reboot, it was also a huge obstacle — Kolchak now had to fit into a post-X Files TV universe and not be dismissed (as some put it) as “X Files lite.”  Considering all the other spinoffs and features in the X Files family, it’s a shame Kolchak’s run was truncated, leaving potential character arcs undeveloped and unexplained.  As the pilot episode proves, Spotnitz’s heart was in exactly the right place, even extending to three hat-tips to Classic K:

            (1)  A “digital cameo” by McGavin’s Kolchak in the Beacon newsroom (look close and you’ll see it’s a shot of Kolchak putting a hammer and stake in his workbag, from The Night Stalker).

            (2)  Kolchak’s “bird feeder” hat hanging in the new Kolchak’s home office.

            (3)  The license plate on Kolchak’s upgraded Mustang reads 197DMG2 — as Spotnitz explained, for “Darren McGavin, 1972.”

            Vincenzo was recalibrated as minor royalty more than a father figure; this revised Tony would go to bat for Kolchak, especially when Constitutional rights were at stake.  Kolchak himself was subdivided into a threesome for the sake of more character interplay:  Kolchak himself, now a man harboring a dark secret on a personal quest; Perri Reed, a distaff side and reluctant partner who takes over much of Vincenzo’s old Doubting Tony role; and Jain McManus, who takes over the role of Kolchak’s camera/recorder and becomes his satellite/gofer.  A new Bernie Fain reappears (from the original TV movie), now refitted as an antagonist in the mold of The Fugitive’s Lt. Phil Gerard — thanks to incomplete information and circumstantial evidence, he wants to nail Kolchak for the murder of his wife, Irene (christened after the Kathie Browne character in “The Sentry”).

            The blood so absent from the original series is now present in abundance, offered more as grueling aftermath than jumpy splatter.  Spotnitz specified a color palette where red was used almost exclusively in the context of death or danger (to the extreme of removing the red lights from police cruiser flashbars).  Another welcome wrinkle for a show called The Night Stalker:  This show is drenched in darkness, night and shadow, recalling David Chase’s protestation (“It’s called the Night Stalker, not the Day-for-Night Stalker!”) and evoking the hectic, after-hours urban POV popularized by Michael Mann, under whom Spotnitz had worked on Robbery Homicide Division in 2002

In an interview conducted by Devin Faraci at in 2006, Spotnitz noted:  “… the more I thought about the more I realized you can’t do Darren McGavin better than Darren McGavin.  It’s a fool’s errand.  It was better to go for a completely different approach to the character and series and hope that over time, people would accept it — not as better than McGavin, but different.”

Slotted into a kiss-of-death berth against the hugely popular CSI on CBS, The Apprentice on NBC, and the 2005 major league baseball playoffs on Fox, The Night Stalker suffered pre-emptions via Alias, and had little-to-no paid advertising from ABC.  It was cancelled right in the middle of a two-part episode, with four episodes unbroadcast until the series was re-run on the Sci Fi Channel in 2006.  All episodes are currently available on DVD and assorted download options.

For more on Frank Spotnitz, see:
  • Frank Spotnitz Diary of a Night Stalker at


  1. For diehard Classic-K purists, I suggest that it helps for you to look at Stuart Townsend as Carl Kolchak's illegitimate son, probably from one of Kolchak's old liaisons, born with the same questing DNA.

    Also, in the pilot episode, bygosh, there it is at last -- BRONSON CAVE!

  2. I remember when they were making the new Kolchak series; I'd be driving to work in Burbank and pass by yellow signs pinned up to poles saying "Night Stalker" with an arrow pointing the way. Carrrrl!

    Too bad the end result didn't live up to the expectations. Apologies to DJS, but the new Night Stalker WAS a whole lot like X-Files. I think they missed a real opportunity to cash in on one of the strengths of the original telemovies by having the Kolchak character ALREADY a believer (no slow realization that there's actually a real, live supernatural explanation to the initial mystery, as in The Night Stalker movie). Couple this with the fact that the "skeptic" role is filled by young babe/sidekick - AND that the "believer" has a dark backstory (kidnapped little sister? No, this time it's a murdered wife!) - sorry, but it's hard NOT to look at this as Mulder & Scully in a newsroom.

    So, in Monday-morning-quarterbacking-mode: in retrospect, it would have been much better to start where the first Night Stalker movie started - no, not necessarily a Vegas Vampire, but have Carl start out a seasoned reporter who thinks he's seen it all - and then learns he hasn't.

  3. Probably best not to string it out by enumerating every woeful episode (few though there were) of the reboot. That would be beating a dead vampire bat. But nice that you gave us some closure with this coverage from the ever-welcome Mr. Schow.

  4. Will you be doing another blog about a TV series? Although Night Stalker wasn't that good, I did enjoy reading what you wrote about it. Maybe you could do one on Night Gallery?

  5. So, that's it. What's next? As far as another blog is concerned. You've really left us hanging. I vote Twilight Zone, for the next one.

    But for now, let me doff my birdfeeder with the following phrase:

    "Take my advice. Don't walk, run to the nearest exit."

  6. While you present a good argument, DJS, it's undone by actually WATCHING episodes of NIGHT STINKER - which are too close to X-FILES/MILLENNIUM story cast-offs, and a cast which had no chemistry at all. There was very little imagination towards giving an updated NIGHT STALKER an identity of its own (although the Darin Morgan episode would've been fun to watch).

  7. Actually some of the unaired episodes weren't that bad. The show may have gotten better as it went along. However, I had major problems with the show, the key one being that, by making this a threesome, every climax had to be contrived to involve all three protagonists, which hurt the suspense factor. And my heart just sank whenever they went "music video mode." The truth is though, they were in a no-win situation. But they should have at least tried not to be just another X-Files clone borrowing names from a '70s cult series. They essentially alienated any possible audience.

  8. I don't remember much about the reboot series, other than I wasn't at home when the last episode aired, so I had to tape it. But thanks to the idiocy that is television programming, something else needed to be taped right after on another channel, so there was no room for error. Naturally, Night Stalker overran by about a minute, so my viewing got cut off at a rather inopportune moment. Pissed me off, that did. And then, when the series was released on DVD, Canada got left off the map.

  9. This is a good place and time for me to personally thank the three guys who really did all the hard work on this blog (while I slept through most of the episodes) for the last few weeks and did it all for the love of it: our brother David J. Schow (who rallied us when we were sleep deprived), our new friend Mark Dawidziak (THE Kolchaklopedia), and the real Wizard of Oz, John Scoleri, who put everything together behind the scenes and made it all click. It's been fun. Good night!

  10. I've never seen it, but that murdered wife sub-plot sounds overly familiar, and I don't mean just because of The Fugitive. It sounds like the back story for a huge number of those "war against the Mafia" type men's adventure books and movies. Which is fine in THOSE places, AND in The Fugitive, but it sounds awfully out of place in a version of Kolchak. Not every adventure story hero has to start out with a murdered family or wife!

  11. It's amazing how incestuous these modern-day fantasy TV series are. The new NIGHT STALKER not only parallels Chris Carter's shows, but at least one series inspired by THE X-FILES: SMALLVILLE, which had Clark and Lois/Lana/Chloe (a young Mulder and Scully) investigating "meteor freaks" (weird paranormal serial killer-like entities), with our heroes ultimately winding up in the Daily Planet newsroom for the last number of years. What are the three young protagonists in the new NIGHT STALKER if not determined Clark, beautiful Lois, and impulsive newbie Jimmy... with a sympathetic Perry White as Vincenzo? Making matters worse, the female reporter is named Perry (!), and the Jimmy Olsen clone is named "James" or "Jayne" or something like that. Conscious or unconscious parallels?

    Needless to say, I WAS A TEENAGE KOLCHAK didn't fly as a premise, disappointing fans, critics and just about everyone else. At least Mulder and Scully were portrayed by offbeat-looking actors, rather than super-beautiful youngsters. What's next, I wonder... the latest GQ male model as Lt. Columbo? Believe me, I have nothing against radical reboots that redefine original TV flavors that never worked properly to begin with... BATTLESTAR GALACTICA being exhibit A in this department. But if you're going to drastically re-imagine an iconic, most likely beloved fictional character, it had better be better than the original "take" you are ignoring/betraying, or you've failed in a way that is especially hard to tolerate. The producers of THE FUGITIVE TV reboot learned this obvious lesson about ten years ago, ignoring the memorable, "lived-in" qualities of ever-suffering David Janssen and guilt-plagued Barry Morse by casting a pair of bland, uninteresting young actors in their pivotal roles. No sparks, no fire, no tension. Just a couple of dashing male model-types with great clothes and cool hairstyles, replacing realistic and compelling human beings.

    Let's face it: It was the character, not the story event, that mostly defined KOLCHAK, no matter how exotic or offbeat the "monster of the week" happened to be. Bruce Campbell would have been an interesting choice for a new interpretation; even Jeff Yagher might have pulled it off. ANYTHING but the latest twenty-something hunk off the assembly line, aided by an equally gorgeous female co-star. Indeed, the new NIGHT STALKER seems to embrace all of television's current cliches, as if it were checking them off one by one: the "team player" format centered around a high-tech base; an aggressively dark and dreary style of photography; hand-held shaky coverage meant to convey on-the-fly reality; discordant and occasionally "heavenly" electronic musical scoring; a pseudo-profound, borderline pretentious opening and closing narration; ongoing dense "mythology" without closure... and that's just for starters. Not that any of these creative elements are terribly executed; almost all prime-time offerings these days are quite skillfully produced on a technical level. It's just that mainstream TV viewers happen to experience these same ingredients every night of the week, on at least every other show they watch. We expected a little more from the legendary Carl Kolchak and his monster-hunting obsession. Obviously we didn't get it.

  12. Dr. Gerani (if no one else has, I hereby bestow you with an honorary doctorate of Tv-ology): 
     Thanks for not only pointing out, but fleshing out the Super-similarities. I couldn't help but pick up the Lois Lane/Jimmy Olson vibe in the pilot. 

    And to the question of 'what's next?'...

    All I know right now is that we need a breather after the nearly 6 month run of Batman and Kolchak. 

    P.S. For those of you in Southern California this weekend, don't miss out on the chance to meet our very own David J. Schow this Saturday. He'll be at Dark Delicacies ( signing his new (excellent) thriller, Upgunned, as well as the long awaited reissue of the British novelization to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, for which DJS provided a forward and more. Oh, and he'll be joined by Kolchak guest star Julie Adams (in case further incentive was necessary). Long distance fans take note - signed copies can also be ordered through their website.

  13. Two best suggestions I've heard from assorted people for a new actor to play Kolchak:

    (1) Robert Downey Jr. (but probably impossible).

    (2) OLIVER PLATT. Might have been perfect.

  14. Oh man, so this is the last KOLCHAK post? Once again, a sense of loss. It was fun, guys...

  15. I never saw one moment of the re-booted series. Not interested.

    Thanks for the big fun here, guys. I really had a blast looking forward to the daily TV movie and series episode examinations. I'm sad it's over but with only 20 episodes and 2 TV movies, it could only last for so long.

    Cheers John, Peter, Mark D, David JS, and to all the gang!

  16. Perhaps an addendum?

    Instead of having John & Peter (and Mark) do a review of the new Night Stalker series, I'd be curious to get all their takes on The Norliss Tapes (a few have touched on it but we haven't gone into it at any length).

  17. Of course, if they don't want to - here's my reaction:

    The reason I even bring this up... as I've said, my 4-year old followed along with me in my revisit to the Night Stalker movies & series and liked it a lot (for some reason she wants to re-watch "The Youth Killer" or, as she says, "the one where the girl gets wet and turns into statue"). However, instead of revisiting the baggy-eyed Cathy Lee Crosby, I showed her The Norliss Tapes ("Is he Kolchak?" "Uh - not quite"). I think my first time re-watching it since the DVD came out.

    Anyhoo - I think this would have made a great 1-hour Kolchak. I really like the basic story of the dead man allowed to come back to life to finish the statue of the demon using blood-infused clay. Although I appreciate Dan Curtis's decision to play the story completely straight, I also recognize there's a LOT of padding (whereas the original Night Stalker movie was so tightly edited it moved at a gallop).

    ... continued ...


    In my childhood memory, The Norliss Tapes telemovie started with the publisher arriving at Norliss's home, finding the note and playing the tapes. Seeing the movie in a rare showing (and taping it) sometime in the 1990s made me realize there's actually a number of scenes that come before this - and they're completely unnecessary. Lots of lingering shots of Roy Thinnes moping around his home. Shots inside a restaurant we even revisit later in the story. (The whole purpose seems to show off as many great views of San Francisco from offices, restaurants & Norliss's chock-fulla windows home).

    Case in point: there's an early scene with the publisher asking Norliss's lawyer to check up on the writer - that's then followed immediately by the lawyer running into the publisher & telling him what he's learned. Couldn't these two scenes have been combined into one? In fact, just one line of dialogue added to the second scene (like "I checked up on David liked you asked") makes that first one totally unnecessary.

    Also, Claude Akins features as a sheriff - seemingly because he featured as a sheriff in Night Stalker. All the scenes in which he's interacting with characters OTHER than David Norliss could have been cut (really no reason to see him on the golf course with the doctor just to see him get the autopsy result that the girl was drained of blood).

    And speaking of the blood - how exactly did the mumbling, growling zombie get this blood? I mean, COMPLETELY drain it? He's not a vampire, after all. Richard Malcolm used a syringe, but he only took a small amount.

    Also, Angie Dickinson's character seems... lacking. Having just recently lost her spouse, she awakens one night and follows her dog to her late husband's studio - and actually sees her him resurrected! Okay, hubby's a bit blue and growly, but her first instinct is to blast him with both barrels of a shotgun! What, was she happy to get rid of him the first time & annoyed he came back? No attempt to communicate with her dear departed after his return visit?

    In a way, this ties in with the later scene of the dead husband confronting his wife in the tunnel connecting his crypt & his studio. She's just discovered the dead body of the art dealer (scream!), her sister (scream!!) and then sees her dead, walking, yellow-eyed husband (scream!!!). After a couple of plaintive mumbles from Big Dead Blue, we cut to Norliss literally running into Angie Baby and her telling him her husband let her go, she's not sure why. What?? We don't even get to see how that scene played out? Is this all because the zombie husband was played by Nick Dmitri, more a stuntman than actor, and the emoting required would have been beyond him? (FYI, imdb credits Nick as one of the "Godzilla Gang" tossed around by the undead Catherine Rawlins our beloved episode of Kolchak, "The Vampire").

    ... continued ...

  19. And finally... (sorry, had to break this all up as I was going over individual post character limit).

    But still, even with all these faults, I really like this TV-movie. As for how it would have translated into a series... eh. We can see it might have been a real problem getting David involved with 22 stories a season. Yeah, he's investigating the supernatural specifically, but he's still a NOVELIST. What reason does a local sheriff have to talk to him when he comes nosing around? How many referrals can he get from mutual friends? (Here, the wife's sister knew David & his interest in the supernatural & suggested they meet, but how many times can that happen?).

    Also, re the format, if it's the publisher listening to a different tape every week (he just listened to tape #1 and we see him loading the one marked #2), will we ever wonder why he doesn't just skip ahead & listen to the LAST one? (I mean, if he's really interested in what just happened to David, wouldn't that last tape provide the best clue?).

    And is it going to continue to rain every other scene? (Maybe that's why this is one of my favorite rainy afternoon movies).

    Okay, I've gone on long enough... see, I'm already suffering Kolchak withdrawal symptoms!

  20. Back in July 2011 the internet was agog with reports that Johnny Depp was going to bring Kolchak back to the big screen in a theatrical version of the original TV movie. Depp seems a fine choice to me, as he has an impressive string of characters, both eccentric and well-grounded, on his resume. If Depp does make this happen, I'll be more than willing to give him a chance.

  21. Thanks Peter, John, and all you Fellow Kolchakers. It was alot of work and as John said, everyone needs a rest now. I will now immerse myself back into my collection of old magazines and pulps.

  22. I enjoyed your overview, David, and regret we won't get to hear what you and J&P thought about "Night Stalker." The first few episodes I've seen have been scary and entertaining. I assume you guys didn't completely hate the series, or you wouldn't have been willing to review it in the first place (after what happened on WACT last April 1, I had to check my calendar when it was announced there'd be a review of the revival series). I wonder how much influence Dan Curtis had as a consulting producer on this show.

    I would have preferred, as DJS suggested, that our new Carl K. had actually been the illegitimate offspring of Kolchak and Gail Foster, who had stumbled onto these strange cases as he's investigating his father's mysterious disappearance. There could have been cameos with Carol Lynley to offer clues, as Kolchak Jr. attempts to discover what happened to Kolchak Sr. The new character is too different from the original one for me to completely accept him as Carl Kolchak.

    My vote goes to Robert Downey Jr. for the next Kolchak. Depp could handle it, too, but he's not first pick.

    "What's next, I wonder... the latest GQ male model as Lt. Columbo?" Hey, you may be on to something, there, Gary. Now, that's where I could definitely see Johnny Depp. Interesting parallels you brought up regarding Clark, Lois and Jimmy. I hadn't noticed that.

    It has been fun revisiting Kolchak with all the aficionados here. Kolchak, like Sherlock Holmes, is a character who will continue to live on. Thanks to the resident experts and contributors, our dedicated hosts, and the peanut gallery for another entertaining romp through TV land. I look forward to the next classic TV adventure.

  23. Ironically, had Spotnitz gone the Classic K route with his NIGHT STALKER, Fox Mulder himself -- David Duchovny -- would've made a decent lead. Scrape some (but not all) of the sleaze from CALIFORNICATION's Hank Moody, if you can manage the job without puking, and you have a disillusioned, cynical middle-age loner with a smart mouth who who never grew up and learned not to ask the embarrassing, inconvenient questions that need asking. Plus he's a fucking riot, and like the Kolchak of the original TV movies gets a bewildering amount of tail. BAM! -- Carl 2.0.

    That said, I didn't mind Stuart Townsend so much, and generally enjoyed the NS re-do more than I expected to. Yeah, it was practically unconnected to the original series (except in the most obviously cash-in friendly ways) and its dynamic was too close to THE X-FILES (a lot less so than FRINGE, a show I also like and that could make it to five seasons -- go figure TV justice), but those were actually draws for me. KTNS was fun enough, but it never fulfilled the promise of the character and seemed like a chore for McGavin, so I missed X-FILES way more anyway. Why not start over on a more solid footing? Not that the mooks at ABC saw it that way...

  24. Johnny Depp to play Kolchak in Night Stalker movie: