Blu-ray Review: Kolchak: The Night Stalker: The Complete Series

STUDIO: Kino Lorber | DIRECTORS: Don Weis, Allen Baron, Alexander Grasshoff, Don McDougall, Gordon Hessler, others | CAST: Darren McGavin, Simon Oakland, Jack Grinnage, Ruth McDevitt, John Fiedler, Carol Ann Susi
RELEASE DATE: 10/12/21 | PRICE: Blu-ray $74.99
BONUSES: Audio commentaries for each episode, original TV commercials for the episodes, new interviews with writer David Chase and comedian Dana Gould
SPECS: NR | 1020 mins | Horror | 1.33:1 English DTS

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie   | Audio | Video  | Overall 

Although it lasted only one season (1974-75), the TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker became a cult favorite that offers a perfect model for horror on television — laced with ample doses of humor and revolving around a rock-solid lead character.

That character, Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin), is a broken-down Chicago reporter in a seersucker suit, sneakers and a straw fedora. Like Columbo, his look is low-rent but he is expert at his job. In each episode he comes upon a series of murders (or simply bizarre circumstances) and ends up confronting the “monster” behind it all and slaying it in some fashion (usually utilizing an arcane method of dispatch).

The show was a low-budget affair, but the scripting and casting were so perfect that Kolchak has maintained its cult for nearly half a century (and the requisite bigger-budgeted remake that failed). This deluxe collection of the 20 episodes includes pristine copies of the shows, which do reveal the threadbare nature of some of the monsters, but also highlights how well the directors went about disguising the low budget with noir trappings.

Darren McGavin made the perfect low-rent antihero. His background as a hardboiled detective (the syndicated Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, 1958-’59) served him well as Kolchak, as did his comedy chops (which were, of course, displayed to best effect in the holiday staple A Christmas Story). McGavin made Kolchak both a bumbler and an uncannily good reporter — with the bad luck to constantly end up face to face with monstrous creatures.

Supporting McGavin was a variety of familiar (and beloved to longtime TV viewers) faces, from standup comics (Larry Storch, Jan Murray, Jackie Vernon) to a major array of TV stalwarts (Phil Silvers, Carolyn Jones, William Daniels, Jim Backus, Marvin Kaplan, Scatman Crothers, Alice Ghostley, Bernie Kopell, Antonio Fargas, Jesse White, Tom Bosley, David Doyle, Erik Estrada, among others). Their role was to chastise Kolchak for his eccentric but accurate questions and prying into closed affairs; they also were aware, after a point, that he was the only one who had figured out the solution.

McGavin’s actual “costars” were the monsters Kolchak came up against in every episode. The truly remarkable thing is that the series ran through some of the “usual” monsters (a vampire, a werewolf a mummy, a zombie, aliens) and also spotlighted a bunch of esoteric menaces — a doppelganger, a swamp monster, a fashion designer witch, a killer robot, a headless motorcyclist, an Aztec cult, and the infamous Indian “Rakshasa.” (About that creature, more below.)

Darren McGavin is Kolchak: The Night Stalker

While the series had its share of comic moments, the sequences where the monsters killed their prey and Kolchak finally hunted them were done completely straight, thus making the show so beloved among “monster kids” of the Seventies, who enjoyed their horror with some laughs but wanted the key sequences played in a serious fashion.

The best, most imaginative episode of the series is certainly “Horror in the Heights,” which has a two-part structure. The first part concerns a Jewish neighborhood where bloody murders are occurring and swastikas are being drawn on the streets. The second part of the episode unveils the monster — a hairy behemoth who traps its prey by appearing in the form of the person they trust most.

Hammer veteran Jimmy Sangster (Horror of Dracula) wrote the episode and came up with a tour de force of TV horror, since the menace depicted, the deceit-driven Rakshasa, was entirely new to American viewers. (The monster had appeared in a few fantasy novels and would go on to be used in the Dungeons and Dragons RPG and many video games and manga.) The weapon needed in this case? Blessed arrows shot from a crossbow wielded by (who else?) Kolchak, who is the only one besides an old Indian monster-hunter who knows what is going on.

All of the episodes have audio commentaries by various authors, podcast hosts and fans of the show. In his commentary for the first episode, Mark Dawidziak, who has written books about the series and a novel about the Kolchak character, supplies a great deal of history and info about the Night Stalker franchise, which began with two TV movies, The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Stranger (1973), also available from Kino Lorber.

Dawidziak discusses the history of the series and how it died not only because of bad ratings, but because of Universal’s indifference to the show and a major feud that developed between McGavin, who demanded that he be appointed executive producer, and producer Cy Chermak. He also provides info on the original creator of Kolchak, novelist Jeff Rice, a Las Vegas reporter who wanted to write about the way that the Mob ran Vegas, but instead wrote a novel about a reporter fighting a vampire. (His metaphor for the Mob bosses.)

The single best item Dawidziak introduces is audio from a recording he made of an interview he conducted with McGavin (who is chewing on something while he talks). The actor discusses the truths that Kolchak uncovers: “It was really [that] there are more bloodsuckers in Beverly Hills than you could ever put on television. I mean, if you really want to talk about what’s going on in the world today, who knows what’s going on with Bush, who knows what the hell’s going on with that secret cabal in Washington, for Christ’s sake? And that’s really what Kolchak really wanted to do, get in there and show all of the really true monsters who are affecting all of our lives. I think he’s a kind of a folk hero [laughs] who’s battling the forces of evil that are involved in all those things that we can’t pin down ourselves, that we can’t deal with.”

Comedian Dana Gould holds forth on the show in an onscreen supplement for this package. Gould talks about the character of Kolchak, how his suit, hat, sneakers and camera became a “costume” of sorts, and how he appealed to younger viewers because “he lost every fight.” (Not true, as he killed many of the monsters and at least chased away the ones whom he couldn’t eliminate entirely.) Gould also reflects (as Dawidziak does in his commentary and booklet notes) on the disbelief in government that arose in the Seventies thanks to Watergate and how it pervaded Kolchak.

The other interview conducted for this package is with Sopranos creator David Chase, who early in his career was the story editor of, and a scripter for, the series. Chase notes that McGavin wanted the show to be funny and that the character’s hardboiled narration in each episode was put there to avoid shooting scenes that would’ve cost too much money.

The outdoor transition scenes shot on location in Chicago were actually quite few and were used over and over again, according to Chase. His final verdict on the series? It was “batshit crazy, but it worked on that level.”

Buy or Rent Kolchak: The Night Stalker: The Complete Series

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”