“This nut thinks he’s a vampire!” – more of why I love sf/f

Darren McGavin and Barry Atwater in a still from The Night Stalker television movie © 1972 American Broadcasting Company

Darren McGavin and Barry Atwater in a still from The Night Stalker television movie © 1972 American Broadcasting Company (Click to embiggen)

It was January, 1972 when I first saw Darren McGavin playing reporter Carl Kolchak, dressed in that hat and cheap suit, ranting to his editor and the police about a serial killer. I was in the fifth grade and Dad’s nomadic employment in the petroleum industry had sent us to a small town in Utah. We had been there the just over a year, which was longer than we had stayed in any one town in several years1.

In the movie, The Night Stalker, Darren McGavin plays Kolchak, a reporter working in Las Vegas, dating a showgirl, and covering typical news stories. Until he began being suspicious about a series of deaths that seemed very similar, but which the police insisted were unrelated. First Kolchak was convinced that it was simply a serial killer who was draining all the blood from his victims’ bodies because he was insane and believed he was a vampire. As Kolchak finds more and more evidence of similar crimes going back decades, he begins to worry that the killer really is a vampire.

Which, of course, turns out to be the case. Kolchak witnesses a couple of attempts by the police to capture the killer. The second attempt is such an epic failure, with multiple cops killed and dozens of bullets striking the killer (played creepily by Barry Atwater) to no avail. This convinces at least one FBI agent that it is a vampire. Kolchak and his FBI buddy track down and kill the vampire.

Kolchak writes the full account of the vampire’s long career of murder and eventual destruction, proposes to his girlfriend, and prepares to move to New York City where he expects to be able to write his own ticket. Except the FBI and local police don’t want anyone to know about vampires. They kill the story (getting Kolchak’s boss fired, I believe). They substitute a more mundane tale of a serial killer with Kolchak’s byline. Then they inform him that his girlfriend has already been convinced to leave town, and tell him he’s no longer welcome in Vegas.

The story ends with Kolchak re-dictating the entire tale into his portable tape recorder while sitting alone in a sleazy motel room. He explains how all the evidence is destroyed, and that he’s exhausted his savings trying to find his fiancée, so far to no avail.

It was a sad and creepy end to a film.

The Night Stalker was a made-for-TV movie based on an unsold novel by Jeff Rice, originally titled The Kolchak Papers. Rice’s agent had more luck selling the novel idea to ABC as a movie idea than he’d had selling it to a book publisher. The movie was a surprise hit, drawing in unheard of ratings when it ran. It was so successful that the network commissioned Richard Matheson, who had adapted Rice’s book into script from, to write a sequel. A book publisher was suddenly interested in Rice’s novel, but only if they could also get a deal on the sequel. So Rice wrote a novelization of Matheson’s sequel script, and in 1973 two Kolchak books, along with the sequel TV movie, The Night Strangler were all released.

The Night Strangler came out almost exactly a year after the first movie. In it Kolchak had relocated to Seattle where he stumbled upon an immortal who was living in Underground Seattle2 who every 21 years has to kill several women in order to harvest their blood in a very specific fashion to manufacture his “elixer of life.” The sequel did well enough again that work began on a third movie. Until the network put that all aside and decided to turn Kolchak’s story into a regular weekly TV series, which debuted in September of 1974 and ran for one season.

McGavin returned to play Kolchak. In the series Kolchak, along with his editor from both movies (played by Simon Oakland), have been relocated to Chicago where they work for the Independent News Service. Each week Kolchak stumbles upon a new monster or mystery that winds up having a fantastic explanation. Unlike the original movie, Kolchak never has any credible witnesses survive to corroborate his stories, so no one ever believes.

After the two wildly successful TV movies, the network had high hopes, but the initial ratings weren’t terribly exciting. After four episodes of The Night Stalker had aired, the series went on hiatus for a bit over a month. It came back, re-titled Kolchak: the Night Stalker! with new theme music, though not any changes to the tone, setting, or cast.

Ratings continued a slow, steady decline, causing the network to pull the plug at episode 20, cutting short the original order of 26 episodes.

The series ran during my 7th grade year. We had moved by the Colorado, this time returning to the small town where I’d been born, and where one set of grandparents and one set of great-grandparents still lived. Puberty had hit the year before, and I suddenly knew exactly why I’d always felt out-of-place to the point of wondering if I was a changeling left in place of my parent’s real child by evil elves, or maybe an alien sent to study humans—I was gay. It was during this same period that I started fooling around regularly with one other gay classmate (while having a completely unrequited crush on a different classmate that as far as I know was straight). I lived in a constant state of fear of being found out, terrified of what family, friends, and the rest of the town would do if they had proof I was a fag.

I threw myself even more fervently into reading science fiction and fantasy, so of course I was a faithful viewer tuning in each week to see what Kolchak would uncover next. Kolchak was appealing in part because these incredible, usually awful, things kept happening around him, but no one ever believed him. He was in sort of a reverse closet. He wanted people to know the truth, but everyone else did everything they could to ignore, explain away, and ridicule that truth.

While I did tune in faithfully each week, I have to confess that as the series went on, each episode was a little bit less satisfying. I can’t be certain why, having not re-watched it in years, but something about seeing Kolchak not be believed week after week was much less interesting than seeing it in two movies separated by a year. Maybe it was because Kolchak was seldom heroic. He had a determination to learn the truth, yes, but clearly he would have much rather interviewed people after the fight with the monster, rather than take on the creatures himself. He was always a bit rumbled and always seemed to stumble and fumble his way into a lot of the stories and events in the series, rather than get there through dogged determination. Maybe the series just didn’t know how to walk the tightrope between mystery/horror and comedy.

Some years later Chris Carter would have more success with The X-Files, a series he admitted was inspired by Kolchak. So the week-to-week mysteries the world doesn’t want to admit exist notion could be spun into a successful show. I don’t know what about the collective consciousness of 1974 made Kolchak less appealing than the audience of the 90s would find Scully and Mulder4.

I still look back on The Night Stalker with a lot of fondness. I empathized so much with they guy who knew and believed things no one else would credit. It wasn’t just the parallels to my own queer secret, though. I was also having an ever more difficult time reconciling my love of science and history with the fundamentalist evangelical beliefs of our church and the vast majority of our neighbors. I felt as if people were constantly belittling scientific facts and scientists, blatantly ignoring evidence right in front of them and insisting on a worldview that just didn’t square up with not just my lived experience, but theirs.

Kolchak kept chasing that truth, kept examining the evidence, never letting the naysayers or conventional wisdom stop him. And that was a role model I desperately needed.


Notes:

1. I wound up completing the entirety of 5th and 6th grade, in addition to the half of 4th in that same school. This tied my previous record of Kindergarten, 1st, and part of 2nd in the Ft. Collins, Colorado school district. By contrast, 3rd grade was split between three schools, each in a different state (and if the brief sojourn in Kansas had begun a few weeks earlier than in did, 3rd grade would have been four schools in four states).

2. This movie makes the mistake of most pop culture representations of Underground Seattle do. It portrays it as if some sort of disaster buried part of the city in a single night and the survivors rebuilt on top. A dining room underground that still has dishes, silverware, and petrified food figures in the story, for instance. In actuality, Seattle decided it was tired of the routine flooding and sewer backups that happened in the part of downtown built on swamp land, and they razed a hill at the north end of town to redistribute the dirt to raise the streets in the south end. It took many months. During the transition some of the taller buildings had new doors built into the existing second or third floors at the new street level. Other buildings had additional stories built atop them. Spaces that had originally been ground floors became basements. In only a very small number of cases have any of those old spaces been kept in anything close to their original state3.

3. Many, many years ago a software company I worked for that had offices downtown rented storage space in the basement of the building next door. The basement had originally been a dance hall before the streets were raised. The solid wood dance floor was still there, and some of the fancy woodwork on the walls was still visible, but the building owners and subdivided the space into a bunch of 10 foot by 10 foot cubes with cheep plywood, and rented each out for storage. It wasn’t terribly exotic any longer. And you just walked down ordinary stairs to get to it.

4. A subject I’ll go into much more detail about next week, I think!

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. I publish an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live in Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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