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Category:    Home > Reviews > Horror > Thriller > Mystery > Supernatural > Science Fiction > TV > Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75 series)

Kolchak: The Night Stalker - The Complete Series/Original 1974 – 1975 Season (Universal DVD/NTSC Region One Set)

 

Picture: B-     Sound: B-     Extras: D     Episodes: A-

 

 

PLEASE NOTE:  A PAL import DVD edition of this series with some different music and footage has been issued in Australia by Madman Entertainment and you can read more about that edition at this link:

 

http://www.fulvuedrive-in.com/review/9520/Kolchak:+The+Night+Stalker+-+The

 

 

 

It took a very long time, but particularly thanks to ABC-TV’s launching their own latter-day revival, Universal Home Video has issued the Kolchak: The Night Stalker series on DVD after the original TV movies made it out in the format twice.  Running 20 episodes, no American TV series that ran for a single season has been more influential or inspired more imitators.  After the phenomenal success of the two telefilms, The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973, both reviewed as a double feature from MGM elsewhere on this site, and are the only sources for the cancelled, 2005 ABC show), Universal backed the series and ABC continued to broadcast the adventures of the reporter who had a knack for uncovering the supernatural.

 

Darren McGavin is Carl Kolchak, a once on-the-verge-of-big-time success and still-great reporter who was almost one of the top newspapermen in the country.  He had fallen from grace years ago and in trying to get the next big story, had been fired from many newspapers nationwide.  No matter what, whether it was police interference or threats from potential subjects of his writing, Kolchak would stop at nothing to get all the facts.  It is not known how crazy this made his career up to the early 1970s, but coming across a vampire in old Las Vegas changed his life forever.  He continues to get rehired by his old friend and always editor Tony Vincenzo, played brilliantly by the late, great Simon Oakland from the original TV movies to the end of this series.

 

Originally, a third Kolchak telefilm called The Night Killers (which was just published only recently) was planned where robots (or aliens) would replace politicians or other figures of interest.  Originally an angle in the original 1967 Avengers episode Never, Never Say Die with Christopher Lee, the idea soon came to fruition in the 1976 film Futureworld (the underrated sequel to Michael Crichton’s 1973 hit Westworld), was hinted at in the original Stepford Wives (1975) and surfaces in 1988 with a new sense of darkness in John Carpenter’s remarkable They Live.

 

The other telefilm idea that was suggested involved Jack The Ripper, but the great Richard Matheson refused to write up that one since good friend Robert Bloch (of Psycho fame) had just written a book featuring the legendary serial killer.  With the series in the hands of new producers, Matheson and producer/director Dan Curtis left for lack of interest and on September, Friday the 13th, 1974, the series made its premiere.  What follows are the episodes that changed TV, Horror and even Comedy forever as the shows that followed has a great tradition of casting comedy actors on purpose.  Unlike the amusing and brief descriptions in the DVD menus and on the back of the nice slender cases, we have tried not to give away too much:

 

1)     The Ripper – This debut episode went for the infamous Ripper, somehow alive and stalking the streets of Chicago three quarters of a century later.  The great Beatrice Colen plays Jane Plumm, a terrific, neurotic reporter for a rival news publication that is a bit more of what we now know as a tabloid.  She quickly went on to play Etta Candy in the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman series for ABC.  The tone of the show is remarkable and though they had less time than a telefilm, Rudolph Borchert’s teleplay and Allen Baron’s directing made for the perfect launch of the series.

2)     The ZombieSopranos creator David Chase was the story consultant for the series and co-story editor with Borchert wrote a quarter of all the teleplays for the show and this was the first.  Needless to say, it involves organized crime.  Italian mobsters are being killed off in gruesome ways that are not typical of gangland-style or execution-style killings.  Black numbers operators are suspected, but it turns out a Jamaican man the Italians killed has come back from the dead.  Kolchak has to find out who is pulling his strings before he becomes the next victim.  This show introduced a regular that lasted (John Fiedler as Gordon “Gordy The Ghoul” Spangler) and one that sadly did not (Carol Ann Suzi (the unseen mother on Big Bang Theory) as Monique Marmelstein), and also features Charles Aidman, Joseph Sirola, Val Bisoglio, J. Pat O’Malley, Antonio Fargas and Scatman Crothers in great supporting roles.  Directed by Alex Grasshoff.

3)     They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be – Also known as U.F.O., this is one of the most underrated shows in the series.  Dead animals are turning up dead in a bizarre manner.  When humans are next, Kolchak has to figure out why, starting with what made a ton of lead disappear and police go flying (minus any sound as if in a vacuum) before the situation gets worse.  Mellé’s music is exceptional and has leisurely stretches that are very rare even in television today.  The show was combining comedy and horror in a way never done before, but this was an existential layer even the telefilms were missing.  James Gregory, Mary Wickes and Dick Van Patten guest star.  Borchert and Baron build on their success with the first show.

4)     The Vampire – Sometimes confused as being the pilot, this is a terrific sequel to the pilot, as Vegas authorities missed one body for cremation, a female prostitute.  She comes to Los Angeles and when Kolchak hears about it, gets a benign assignment just to go out there and tie up loose ends.  Kathleen Nolan, William Daniels, Jan Murray, Larry Storch and Suzanne Charny co-star.  Chase adapted Bill Stratton’s story with Don Weis directing another classic show.

5)     The Werewolf – Chase and early series producer Paul Playdon came up with this terrific winner about Kolchak going on the last voyage of a cruise ship, only to find out a werewolf is on board killing the passengers.  The love boat turned death boat as Bernardt Stieglitz (Eric Braeden) does what he can to stop himself from transforming, but it will take some quick thinking by Kolchak to stop his more barbaric half.  Henry Jones, Dick Gautier, Jackie Russell, Barry Cahill and an especially hilarious Nita Talbot guest star.  Directed by Allen Baron.

6)     Firefall – Also known as The Doppelganger, this is the first of four shows pulled from future broadcast for reasons we’ll explain later, but is a disturbing show about the ghost of a former gangster (teleplay by Bill S. Ballinger this time) trying to reenter the world of the living by taking over living bodies.  Instead, spontaneous combustion cremates each of them on sight and the famous conductor Ryder Bond (Fred Beir) is the next big target.  Kolchak has discovered that all the victims were asleep when they were engulfed, so he is in for a deadly, long night.  Very underrated work by Don Weis and Carol Ann Suzi’s last appearance as Monique.

7)     The Devil’s Platform – Tom Skerritt is the title character, a devil worshiper who has made a deal that allows him to cheat death and eliminate his more popular and able competition.  Here’s a way to fix an election no one has used lately!  Jeanne Cooper and Stanley Adams guest star in this Donn Mullally teleplay that involved several writers and was nicely directed by Allen Baron. 

8)     Bad Medicine – Also know as The Diablero, Richard Kiel is the title monster and Native American legend (and more noticeably so in the first of two monster appearances in a row) who goes around stealing wealth, changing into a variety of animals and killing his victims or anyone else who gets in his way.  In this case, it is the rich, elderly elite of Chicago.  Though Kiel’s Bond appearances have dated the show in odd ways, it has plenty of creepy moments, great sound design and more unforgettable moments.  Alex Grasshoff directed.

9)     Spanish Moss Murders – With a Science Fiction edge, a sleeping experiment brings the legendary Boogie Man to life, known as the Cajun horror Peremalfait.  Kolchak investigates, which leads him to a lab run by a clever doctor (Severn Darden) who is at first also oblivious to what is going on.  Keenan Wynn is outstanding as the annoyed Captain Joseph Siska, who knowns Kolchak all too well, and Richard Kiel is great as the swamp monster.  The climax of the show is also another classic, written by Al Friedman with Chase, based on Friedman’s original story.  Gordon Hessler, so good at directing this genre in film, helmed this show memorably.

10)  The Energy Eater – Also known as Matchemonedo, this second of four shows pulled from future broadcast has four writers (teleplay by Arthur Rowe and Rudolph Borchert) involves people being electrocuted to death under strange circumstances.  The catch is that they all died at a hospital that was just built on sacred Native American ground, which is suddenly having all kinds of trouble with its electric.  Though it is uneven at times, the Native American elements do not date as badly as Bad Medicine and the last of director Alex Grasshoff’s works has more interesting moments and twists that work.  The guest cast includes William Smith, Elaine Giftos, Marvin Kaplan (somewhere in this show), Robert Yuro and even Joyce Jillson before she gave up acting.

11)  Horror In The Heights – This episode is also known as The Rakshasa.  Considered by many to be the peak of the series, written by Hammer Horror veteran and great genre writer James Sangster, this classic involves a creature that can manipulate the mind of its victims before literally engulfing them by tearing and consuming their flesh.  In one of the greatest twists of the series, this takes place in a neighborhood of elderly and often-Jewish residents, so the sudden appearance of Swastikas at first suggest hate crimes.  However, the true source is The Rakshasa, an evil Hindu monster who especially shows up in times of crisis.  This increases its chances of victims to feed on.  Kolchak has to cut through the anti-Semitism and other unusual problems before its too late.  Michael T. Caffey did a great job directing this one, which is one of the great shows, with a cast that includes Phil Silvers, Benny Rubin, Abraham Soafer, Murray Matheson, Barry Gordon and Shelley Novack.

12)  Mr. R.I.N.G. – At a time when Bell Telephone was a monopoly and there were problems unfolding with U.S. Government policy, this great, creepy show (written by L. Ford Neale & John Huff) has the provocative title that makes it sound like the title character is an insider, but it turns out to be a self-sufficient robot and not one controlled by a darker force.  Not dating too badly, this intelligent show once again involves Kolchak facing the worst possible forces, monsters and organizations.  Julie Adams, best known for being the target of The Creature From The Black Lagoon in that classic, is appropriately the wife of the creator of the robot.  Corrine Michaels, Bert Freed, Robert Easton and Henry Beckman co-star in this gutsy show directed by Gene Levitt.

13)  Primal Scream – This episode is also known as The Humanoids, in what is the last of a little-acknowledged storyline of Kolchak taking on the federal government.  A new series of brutal murders starts with a scientist, then spreads to all over Chicago.  Despite more comedy, there is darkness like nothing before or after this show would feature.  An oil conglomerate is also involved and the “ownership” of a missing link is at stake.  John Marley, Pat Harrington, Katharine Woodville, Regis J. Cordic, Barbara Rhodes, Jeanie Bell and Jamie Farr co-star in this Robert Scheerer-directed show co-written by Bill S. Ballinger and David Chase.

14)  The Trevi Collection – Kolchak’s underhanded friend Mickey Patchek (Chuck Waters) has him meet in Chicago’s fashion district.  Before Kolchak can get the information to be offered, Mickey “falls” to his death from atop a building, though its window.  When he decides to investigate, he discovers the fashion season is loaded with unexpected carnage and someone on the runway is a killer witch.  A fine episode with a great cast including Nina Foch, Lara Parker, Marvin Miller and Bernie Kopell.  Rudolph Borchert wrote and Don Weis directed.  Also remembered for its classic use of mannequins.

15)  Chopper – This episode turned out to be the first-ever professional sale of a script by future feature film hitmakers Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, focusing on revenge and bike gangs.  Years ago, a young and now defunct bike gang accidentally beheaded (or “chopped” of the head) of one of their members.  They broke up then and there, vowing never to discuss the matter and were never sought out or charged with murder.  However, the victim has not and had returned headless in his leather and denim, riding a vintage chopper motorcycle, and wielding a sword to return the favor at top speeds.  More comical than intended due to some dated visual effects, it is still effective enough and has its won classic moments.  Steve Fisher and David Chase wrote the final teleplay with Gale and Zemeckis, directed well enough by Bruce Kessler.  The guest cast includes Sharon Farrell, Larry Linville, Frank Aletter, Jesse White and Jim Backus.

16)  Demon In Lace – The third of four shows pulled from individual rebroadcast after the show ended was written by Stephen Lord, with a final teleplay by Lord, Chase and Michael Kozoll, involving male college students suddenly dying of heart attacks.  However, they are all in great health and there is no medical reason for their deaths.  It turns out a professor (Andrew Prine) has brought an ancient tablet back that has demonic implications attached.  In this case, it is a Succubus, who feeds on the life energy of her male victims.  It uses dead (or newly killed) female students to get to the males, so Kolchak has to stop it before the campus is wiped out!  Directed by Don Weis, in the last of his great work for the show, the episode co-stars Keenan Wynn back as Capt. Siska, Kristina Holland, Jackie Vernon, Ben Masters, Donald Mantooth, Carmen Zapata and Caroline Jones as The Registrar.

17)  Legacy Of Terror – Also known as Lord Of The Smoking Mirror, this is the last of four shows pulled from individual rebroadcast after the show ended, though this one is such a hoot as you are about to find out.  An Aztec Cult is on the loose and they are cutting out the hearts of their victims, but leaving them behind in a pattern based on some kind of numerology.  Kolchak investigates when one of the victims is a Vietnam hero, but things get worse.  It turns out they are making sub-sacrifices on track to the ultimate sacrifice.  They need a perfect and well-treated subject to being a very powerful Aztec Mummy Nanautzin to life to take over the world.  That final sacrifice will be Pepe Torres, played by a then-unknown Erik Estrada!  If that was not enough, Sorrell “Boss Hogg” Booke is taxidermist Mr. Eddy!  Though funny intentionally and unintentionally, some of the series creepiest moments are included.  Arthur Rowe wrote the teleplay Don McDougall directed here, making for a show everyone will be talking about thanks to this set all over again, particularly clever in dealing with certain aspects of Vietnam without letting that interfere with the creepy story one bit.  The guest cast also includes Ramon Bieri, Pippa Scott and Victor Campos and has one of the great surprise endings of the series.

18)  The Knightly Murders – If it was bad enough to build a hospital on sacred Native American ground, what about using sacred ground to replace a museum that resides on it with a discothèque?  Bad idea!  That is what is exactly planned, until all connected with the project are brutally murdered in remarkable ways.  When Kolchak looks more closely into the case, he suspects the museum’s resident Black Knight has come to life and is out to keep his home as is.  Vincent McEveety directed this show with more of an offbeat sensibility than a Horror genre show would be, but it still has some great moments via the Kozoll/Chase teleplay.  John Dehner, Hans Conreid and Lucille Benson make for a fine guest cast.

19)  The Youth Killer – Dating turns deadly when clients start turning up dead.  No one can tell who they are, because they have aged to death and are unrecognizable.  They were all part of the new electronic dating service Max Match, run by Helen Surtees (Cathy Lee Crosby), but when Kolchak shows a picture of her to a Greek friend of his (Demosthenes), he is certain she is really Helen Of Troy!  At this point, the lighter side of the show that was starting to set in took over in these last few shows, but the interesting and even innovative ideas kept on coming.  Dwayne Hickman, Kathleen Freeman, Joss White and TV Captain America Reb Brown co-star in this Rudolph Borchert-penned teleplay, directed by Don McDougall.

20)  The Sentry – The final show has McGavin’s real life wife Kathy Browne butting heads with him as the only female police opponent he would have in the series, something that never happened in the telefilms either.  People are being killed deep in the underground vaults of a corporate archive and Kolchak is just dying to find out.  He may get his wish, depending on how fast he can get one of their golf carts to go when the alligator/crocodile-like monster comes to get him in those tunnels.  More humor than expected, but like all the shows, some great funny moments, followed by moments of amazing horror.  Neale & Huff wrote the final teleplay, directed by Seymour Robbie.  The guest cast also includes Albert Paulsen, Frank Campanella, Margaret Avery and Tom Bosley.

 

 

The show was supposed to run 22 episodes for the season, but McGavin and later producer Cy Chermak (who replaced Paul Playdon after the initial episodes and some other key work for the series) could not get along and as the show became lighter, the ratings were not as strong as reruns in later years and video sales would prove to be.  The show was on at 10 P.M. EST on ABC, then the reruns in 1975 were moved to 8 P.M. the same night when the network moved The Six Million Dollar Man to Sundays.  They had to be edited slightly, but that was all.  Ratings did not improve and the show was cancelled.  That also meant the end of seeing other regular characters Ron Updyke (played by Jack Grinnage) and Miss Emily (one time Edith) Cowles (played by Ruth McDevitt).  The Independent News Service was finished and even comic book and novel revivals put the company out of business.

 

About a dozen of scripts were in production and three were completed, two of which were ready to go for this first season.  Eve Of Terror and The Get Of Belial did finally make it into print as comic books within the last year, while The Executioners (a good script) has yet to see the light of day in any form.  The comics did great justice to the series and the scripts they came from.  There were several near-revivals of the character before ABCs’ 2005-6 revival, including a few with Darren McGavin that sadly failed and a theatrical feature film at Morgan Creek Productions set to star Nick Nolte as Kolchak that was also cancelled.  Therefore, this would sadly be McGavin’s last screen appearance as Kolchak.  More on what happened to those four withdrawn episodes in a few paragraphs.

 

The 1.33 X 1 full color full frame image varies throughout, as is the case with television shows of this age.  In its time, the series had some of the most elaborate and expensive nighttime shooting in TV history, set bound or not.  This is especially apparent in the early episodes, which remain some of the darkest and best nighttime shooting in television history.  The catch to this was that the nighttime stocks tend to be grainier and you can see that in each episode.  Sometimes, the footage is slightly dull, other times color is slightly faded, but the color is much more often vibrant and detailed as expected from the remastering.  The result is warmth that has never been seen before in the shows, plus there are no scratches or artifacts, though I originally missed a cracked frame in an early scene of Episode 2.  An early review of the set claimed the image was too dark.  I disagree.  It is as dark as it is supposed to be and some people can use this show to reconsider how their TVs (HD or otherwise) are adjusted.  Despite some flaws, these are very good transfers otherwise and among the best classic TV images we have seen to date.

 

Cinematographer Donald Peterman shot the first episode and made it very visually effective, even inspiring the look for the first episodes of Millennium (reviewed elsewhere on this site) and setting the tone for the best this show offered visually.  Alric Edens, A.S.C., shot the second show and added to the vocabulary and feel of Kolchak’s Chicago.  Eduardo Ricci shot the third episode, which has some chilling slow motion work and creepy uses of the zoom lens.  Ronald W. Browne took over for the rest of the series and continued to make it visually interesting and exceptional, though as the scripts got lighter, so did the visuals.

 

The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono is interesting in that it sometimes has some compression in parts, but not for an entire episode, while a few spaces even had slight (and brief) touches of harshness.  The audio fidelity does show its age, but not in ways you’d think.  The series always had an interesting mix of location taping, sound effects audio, in-studio dubbing and looping, plus exceptionally recorded, engineered and recorded music.  Unlike previous video versions of the series, you can hear the differences, with some audio sounding remarkably good for an old TV series.  Some of the audio has intended echo that makes the sound almost stereophonic and as a huge fan, would have wanted the show remastered in 5.1 DTS.  As compared to the audio from the TV movies on DVD and the CD soundtrack Varese Sarabande issued, this set more than holds its own. 

 

Gil Mellé’s theme song was partly derived from the theme to the 1974 Gene Roddenberry TV movie The Questor Tapes, and was already on the map with the theme to the Rod Serling series Night Gallery and also did the score one of the first three Six Million Dollar Man telefilms, for Larry Cohen’s controversial 1972 theatrical film Bone and the 1971 Andromeda Strain, often sited as the first all-electronic score for a motion picture.  Mellé had helped to invent the drum machine and was exceptionally aware of sound and the coming of new kinds of music, which is why his music for Kolchak holds up so well.

 

Mellé left the series after the fourth episode and felt it might be lightening up too much.  The great Jerry Fielding took over for virtually the rest of the series, while Mellé was sometimes still credited when his music was reused.  Greg McRitchie, one of the best film and TV music orchestrators in the business, did the 11th show on his own, but that was the only exception.  Hal Moone added music for episode 9, while Luchi De Jesus added scoring for episode 10.  I should add that Universal Television was as state of the art as any TV production operation in their time and the high quality we have here thirty years later has much to do with that.  Even for fans who have seen the show dozens of times before, the jokes and jolts have a whole new life as a result of this high fidelity combination.

 

The Ripper and The Vampire originally were issued on VHS by Universal under the name Two Tales Of Terror, with the fourth show included because CBS used to show that one first to relaunch the series anytime they went through the series’ 16 shows that were available for broadcast.  They looked and sounded adequate, but fared better when Columbia House licensed the entire series, which took up 10 VHS tapes.  All had Hi-Fi FM analog 2.0 mono, while the whole series came out in two 12” LaserDisc box sets from Japan that were pricey, heavy, expensive and in print for a limited time.  The English was limited to one analog Hi-Fi mono track, while the other analog track and digital PCM 2.0 Mono sound was a Japanese dub of each show, so the Dolby here is superior to the English on those sets.  The qualities of those prints were also reportedly mixed, so these DVDs surpass those easily as well.  Like the tapes, the later episodes’ prints seemed to have color that was fading.  That is not the case here, where the great color in the majority of scenes in each episode is full and rich.

 

One extra Universal could have included for kicks are to show what happened to the withheld episodes above.  They were cut into two artificial TV movies, with some new voice-overs by McGavin and Oakland to tie the show together.  Crackle Of Death combined shows 6 & 10 into a tale that could have been dubbed “deaths-a-poppin”, while The Demon & The Mummy crossed shows 16 & 17 with an ending too silly to believe.  Ironically, they are the last times either actor would portray those classic characters, if only in voice.  Perhaps NBC/Universal thought that was repetitious, but that would have been nice for the blank sixth side of DVD 3.  Grinnage and early regular Carol Ann Suzi as Monique (shows 2, 3 & 6) are still around, as are Cy Chermak, David Chase, Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale and many of the guest stars are still with us.  Interviews and audio commentaries would have been nice.  The paperboard case is nice, though.  And to repeat, side six is BLANK, not a defective side that will not play.

 

Though very recent print revivals turned up (comic books and a novel so far), that was the end of the show for good.  We’ll reserve any comments on ABC’s 2004 – 2005 revival show, but this DVD release of Kolchak: The Night Stalker finally completes one of the most sought-after TV releases on home video.  At one time, there were those who tried to write this show off as a cult series only.  Now, we all know better.  The case says “Classic Television” and this set more than lives up to that label.  Needless to say, this is as much a must-have as any TV on DVD set you can get.  No wonder it is already a surprise (except to us) top seller.

 

 

-   Nicholas Sheffo


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