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July 11-17, 2007

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Cult Leader

Stalk of the Town: Kolchak defined spooky cool in 'The Night Stalker'

By Steve Palopoli

MAYBE Fox Mulder was right. It's easy to write off the alien-abduction craze as pop-culture paranoia of the most extreme kind. But think about it for a minute—do you remember what happened on The X-Files? It just hit me a couple of weeks ago that I sort of remember the basic mythology that got everybody so hot and bothered for years in the '90s over that show, but I couldn't remember a thing about its last two or three seasons. No one I talked to seemed to remember what happened, either. They'd mumble something like "er ... the black oil, uh ..." or "the shapeshifters ... um, they weren't good," but ultimately drew a big ol' blank.

Now, I ask you: Who most stands to benefit from everyone who was obsessed with this series 10 years ago suddenly forgetting all of the details of its alien-invasion conspiracy theory? Aliens, I know, right? That's what I was thinking! Then I went on Wikipedia and read the boring-ass synopsis of the storyline from the entire damn series and realized that an alternative theory might be that everyone forgot it because it sucked.

But before it jumped the shark, The X-Files was the coolest show on TV. And it learned that cool from one guy: Kolchak. As played by the late Darren McGavin in two TV movies and a short-lived '70s series, investigative reporter Carl Kolchak was the original supernatural snoop. X-Files creator Chris Carter has fully acknowledged his debt to the show, even bringing in McGavin for two X-Files episodes and my favorite in-joke of the series: he plays a retired FBI agent, Arthur Dales, who reveals to Mulder that he investigated one of the earliest X-File-type cases.

Kolchak got a brief pop-culture revival a couple of years ago when ABC tried a new version of the character (this time played by Stuart Townsend) for the series Night Stalker. The general public didn't take to it (ironically, they seemed to see it as an X-Files rip-off), and Kolchak cultists didn't like it, either. They didn't think it matched up to the earlier series. Ironically, McGavin himself didn't much like his own series, and reportedly is the one who asked for it to be cancelled, saying it had devolved into "monster of the week" nonsense.

To me, you have to go all the way back to the original Kolchak TV movie, 1972's The Night Stalker, to understand what made this character great. Written by Richard Matheson and directed by TV-horror CEO Dan Curtis, it has cynical beat reporter Kolchak tracking a series of murders in Las Vegas, only to discover they're the work of a vampire. The film is obsessed with the kind of details that would become staples of The X-Files and every other paranormal show trying to create a sense of scientific credibility: dates, places, forensics, etc. It's always "6:30pm, County Courthouse" or some other very specific time and setting, as a way to help suspend disbelief as the movie slyly slides us from gritty reality to gritty supernatural fantasy. I love McGavin's narration at the beginning: "This will be the last time I will ever discuss these events with anyone. So when you have finished this bizarre account, judge for yourself its believability. And then try to tell yourself: 'It couldn't happen here.'" No wonder this was the highest-rated TV movie ever at the time! Who would change channels after that?

It was strong stuff for TV back then, too. The opening attack can still make you jump, then there's a gruesome shot of a hand in a trash can, and an autopsy from the corpse's point of view is the backdrop for the credits. There are so many great touches throughout the film, from McGavin's hardboiled delivery to the smart dialogue to the score that at times sounds like an early version of trip-hop. The Las Vegas setting is disorienting—vampire movies just did not go to the desert back then. And the killer was the kind of vampire no one had seen before. Played by Barry Atwater, with bloody-red eyes, he was somewhat like Christopher Lee a decade before—tall, aggressive, animalistic. But there is no trace of Lee's regal presence in Atwater's killer; speechless and banal, he's one more scary face in the urban landscape.

Many fans consider the follow-up TV movie, The Night Strangler, even better. It's great to see McGavin back in this solid sequel, also written by Matheson and directed by Curtis, but to me it's a bit of a rehash and its villain isn't nearly as scary as Atwater. The original Kolchak is still the best.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite Kolchak line here. To check out a previous edition of Cult Leader, click to the Cult Leader archive page.

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