Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker (TV Series)

Jerry Stratton, April 25, 2014

Some people think that Woodward and Bernstein define the modern journalist. I’m inclined to believe it was Carl Kolchak.

In 1974 I was ten years old, and I got into a fight with my brother over a television show. On school nights, our parents didn’t let us watch TV until after we’d taken a bath, and we both wanted to get into and out of the bathroom in time for Kolchak: The Night Stalker. I fought dirty, and I would have won, if it weren’t for our meddling parents!

I watch it now and it’s practically a period piece. Chicago, 1974. The Sun-Times building. The wide open spaces of Lakeshore Drive. The neon signs for diners and arcades and other seedy establishments frequented by hard-boiled reporters.

Carl Kolchak is the quintessential modern journalist. He sorts through conspiracy and dark motives to bring the truth to a world that doesn’t want it. He believes anything and in his world he is right. And it isn’t just that Kolchak believes every conspiracy that comes his way and ends up being proven right. He pulls half-baked solutions out of his ass, just by reading one or two books and talking to hucksters in drag. Got a spirit taking over a conductor’s body? No problem, says Kolchak. Just show the spirit its own body and command it to return. You’re a journalist. Evil will listen to you and obey.

In at least two episodes, it is literally the light of the press that holds the monsters at bay—the light of the press taking the form of Carl Kolchak’s Rollei 16S Submini camera flash scaring off, in one case, aliens, and in another, delaying a primal throwback.

In Firefall, his voiceover says, “Unfortunately, a reporter is paid to find out things whether he wants to know about ’em or not.” But we know: he wants to find out about them. He wants to believe!

In The Energy Eater, for example, an architectural expert recommends taking concrete samples to look for substandard building materials in a new Chicago building that is shaking and cracking in the basement. If the materials are good, the expert recommends looking for a geothermal fault. Kolchak immediately jumps to the conclusion that there is something supernatural at work, and keeps interviewing stranger and stranger people until a womanizing American Indian shaman tells him about an old Chicago legend in the tribe. He speaks this truth to power (power? Get it?) and the powers that be believe him and act on it. They lie to the public, of course. Power always does. But the journalist knows the truth!

Most importantly, management should never control journalists. Kolchak never allows himself to be bound by editor Tony Vincenzo’s deadlines or instructions. Even, in The Trevi Collection, when the mob’s involvement gives Kolchak a deadline that Vincenzo thinks really can’t be refused, Kolchak continues to follow his own personal witch-hunt (literally so, of course).

Of course, no journalist would be a journalist without angering the civil authorities. According to Kolchak (in Knightly Murders), “The only thing more maddening than certain cops is certain educated cops.” The police should never think they know more than reporters.

This only works because of Darrin McGavin. McGavin, besides being the star is the backbone of these shows. He delivers his cynical lines with a believable ease, such as this from The Devil’s Platform:

“Why can’t the people’s candidate be like the rest of us: timid, insecure, and lazy.”

Without McGavin, this would have been an unforgettably silly monster-of-the week. With McGavin it’s an inspirational source for those of us who grew up in the seventies.

One famous inspiration is the X-Files, and McGavin appears in two X-File episodes—Travelers in 1998 and Agua Mala in 1999—as Agent Arthur Dales. But while watching the android episode, Mr. R.I.N.G., I practically jumped out of my seat: the organization making the android is the Tyrell Institute. In the movie Blade Runner, it’s the Tyrell Corporation making them—but neither the Tyrell Corporation nor Eldon Tyrell appear in the book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Were the Blade Runner writers also inspired by Kolchak? Or is there another source that inspired both of them?

You’ll have to judge for yourself.

Besides the DVD, this series is currently available on both Netflix and Amazon Prime. If you enjoy the hard-boiled reporter, you’ll probably be able to get past the low production values and enjoy this very enjoyable show.

I’m including a link here to the DVD, but we watched the entire series on Netflix due to the bad reviews the DVD is getting.

In response to The Night Stalker: Carl Kolchak’s original movie, doubled with the pilot for the television series, “The Night Strangler”.