Kolchak: Monster of the Week

Kolchak_coverMy wife and I were prepping for the JoCo Cruise by watching an episode of Columbo set on a cruise ship, and also the episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (titled “The Werewolf”) also set on a cruise ship. Never mind that my buddy Matt McElroy suggested we could also watch Titanic and the Poseidon Adventure (thanks, Matt).

Anyway, this particular episode of Kolchak was one I missed when it originally aired, so I hadn’t seen it until now. It stars a very young Eric Braeden of The Young and the Restless fame, and mostly features Braeden trying to prevent himself from killing people, and Kolchak warning the crew of the cruise ship about the danger they all were in, mostly for naught. Kolchak as usual comes up with a hair-brained scheme to destroy the monster, and in the end we’re not really sure if it worked. It got me thinking about Kolchak in general, and how influential that series was.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker was based on a pilot which aired in 1972, starring Darren McGavin in the title role as a reporter for the International News Service, and Simon Oakland as Kolchak’s stressed out editor. American audiences seemed unsure of the concept, but it garnered strong enough ratings to generate a second pilot, The Night Strangler, in 1973, which lead to the series being green-lighted, airing in 1974-75. The list of guest stars is a veritable Who’s Who of 1970s TV actors, including Dick van Patten, Phil Silvers, Larry Storch, Erik Estrada, and MASH alumni Larry Linville and Jaimie Farr.

The show occasionally receives criticism for essentially following the “monster of the week” format. That very format is probably the aspect of the show I like the most; its variety. There are so many bizarre and creepy creatures of folklore in the world; bringing some of them to the small screen piqued my interest, and was one of many things that inspired me to read more.

Chris Carter frequently mentions Kolchak as one of the inspirations for the X-Files, and I find that the monster of the week episodes of that show tend to be more satisfying than the ongoing global conspiracy plot line, and also tend to be the most memorable. For one thing, the MotW episodes seem more creative in general; for another, they have a sense of humor about them that provides a much-needed break in the tension from time to time. I’ve only seen one complete episode of the new X-Files, but it was a monster of the week episode and it was highly entertaining. The creativity and sense of humor were both there, even if the episode itself wasn’t fabulous or tightly plotted. Coincidentally, one character in this new episode, in a clear homage, was dressed in Carl Kolchak’s classic outfit from the series: trilby hat with upturned brim, cheap, light colored suit and tie, and deck shoes. The jury is still out as to whether or not the new X-Files will have any staying power, but I plan to keep watching to give it a solid chance to win my heart.

Kolchak was not a high-budget concern; it suffered from poor special effects and questionable production quality, largely because the show’s budget was cut more than once as the season was being filmed. In “The Werewolf”, those paying attention can see the pale skin of Eric Braeden showing through the eye-holes of his woefully bad werewolf mask. Many of the more outre’ monsters were seen only in dimly lit conditions, to cover the duct tape and foam rubber nature of the costuming. The show’s cast and crew did the best they could with scant resources.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker never drew enough viewers to catch on at the time, but today there have been Kolchak-based novels, graphic novels, and even a reboot of the TV series with updated cast and effects (though it fared no better than the original). It remains a pop-culture reference that most US TV viewers get, despite the fact that a large percentage of those same viewers weren’t even born when the show first aired. I am delighted that the show has a second-life, coming back from the dead like a zombie to continue to provide us with scares and laughs.

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