Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Halloween Bash...Chuck Miller and Kolchak the Night Stalker

Please Welcome Chuck Miller as he recounts his memories of Kolchak the Night Stalker.

When I was a kid, the world seemed like a much safer place in some respects than it does now, and a wilder, more dangerous place in others. Things were magical in ways both good and bad. There was more delicious mystery than there is in the adult world. And television was much scarier-- in an oddly comforting way that I cannot define.

I grew up just outside Akron, Ohio. I was young enough that the legendary horror movie host Ghoulardi was slightly before my time, but I gorged myself on Hoolihan & Big Chuck and Ghoulardi's successor, the Ghoul, in the late 60s and early 70s. Horror movies made my nights a little uneasy, but I loved them. I knew there were no such things as monsters, but ghosts were another matter, and the monster movies always put me in mind of them. I knew I'd have to sweat it out later, but every Friday and Saturday night, there I was, in front of our old black and white set. It was something of a compulsion, I guess.

In 1974, a TV show came along that grabbed my imagination like nothing else ever had. After 38 years, that grip hasn't loosened all that much. On Friday, the 13th of September, the ABC network broadcast "The Ripper," the first episode of "Kolchak: The Night Stalker." There was something in that hour that resonated powerfully with the very young me. It starred Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak, a rather down-at-heel Chicago crime reporter who often found himself in extraordinary situations.

The series was based on two very successful TV movies, "The Night Stalker" (1972) and "The Night Strangler" (1973). In the former, Kolchack faced off against a genuine vampire in Las Vegas; in the latter, a murderous alchemist in Seattle. The premise was intriguing: A hard-boiled crime reporter investigating a series of gruesome murders comes to realize that the killer is a genuine vampire. The execution was fantastic. It was the highest-rated TV movie of its day, and remains an undisputed classic. That success led first to a sequel, and then to a weekly series in which Kolchak ran up against one unexpected paranormal menace after another-- twenty in all.

The show had its flaws. In fact, they were legion. So much of it was utterly absurd, the history and folklore completely fabricated. The first episode, "The Ripper," barely made any sense at all. The writers get it right when they say the original Jack the Ripper killed five women in London in 1888, but every other "fact" about the case is pure fairy dust. The nature of the Ripper himself-- exactly what kind of creature he is, how he has managed to live so long, and why he does what he does, is never revealed. Kolchak discovers that the Ripper is vulnerable to electricity, and that fact is never explained. Is this an example of a screenwriter maintaining an acceptable level of unsolved mystery, or is is mere laziness?  There is an enormous pile of logical inconsistencies and unanswered questions.

The miraculous thing is, it doesn't matter at all. Not to me, anyhow. This slapdash approach might completely destroy my opinion of a lesser show, but it never diminished my enjoyment of Kolchak in the slightest. Not even after I-- as Carl might put it-- learned the true facts. Episode two, "The Zombie," was just as bad. The Voodoo ritual that summons up the zombie did not come from African or Haitian lore-- it came instead from the imagination of the writer. Consulting a text on genuine Voodoo practices wouldn't have been too onerous a task, surely-- but it was omitted in favor of an utterly ridiculous, completely made-up ritual. And yet.... It was effective in 1974, and remains so today. It is creepy rather than gory, nerve-wracking, funny and frightening at the same time. The third episode featured one or more invisible aliens who sucked blood marrow out of zoo animals (and people) and stole large quantities of lead ingots and stereo components. Once they completed their depredations, they departed earth in one of the clunkiest-looking flying saucers ever seen on the small screen. And yet...

As a child, of course, I didn't see any of these flaws. Well, not all of them, anyhow, though the special effects were sometimes appalling enough to give me slight pause. But when I was a child-- one who in the very recent past had taken Adam West's Batman utterly seriously-- most of it went right over my head.

Now, as an  adult, I see them clearly. And it doesn't matter one bit. I know everything that's wrong about it, but I can push my awareness to the rear for an hour. I'm very grateful for my ability to willingly suspend-- indeed, to willingly obliterate-- my disbelief. One of my favorite of the later episodes, "Chopper," featured a laughably phony-looking headless motorcyclist. It wouldn't fool a child. With today's CGI techniques, he would be more convincing, but he would also lose every bit of his strange charm.

The first four episodes, even with all their plot holes and absurdities, were the best of the twenty. After that, the quality was uneven, coming up short more often than not. The show was plagued by problems before it even began-- too many writers and producers that did not get along had been involved in the TV movies, and a few legal problems ensued. These issues were ironed out, but other problems continued as the series progressed. McGavin was unhappy with the "monster of the week" format and the increasingly-poor scripts. And yet...

The show worked, even when it shouldn't have.

The true appeal was the star, Darren McGavin, who was brilliant in spite of weak material and laughable special effects. His wonderful voice-overs have echoed in my head for decades.

McGavin's Carl Kolchak was a late 20th century refinement for the Heroic Ideal. Carl Kolchak was not a genius, but hwas clever. He was not fearless, but he had sufficient courage-- or maybe it was desperation-- to plow through his fear to do what had to be done to save his own neck, and quite a few others, too. He was a bad dresser. His seersucker suit and straw hat were all he ever wore. Did he own any other clothing? There is no evidence that he did. Where did he live? Nobody knows. We never saw his home. Did he even have one? Perhaps not. He was a reporter and nothing else. It was all he did, all he was. No personal life of any kind. No real past to speak of. No close friends-- just co-workers, associates and contacts, most of whom-- like morgue attendant Gordie "The Ghoul" Spangler-- were hustlers who drained his wallet in exchange for information. The only "family" he had consisted of the other employees of the Independent News Service office in Chicago: Editor Tony Vincenzo, the long-suffering father-figure; business reporter Ron Updyke, the prissy and annoying little brother; crossword puzzle maven Miss Emily (or Edith) Cowles, the dotty but loving aunt. This is all Kolchak seems to need.

Like most television programs in the 60s and 70s, Kolchak featured a parade of guest stars, well-known character actors of a type that no longer seems to exist: Scatman Crothers, Dick Van Patten, Jan Murray, Larry Storch, Jeanne Cooper, Alice Ghostley, Phil Silvers, Bernie Kopell, Marvin Miller, Jesse White, James Gregory, Hans Conried, Mary Wickes, Henry Jones, Carolyn Jones, Jackie Mason, Stella Stevens, David Doyle, Jim Backus, Kathleen Freeman, John Hoyt, Dwayne Hickman, Eric Braeden, Tom Skerritt, Erik Estrada, William Daniels, Jamie Farr, Pat Harrington, Jr., Larry Linville and Richard Kiel (In fact, Kiel-- better known as "Jaws" in the James Bond movies-- would play three different monsters in the series: the Rakshasa, the Diablero, and the slimy swamp thing Peremalfait), and many others. It can be a bit jarring to suddenly encounter a familiar face from some silly sitcom in a horror program. But, since the main element in any Kolchak story is incongruity-- things popping up in places where they should not be-- it works.

The show didn't last into a second season, but it is not forgotten. It has been embraced and cherished for many years by a small but extremely enthusiastic cult of fans. Why is this? What is it about Kolchak that keeps that magic going even now? It boils down to the character as portrayed by McGavin, of course. But why? What is it about him?

You wouldn't necessarily want to be Carl Kolchak. I did when I was ten years old, but I see him differently now. There wasn't much there to envy. He didn't conduct himself as a fearless, confident, utterly competent hero would. He stumbled and fumbled, he tripped and fell, he sought guidance from the unlikeliest characters, he often found himself totally at sea. He made missteps and came close to losing everything.

But he was dogged, he was persistent, and possibly a little too dumb or pigheaded to realize he was totally outclassed. So he always won. It's difficult to beat a man who has no idea he cannot possibly win. He dodged the police officers who were out to shut him down, using his native skill and moxie. He ferreted out the truth about the nightmarish creatures he engaged and he finished them off, one right after another.

In that respect, Kolchak is the sort of person you might aspire to being. But, the thing is... you might already be him. Aspirations were unnecessary. Kolchak was you, thrown into circumstances more extraordinary than any you have ever imagined. He had to sink or swim, and-- against all odds-- he swam. It was always by the skin of his teeth, but he prevailed. He's a sort of Everyman, far from perfect on any level. Warts and all, he is just like us.

Like most of us, Carl was not a "monster hunter." He never looked to get in over his head. Unlike Fox Mulder of "The X-Files," or any of his other spiritual descendants, Kolchak never set out to find and destroy a supernatural horror. (The sole exception being the fourth episode, "The Vampire," a sort of sequel to the first movie.) But anything he investigated could-- and did-- lead him there against his will, time and time again. An investigation of espionage in the fashion industry uncovers a malevolent witch. A human-interest piece on a singles cruise brings him face-to-snout with a seagoing werewolf.

Now, it seems to me that there are three rather different and distinct Kolchaks. There is the Kolchak of the first movie, "The Night Stalker." He is somewhat seedy. He drinks. He has a girlfriend who works in a Las Vegas casino. He has been in trouble in the past, having done his career a near-fatal injury in New York-- a milieu to which he desperately wants to return in triumph. He believes his victory over the vampire, Janos Skorzeny, will bring about this devoutly wished consummation. Of course, it does not. He figured it out when the police could not. He cut a deal with them. In return for his help in finding the killer, they would allow him to publish the exclusive story. He holds up his end of the bargain and prepares for his glorious transformation, from has-been reporter to journalistic star.

But his trust in the Las Vegas law enforcement community proves to be tragically misplaced. After he kills the vampire, Kolchak is betrayed, threatened, and run out of town. His job and his girlfriend are both gone in an instant. And that's the kind of place we've all been to, in one way or another, to one degree or another. An already dark and cynical character is given ample reason to become even darker and more cynical. 

The Kolchak of the second movie, "The Night Strangler," does not quite live up to this dark promise. Carl is still edgy, but his edge is mysteriously blunted. He is less three-dimensional than his predecessor and more whimsical. The tone is lighter, there is more humor. He is not what I would have expected from the man last seen in the final moments of "The Night Stalker." And he finds himself surrounded by oddball characters. Guest stars Margaret Hamilton and Al Lewis provide amusing echoes of their earlier screen personas, the Wicked Witch of the West and Grandpa Munster. The ending is practically slapstick, more suited to an episode of "Three's Company" than a horror movie. And yet...

The third Carl Kolchak, the one from the short-lived TV series, was in many ways more of a caricature than character, almost a cartoon. TV Carl is, strangely, both more innocent and more resigned to the wicked ways of the world in which he lives. And this wickedness has nothing to do with supernatural menaces. He knows that his real enemies have always been officialdom and his superiors in the newspaper business. He seems to have internalized that lesson while somehow jettisoning most of his personal angst.

The Kolchak of the TV series knows he will not win favor with his bosses or with the authorities for exposing and exterminating supernatural menaces. In this, he is much wiser than his seemingly-more-worldly earlier incarnation. He knows Vincenzo will never believe his stories, much less publish them. He knows that law enforcement will not lionize him for destroying a murderous creature from the Beyond that has run rings around them. He has a brash, almost childlike disregard for authority of every kind. He gleefully needles the police and torments his boss. He almost never becomes angry. He seldom has allies-- only people he manipulates into helping him in spite of themselves. Virtually nobody believes anything he says. He knows this, and knows that it's hopeless to try to convince the non-believers, but he never stops trying. In the end, he stands alone. So it has always been, so it will always be.

And these things do not seem to matter to him. He knows he will stand alone in the end, as always. Unlike the Kolchak from the first movie, the TV incarnation is strangely selfless. In many cases, he is not personally threatened. He could walk away from the story and avoid risking his own life. But he never does.

When this Kolchak sets out to kill a monster, the personal ambition and desire for recognition that motivated him in Las Vegas are absent. He's just doing his job now. The job description does not include supernatural monsters, but when they appear, Carl copes beautifully. And don't all of wish we could do that with our own "monsters," whatever they might be? Wouldn't we love to defeat them just as we are, all by our non-heroic selves? We are not ruggedly handsome, we are not at the peak of whatever profession we are in, we very seldom get the girl, and almost never get the glory.

Kolchak is us, and that never changes. And the Kolchak motto, if he has one, must be, "Never let the bastards grind you down." No matter who they are or which side of the Great Divide they hail from. Maybe Carl can't get ahead in life, but he'll be damned if he's going to be pushed backward. He refuses to be helpless, even in the face of an unimaginable threat. This is the quality that all three Kolchaks have in common, and the one we all want to share.

Whether we are ten years old or fifty, we recognize this hapless kindred spirit. Against any opposition, against logic itself, he prevails every time. He remains a schmuck-- just like most of us.

And if he can do it, so can we.

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Chuck Miller was born in Ohio, lived in Alabama for many years, and now resides in Norman, Oklahoma, for reasons best left to the imagination. He is a Libra whose interests include monster movies, comic books, music and writing. He holds a BA in creative writing from the University of South Alabama.
He is the creator/writer of TALES OF THE BLACK CENTIPEDE, THE INCREDIBLE ADVENTURES OF VIONNA VALIS AND MARY JANE KELLY, THE BAY PHANTOM CHRONICLES, and THE MYSTIC FILES OF DOCTOR UNKNOWN JUNIOR. He has also written stories featuring such classic characters as Jill Trent: Science Sleuth, Armless O'Neil, The Griffon, and others.
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Miller recently received the BEST NEW WRITER OF 2011 Award from Pulp Ark. His first novel, the critically acclaimed "Creeping Dawn: The Rise of the Black Centipede" was published in September by Pro Se Press. The second installment in the Black Centipede series, "Blood of the Centipede" is forthcoming.
"The Black Centipede and related characters are part of a grand concept I came up with myself and started writing and publishing on the web," says Miller. They had actually been festering in my skull for more than 20 years-- a proposed comic book that never made it off the ground-- and it seemed about time to let them out."
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1 comment:

  1. Great analysis of the character and the franchise Chuck. Kolchak might be someone you never invite over to have Sunday dinner with the family, but you would definitely want him to have your back when the chips were down and buy him a drink afterwards when you prevail.
    It makes one wonder how the Darren McGavin version would have prevailed in today's TV climate of short episode cable seasons where one story arc/monster could have been carried over across the six to eight weeks of that "season".
    Lee Houston, Junior