Afterword to :Richard Matheson’s The Kolchak Scripts”
Much has changed in the thirty years since I sat trembling in my parents’ family room watching “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” on network television, not the least of which is network television. Codes, norms, mores, what traffic will allow; even vampires might not recognize themselves as the multicultural, conflicted MTV fashion plates they’ve become. Janos Skorzeny, The Night Stalker himself, would be hard pressed to get himself cast on The WB.
Thanks to the new technology, what scares us has also changed. Where once danger lurked in the shadows, computer generated images now leap out in a nonstop phantasmagoria. The sum effect being we’re not that easily scared anymore. Strangely enough, it’s new technology that scares us more than anything these days (and, of course, the unseen and unintended ways it might be used against us).
So what makes “The Night Stalker” and its manic sequel, “The Night Strangler”, worthy of our attention–and gushing fandom–after three decades of sophistication and progress? Well, it’s hardly the chill thrills I felt so long ago. Watching now, the once frightening confrontations with the vampire Skorzeny seem repetitious and stagey, more entertaining as relics of past innocence (the scariest thing about Skorzeny’s leering and growling bloodsucker now is his haircut). Dr. Richard Malcolm’s zest for eternal youth doesn’t seem quite so underground as it once must have, his methods only slightly more horrifying and macabre than some Beverly Hills plastic surgeons. (I know, Malcolm killed people, but do you know where all that collagen that’s being so freely injected is coming from?)
For me, what makes “The Night Stalker” and “The Night Strangler” stand the test of time is the antic, inexhaustible, ever-flappable character Carl Kolchak. As conceived and written by Jeff Rice and Richard Matheson, Kolchak is an American original who prefigured a whole generation of investigative journalists and media busybodies. Dustin Hoffman’s Carl Bernstein included. Wonderfully performed and embodied by Darren McGavin, Kolchak is a thorny and lovable square. In his seersucker suit, with his salesman’s tenacity, he’s more than just a pushy reporter, he’s uncool. And yet–he always gets the girl, because he’s smart enough to listen to them, and they all know he has the heart of a pussycat. More importantly, Kolchak does exactly what the star must do: he lights up the page and the screen; he keeps you wanting more of him.
Thirty years have passed since I sat watching Kolchak barge into his boss’s office, trying hysterically to convince him of the truth that was out there. I should hope the characters of Mulder and Scully seem so inspired in their pursuit thirty years down the road. In a throwaway line in “The Night Stalker” script, Richard Matheson has the scrappy Kolchak pay a debt to Ben Hecht, a tip of the hat for paving the way for him. I’d like to do the same for the creators of Carl Kolchak.