The Night Stalker: A tribute to the 1972 TV movie that influenced The X-Files
Frank Spotnitz pens an homage to the film — and to Kolchak
Kolchak: The Night Stalker
Good luck trying to find The Night Stalker.
Based on a novel by Jeff Rice, The Night Stalker was written by the late, legendary Richard Matheson (The Twilight Zone, I Am Legend) and produced by TV giant Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows, The Winds of War).
It broke records when it was broadcast on ABC back in 1972, drawing a jaw-dropping 54 share — and scaring the pants off a generation of viewers, including my then-11-year-old self.
Its success was so enormous that it immediately spawned a sequel, The Night Strangler, and a short-lived TV series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker. But neither of those was as powerful as the massive cultural earthquake that was the original Night Stalker.
A sort of contemporary noir, it concerned Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin, in a towering performance), a down-and-out reporter in Las Vegas who stumbles upon the story of his career when a string of exsanguinated murder victims leads to only one possible conclusion: The killer is a real-life vampire, Janos Skorzeny, who came to these shores from the Old World decades ago and has been claiming victims ever since.
The only way to repel Skorzeny is with a cross, and the only way to kill him is with a stake through the heart. Spoiler alert: Kolchak is forced to perform the fatal deed, and for his bravery, the city fathers run him out of town, preferring to bury the truth rather than face it. In the last of his many voice-overs, Kolchak challenges us to convince ourselves “it couldn’t happen here.” I couldn’t, and neither could a whole generation of TV viewers.
In a TV landscape populated mostly by cops, doctors, and lawyers, The Night Stalker was unlike anything else. It featured an irascible, flawed hero who challenged authority and championed the truth, charming and bribing whomever it took to get it. Its ending was haunting, not happy, and most of all it was scary as hell.
In the 1990s, The X-Files was famously influenced by The Night Stalker, to the point that we named a recurring character after Matheson (a senator who aided Agent Mulder in the first two seasons) and wrote McGavin himself into the series as Arthur Dales, who first uncovered the FBI’s X-Files decades before Mulder and Scully.
But today the Night Stalker DVD is out of print, and you won’t find it on iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon. (Even back in 2005, when I attempted a Night Stalker remake, some network execs had either never seen the original or didn’t remember that it featured monsters — and, to my incredulity, insisted my version feature none.)
The fate of The Night Stalker may give pause to those of us who seek to make television not for the overnights, but for the ages. If a work as towering as The Night Stalker can fall into obscurity, what fate awaits today’s television giants?
It’s an injustice that screams to be rectified and doubtless will be. Besides, something as powerful as The Night Stalker could never really die. Its narrative DNA wrapped itself deeply into the imagination of a generation of storytellers, who in turn will influence the next generation, and they the next. The Night Stalker lives. — As told to Shirley Li
Kolchak: The Night Stalker