Remembering Las Vegas’ Role in a Spooky, ’70s-Era Series

Pop_Culture_10_31_no_creditWEBLas Vegas’ greatest contribution to the Halloween landscape (besides being the world’s petri dish for the sexy-whatever costume phenomenon) is a cult-favorite, one-season wonder from the ’70s—that grand, bygone era when Halloween meant wearing crappy plastic mask/vinyl poncho costumes. Or at least it will stand as Las Vegas’ greatest contribution to Halloween until Brach’s gives in to my demands and builds a candy corn factory in Henderson.

In 1970, Las Vegas Sun reporter Jeff Rice finished work on The Kolchak Papers, the unpublished novel that would be adapted in 1972 by ABC into the made-for-TV movie The Night Stalker. Handling the adaptation was veteran Richard Matheson who, among other things, wrote the classic Twilight Zone jam “Nightmare at 20,000 feet” and the 1954 novel I Am Legend, later adapted into Chuck Heston-vs.-post-apocalyptic mutants 1971 gem The Omega Man (and, to a lesser extent, 2007’s I Am Legend).

But in January 1972, Darren McGavin, before his generational turn in A Christmas Story, took on the role of Carl Kolchak, a cantankerous, put-upon newspaper reporter in a rumpled seersucker suit and straw fedora. Kolchak was a newspaperman fallen from big-time grace, lumping it in Las Vegas on the cop beat when a series of murders catches his interest because all the victims had their blood drained.

There’s some skepticism, there’s some police denial, there may have been a shootout where the suspected murderer doesn’t bleed and escapes the police over a wall. But in the end Kolchak beats the vampire drum long enough to pull out a Wile E. Coyote-size mallet and wooden stake to show cops how they should be armed.

Without spoiling a 40-year-old TV movie (though with Chekhov’s Stake and a bona fide Nosferatu loose in Vegas, you can probably figure it out), Kolchak is eventually run out of town after trying to publish his vampire story. He was told in no uncertain terms it’s bad for business. This calculated tendency on the part of Las Vegas powers that be of weighing negative against the broader truth is the only fictionalized element of the story.

It was a runaway hit, pulling down a 33.2 rating—meaning more than half the TVs in the country were tuned to The Night Stalker—because in the early ’70s the only other things to watch were Paul Lynde in an ascot just sitting around his house, or Monday Night Football’s early experiments with George Blanda’s Sideburns Cam.

The movie was such a hit that the following January, ABC aired a sequel, The Night Strangler, that saw Kolchak setting up shop in Seattle (along with, for some reason, his perpetually put-upon editor in Las Vegas, Tony Vincenzo). This time it was an immortal killer committing ritual murders to fuel his elixir of life. This one did a 23.4 in the ratings, enough for ABC to order a series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

The series premiered in 1974, only going 20 episodes before petering out. Kolchak (and the world’s most employee-loyal editor Vincenzo) was in Chicago this time, where he went through a monster-of-the-week investigation—werewolves, zombies, witches, uh, the ghost of a knight who possessed his old armor in what I can only imagine came from an increasingly desperate writers room meeting that ended in someone screaming, “Screw it, we’ll just do Scooby-Doo plots then. Is that what you want, Stanley? Fine. Fine. I don’t even care anymore, I just want to go home and put my damn kid to bed.”

It’s actually refreshing to watch a show that episodic now that all our best shows are heavily serialized. The formula was always the same: Kolchak caught wind of a freaky story. He thought it was going to revive his career. He investigated, discovered the paranormal at play, no one believed him and eventually he was proven right—but with no witnesses. You’d think the Chicago cops would realize the Windy City was the most haunted place in America, but I suppose when confronted with that much evidence of the supernatural, you’d turn to denial, too, if you wanted to just grab an Italian beef on the way home without having to worry about mummies all over the damn place.

Aside from doing a novelization of the Matheson-penned Night Strangler, Rice wouldn’t be involved with any other writing on the series. But Kolchak is a lasting legacy, not just for Las Vegas’ spot in the Halloween firmament, nor for being a cult-fave that spawned a short-lived 2005 remake and a series of books and comics.

The series was also heavily influential on Chris Carter when creating The X-Files. That show really leaned on the monster-of-the-week template in the early goings until the series began to tease out its overarching Smoking Man-driven conspiracy narrative. Eventually, X-Files would reveal a large part of that plot involved a shadow government that cooperated with aliens who were using “black oil” to take over certain important humans, turning them into mindless slaves as part of a vaster plan to colonize Earth.

After The Night Strangler, there was a third Kolchak movie, The Night Killer, that Matheson wrote, which would have been made if not for the series order. In it, Kolchak and Vincenzo teamed up in Hawaii, where there was a UFO and a string of murders. Kolchak discovered that aliens were replacing murdered government officials with androids in a bid to establish a colony on Earth.

Fire up the theremin, strange forces are afoot.

How to Watch 

The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler are out of print, but the series is available streaming on Netflix or for purchase on Amazon Instant Video and iTunes.

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