Buena Vista // 2005 // 426 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // June 28th, 2006
"Admit that there could be more to this world than reason alone can explain." -- Carl Kolchak
"Reason's all we have." -- Perri Reed
That might sound like an exchange from The X-Files, but it's actually from a remake of another famous hour of video strangeness.
Back in prehistoric 1972, when many Americans had only four channels to choose from, The Night Stalker (a TV movie about a Las Vegas reporter pursuing a vampire) snagged a record audience of "75,000,000 viewers" (according to the blurb on a paperback copy of the Jeff Rice novel that first introduced Carl Kolchak).
With a rating like that, a second TV movie followed. ABC later ordered a TV series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, that lasted one season (1974-75) "because I didn't want to do it any more," original star Darren McGavin said on his official site. The series went on to become a staple on The CBS Late Movie, which occasionally showed an actual movie but more often played double features of old TV series.
In 2005, Night Stalker (minus the "The," since the added time for commercials nowadays means you have to leave out something) made an appearance on ABC's fall schedule. It left many a couch potato shaking their heads and saying, "You don't mean that one ...?" Yes, ABC did mean that one. ABC obviously wasn't expecting 75,000,000 viewers, since it placed Night Stalker against the likes of C.S.I. and The Apprentice. But it apparently didn't meet even the network's minimal expectations, so it was cancelled abruptly -- in the middle of a two-parter.
Thus, when we last left our heroes in this version of Night Stalker, reporter Carl Kolchak was under arrest for refusing to reveal a source who could help FBI agent Bernie Fain find a key witness. Meanwhile, photographer Jain McManus was hiding in a Koreatown grocery while a surreal motorcycle gang executed said witness before his eyes. Needless to say, Kolchak gets out of jail and Jain survives for a few more episodes -- but don't you hate loose ends?
This two-DVD set features all 10 episodes made of the short-lived series:
Los Angeles Beacon reporter Perri Reed (Gabrielle Union, Love and Basketball) and photographer Jain McManus (Eric Jungmann, Monster Man) arrive at a murder scene to find new colleague Carl Kolchak already there. Turns out he's looking for a link to the death of his wife Irene. Kolchak doesn't find what he's looking for, but there's something out there and he has to find it to save a missing girl.
* "The Five People You Meet in Hell"
When a man suddenly bludgeons his wife to death with a baseball bat at his son's youth game, that's weird. When the man's a prosecutor who handled a Manson-like cult leader's case, that's even weirder. When it turns out that Perri sent the cult leader to jail, the case gets personal -- and could kill both Perri and Kolchak.
A college student is found drowned in the shower of an abandoned house, despite the fact that the water was turned off. Ironically, drowning was her greatest fear. She's also one of three initiates into a secret society, which means more strange deaths to come.
* "Burning Man"
"That's dangerous, you know. The cell phone. Static electricity could cause a fire," a man warns another customer at the self-service gas pumps. You could also have a fatal heart attack from the prices or, for that matter, spontaneously combust. Ouch! The clues here point to a terrorist using chemicals, rather than something supernatural. Trouble is, the main suspect's dead.
When a teacher confiscates a student's knife, he's confronted by the boy's father, who appears out of nowhere. That night, the teacher hears strange noises as he leaves the school. The next morning, he's found impaled on a flagpole, a strange lightning pattern found on his body. Jump ahead to a police questioning room, where an investigator is blaming Kolchak's strange theories for the tragedy that follows.
* "The Source"
The last episode shown on ABC, this one has Kolchak one step behind a ghostly gang of bikers as he pursues a lead in his wife's murder and runs into conflict with Agent Bernie Fain. A nod to "Chopper" in the original, perhaps?
* "The Sea"
This episode finds Kolchak and Perri on the run to protect a witness as they elude the killer bikers. This first foray into Kolchak mythology is more interesting than similar episodes on The X-Files.
Two mummified corpses are found huddled together in an office building. An official investigation blames exposure to bug spray, but doubts keep bugging Kolchak.
This one is a riff on "The Youth Killer" from the original series. The jokes about the singles scene are gone here, replaced by a coroner making a tough moral choice. Kolchak and Perri learn that there's been a string of three murders every 35 years since 1900 -- at least. Where have we heard a story like that before, X-Files fans?
* "What's the Frequency, Kolchak?" -
As Kolchak seeks the answers behind a string of missing persons, he's kidnapped by a man who claims that an "old man" is behind the disappearances. Kolchak thinks the guy's nuts, especially since he met his captor before -- at the mental hospital where they both were confined. This one works well because it plays on the doubts in Kolchak's mind and viewers' doubts about Kolchak.
If you have DVD-ROM, you get the scripts for two more Kolchak adventures that didn't get made as well.
Stuart Townsend's Kolchak has more than a passing resemblance to Darren McGavin's version. The trademark narration, the strange theories that no one else quite gets, and the monster-hunting equipment are all here. Kolchak still has a knack for sneaking into places where he really shouldn't be, although Townsend's version of the character seems braver and more confident -- perhaps too confident (a trait that gets some explanation, ironically, in "The Sea," the first of the lost episodes). Townsend (Queen of the Damned) fits the new version of Kolchak well, but he's not playing McGavin's character. He does a good job, but the plot-heavy show shared with a team didn't leave enough room for Townsend to make his Kolchak stick.
Like many a contemporary series, there's also more backstory with a personal stake: Townsend's Kolchak claims his wife was killed by a beast and spent several months in a mental health institution because of his claim. Like Fox Mulder, he has acquired a skeptical partner who's a skilled investigator herself. The show has higher production values (although there's a bottle episode in this set), which make the horrors more believable.
The tongue-in-cheek approach that McGavin and his supporting cast brought to the stories is less present, however. You get a few odd characters, like the research librarian at the Beacon, and the occasional quip about cleaning out vending machines while hiding from baddies, but the banter and comic touches aren't as much a part of the new show, most likely because the writers wanted to pack more backstory into less time (the episodes are pegged at 43 minutes and some run even shorter).
The supporting cast is good, though you get shorthand instead of character development from the writers. When she hears a murder victim described as "married to her job" and whispers "I understand" under her breath, it just about sums up Gabrielle Union's Perri Reed. Throw in some "Carl, sometimes a reporter needs more than just his gut" criticism to let us know she's a skeptic and you've got a character. Eric Jungmann's Jain McManus is enthusiastic and loyal -- he's usually the one to realize that Kolchak or Perri is in danger -- and if he's not enough of a tech whiz to figure things out, he can always find one. As editor Tony Vincenzo, all Cotter Smith (X2) had to practice was a concerned sigh that comes in handy as he babysits his two star reporters.
The look of the show, filmed with HD 24P cameras, is stark and artistic. You know that from the start of each episode, as Stuart Townsend narrates and the words he's typing flash across the screen. This Night Stalker is full of music video montages as they cut between the intended victims and the strange attackers on their way, scenes which highlight the night lights of Los Angeles behind Perri and Carl as they type their stories (or argue, mostly) at the Beacon office, overhead shots of Kolchak in a prison bed when he's arrested for contempt, a view looking up the staircase as Kolchak climbs the stairs, or the almost black-and-white images of trees wavering in the wind at a crime scene. The music, including a theme by Philip Glass, has a haunting new age quality to it. Both these aspects of the show come through well in this DVD set.
What would we have seen if Night Stalker had lasted longer? The first bonus episode, "The Sea," teases viewers with some revelations about Kolchak and an intriguing twist ending. The episode's commentary promises that the twist would have been revisited later and outlines a mythology that had been intended to span several seasons. It's hard to tell how well it would have played out, but if you watch the two-parter with his commentary first, you'll notice a few extra details as you watch the rest of the show. In commentaries, Spotnitz laments that you didn't get to see much of the monsters here, thanks to ABC's hand in the show. I found that seeing less helped build the suspense and the best episodes left the supernatural aspects up in the air until the end of the hour drew near.
In addition to commentaries on the pilot and "The Sea," there's a brief conversation with producer Frank Spotnitz and a trio of deleted scenes that show a creature that didn't appear as more than a shadow in the series pilot and demonstrate how they switched some sequences with Kolchak's morgue buddy when the episodes got rearranged.
With Frank Spotnitz at the helm and writers from The X-Files, this show will look like a rehash to fans of that 1990s sci-fi series. Indeed, the sparring between believer Carl Kolchak and skeptic Perri Reed that turns to a trusting friendship just as the show gets axed looks a lot like the initial sparring between Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.
Despite the novel twist, I suspect the mythology that Frank Spotnitz and company were starting to weave might have lost me as a viewer. With serials and complicated backstories becoming a major part of the prime-time TV diet, perhaps the producers could have distinguished this Night Stalker by not loading Kolchak down with past baggage. The first time around, I'd hoped after a few episodes that ABC might press Spotnitz to solve Irene's murder and just concentrate on monsters and developing Kolchak's character.
What I saw was entertaining, but didn't give TV audiences enough of a rooting interest in Kolchak and his pals. If you've watched a couple of these, the DVD commentary lets you spot the clues as you watch the episodes again, adding to the viewing experience. If you're not sold on this Night Stalker, check out a couple of episodes on Sci-Fi Channel later this summer before you plunk down the cash.
Night Stalker is freed on insufficient evidence. Please tell Mr. Kolchak that plastic surgery, not midnight exploration of creepy crime scenes, is the best way to deal with troubling birthmarks.
Review content copyright © 2006 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Buena Vista
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 426 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* A Conversation with Frank Spotnitz
* Commentary by the Show's Creators
* Script Printer (DVD ROM) of Final Episodes Never Produced
* Darren McGavin's official site