Features and Columns · Movies

‘The Night Stalker’ Paved the Way for the Supernatural Procedural Boom

If it wasn’t for this movie, ‘The X Files’ wouldn’t exist.
Header The Night Stalker
By  · Published on February 23rd, 2020

Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a weekly column in which Rob Hunter and I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the ’70s.

This week’s movie is from 1972, and sees a crime beat reporter on the hunt for a bloodsucking fiend in Sin City. Prepare to meet your match with The Night Stalker.

Where: ABC
When: January 11, 1972

The Night Stalker wasn’t the first supernatural procedural movie, but it’s definitely one of the most influential. Originally conceived by Jeffrey Rice as a then-unproduced novel called The Kolchak Papers, the story was subsequently adapted as a teleplay by I Am Legend author Richard Matheson and it paved the way for a television series and media franchise that’s among the very best the spooky procedural genre has to offer.

The Night Stalker marked the first of two TV movies that essentially served as pilots to test the waters for the show that followed. It’s also the better of the two, and one of the best slices of television terror of the ‘70s if you ask me. The story follows the titular hat-wearing reporter (played by Darren McGavin) as he investigates a mystery in Las Vegas. It turns out that people have been showing up dead and drained of their blood, and it looks like a vampire might be the culprit.

The cops aren’t big fans of Kolchak because of his dedication to the job. He uses police scanners to discover crime scenes, which makes him a general nuisance in the eyes of the authorities. On top of that, there isn’t a newspaper in town who hasn’t fired him, as he tends to go overboard when chasing a story. However, faced with a vampire dilemma, the cops decide to let him get to the bottom of the situation in exchange for him receiving exclusive rights to the story. However, part of the deal is that he must keep the vampire part a secret in his write-up, because who’s going to believe a real life bloodsucker is on the loose, right?

The Kolchak character is the highlight of the movie. Procedural fare demands the investigators to be engaging, and Kolchak is the type of lovable rogue you want to see. While the movie version of the character isn’t the same foul-mouthed rapscallion from the novels, McGavin’s iteration is still effortlessly charming and charismatic. His performance is also perfectly complemented by Simon Oakland’s portrayal of Tony Vicenzo, Kolchak’s long-suffering editor.

Director John Llewellyn Moxey anchors the movie around McGavin’s performance, but he’s also able to employ a healthy mix of humor and scares. The movie also perfectly captures the zeitgeist of its time period, as public trust of authority was at a low following incidents like the Vietnam war. Kolchak gave them a truth-seeking hero to rally behind, but looking at the state of the world nowadays, the film’s paranoia is proving to be timeless.

The Night Stalker is a movie that believes in the freedom of the press. For most of its swift running time, Kolchak tangles with authorities who want to prevent him from getting the full extent of the truth out there. In their eyes, he’s a menace who needs a leash on him, but Kolchak is a pitbull who doesn’t take too kindly to that. But that’s what makes him such a timeless and entertaining character.

When The Night Stalker originally aired, it drew largest audience ever for a TV movie at the time. These days, though, the film is quite overlooked outside of hardcore genre fan circles. You could even say that it’s an underappreciated gem in the grand scheme of things. However, one person who took notice was Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files. who was directly inspired by the movie and its series spin-off while creating his own supernatural procedural. Fun fact: McGavin even appeared in the hit 1990s series, and Carter even wanted him to reprise the role of Kolchak before writing a fresh one for him.

The horror-centric procedural is currently enjoying a moment right now thanks to The Outsider, but the genre has been a big part of pop culture in some form or another for decades. Even successful shows like Supernatural and Grimm have adopted the formula to suit their own liking, but without Carl Kolchak, the landscape of the genre might not be the same.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.