STUDIO: Universal
MSRP: $39.99
RUNNING TIME: 1026 min.
SPECIAL FEAUTRES: Hidden in the mists

Conveniently timed with the premiere of ABC’s rather wretched new makeover, Universal has finally dug into the vault and divulged the long-sought (and oft-bootlegged) TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker on DVD. Is revisiting the show, or experiencing it for the first time, a welcome case of nostalgia or an instance where memory is better than the reality? (For those who hate rhetorical questions, the answer is a bit of both.)

The Flick

Carrying on his supernatural coverage from the colossally successful telefilms The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler (which aren’t prerequisites, but you should nonetheless catch them immediately) is Carl Kolchak, tenacious and cantankerous reporter for the Independent News Service in Chicago. Played with gruff gusto by Darren McGavin, Kolchak spends his days tooling around in his convertible Mustang listening to the police scanner, looking for a good story. What he usually ends up finding (or being assigned by his anxious boss Tony Vincenzo, played with dyspeptic skepticism by character actor Simon Oakland) is some spook, urban legend or other set of bizarre circumstances.

Nunziata sifts through the Devin hate mail searching for screening passes and his coupons for Mad Mucky’s Mini Golf.

See, Kolchak is what you’d call a believer. So when he encounters a vampire, or alien invaders, or a Satanic politician, or the seemingly eternal murderer known as Jack the Ripper, or a homicidal government-built robot, he doesn’t run screaming in abject terror like a rational human would do. No, outfitted in his porkpie hat and seersucker suit and armed with his camera, typewriter and willingness to accept the arcane, Kolchak yearns to find out more… usually to the chagrin of his editor.

Beyond Kolchak’s whacko hypotheses (which are often ultimately correct, even though the stories are then bafflingly buried by the newspaper), Vincenzo is more exasperated by his employee’s loose cannon tactics, which tend to find him (and the INS executives, by extension) on the wrong side of the authorities. Vincenzo typically tries to dissuade Kolchak from continuing his investigations into mysteries like a headless sword-swinging motorcyclist or an ancient Aztec cult committing ritual murders, but even sending him out to cover seemingly innocuous stories like fashion shows invariably leads him into contact with various incidents involving the paranormal.

"Wow, really? Julie McCoy just didn’t seem like the dyke type. Stubing’s daughter, though… there’s some sweet honey!"

In fact, their constant friction and bicker-banter is one of the main selling points of the show, which had a brief and not terribly popular 20-episode run in 1974. Delightfully crusty McGavin is a very nontraditional leading man, but without his strangely disarming demeanor and some effective atmosphere surrounding him, the show would be completely doomed. Each 50-minute episode (almost 10 minutes longer than the average hour-long network show circa 2005, excepting credits) follows a fairly standard “creature of the week” structure: the first glimpse of the monster typically comes before the first commercial break, Kolchak occupies a half-hour or so pissing off police and digging up evidence, then spends the final few minutes fumbling around alone and eventually somehow defeating or driving off the unnatural adversary, only to have his story squashed.

There are certainly some highlights over the course of the series: “The Zombie” is a more traditional take on the walking dead, with a voodoo priestess reanimating her dead son to exact revenge on the mobsters who murdered him. “Demon in Lace” has a hungry succubus flitting around a college campus possessing co-eds and literally scaring men to death. “Horror in the Heights” wrings terrific tension as Kolchak chases a flesh-eating demon that can take on the guise of prospective victims’ friends. And I actually had a flashback during “The Knightly Murders”, in which a haunted suit of armor slays former museum owners, but I admit it was much more terrifying when I was five years old. Though some episodes are unquestionable duds, the series on the whole is amusingly kitschy and, when compared to the glossy genre shows now occupying every possible cable cranny, often uproariously analog – witness a werewolf massacring cruise ship passengers while wearing a rather smart three-piece suit! And it’s a veritable breeding ground for familiar future television and character actors — there’s Richard Kiel! There’s Jamie Farr! Antonio Fargas! Dick Van Patten! William Daniels! Larry Linville! Erik Estrada! William Smith! Phil Silvers! Tom Skerritt! Scatman Crothers! Jerry Seinfeld’s Uncle Leo! You get the idea.

The Hollow Men don’t take the stairs.

What’s especially illuminating is just how much Chris Carter and his cronies poached for The X-Files – it’s been common knowledge that Kolchak was an inspiration for the strangeness that FBI agents Mulder and Scully would investigate, but it’s shocking to see just how closely the formula was emulated. Still, it’s hardly the sole culprit — by this point, the tragically dull new Night Stalker series feels like a blueprint that’s been copied so many times it’s nearly translucent. Even with its inconsistent thrills, campy tone, shabby special effects (the humanoid reptile in one episode is so guy-in-a-suit, you’ll probably swear you’ve seen him handing out flyers on a street corner) and dated look (Kolchak’s tape recorder is about the size of a shoebox), this thirty year old cult oddity deserves to be unearthed from the time capsule if only to see the source material of those who stepped heavily in its footsteps.

7.0 out of 10

The Look

The perfectly adequate fullscreen picture is surprisingly stable for a show recovered from three decades ago, with strong colors (if muted) and hardly a hint of fuzz or grain. And considering how much of the series is set in the shadows, the blacks are certainly strong enough to wisely obscure some of that dubious monster makeup.

7.0 out of 10

Mrs. Z’Dar knew it would eventually take more than shorthand skills, a hint of cleavage and a chiseled jawline to break the glass ceiling. She’d need at least three copies of Samurai Cop and a crate of Beastmaster 2.

The Noise

An occasionally tinny Dolby Mono is otherwise appropriate for a lo-fi show with a B-movie flavor, complete with eerie score and music stings.

6.5 out of 10

The Goodies

Aside from the brief synopsis accompanying each episode, you’re more likely to marry the Jersey Devil and buy a condo in the Bermuda Triangle than find any special features here. And just to make things seem even quainter, the discs are old-fashioned flippers with four episodes per side. They do come in sleek shelf-saving Slimline cases, though. But it’s not exactly the most respectful treatment of the show that hardcore genre fans have long coveted.

0.1 out of 10

The Artwork

Well, the box is nice and shiny and serves as a fine accumulator of fingerprints, and it’s got pictures of Kolchak. But aside from that, there’s no indication of what it’s all about. So if you weren’t actively pursuing the tetchy journalist’s exploits, this probably wouldn’t grab your throat and demand purchase.

4.0 out of 10

Overall: 6.5 out of 10

Scary shit, indeed.