Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.15 – Chopper

The reality is that no television episode that credits David Chase, Bob Gale, and Robert Zemeckis among its co-writers can possibly be a flop, but “Chopper” sports such a flat resolution that it disappointed me massively all those years ago and never recovered. I just remember it as the one with the credibility-straining monster of the week.

But for younger viewers… “Chopper” scared the wits out of our kid from the headless biker’s first appearance and never relaxed. “I am scared out of my skull,” he bellowed early on. I said “That’s funny, because he doesn’t have one.” He protested that he knew, and that was the problem. Afterward, when asked whether this was the most frightening episode of Kolchak, he not only insisted that it is, but it occupies a rare position alongside the New Avengers installment “Gnaws” as the scariest thing he’s ever seen, and he was similarly emphatic tonight that he will never, ever watch this story again.

Joining the frights this week, Jay Robinson and Jim Backus both have single-scene roles. Robinson is as amusingly over-the-top as ever, but Backus, who had such a reputation of scenery chewing, is pleasantly restrained and human as a Navy vet working as a motorcycle salesman. And the story deserves more than its “woeful effects” reputation because it ranks as Kolchak’s biggest win yet. Not only does he defeat his supernatural foe, but this week’s cop who’s had it up to here with our hero, played by Larry Linville, gets busted down to sergeant and reassigned to traffic for bungling the case so badly. Sure, he didn’t get a story on the wire, but two out of three’s great for Kolchak.

The Night Stalker (1972)

I wished my son pleasant dreams tonight and got an earful. “I am NOT going to have pleasant dreams! You showed me a vampire movie and I am NINETY-NINE POINT FOUR PER CENT CERTAIN that I’m going to have nightmares tonight!”

Yes, our son did not like tonight’s movie one little bit. He made his feelings very clear by telling us that his favorite scene was when our hero, Carl Kolchak, puts a cassette in his little tape player about ten seconds into the picture and presses play. It was all downhill from there. He didn’t like the fights, he didn’t like the shootouts, he didn’t like the car tires squealing on the roads around Las Vegas, because he was freaked out, frightened, and scared out of his wits by this great, great TV movie.

I sometimes wonder how ABC promoted this movie back then, because they did something right. It’s not like vampires couldn’t have been seen in dozens of films over the previous decade, and as much as we all like the great Darren McGavin, it’s honestly not like he was television’s biggest draw. But the stars lined up and I guess that CBS and NBC had a lousy evening, because when the Nielsens came in, The Night Stalker proved to be the highest-rated TV movie the industry had ever seen to that point, with a mammoth 48 share. The film was produced by Dan Curtis, directed by John Llewelyn Moxey, and scripted by Richard Matheson from a then-unpublished novel by Jeff Rice.

I think it’s one of the very best, and sometimes I think it’s the all-time greatest vampire movie ever made. Sometimes I pick this and sometimes I pick Christopher Lee’s first Dracula movie for Hammer. But I love the way that Carl Kolchak is the hero here, and the vampire is a dark, silent killer. And Carl Kolchak is one of television’s greatest characters, a ten-time loser who’s too proud and too smug to play by the rules and is the architect of his own undoing. We aren’t told what got him fired from papers in Washington, Chicago, New York, and Boston, but we see it here: his attitude. Kolchak’s been fighting City Hall, and losing, for years, and this time, when City Hall is covering up a vampire, City Hall isn’t going to take prisoners.

Joining McGavin in this debut adventure, there’s Simon Oakland as his long-suffering editor Vincenzo, and Claude Akins as the first of many policemen to have had it up to here with this nosy reporter. Carol Lynley plays Carl’s doomed girlfriend – but not doomed in the way that girlfriends in vampire movies are typically doomed – and there are small roles for Larry Linville and Elisha Cook Jr.

He protested that he hated this, but our son did come to life when the vampire – named “Janos Skorzeny,” unforgettably, and played by Barry Atwater – started throwing around orderlies in a hospital. “He’s as strong as a dozen men!” he marvelled, and he wowed when one man is thrown through a window to his apparent death. The vampire stuff is incredibly well done, with the climactic search through the home where Skorzeny has holed up going on for what feels like forever since the tension is so incredible. Yes, our son was behind the sofa. I didn’t think he was ever coming out.

My copy of the two Kolchak TV movies is Anchor Bay’s old double-sided release, and both my player and my laptop are unhappy with it. The player stretched it into widescreen – even the Anchor Bay logo and the menu – and no setting would restore it, and the laptop’s navigation slider was disabled. The films have since been given a new 4K restoration and the editions that were released last October have a lot of positive reviews. I might upgrade them, but I may have some expenses this month and so our next visit with Carl will be on the same edition. I assured our son that when we meet Carl again, there will not be a vampire. “Well, who does he fight? Frankenstein?” I said we’ll see.