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Book Review: The Night Stalker Companion

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Mark Dawidziak’s first attempt at a history and critique of the Kolchak mythos was Night Stalking: A 20th Anniversary Kolchak Companion (Image Publishing, 1991), sparsely distributed and now a collectible. Aided by Kolchak creator Jeff Rice, he then wrote Grave Secrets (Image, 1994), the first Kolchak novel since Rice’s novelization of Matheson’s Night Strangler teleplay. Rice was pleased with Grave Secrets, but not with Image’s dismal distribution. He withdrew literary rights to the character.

Details are in Dawidziak’s Night Stalker Companion, a heavily revised and updated version of Night Stalking, and a well-structured chronicle of the rise and fall and afterlife of Carl Kolchak, a hard-boiled reporter who investigates supernatural and extraterrestrial crimes. Dawidziak interviewed all key players, and while he accentuates the positive, he does not eliminate unpleasantries. Kolchak would expect no less from his biographer.

Kolchak first appeared in The Kolchak Papers, an unpublished 1970 horror novel written by newspaper reporter (and actor) Jeff Rice. Rice submitted it to Richard Matheson’s agent, who sold TV movie rights to ABC without first signing Rice. Rice had hoped to adapt it himself, but the agent had already secured the teleplay assignment for Matheson. Dawidziak adds, “It’s important to note that Rice does not in any way blame Matheson for what he views as shady Hollywood dealings.”

Dawidziak’s Dan Curtis comes off as a bit of a bully, or at least possessed with a Hollywood ego. When ABC bought the rights to Rice’s book, Curtis was executive producing the last season of that network’s Dark Shadows. “‘I wanted to say good-bye to it so bad I couldn’t see straight,’ Curtis reflects. ‘We got around to the last year and I was completely tapped out idea-wise. And we ended up with some dreadful stories during that last year. It was like being in jail.’ ” Dark Shadows did afford Curtis the opportunity to direct a feature. Dawidziak cites House of Dark Shadows (1970) as Curtis’s directorial debut, followed by Night of Dark Shadows (1971).

When Barry Diller asked Curtis to produce The Kolchak Tapes as the TV movie, The Night Stalker, Curtis requested the director’s chair. It had already been given to John Llewellyn Moxey (Horror Hotel 1960, aka The City Of The Dead). Curtis didn’t interfere with Moxey’s authority on set (and it was a happy set), but he’d grumble to McGavin, “Will you look at the setup Moxey has here. What’s he doing?” [Curtis contradicts this version of events in his interview on Night Stalker/Night Strangler DVD, claiming that he was offered the director’s chair but turned it down, and that he himself sought out Moxey.]

Despite Moxey’s setups, The Night Stalker was a ratings success when it premiered in January 1972. So too The Night Strangler, its 1973 sequel. Curtis got to direct. Rice was less fortunate. ABC press kits and trade ads hadn’t credited Rice for the first film. Rice lobbied to script the sequel, but was given the runaround by network and studio execs. Instead, he wrote the novelization for Matheson’s teleplay. Dawidziak says of Rice’s original deal, “No sequels or series could be made without Rice’s permission.” Apparently, Rice didn’t press his advantage.

The Night Strangler ended with bad blood between Curtis and lead actor Darren McGavin. Near the end of the shoot Curtis “was berating the crew something awful.” McGavin defended them, then quit. Curtis insisted he stay for close-ups, but McGavin replied, “You’ve got enough film. Make your movie. Goodbye.”

If Curtis comes off a bully, Rice sounds paranoid. Rice tried vainly for years to launch a series of Kolchak novels and comic books. He sees two factors blocking him. Publishers “keep trying to acquire the rights for pennies and balk at paying Rice nearly anything at all, doing their best to keep Rice from doing any writing if possible.” And Rice fears “that deals are fashioned with the intention of keeping Kolchak locked up and off the market.”

Rice has reason to be paranoid. He first learned of ABC and Universal’s plans to produce a Kolchak series from the April 24, 1974 issue of Daily Variety. No one informed Rice about a series in the works, even though his contract forbade a series without his permission. Rice tried to coax Universal into buying the rights it was exercising, while simultaneously working on script ideas for the show and a contract for future novelizations. When in August Rice’s attorney requested that Universal “settle the rights question,” Rice was barred from the lot. His calls were no longer returned. His novelization deal collapsed.

Rice finally filed suit in March 1975, shortly before Kolchak was canceled. The suit was settled nine months later. Rice never “made it” in Hollywood, either as scriptwriter or actor (his promised role in the first film had also fallen through). Perhaps he was branded a troublemaker. Today he’s a certified paralegal.

While McGavin loved The Night Stalker film, he had no desire to do a series (he had a thriving career in TV movies). McGavin only relented because Universal agreed to let him produce. Once he was on board, Universal turned producing chores over to Paul Playdon (Dan Curtis was uninterested). Determined to keep Universal to its word, McGavin acted as de facto producer. The tug of war between “producers” created turmoil and tension. Playdon quit after two episodes. Replacement producer Cy Chermak failed to ease tensions. Long hours and all night shoots only increased pressures. By February McGavin was begging network and studio to cancel the show. Dismal ratings granted his wish.

Yet Kolchak survived. An inspiration for Dawidziak while he was still an undergrad journalism major, the author is amazed by the many reporters he’s met over the years who’ve expressed similar sentiments. Kolchak also inspired The X-Files, which McGavin dismisses as a humorless rip-off.

Dawidziak confronts other rumors that have plagued fans for decades (such as Curtis’s plans for a feature film), making this a juicy and enlightening book. Yes, there’s an episode guide. And some errors. Dawidziak says of The Night Stalker‘s initial 33.2 household rating: “about one out of every three people in the United States was watching Carl Kolchak track Janos Skorzeny.” No, because a household rating does not indicate how many individuals per household are viewing. Nor even “about” how many.

The index is inadequate. While many of the names and titles in the text are only mentioned in passing, often as past credits, I’d want them included. The index even excludes some key textual references to Rice.

Pomegranate Press is a fine publisher for The Night Stalker Companion. Founded in 1986 by Dark Shadows actress Kathryn Leigh Scott to self-publish My Scrapbook Memories of Dark Shadows, its success induced her to release additional Dark Shadows books (all beautiful, lavishly illustrated, and informative). Pomegranate’s Dark Shadows contacts likely aided Dawidziak. Dan Curtis, composer Bob Cobert, and actress Lara Parker all worked on both Dark Shadows and the Kolchak mythos.

Pomegranate has a curious custom of listing deceased actors in its Dark Shadows books, with date of death. The Night Stalker Companion follows tradition with its own R.I.P. page.

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About Thomas M. Sipos

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