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Night Stalker Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 17, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    Dan Curtis broke the conventions of the TV movie back in the early seventies when he produced and directed the two Carl Kolchak horrors, The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, making a star of Darren McGavin as Kolchak, the adventurous journalist with a nose for the unusual and the downright scary and boosting the ratings for the network in the process. The success of the films spawned what was to become a classic TV show called simply Kolchak: The Night Stalker, with McGavin reprising his role as the spooky snooper taking on supernatural terrors week after week, whilst running up against governmental conspiracies and cover-ups at every turn. The template went on to form the foundation for the hugely successful X-Files series and the shows themselves established a firm cult status among horror fans - myself included. But, whilst the films were, and still are, very effective and strong in tone, the series sadly descended in ripe comedy and pretty ropy monster-of-the-week histrionics. The show's release on disc a few months ago only cemented this opinion as the stories that I had once found reasonably enthralling (mind you, I'd first caught these shows on a Channel Four run in the mid-eighties whilst only about fourteen) now looked decidedly un-inventive and lacking in the correct frights-to-funnies ratio. But, strangely enough, I could happily see the advent of a remake, or upgrading, as something to look forward to. This was certainly a show that could move with the times. It would benefit enormously from up-to-the-minute effects and today's sense of realism and the grimness of tone that has carved out a trend in many more adult horror/thriller hybrids that have surfaced in recent years. And with Frank Spotnitz from The X-Files helming it, and the original's creator backing such a new endeavour, albeit in a consultation capacity, how could such an enterprise go wrong?

    How indeed?

    Pulled from broadcast before it had even finished its first season, the new Night Stalker show, fronted now by the usually quite intense Stuart Townsend as the wily and headstrong reporter Kolchak, was met with almost unanimous disdain. Fans of the original series bemoaned the casting of their hero for being too young and good-looking, berated the addition of two regular partners for Kolchak and gave the new concept's story arc short-thrift - the new Kolchak is searching for the supernatural killer of his young wife, gradually becoming aware that her death was part a much bigger mystery. Advance word on the net virtually sank the show from the get-go. And going head-to-head against the likes of Supernatural (“Scary just got sexy!”) and Patricia Arquette's surprisingly effective Medium (three seasons strong already) wasn't going to do this altogether quieter and more restrained show any favours, either. However, I, for one, was quite eagerly looking forward to seeing what this re-imagining could come up with.

    Annoyingly, the results are somewhat inconclusive given the short lifespan of the show.

    An investigative journalist for the LA Beacon, Carl Kolchak leads a spirited crusade to unravel the dark stories behind the many strange deaths and events that seem to unfold all around him. Saddled with the initially hostile crime reporter Perri Reed (the very attractive Gabrielle Union) and annoyingly geeky, Jimmy Olsen-type photographer Jaine (Eric Jungman), Kolchak is forced to form an uneasy alliance as the trio begin their quest into the unknown and the unusual. Reed, who is sceptical to the quirky Kolchak's theories, seeks to find out more about her new partner and, after a meeting with the FBI, discovers that he was once the chief suspect for the murder of his wife and that controversy still surrounds the unexplained case. The Pilot episode sees a familiar series of events to those surrounding what had happened to Kolchak and his wife, bringing tantalising new evidence to light. Thus, it is no surprise that Reed soon finds herself sympathising with Kolchak when he explains, with mystifying ambiguity, the mission he has undertaken to find the truth and shows her the, frankly, wacky clues he has picked up so far. There is a badly-conceived plot-pitch here about a strange symbol that appears on the wrists of corpses - a symbol that Kolchak, himself, has carried since birth. This shenanigans is clearly designed to provoke a real sense of something far larger at work, but it almost immediately puts the final nail in the coffin of the old Night Stalker, I'm afraid. The beauty of the original character was that he was just a grouchy old geezer with a nose like a bloodhound, whose conniving resilience and tenacity lent him the courage to face demonic dangers. Turning him into some quasi-mythological crusader just doesn't go hand-in-hand with the search-for-the-truth-behind-the-cover-up angle that was what made the show tick in the first place.

    “All I care about is getting the story right!”

    I like Townsend. The man-who-was-so-nearly-Aragorn has a distinctly edgy look in his eye and a sort of brooding intensity that the likes of Rufus Sewell wishes he possessed in his many rent-a-baddie roles. His performance in the Belfast-set psycho-thriller Remembrance Man was profoundly disturbing - one or two moments of his sick depravity in that still haunt me to this day - and if he had brought some of this deeper darkness to the part of a man hunting ghouls and spectres out on the fringes of human understanding, then the show would have been able to boast a black heart indeed. But, as it stands, Townsend's Kolchak comes across as a man only vaguely haunted by his mission to seek out the beast that butchered his wife, and nor does he appear to be the lonely, shunned outsider whose back the rest of the staff on the paper would roll their eyes behind. McGavin's Kolchak was derided for his theories almost constantly, yet he was a known character on the circuit. He was still clued up about the relevant issues of the day and could gleefully play on words, belittling civic spokespeople and white-washing bureaucrats whilst still unravelling voodoo plots and haranguing politicians about votes for vampires. Townsend often seems pretty shallow - much less of an oddball than his predecessor and therefore much less interesting as a result. Admittedly, the scripts often leave him little room to breathe, with each new clue to his elusive heritage and the events of that fateful night he lost his wife left dangling without the necessary line of explanation to help gel things together in our own minds, let alone his. Time and time again, things happen without enough revelation exposed for the viewer, leaving many threads just blowing in the wind, the writers mistaking outright enigma for intriguing ambivalence. But Townsend is the star so, sadly, it is often left to him to carry the narrative's half-empty can.

    “That's the point - there is no explanation.”

    “Yes, there is. They're called freak accidents.”

    Gabrielle Union acquits herself quite well, considering that her character is a complete stereotype. She is the epitome of the high-flying go-getter, the true professional who can think for herself, stand on her two feet and fight her own battles. Yet, practically from the outset, she is forced to question her own values, ethics and beliefs and, more or less, become just as quick as Kolchak to accept the possibility of psychic death-dealers, the ghostly vestiges of a dead boy's fear passed on to new victims, murderous possession by demons and the existence of biker hitmen who cannot be felled even by automatic fire from a SWAT team. This last bit of apparently daily excitement is particularly galling as the four bullet-proof Hell's Angels (almost literally Hell's Angels, folks) who go on the rampage in the truly infuriating two-part story - The Source and The Sea - elicit absolutely no remarks from anyone about their amazing imperviousness to bullets, despite it being witnessed by our heroes, the FBI and the SWAT team! Even the subsequent revelation that two of them, at least, had already been shot dead some time earlier by police only makes for one of those ominous pregnant pauses as the score swells before a commercial break. And then this fact isn't mentioned again! Of the other cast members, Eric Jungman's Jaine is just a nerd-cum-hero that is completely superfluous to the show, but Cotter (X-Men 2's President) Smith's Editor-in-Chief Vincenzo supplies some gravitas and steely-eyed personality to a character brought back from the original show. Genre-fave, and Candyman himself, Tony Todd puts in a welcome appearance as a gruff detective in the episode Malum, but really the use of known guest stars is kept to a minimum.

    “Keep chasing monsters ... and one day they'll be chasing you.”

    The Pilot Episode is a wasted effort, I'm afraid. A tale about strange coyote-like beasts prowling just on the outskirts of the city, killing women and ripping out their unborn foetuses is provocatively-filmed but downright clumsy in execution, leaving too many questions hanging in the air to be a satisfactory introduction to the character or the theme. And the expositional elements that provide the basis for Kolchak's back-story would have been better left developing over the next couple of adventures rather than rammed home so arbitrarily. Consequently, the nature of his wife's killing - and its connection to the mysterious happenings in this first story - just isn't compelling enough. In fact, it seems kind of goofy. Things are clearly being set up with this opening narrative, but it smacks of taking the audience by the hand and laying down the groundwork with a giant-sized shovel. In hindsight, having seen the entire short-lived season, it actually seems as though the writers realised that their time was cruelly destined to be cut down and just lobbed in too many elements that would, otherwise, have served the show better by being slowly dripped out over the course of many episodes. The hook is too rapidly thrown, ruining the thrill of getting to know the character, or the dilemma he faces. And yet, after this bumbling start, the show proceeds to go the opposite way and begins to take much too long in delivering the goods.

    “You were hell-bent, Mr. Kolchak ...”

    Sadly, there is much less horror than you'd expect, or hope for. The adherence to emotional drama and psychological plight is a radical departure from the Night Stalker's genesis and one that this show couldn't hope to recover from. It just simply isn't dark enough, or scary enough. Spotnitz, despite his time on The X-Files, has forgotten what made that show so memorable, leaving Night Stalker almost afraid to confront the supernatural. The beasts that plague this story are woefully human for the most part, and considerably less frightening as a result. The eerie torch-lit poking about in subterranean lairs and dank sewers is jettisoned, the string of bizarre deaths and witness interviews elbowed. Bring back the bogeyman-in-naff-makeup of the old show, I say. I may have seen its shortcomings on a recent re-watch, but the original was still much more atmospheric than this. Sacrificing chills in favour of conspiracies and intrigue was never going to work in an update of a very popular creature-feature, and the wallowing in 24-style action and its race-against-time modus operandi just ruins what was meant to be the season one biggie - the biker-blasting two-parter. Further elevating the show from its pulp origins is the stately main theme from Philip Glass and the very classy visual style that is a pure neon-dream ripped from Michael Mann's Heat and Collateral. We are in a world of gleaming reflection, sodium-decorated landscapes and mesmerising aerial views of glinting high-rises, and the hypnotic processions of headlights along yawning roadways adds a pulsating rhythm that gives the show a visual heartbeat. There are flash-cuts, subliminal image montages and rapid-fire glimpses of each forthcoming episode during the arty title sequences. It looks and feels slick and is never less than captivating to behold, but this sheen masks an emptiness that just gets deeper as the show glides inevitably towards that Network plug-pulling. Stronger writing and a more consistent approach to the otherworldly subject matter would definitely have helped, and I can't help feeling that, if given more of a chance, the new Night Stalker might have eventually found its way in the crowded TV marketplace. There are some nice ideas here and I was never actually bored by any episode, but the relevant clues to the greater arc are leaked out far too slowly and in too perplexing a manner to hold water. And check out the rather lame CG inclusion of Darren McGavin in the Pilot as he appears to be cleaning his desk out. It is actually a shame that he appears in this heartless revamp.

    The show was dumped from the TV schedule after only six episodes, midway through the two-parter, ironically enough. But the remaining four shows are presented here, too.
    Disc One contains the Pilot, The Five People You Meet In Hell, Three, Burning Man and Malum.

    Disc Two contains The Source (part 1 of 2), The Sea (part 2 of 2), Into Night, Timeless and What's The Frequency, Kolchack. Disc Two also contains the bonus features.