When I was a youngin’ there wasn’t anything on television quite as scary to me as KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER (except maybe NIGHT GALLERY’s opening credits). I don’t think I caught the original airings but I believe there was a summer when repeats aired on one of our local channels. Reporter Carl Kolchak (the late great Darren McGavin who visits yearly in A CHRISTMAS STORY (’83)) had somewhat the same demeanor as my dad and that added something extra to the stakes as he butted heads with the supernatural.
One episode, in particular, was particularly notorious in our household. It was entitled “The Spanish Moss Murders” but we knew it as “The Swamp Monster” episode. Every time I caught KOLCHAK’s eerie opening credits, I remember hoping I had stumbled upon that much-spoken-about (at least between me and my brothers) monster of the week outing. Yes, these were the days before VCRs and home media when you just had to settle for whichever episode graciously materialized. A recent re-watch of this particular jaunt (like many an infamous kindertrauma) proved to be not quite as frightening as I remembered, but certainly just as entertaining.
There’s a rash of unexplained murders popping up across Chicago with seemingly little connection except for the fact that each victim’s chest cavity has been crushed. Enter the “Swamp Monster” as played by hulking Richard Kiel (“Jaws” of the James Bond films, another childhood idol) a shambling mass of straggly green vines leaving behind a trail of slime. In a very interesting (and Kindertrauma-friendly) twist, it turns out the monster is the physical manifestation of the childhood fears of a patient undergoing extensive sleep therapy. Things come to a horrifying head when our hero Kolchak realizes the most likely spot for such a creature to hang up his moss-covered hat is the sewer below the city! His plan to bust the Cajun legend come to life is foiled further when (wouldn’t you know it) a truck parks on top of his manhole escape route! The monstrous mound of verdure still looks rather daunting today (especially as he rises from the rat-strewn sewer waters) making it pretty clear why this episode has stuck in the craw of my mind like spinach on a tooth all these long years.
In the 70s that was the ONE show I always wanted to see when it was produced – it had so much potential and deserved better than some 70s cheezy cop show tropes they put around McGavin on it, and I think all his work on it wore him out. One of the consistent creepy things that unnerved me as a kid was that with all the vampires and other airborne and walking creature prowling about in his town and where he nosed around, he always drove around at night with his Mustang convertible’s top down! I kept waiting for some airborne menace to swoop down and attack him in his open-air car! Its a shame he never got to chase down Mothman. Even the monster in his 1968 cheezy “Mission Mars” movie creeped me out when I saw it on afternoon TV!
I was four when The Night Stalker series aired so it was past my bedtime, but I remember hearing the opening credits and that was enough to scare me silly! I also remember seeing tv ads for it occasionally with that harsh and barking voiceover that was kind of startling. I think the same guy did all the ads for that network or at least The Night Stalker and Canon. I’ve got the Night Stalker dvd set now and it’s more funny than scary to be honest.
I wish it had done better in its time, so that we would have more episodes to enjoy now!
I’m too young to have seen the first-run of Kolchak (and our local stations didn’t re-run it) but I do remember Darren McGavin not only from A Christmas Story but also Tales from the Darkside, Monsters and The Hitchhiker.
Got to see this exact episode on the day before Halloween 2022 on MeTV. Seeing it brought back many fond childhood memories of watching Kolchak during it’s original run on ABC (was only 7 yrs. old and it scared the crap out of me, along with the Night Gallery credits too!) and then staying up to watch it’s re-runs on CBS late night (along with Carrie and Phantasm among other horror flix). I agree with other commentor; I wish the late Darren McGavin had returned at least one more time to the role of Kolchak the Night Stalker to battle some mysterious monster in a real blockbuster conclusion to his story.
I will be thinking about Kolchak VS The Mothman all night! You are so right about that convertible! I think I was feeling the same way on a subconscious level but never knew! Even just the city (LA portraying Chicago) at night looked so scary as a kid.
That theme song rules. How it starts very whimsical and then gets deadly serious- brilliant. The humor of Kolchak flew right over my head as a kid but this episode is particularly funny with Kolchak driving everyone (esp Keenan Wynn) around him crazy w his theories
As a kid I had no idea it only lasted one season, it seamed infinite in my imagination. Wish it stayed on many more years
McGavin really was one of the greats. Nobody else like him & that great voice!
I think I read that McGavin was invited to play Kolchak on an episodes of THE X-FILES (which was inspired by Kolchak) but chose to play another character instead. It’s really sad he never did return (although he had a comic book). Somebody should have been smart enough to try him on the big screen. Universal made a Get Smart movie instead of a Kolchak movie!?! Missed it by that much.
I think he would have been really handy on (a) Stranger Things, (b) Village of the Damned, (c) Futureworld/Westworld and particularly the original Wicker Man!
…also The Stepford Wives!