Friday, September 30, 2005

The Night Stalker (2005 redux): Eh, shrug...



The original Night Stalker TV series holds a very dear spot in my heart.

It covered the adventures of Carl Kolchak (played by Darren McGavin), a hard-nosed scrapper of a newspaper reporter who zeroed in on stories that skirted the bizarre and supernatural, much to the chagrin of his eternally flustered editor, Tony Vincenzo (played by the eternally-blustering Simon Oakland). Week after week, Kolchak chased scoops involving vampires, zombies, werewolves, and all manner of other unexplained phenomena, only to be consistently thwarted in his attempts to deliver the truth by the skeptical (and occasionally conspiratory) authorities.

The Night Stalker was one of the first TV shows to hurl supernatural boogeymen into modern urban life, and it was a freaky mix. That collision of the monstrous with the mundane made the show scary as hell, a lesson not lost on Chris Carter, the creator of another beloved TV fantasy--The X-Files.

The key to the original Night Stalker's success was McGavin. The veteran actor's probably best known to modern audiences as the gruff-but-loveable dad in A Christmas Story, but Kolchak is his character for the ages.

Carl Kolchak navigated his world with the hyperkinetic bulldog verve of a Preston Sturges character. He was a quick-witted, somehow endearing mug who barrelled into danger with more gumption than common sense. And every episode ended with McGavin's declamatory narration as he pounded out the last few lines of his latest supernatural adventure on his old manual typewriter, in the dark, with most of the menaces he reported still on the loose. This effective close to each installment gave the show a real journalistic urgency, and it scared the pants off of yours truly with delicious regularity.

So how does the new Night Stalker fare? All nostalgia aside, it pales.

The new model sports a well-produced surface, serviceable writing, appealing (if lightweight) leads, and in its defense it does try to be a different animal than its predecessor. One of the problems, however, is that it doesn't try hard enough to distinguish itself from Night Stalker's most well-known spiritual progeny.

The male/female partnering of Kolchak (played by Stuart Townsend, late of Queen of the Damned) and a fellow crime reporter (Gabrielle Union); the redemptive motivation behind Kolchak's dogged pursuit of the (supernatural) truth; the obligatory untrustworthy government officials; and Vincenzo being softened up a la Agent Skinner; all of these elements smack of The X-Files, flavored with Splenda (the new Stalker is the brainchild of former X-Files producer Frank Spotnitz). And, honestly, in an attempt to sustain a mood of ambient supernatural dread, the new show largely eschews the jarring shocks and jumps that made the original so frightening. Such tomfoolery would be too undignified, I guess (God, how the premiere episode ached for a sense of humor).

In the end, though, there's something missing from the center. Townsend has charisma (I actually enjoyed his flamboyant work in the putrid-but-fun Damned), but he and Union just don't feel like hardened, seen-it-all reporters. The original Kolchak would've left these two overly-earnest and attractive kids in the dust en route to the next bizarre mystery, wisecracking all the way. Hunting monsters ain't kids' stuff, y'know.

1 comment:

JennyB. said...

I can't look at Gabrielle Union without think of the guilty pleasure, 'Bring it On'. She still seems too young to have seen it all...unless its at a cheerleader competition.
Don't drop the spirit stick!