The Night Stalker Blues

Something borrowed and something used

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in Features • Illustrated by Barbara Chernyavsky

I know that everyone in this room, Bernie Fain included, thinks I’m some kind of a nut with my so-called fixation on this vampire thing. OK, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he only thinks he is. But there are things here that can’t be explained away by so-called common sense. Not even Bernie’s report can explain some of them.

— From Jeff Rice’s The Kolchak Papers (1970)

A dirty, rumpled seersucker suit. A worn-out blue shirt and knit blue tie that’s always askew. Scuffed white sneakers and a straw pork-pie hat worn tilted far back on the head. This is the uniform of Carol “Carl” Kolchak, an all-American ghost-breaker from the 1970s. On January 11, 1972, millions of TV viewers tuned into the ABC Movie of the Week.  On offer was an original film directed by John Llewellyn Moxey, a British journeyman whose major claim to fame was the 1960 horror film, The City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel). The made-for-TV movie, called The Night Stalker, was a throwback of sorts but turned out to be refreshing in its newness.

The Night Stalker features veteran Hollywood actor Darrin McGavin as Kolchak, a smart-aleck reporter in Las Vegas who stumbles upon the murder case of the century. Kolchak, and only Kolchak realizes that the exsanguination murders of several Las Vegas women are the work of a mysterious transient named Janos Skorzeny (played by Barry Atwater). Skorzeny is no normal serial killer; according to Scotland Yard, the FBI, and Interpol, he was born at the turn of the 20th century in Transylvania. Although legally a 70-something geezer, Skorzeny is impervious to LVPD bullets and has the strength of several men. Given his vigor, and given his love for drinking blood and avoiding the sunlight, Kolchak pieces together the fact that Janos Skorzeny is a real vampire.

Thanks to an excellent script by horror fiction legend Richard Matheson, and thanks to McGavin’s portrayal of the lovable loser Kolchak, The Night Stalker earned an unprecedented 54 share in ratings. This means that 54-percent of all Americans households had ABC on during the original airing. The popularity of The Night Stalker led to a sequel, 1973’s The Night Strangler. Here, in another made-for-TV movie, Kolchak, after being booted from Las Vegas for trying to tell the truth, finds himself in rainy Seattle just when that city is plagued by a supernatural serial killer. The Night Strangler followed the formula of The Night Stalker, with McGavin reprising his role and Matheson penning the script. The one major difference was in the director’s chair. The competent Moxey was replaced by Dan Curtis.

Curtis had cut his teeth creating and directing the popular horror TV show, Dark Shadows. Curtis’s background in middle-brow gothic should have made him a perfect fit for the world of Kolchak. Tensions, however, between Curtis and McGavin ultimately ended Kolchak’s career on the small screen. McGavin disliked Curtis’s tyrannical approach and the later Kolchak television show’s “monster of the week” formula. McGavin, who loved the character, hated the fact that ABC lost interest in Kolchak and did not pay him, the show’s lead, for doing the work of a producer and re-write man. McGavin asked to be let go of his contract. ABC agreed in the summer of 1975.

Most reviews and retrospectives of Kolchak note that the short-lived television, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which transferred Kolchak to the Independent News Service (INS) in downtown Chicago, not only featured some big names (Dick Van Patten, Erik Estrada, Richard Kiel, Jamie Farr, and Jackie Mason), but served as a foot-in-the-door for future heavyweights. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale got their first-ever writing credits on the show. In case those names are unfamiliar to you, Zemeckis and Gale wrote and/or directed the films Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Forrest Gump. Another no-name who got his big break on Kolchak: The Night Stalker was a young guy from New Jersey named David Chase. Chase would later create one of the greatest television dramas of all time in The Sopranos.

While Kolchak: The Night Stalker turned out to be a monumental flop, one of its biggest fans, Chris Carter, took inspiration from the ghost hunting newshound in order to create The X-Files. Carter and a revamped X-Files would pay tribute to Kolchak’s legacy via the character of Guy Mann (played by Rhys Darby) whose attire in the 2016 episode “Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster” is lifted straight from Kolchak’s shoulders.

Kolchak has had an outsized influence on American popular culture. That much is clear and straightforward. Undergirding this success though was a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare. When it comes to Kolchak, everyone knows about McGavin, Curtis, and even Simon Oakland, the latter of whom played Kolchak’s perennially aggrieved editor Tony Vincenzo. Only a few diehards know the name of the man who created the character in the first place. That man, Jeff Rice, died in obscurity in his adoptive hometown of Las Vegas on July 1, 2015. Rice never got to enjoy the fruits of his creation, and when he died, he had spent the majority of his life as just another CPA.

Hollywood ripping off writers and creators is, of course, nothing new. It continues today. Jeff Grosso wanted to write screenplays, so he put himself through college by playing poker. This experience led him to write a screenplay called Rounders. The screenplay would become a film, but Grosso, the creator, did not even warrant a “story-by” credit. (Grosso’s lawsuit against Miramax was later dismissed.) Back in 2014, when True Detective was the hottest show around, several websites came forward to claim that the show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto, “borrowed” heavily from the short stories of misanthropic horror writer Thomas Ligotti. Reed Martin toiled in obscurity for a decade writing a screenplay called Heart Copy. Martin, who once taught movie marketing at Columbia, made a habit of going to every major film festival in the hopes of making contacts in the industry. All of this hard work paid off, but someone else was the beneficiary. Heart Copy, Martin claimed in a plagiarism lawsuit in 2006, became Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers starring Bill Murray.

There are entire websites dedicated to teaching screenwriters how to protect their screenplays from producer/vultures. Thievery is so bad in Hollywood that Los Angeles and New York-based attorneys who specialize in combatting theft in the entertainment industry are some of the wealthiest lawyers in the country. Thanks to the internet and the omnipresent potential for piracy, screenwriters, novelists, and other creative workers have to be more vigilant than ever. Sadly, Jeff Rice seemed ignorant of Hollywood’s typical machinations, and as a result he got screwed over royally by pretty much everyone in his life.

Jeffrey Grant Rice came into the world on February 22, 1944. He was born in the then blue-collar city of Providence, Rhode Island, a thoroughly New England place whose best-known export is another horror scribe, Howard Phillips (H.P.) Lovecraft. Young Rice grew up in a milieu very different from the patrician and Anglo-Saxon one enjoyed (for a time) by Lovecraft. Rice’s old man was Bob Rice, a mob-connected costume jeweler who was one of the early investors in The Dunes casino. Thanks to his connection to Las Vegas, Bob Rice probably knew or was chummy with infamous gangsters like New England Mafia don Raymond Patriarca and St. Louis fixer and attorney Morris Shenker.

There is more than a twist of irony in the fact that Jeff Rice would grow up to write about the underworld’s corrupt rule in Las Vegas. In the 1960s, Rice wrote for the Las Vegas Sun. He spilled plenty of ink on Vegas’s seedier side, including its mob-run casinos and prostitution rackets. Such work earned Rice local awards, but the young scribbler had higher aspirations. So, sometime in 1970, Rice sat down at his typewriter and worked out a story placing a Count Dracula-like figure in modern Sin City. It is fitting that Rice managed to finish the first draft of his novel at midnight on Halloween, 1970.

Rice’s book was originally called The Kolchak Papers. After decades spent out-of-print, Rice’s original novel was rereleased in 2007 by boutique publisher Moonstone. Rice’s writing sizzles in The Kolchak Papers. See, for instance, Kolchak’s description of one of Skorzeny’s first murder victims:

Cheryl Ann Hughes: twenty-three, five feet five and a half inches tall, one hundred and eighteen shapely pounds, Clairol blond hair and light-brown eyes. Swing-shift change-girl at the classic Gold Dust Saloon, a gaudy western-styled casino built when Vegas was younger, smaller, and– some say — friendlier.

Cheryl Ann Hughes: Tired. Hungry. Disgusted at having waited twenty-five minutes for a ride, was now mad enough to walk the eight blocks to the small frame house she shared with Harmer just off the corner of Ninth and Bridger [3].

Besides fantastic writing, Rice’s original work is far more mature and a lot less hooky than the television adaptations. The Carl Kolchak of Rice’s imagination was a hard-drinking, big-eating child of New York City. The Kolchak of The Kolchak Papers has a journalism degree from NYU and a head full of vampire tales thanks to his Transylvanian-born grandfather. Kolchak is also an astute political observer, and The Kolchak Papers is riddled with references to the war in Vietnam, Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs, and the growing tensions between American whites and blacks following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Sex is addressed frankly in Rice’s novel, with Kolchak’s admitting that he often sleeps in the same bed as Gail Foster, a high-priced prostitute and a co-founder of what Kolchak terms the pair’s Anti-Loneliness League.

Just like in the movies and television episodes, the authorities in Las Vegas do not believe Kolchak in The Kolchak Papers. It is only when Kolchak himself corners Skorzeny and drives a wooden stake through the vampire’s heart that the mayor and chief of police are willing to believe in the reality of the undead. However, this does not stop them from threatening Kolchak with a murder charge and ordering him to relocate to Los Angeles. Besides vampires, the other major theme of Rice’s novel is the festering corruption of American municipal politics. The police and politicos, Rice says through Kolchak’s mouth, would rather look good than admit to the public the existence of a vampire.

The Kolchak Papers was still an unpublished manuscript when it was purchased by ABC. According to Mark Dawidziak, the author of The Night Stalker Companion, Rice’s manuscript was sold without his knowledge. The story goes that an underhanded agent gave Rice’s script to ABC in the hopes that Matheson, a much bigger name, would pen the teleplay. That’s exactly what happened. Years later, Matheson would pay tribute to Rice by saying that his story was “quite a complete novel” and so well-written that “it sounds like something that really happened.”  But, for all intents and purposes, ABC and Hollywood considered The Night Stalker as Matheson’s story. No Rice need apply.

Feeling cheated, Rice threatened to sue ABC for taking his characters away from him. The studio responded by barring Rice from their lot and cancelling a five-book deal for novelizations. The only upside for Rice was that his novel was finally published as a paperback in December 1973. Less than a year later, Rice’s name appeared alongside Matheson’s on the paperback novelization of The Night Strangler (Matheson had come up with the story’s idea, while Rice did most of the writing). “Created by Jeff Rice” also appeared during the credits for every Kolchak production, but that was it. Rice never made any serious money off of Kolchak, and his hoped for “big break” never came.

At some point Rice retired his typewriter, became a CPA, and moved into a modest home located at Desert Inn Road in Las Vegas. After Rice’s death at age 71, his closest friend, a 78-year-old woman named Bobbie Carson, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that Rice was a man consumed by depression who frequently found himself penniless and adrift. Rice’s financial problems meant that he often resorted to sleeping on Carson’s couch or borrowing money from a local loan shark. Rice’s last trip to the emergency room caused loads of anxiety, as the man who could have made millions with his “night stalker” did not have health insurance.

The sad life and even sadder death of Jeff Rice is a reminder to creative workers that there will always be sharks out there ready and willing to exploit your talent. Rice should have died a wealthy man. A cynical Hollywood and underhanded business practices denied him his hard-earned wealth. Today we can enjoy Rice’s creation in a variety of mediums, from DVDs and Blu-Rays to graphic novels and board games. Kolchak is a pop culture monster with tentacles that reach all the way to the Bada Bing! and the halls of the FBI. Kolchak lives on and continues to fight monsters. Jeff Rice lies a-mouldering in the grave, waiting to be resurrected. •

Images illustrated by Barbara Chernyavsky.