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Night Stalker – Pilot (Review)

This January, to prepare for the release of the new six-part season of The X-Files, we’re wrapping up our coverage of the show, particularly handling the various odds and ends between the show’s last episode and the launch of the revival.

If you want to examine at the impact of The X-Files on mainstream American television, there are worse places to look than Night Stalker.

Sure, the show only ran for six episodes before it was cancelled, but its very existence speaks to the legacy and success of The X-Files. Night Stalker was a revival of a failed seventies cult television show commissioned by Touchstone Television and broadcast on ABC, one of the “big three” American television networks. More to the point, the network had tasked a veteran producer of The X-Files to oversee production of the show. The network scheduled their Night Stalker relaunch on Thursday nights, against the ratings juggernaut of CSI.

Night Stalking, deserves a quiet night...

Night Stalking, deserves a quiet night…

This was not a scrappy young network taking a creative gambit on an unknown property because they had nothing to lose; this was a substantial investment by a major player in a property that was largely forgotten outside of cult circles and which had failed the last time that it had come to television. It was very much a creative decision based on what had been learned from the success of The X-Files; handled properly, a seemingly marginal and fringe property could grab the national attention. The major networks had been paying attention.

In a way, the success of CSI at the turn of the twenty-first century was proof of this; a forensic thriller populated by idiosyncratic characters with an emphasis on stylised direction. ABC had committed to this idea with Lost, which launched in September 2004. Debuting a year later, Night Stalker found the network doubling down on the premise. Although the twenty-first century televisual landscape owed a debt to The X-Files, Night Stalker would be perhaps the most obvious successor. At least until Fringe came along three years later.

Playing all the angles on the City of Angels...

Playing all the angles on the City of Angels…

The idea of resurrecting Night Stalker had been gestating at Touchstone Television for quite some time. Frank Spotnitz was first invited to oversee the production of the revival in July 2004. Spotnitz recalls of the original conversation:

Mark Pedowitz, the president of Touchstone Television, called me last summer and asked if I would be interested in making a new series based on The Night Stalker. I was immediately intrigued by the idea, although not exactly sure how to go about it. As much as I loved Kolchak, I felt the first series was not successful. But after some weeks of reflection, I decided to accept the challenge.

Spotnitz did not take Pedowitz up on his offer immediately. Instead, the veteran executive producer took the time to consider the possibilities and to contemplate how best to adapt Carl Kolchak for the new millennium.

Skating by...

Skating by…

From the perspective of Touchstone Television, Frank Spotnitz was the obvious choice to handle the remake of the cult television series. Spotnitz was an industry veteran with eight years of experience on The X-Files. More than that, Spotnitz had also worked on a number of other Ten Thirteen shows, including writing and producing on Millennium and Harsh Realm; he had even developed The Lone Gunmen for television and overseen the show’s single short season.

More than that, Spotnitz was a fan of the character of Kolchak. Chris Carter had been quite candid about the debt that The X-Files owed to The Night Stalker. Spotnitz had written Travelers, the episode that cast Darren McGavin as Fox Mulder’s predecessor. The episode represented a passing of the torch. In fact, McGavin’s character would reappear a season later in the episode Agua Mala, while actor David Duchovny had planned to include McGavin in his script for The Unnatural before McGavin’s declining health forced M. Emmet Walsh to step in.

We have heard the chimes at midnight...

We have heard the chimes at midnight…

Unsurprisingly, given the influence of The Night Stalker on the development of The X-Files, Frank Spotnitz was able to attract a number of top X-Files alumni to work on the show. The writing staff included veteran X-Files staffers like Tom Schnauz, Vince Gilligan and Darin Morgan. Spotnitz was also able to sign up some of The X-Files‘ directors to helm early episodes of the show, including Daniel Sackheim, Rob Bowman and Tony Wharmby. In many ways, Night Stalker could be seen as a spiritual successor to The X-Files, bringing the influence a full circle.

Indeed, it occasionally feels like The X-Files was perhaps too much of an influence upon the reimagined Night Stalker. In some respects, Frank Spotnitz’s reimagining of the seventies classic is a hybrid of elements of The Night Stalker and the basic formula of The X-Files. Television fans without any historical frame of reference might easily mistake Night Stalker as a simple clone of the television series upon which Spotnitz cut his teeth, even allowing for a surprisingly effective digital cameo of the late Darren McGavin in the pilot.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

Spotnitz was somewhat skeptical about the viability of Night Stalker as a weekly television show, and with good reason. After all, the seventies television series had spun off from a collection of widely successful television movies, only to be cancelled before the production team could satisfy the first season episode order. Spotnitz confesses that he was not a huge fan of the show, despite his fondness for the character:

But the series, to my mind anyway, it didn’t work so great; it was sort of like a one-note thing. It was like, okay, every week the question was will he get the story and if he does is he going to get back in the big time. Well, you know he’s not going to get the story because there’s no series if he gets the story. And there were a lot of sort of just basic reality issues that the series never bothered addressing, like why does Kolchak alone of all the reporters in Chicago get these stories about monsters? Why nobody else? Why don’t the police see anything that he sees? Why doesn’t one of these stories just once make the papers and change the world? Just basic reality stuff that, thirty some odd years later, they just wouldn’t pass on network television. I just would not buy it. You really have to make it make more sense than that.

These are certainly fair points. While the television series certain has its charms, and is packed full of interesting ideas and an engaging central performance, it is easy to see why the show struggled to find an audience. Spotnitz’s decision to radically reinvent some of the show’s core ideas would be controversial to long-term fans, but it is quite clear to an impartial observer that the show did need updating in some core senses.

City lights...

City lights…

However defensible the idea of change might have been, the actual changes that Spotnitz chose to make were mixed successes at best; they only invited further comparisons to The X-Files while rendering the show rather more generic than its source material had been. Chief among those changes was the casting of Irish actor Stuart Townsend in the title role, following a long and draining casting process:

Oh, man, we looked so hard for the guy to play Kolchak. We read over a hundred actors and just had not found the guy that we thought was a home run for this part. And we were ten days away from filming and I still didn’t have a Kolchak. So I’m going through all the lists and I’ve got literally hundreds of actors’ names, all the casting lists, and I see Stuart’s name and I knew his work, and I’d seen him in a lot of smaller movies but I thought he was especially charming in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It’s not a great movie, but I thought he was amazing in it. But it said that he was not interested in television in the casting notes. However, I saw that he’s represented by the same agency I’m represented by, so I called and I said, ‘look, it is true he’s not interested in television?’ And they said, ‘well, he’s not but he has read a couple pilot scripts this year.’ I said, ‘will you please send him Night Stalker and ask him to read it right away because we have no time and just let me know if there’s any way he’d be interested in doing this.’ And then amazingly, he did. He read it right away, that afternoon; they called me back at the end of the day, like five-thirty on a Friday and said, ‘he read it and he likes it.’ And so he came to the office the next day, on a Saturday, and we met for like two hours, had a great meeting. He really responded to the subject matter, the whole idea of the series. And then he spent like three days thinking about whether he really wanted to work in TV because it’s such a brutal life, you know, especially in a series like this where there’s basically two leads and you’re just working fourteen, sixteen hour days, five days a week. But he agreed to do it on a Tuesday and then we started filming on the following Monday. It was a real nail-biter.

Townsend is a much more conventional leading man than Darin McGavin. He is young and handsome, rather than old and washed up. In fact, two of Townsend’s defining performances of the early twenty-first century – as Dorian Grey in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and as Lestat in Queen of the Damned – traded on his seemingly ageless handsomeness.

Playin' it Kol(chak)...

Playin’ it Kol(chak)…

In many respects, it is the decision to cast Townsend that causes the most problems for Night Stalker. It is not that Townsend is a particularly poor actor; with ten episodes, the performer does not really have a chance to grow into the role. The casting of Townsend signals that Night Stalker is rather clumsily discarding one of the defining features of the original Night Stalker. When Spotnitz talks about how dissatisfied with the seventies television show, he acknowledges that he is a fan of the character; that is the power of Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak.

What made Kolchak stand out from the crowd. The character did not look like the lead of a thrilling adventure series. In many respects, Darren McGavin’s take on Kolchak offered a supernatural twist on what Peter Falk had done with Columbo. He was a character who evoked a very traditional archetype, but in such an interesting and engaging (and unconventional) fashion that he seemed to dwarf the stories around him. As played by Darren McGavin, the character lingers; even if the stories do not always do so.

Knife stalker...

Knife stalker…

In contrast, the cast of Stuart Townsend signals that Night Stalker is to be a lot more conventional than its inspiration had been. Spotnitz rationalised his decision by arguing that any attempt to replace McGavin would have simply backfired:

I originally was going to go with an older guy, I was thinking Ted Danson maybe or John C. Reilly, but then I came to think that that would be a mistake, that nobody was going to do this role better than Darren McGavin. So I decided to go in a completely different direction, not make a remake that’s sort of competing with the original, but try to make one that stands alongside the original.

It is a fair point, but it seems too much to suggest that an actor like Ted Danson or John C. Reilly could not escape from under McGavin’s shadow and make the part their own. Certainly, either character would have been more memorable than Townsend.

Killer instincts...

Killer instincts…

To be fair, the casting of Townsend itself is not really the issue here. Instead, it foreshadows a number of related creative choices that move Night Stalker away from its inspiration and towards something more generic. In purely superficial terms, Spotnitz decides to pair Kolchak with a skeptical female partner played by Gabrielle Union. Union does very good work in the part, but the basic structure of the dynamic – two photogenic young actors playing monster hunters with a believer-skeptic dynamic – only invites further comparisons to The X-Files.

The creative choices around Kolchak serve to make Night Stalker more generic. While the original series focused upon a grizzled old newspaper veteran who was simply hunting for the best story, Night Stalker saddles Kolchak with a Freudian back story to explain his pursuit of the unknown in a very simplistic cause-and-effect manner. Kolchak is not simply hunting monsters; he is hunting a very specific monster that killed his wife. Meanwhile, Kolchak is pursued by Agent Bernard Fain, who is erroneously convinced that Kolchak committed the murder.

A Union of opposites...

A Union of opposites…

These are all elements that seem rather superficial and overdone. Given the show’s pedigree, the obvious comparison is to Fox Mulder; like Mulder, Kolchak is inspired to believe by a traumatic event in his life. However, the addition of Agent Fain to the back story evokes the classic premise of The Fugitive. This back story does set up a number of threads that the show might develop down the line, but all those threads feel very stock and very bland. These details feel like they were picked up cheap and in bulk at some sort of vast television storytelling warehouse.

To be fair, these elements are all archetypal, and Spotnitz works rather well with archetypes. Spotnitz is a writer who shares Chris Carter’s fascination with symbolism and iconography, as scripts like Via Negativa and The Gift had demonstrated. Spotnitz might have begun his career as a journalist, but he understands storytelling in a very fundamental way. While a lot of his tweaks to the Night Stalker mythos serve to make the story more generic, there is also a sense that he is making it more archetypal.

The city that never sleeps...

The city that never sleeps…

In fact, the script to the pilot works best when it drops the very familiar specifics of Kolchak’s fairly stock mysterious past in favour of broader storytelling archetypes. Monsters work best as allegories or metaphors, and Spotnitz’s script hits its stride when it embraces the idea of Night Stalker as a very basic and simple narrative about horror and trauma and loss. The opening and closing monologues clarify the show’s central metaphors by having Kolchak talk at length about them over a soft piece of piano music.

Kolchak is a man who hunts “horrors we can only pretend to understand” and who knows “about things that adults dismiss, but children are right to fear.” The narrative of the pilot literalises this in several ways. In one of the episode’s nicer shots, the body of the first victim is fleetingly glimpsed by her niece through a closing door as the girl’s father identifies the remains. Kolchak tries and fails to comfort the child. “I’m still afraid,” she confesses. When Kolchak asks what she is afraid of, she looks out the window into the dark. “Of what’s out there.”



Although the episode opens with murder of a young woman, the plot only kicks into gear with the abduction of the woman’s niece. The climax of the episode has Kolchak venturing into a dark cave in order to rescue the child from a mysterious (and archetypal) monster. The pilot deals in the broadest of strokes, allowing Kolchak to directly engage with the idea of monsters and childhood fears rather than offering him more specific examples that would risk obscuring the theme. Those childhood fears then tie back to more nuance adult fears of loss and isolation.

This is really the perfect level at which to pitch a pilot, introducing the core premise of the show in a rather no-frills manner that offers a succinct statement of what the show will be about without getting too bogged down in specifics. The X-Files opened with a fairly basic alien abduction story, particularly considering where the alien abduction narratives would go from there. Millennium opened with an outline of the “serial killer of the week” format that the follow for most of the first season. So “Kolchak versus a monster” is a good place to start.

Light 'em up...

Light ’em up…

However, while an archetypal story is a good idea for a pilot of a new show, Night Stalker struggles to flesh out the surrounding framework. Carl Kolchak might be a generic protagonist, but he still receives more development than the supporting cast. The characters are drawn as broadly as the monster, often feeling more like a bunch of stock character adjectives bundled together in familiar patterns. Perri Reed is skeptical, honest, sincere. Agent Bernard Fain is obsessed, vindictive, narrow-minded. Anthony Vincenzo is a gruff (but caring) editor.

There is something incredibly old-fashioned about Night Stalker, with dialogue feeling like it has been quoted directly from the bible of a nineties television show pitch. When Fain arrests Kolchak, Vincenzo shows up to bluntly explain Kolchak’s history to Reed. Even after the show has established that Kolchak and Reed are going to have an affectionately antagonistic relationship, Vincenzo still explains the dynamic to the viewers to home. “The two of you are expected to get along,” he protests, making it clear that they won’t immediately.

Roads to nowhere...

Roads to nowhere…

There is something almost endearing about how bluntly Night Stalker approaches character development, just having characters articulate core themes and ideas for the benefit of the audience. “Carl, why can’t you let this story go?” one character wonders, in cause the audience hasn’t picked up from the script’s hints and Townsend’s performance that the case is of personal importance to the character. Vincenzo more bluntly answers that same question later, rhetorically asking, “You mean why a man who would be drawn to a story that so closely mirrors his own?”

The script’s dialogue feels a little strange, as if Spotnitz is consciously trying to force the characters to speak in gritty old-school noir clichés. As much as Spotnitz might haven shaken up some of the underlying premises of Night Stalker, the characters talk more like classic film and television characters than real people. “They done with you?” Vincenzo asks after Kolchak is released. “For now,” Kolchak replies. “All they have is their fevered imaginations.” It is dialogue straight from a comic book or a very cheesy classic film.

Things that go "bump" in the night...

Things that go “bump” in the night…

Despite the tweaks to modernise Night Stalker, many elements feel old-fashioned. Spotnitz might have reworked his central character to fit contemporary expectations and inserted a central dynamic that harks back to The X-Files, but many of the core ingredients feel like they’ve been kept in storage for over thirty years. Perhaps the most notable of these elements is the decision to retain Kolchak’s job as a newspaper reporter. Spotnitz had toyed with the idea of making Kolchak a television journalist, but opted to keep the character at an old-fashioned paper.

To be fair, hindsight plays a large part in making this choice feel so old-fashioned and outdated. Given the current state of the newspaper industry, the idea of a major publisher paying a trio of crime reporters to investigate monsters seems almost naive. Vincenzo’s indulgence of Kolchak’s obsessions seems positively surreal. Then again, Night Stalker would not make for particularly exciting television if Kolchak was hanging around by himself, scanning newswires while skulking around police stations and courtrooms.

Caving to the pressure...

Caving to the pressure…

While the situation was not as bleak as it would become, there were indications that the newspaper industry was under threat as early as 2005. It was estimated that Craigslist cost the newspaper industry over five billion dollars between 2000 and 2007. By 2005, only twenty percent of young people were reading daily newspapers, compared to seventy percent of older Americans. In November 2005, Rupert Murdoch reflected:

Rupert Murdoch has forecast a gloomy future for newspapers with the growth of the internet, saying he doesn’t know “anybody under the age of 30 who has ever looked at a classified ad.”

The owner of the Sun, Times, Sunday Times and the News of the World, who once described newspaper classified advertising revenue as providing “rivers of gold”, now says: “Sometimes rivers dry up.”

With all of this happening in the background, it feels particularly strange to offer such a traditional depiction of news media in Night Stalker. Indeed, Carter had recognised the newspaper setting of The Night Stalker as a weakness, and had so consciously avoided casting Mulder and Scully as journalists during production of The X-Files.

Well, there's a descriptive page title...

Well, there’s a descriptive page title…

While it would certainly run the risk of being accused of seeming “trendy”, particularly given the younger cast, perhaps Night Stalker might have done well to embrace the internet age. Kolchak’s investigations seem more like the sort of findings that belong on blogs and feeds, fringe (and often dubious) media content covering material that would not feel at home at a major publisher. Indeed, it seems like the urban legends and monsters of the modern world find a home on-line, in chain emails and perpetuating memes.

Spotnitz is certainly an internet-savvy producer. The X-Files was a show that embraced and encouraged its on-line fan base, to the point where the ninth season’s revamped opening credits were populated with the user names of various on-line fans. Indeed, Night Stalker acknowledges the ubiquity and accessibility of the internet, with Reed eagerly googling her new partner, finding some decidedly clickbait results, and getting a 404 error. Kolchak himself might just be an internet urban legend.

Clickbait! 2005 clickbait!

Clickbait! 2005 clickbait!

That said, there is a very effective (but subtle) distinction to be made between Night Stalker and the earlier Kolchak stories. The early Kolchak stories presented the character as something of a drifter. Kolchak: The Night Stalker had the journalist investigating vampires in Las Vegas. Kolchak: The Night Strangler took the character to Seattle. The weekly television series unfolded in Chicago. However, Night Stalker moves Kolchak to Los Angeles. (Although it retains the character’s history with Las Vegas.)

The Los Angeles setting is more than mere convenience for the cast and crew. The series is very firmly anchored in California. Even the title “Night Stalker” has different connotations in Los Angeles than in other parts of the country; the name is associated with two serial killers active in the city during the seventies and eighties, Richard Ramirez and an unidentified prowler. As such, Night Stalker feels already attuned to the horrors of Los Angeles, even if Kolchak has travelled quite far to reach this point.

Outside looking in...

Outside looking in…

The series feels deeply rooted in the West Coast aesthetic, making a home for itself in a way that The X-Files never really could. Mulder and Scully toured America, visiting a wide range of haunting locations across the continent; uncovering the eccentric spaces in the young nation’s countryside and the anonymous concrete jungles stalked by urban predators. The X-Files could see the world, whether from Vancouver or Los Angeles. In contrast, Night Stalker makes itself a home.

Even in its pilot episode, Night Stalker quickly anchors itself in the city. The opening and closing narrations include shots of Kolchak driving along California’s seemingly unending highways and at home in the iconic Stahl House (Case Study House 22) that overlooks the Sunset Strip. Stahl House is an instantly recognisable piece of Los Angeles iconography, with Julius Shulman’s famous black and white photograph of it labelled “the most iconic image of Los Angeles.” It feels entirely appropriate that Kolchak should make his home there.

City livin'...

City livin’…

For Spotnitz, it was important that Kolchak’s home evoke the spirit of the city. For Spotnitx, Night Stalker was more geographically specific in its horror than The X-Files had been. He explained to Los Angeles Magazine:

“The safe move would have been to put Kolchak in an old Craftsman house,” says Spotnitz. “Typically when you work in the horror genre, you go for what everyone thinks of as a spooky location. But I want to show how contemporary L.A. – the city I live in – can be a very frightening place.”

The horror of The X-Files was a broader fear of the nooks and shadows of a vast continent that was rapidly shrinking in an era of globalisation. Night Stalker is the horror of a very specific urban environment.

Lighting the way...

Lighting the way…

Los Angeles is the second largest city in the United States, and it makes sense that the city comes with its own unique cultural identity and character. Not only that, the city is the source of a huge amount of popular culture and entertainment; it makes sense that the city’s character would bleed into that. Much like New York, Los Angeles has a unique personality that has seeped into the larger cultural consciousness through osmosis. Like New York, certain themes and imagery associated with the city become ubiquitous.

A horror series tied to Los Angeles will be subtly different than a horror series set in New York. Fear of urban decay and random violence is fairly universal for the contemporary cityscape, but the character of that fear changes. New York is a city that is dense and populous, while Los Angeles is sprawling and vast. New York represents the beginning of the American dream, the sight of the Statue of Liberty welcoming those huddled masses; Los Angeles represents the end of that dream, the ambition of Manifest Destiny giving way to the still and silent Pacific Ocean.

Take it as Reed...

Take it as Reed…

Los Angeles represents the end of the American experience, waves of immigrants and refugees breaking against the very limit of the raw and untamed continent. For a nation that always looked west, Los Angeles represents the point at which the settlers have run out of west. Vince Gilligan skilfully evoked those themes in Drive, but they come baked into the premise of Night Stalker. Kolchak ended up in Los Angeles when he had to leave Las Vegas; he can flee no further west, this is the end of his American experience.

Los Angeles is a city that seems populated with broken dreams. Its mythology is built up around the feeling of disconnect and anomie. Hollywood is an essential part of the city’s myth, but so is everything that stands in contrast to the glamour and the glory; those who travel to Los Angeles in pursuit of fame, those chewed up and spit out by the system, the poverty of the inner city. Los Angeles is a place that feels alone and isolated, a place where houses are built on the edge of large deserts that might as well be haunted by cruel and unknowable monsters.

While New York’s “melting pot” is populated by ethnic groups that have resisted gentrification to varying degrees, there is a strong sense of shared identity; Los Angeles occasionally feels more like a collection of different communities than a single unified city. Los Angeles has one of the greatest income disparities in the United States. Author Ryan Gattis discusses the divide that is essential to Los Angeles’ character:

There are so many different L.A.s. L.A. is its own world in so many ways and by and large, Hollywood does a tremendous job of covering that up. But when the real L.A. rears up—and the riots brought a lot of that, brought the seedy, brought the gangs, the racially conflicted—certainly as an outsider you’re thinking how does this even happen because we are not seeing the real L.A. on a daily basis. We’re seeing the idealized, the glossy. There’s that moment when [another character] says, “Welcome to my America.” It’s not the same for everyone, even though we’d like it to be.

The city has a history of urban unrest and racial tension, from the Zuit Suit Riots to the Watts Riots to the Los Angeles Riots. Although those cases of civil unrest were rooted in complex historical and social factors, they fed into a feeling that Los Angeles was a city perpetually on the verge of collapse into anarchy and disorder.

Of course, this perception is particularly true true for many middle-class whites or individuals without an in-depth understanding of the history and sociology of the city. Without the proper context in which to consider these incidents, Los Angeles can seem particularly scary and uncertain. The fear of social collapse always felt more tangible in Los Angeles than New York, particularly since New York’s crime rates began their sharp decline. Los Angeles is frequently portrayed as a harsh and uncaring city, one particularly random in its horrors.

It makes sense that Kolchak is a crime reporter. Los Angeles and California have become linked with cultural anxieties around crime; California has the biggest prison system in the United States, after all. Los Angeles’ culture of crime and violence has spawned its own urban legends and horror stories, contemporary fairy tales that warn of the danger of the city itself. If pop culture is to be believed, wandering through Los Angeles is akin to drifting off into a medieval forest, albeit one haunted by more contemporary bogeymen.

Although there is some question as to whether gang initiations even exist in such extreme forms, it seems like there is a constant stream of horror pouring through chain emails and message boards to make residents feel unsafe in the urban environment; whether it is the threat of “100 gang kills in 100 days” or the old chestnut of gang members driving with their headlights off and killing those who flash them, the fear of random violence in Los Angeles bleeds through the popular consciousness.

Over the years, Los Angeles has developed its own particularly sordid history of crime, perhaps as a result of the overlap of the city’s celebrity culture. The Manson murders, the Night Stalker, the Black Dahlia murder, the Hillside Strangler. News coverage would often place Los Angeles as the focal point of some new horrifying crime, from freeway violence to stalking to gang violence to the infamous McMartin preschool scandal. This is to say nothing of the fixation upon gang violence within the city.

As Joel Best explains in Random Violence: How We Talk about New Crimes and New Victims, there are a variety of complex factors that all play into this popular perception of Los Angeles:

Why do new crimes often emerge in Los Angeles? Most obviously, Los Angeles is the country’s second-largest city and its principal media centre. Though New York remains the leading centre for journalism (home to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, the major news magazines, and the networks’ evening news broadcasts), Los Angeles is also a major press centre; not only does it have its own influential newspaper (the Los Angeles Times), but all major national news media maintain bureaus or, in the case of the television networks, owned-and-operated affiliates in Los Angeles. Moreover, Los Angeles is the centre for entertainment media – particularly the recording industry and movie and television production. This concentration of press and entertainment media gives stories set in Los Angeles an advantage: it is easier and cheaper for L.A.-based reporters to cover stories near where they are stationed than to have to travel, just as it is more convenient to stage films and television programs in southern California. This means that, because crime and violence are standard themes in contemporary popular culture, we are accustomed to fictional portrayals of a violent Los Angeles.

Still, regardless of the reasons for this preconception, it still informs a lot of the cultural context of Los Angeles; it is part of the associations and the imagery that the city evokes in the popular imagination.

As such, Los Angeles seems like the perfect place to set Night Stalker, particularly given Spotnitz’s fascination with allegory and metaphor in his storytelling. The random violence associated with Los Angeles in the popular imagination is rooted in a variety of complex factors, tying together the city’s history and culture with larger social and economic realities. The threat and fear of random violence in Los Angeles is in many ways a stand-in for all these larger issues; issues of race, class, disparity and celebrity.

The instinctive fear of random horrific violence is just a visceral reaction to these larger realities, much as Night Stalker positions its own monsters as metaphors to confront those anxieties. There is something quite clever and reflexive in all that, using the horror movie monsters of Night Stalker as stand-ins for fears that are arguably themselves stand-ins for more complex anxieties. Night Stalker simply filters these abstract fears through another level of abstraction. The violence is not just random, it is irrational.

Just as fear of random gang violence is tied to broader issues of racial and economic tension, Night Stalker suggests that the fear of monsters is tied to more complex human emotions. Kolchak suggests that the monsters are a reflection of childish fears, but they also become a reflection of his own uncertainty following the death of his wife. Although somewhat cliché, the presence of the mark on Kolchak’s wrist ties those fears back into uncertainties about himself. The monsters express deeply seated existential anxieties.

Indeed, Spotnitz returns to the themes he hinted at in Via Negativa and The Gift, the crippling fear that humanity is perfectly capable of manufacturing its own monsters; that evil is nestled within human nature. Chris Carter tended to portray evil as an infectious or corrupting force, but Spotnitz seems to treat it as innate – or, at the very least, something that could be innate. Kolchak confesses he is “haunted by the fear that the answers [he seeks] lie not in the darkness without, but the darkness within” in a paraphrase of the theme of Via Negativa.

Film and television have traditionally portrayed Los Angeles as a community that is disconnected and discordant, a city defined by overlapping narratives that intersect but seldom run in parallel. Iconic portrayals of this version of Los Angeles include Short Cuts or Pulp Fiction or Magnolia. Los Angeles is portrayed as a city where everybody is essentially alone, aside from the occasional collision. As Mark Shiel notes in The Southland on Screen:

However, these films do not generally seek to critique this environment, nor do they show much consciousness of the racially and socioeconomically exclusive character of the West LA and San Fernando Valley settings that dominate their mise en scéne. Rather they proceed on the basis of an ironic knowing of the city’s history and dysfunction, and within these terms they arguably serve to acclimatise audiences to the present-day landscapes, lifestyles, and rythms of Los Angeles by acknowledging its commodification of everyday life, its tendency to sudden and random violence, and its apparently limitless size. Notably, the aerial shot of the city at night, appearing as a flickering matrix of lights as far as the eye can see, has become one of the most regular visual metaphors, while the most striking narrative device has been the use of chance as a determining factor.

Night Stalker is particularly fond of that visual metaphor. Even within the pilot, Los Angeles is frequently reduced to a matrix of lights, whether in overhead shots of the city at night, or glimpsed through the windows of Kolchak and Reed’s office or from the iconic perspective of the Stahl House. Indeed, the shots of Los Angeles through windows are frequently frames so as to reduce the city to an abstract series of coloured balls of light.

Although quite a lot Night Stalker feels old-fashioned, and perhaps even a little outdated, the show is shot with cutting-edge technology. The production team opted to record the episode on digital rather than film, with several sequences in the pilot filmed using a Panasonic Genesis digital camera. The appeal of such a camera lies in its versatility, and its ability to capture images without the lighting and set-up (or even space) that is necessary for conventional cameras. Director of Photography Clark Mathis helped to negotiate use of the digital camera for the rest of the first season.

The decision to shoot on digital rather than film gives Night Stalker a unique look, especially compared to many contemporary television shows. Digital allows for more mobility of the camera, as well as shots that are darker and richer than those possible on many of the shows broadcast at around the same time. The sequences of Kolchak venturing into the cave, his path lit by a fluorescent torch, are marvelously effective and evocative. They lend an otherwise fairly generic show a distinct visual style.

For Spotnitz, the use of digital photography was an essential part of Night Stalker‘s visual identity:

I am a convert, but I think there are some types of stories that lend themselves more naturally to it than others. I mean, you can use it for anything, and it’s fine for anything, but especially when you’re doing all this night photography on locations, it’s just spectacular because it’s so good at capturing light in low light situations. You see details that you’re not used to seeing. We’ve been watching film for so long that we’ve forgotten that, when you’re watching film stuff at night, you’re not seeing the sky at night you’re not seeing way off into the distance like you do in real life. For me, Robbery Homicide Division was a revelation working with these cameras, and, then, by the time Night Stalker came along it was not that difficult a connection to make that these cameras would be really appropriate for it. And they had a new generation camera at Panavision called the Genesis, which I was all over. Actually, with the pilot, we were the first TV show to ever use that camera I think there were only three in existence at the time, and the others were all down in Australia for Superman Returns. Then when we went to series, I fought really hard to get them so we were all an all Genesis show.

There are moments in the pilot that look beautiful, and utterly unlike the equivalent image processed on film.

In a way, this ties back to the show’s Los Angeles setting. Frank Spotnitz’s first experience with digital video came while working on the short-lived procedural Robbery Homicide Division. (Vince Gilligan had also been part of that show’s writing staff.) Robbery Homicide Division was executive produced by veteran film director Michael Mann. Mann had a wealth of experience in film and television, but he would prove an unlikely influence on Night Stalker in both its format and its setting.

Michael Mann was one of the earliest major converts to digital video. Not only had Robbery Homicide Division been shot on digital video, Mann had also shot most of his 2004 film Collateral on digital video, using traditional 35mm film for some interior sequences. The film looked stunning, and served to demonstrate that digital photography was not just for arthouse fare or indie flicks. It was possible to produce a polished mainstream piece of popular entertainment using the technology. It was a watershed moment for the form.

However, Mann’s initial forays into digital – both Robbery Homicide Division and Collateral – were both set within Los Angeles. Although early drafts of Collateral set the story in New York, the finished film hits upon many of the key themes of isolation and disconnect (and random violence) that seem so common to stories set in and around the city. Mann reflects of the City of Angels:

“I love Los Angeles,” he says when I ask him about his relationship with the city. “Eighty per cent of it is unexplored. People who make films [here] don’t go out into the city … they think they do but they don’t.

“You just drive down the right streets and you’ll see images of alienation. But they are beautiful images of alienation. They become paradoxical but they present themselves to you.”

These themes of disconnect and alienation play out in Mann’s work involving the city. Heat is very much a Los Angeles anthology film crossed with a crime thriller, the story of isolated lives intersecting and colliding, where the most meaningful interaction between the two leads is a single cup of coffee. Collateral features a taxi driver who gets drawn into a web of violence simply by virtue of picking up the wrong passenger at the airport.

With all that in mind, Mann’s decision to experiment with digital video on two projects filmed in Los Angeles seems like more than just a matter of convenient timing. Los Angeles is peculiarly suited to this style of film-making. Collateral captures a version of Los Angeles that seems more visceral than is usually depicted on the big screen, a glimpse of the city closer to how it actually appears to those drifting through it aimlessly in the late hours. It is a city that is at once overpopulated and also desperately lonely.

Night Stalker encapsulates all of this with an extra twist. For all the digital video can seem more “real” than film in capturing a moment or a place with minimal set-up, it is also far easier to manipulate and tweak digital video than it is with film. By way example, all of the Star Trek spin-offs were shot on film, but edited on video because it was easier; this made remastering Star Trek: The Next Generation for high definition a particularly daunting task. It is far easier to remaster and tweak digital video. As such, it is both more “real” and “unreal” at the same time.

This is something that Night Stalker plays with, using a format known for its versatility and ability to capture organic and spontaneous images for a show about a monster-hunter. Indeed, Night Stalker seems to bask in its own unreality; the show’s computer-generated imagery was not particularly state-of-the-art, even by the standards of 2005. As a result, the monsters appear distinctly artificial in otherwise natural shots; this is particularly evident during the attack upon the car.

(There is, to be clear, nothing wrong with this. There is nothing wrong with monsters appearing slightly unreal, after all. Indeed, director Daniel Sackheim plays into the old-fashioned aesthetic of the show in how he chooses to portray most of the attacks. While there are a number of CGI shots later in the episode, the opening attack is shot very much in the style of The Evil Dead, putting the camera in the position of the monster. It is a rather old-school approach, but one that feels appropriate for a show about a monster-fighting crime reporter.)

Under Spotnitz’s supervision, Night Stalker is consciously stylised, with very careful attention paid to the look and feel of the show. As Spotnitz explained to Los Angeles Magazine, careful attention was paid to the series’ colour palette:

“We want to save the red for blood,” Spotnitz tells the seven people who settle onto sofas in a corner of his office shortly after the meeting devoted to Schnauz’s episode. The group, which includes Daniel Sackheim, Bernard Hides, costume designer Victoria Auth, co-executive producer John P. Kousakis, and production manager Robert P. Cohen, has gathered for one of The Night Stalker’s periodic “colour meetings”, which are dedicated to the series’ aesthetics. As large a role as the show’s writing plays in its creator’s hopes, its look is nearly as important. Indeed, Spotnitz’s admonition to steer clear of extraneous crimsons and carmines was so closely adhered to in the pilot that the police cars used during the episode’s crime scenes were all specially equipped with blue lights.

Despite the naturalistic portrayal of Los Angeles and the use of ambient light for night-time shots, Night Stalker is very meticulously put together, with an incredible amount of care put into the even the colours that appear on screen. (Although the footage is pointedly not colour-corrected.)

In a way, this speaks to the strengths and weaknesses of the pilot. Night Stalker is very finely put together, with the care and love of the production team reflected in the careful planning and skillful execution of the show’s production. Spotnitz’s attention to detail is nothing short of astounding, and Night Stalker certainly looks impressive. The problem is what lies beneath the show’s slick design and meticulous production. The storytelling engine driving all this feels generic and familiar, sacrificing a lot of what made the original Kolchak so compelling.

Still, this is only a pilot. There is a long way to go, a lot of night left to stalk.

One Response

  1. Judging from this review, perhaps it would’ve been better to pitch this series as more of a mood piece than the character piece they seemed to go for.

    I see what you mean about the problem with the lead. Just from the pictures you provide, this guy seems to lack the edge needed to really sell the character. Mulder was presented as good-looking, as well as highly intelligent and (mostly) financially independent. But the writers used that to make Mulder more interesting. It was almost tragic how his otherwise promising life was derailed by one tragedy. And Duchovny gave Mulder so much personality that I just don’t see here. It’s a reminder of how much difference a performer can make in bringing a character to life.

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