Of the many horror TV series that have graced the small screens over the past few decades, one short-lived series has gained a massive cult following: “Kolchak: The Night Stalker”. Starring Darren McGavin (familiar to most as the blustery father in A CHRISTMAS STORY) as Carl Kolchak, a Chicago reporter acting as a modern-day Van Helsing, covering stories with supernatural angles in modern times, the show premiered on ABC in 1974 on Friday nights, scheduled against “The Rockford Files”. While fans loved the show, the ratings weren’t strong enough to keep production going so it slipped silently off into the night to be cherished as a memory of fans for 30 years. Now, Universal has released the entire series to DVD.

In an odd twist, ABC just premiered its reinventing of this cult classic TV series, to critical acclaim (however the ratings blew and it has subsequently been cancelled). It appears that there just might never be a good time for a horror-themed television series like “Kolchak”. The only successful ones previously had been anthology series (“Ghost Story”, “The Twilight Zone”, “One Step Beyond”) and the odd daytime soap opera “Dark Shadows”. ABC also must have been caught off-guard by the show’s lack of ratings after its powerhouse success with the proceeding TV movies THE NIGHT STALKER and THE NIGHT STRANGLER. This writer wasn’t a fan of either of those telefilms, but the series is consistently more interesting, covering a variety of weird and bizarre situations, from vampires to aliens to ghosts to psychics, with a welcome sense of humor and great chemistry between McGavin and Simon Oakland as his tough-as-nails editor Tony Vincenzo. Ruth McDevitt and Jack Grinnage provide more chuckles as staff writers Emily Cowles and Ron Updyke; semi-regulars included John Fielder (the voice of Piglet in the “Winnie the Pooh” films) as a seedy morgue attendant and Carol Ann Susie (her guest bit on “Seinfeld” as a Brooklyn date of George’s is memorable) as a Mob-related whippersnapper looking to make it as a journalist.

Not every episode was a good one, but here is a brief rundown of some of the episodes worth watching in this set, made up of three double-sided discs and with nary an extra to be found:

Disc 1:

“The Ripper” – The first episode of the series deals with Jack the Ripper stalking the streets of Chicago, killing beautiful girls, including an exotic dancer and a massage girl. He survives a massive police onslaught and sends mocking letters to the local newspapers. It turns out that he is an indestructible, undead being who has been traveling across the globe for decades, killing a number of women in big cities worldwide. Guest stars: Beatrice Colen (“Happy Days”) is a competitive reporter with a bottomless stomach, Denise Dillaway (THE CHEERLEADERS) is barely recognizable as a victim in a dark alleyway, and 70s drive-in royalty Roberta Collins makes an impression as an undercover cop working in a massage parlor (she looks great in her skimpy outfit). She should have had her own show! It’s too bad the show doesn’t credit the busty blonde victim with a stuffed teddy bear or the exotic dancer.

“The Zombie” – The Chicago crime syndicate is being decimated, one man at a time, by a super-powerful mystery killer. The culprit is revealed to be a murdered black man, resurrected by his voodoo priestess mother, to avenge his gangland murder. Guest stars: Gary Baxley (the Lionman in THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1977), Jimmy McNichol’s ill-fated father in NIGHT WARNING) is an early mobster victim, the voice of “Hong Kong Phooey” and blaxploitation star Scatman Crothers is a Hispanic numbers runner, and Antonio Fargas (CAR WASH, FOXY BROWN, “Starsky and Hutch”s Huggy Bear) does his pimp shtick.

“The Vampire” – A Las Vegas hooker sucks a lot more than her share of weenie: she is a vampire vixen who targets both men and women in her search for warm blood.

“The Werewolf” – A series of wolf attacks includes one that rips apart an entire family. Vincenzo’s vacation plans are ruined, so Kolchak is given his tickets for a luxurious cruise ship. However, the monster behind the murders may be on-board in human form, waiting for the full moon to rise so he can butcher his share of passengers. Guest stars: Henry Jones (“Phyllis”) is the ship captain, redhead Jackie Russell (ALL THE LOVING COUPLES, LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM) is a swinging single gal, German Eric Braeden (COLOSSUS THE FORBIN PROJECT) is The Werewolf, and Nita Talbot (THE CONCRETE JUNGLE, CHAINED HEAT) is a potential romantic match with Kolchak.

“The Devil’s Platform” – This is an interesting episode, considering it aired around the time Nixon left the White House. A senator’s enemies begin dying in strange accidents, leading Kolchak to wonder if the politician is somehow connected. While he isn’t the one committing the murders, he has sold his soul to Satan to ensure his opposition disappears, with a big black Rottweiler appearing at the scene of one crime inciting Kolchak to investigate. Guest stars: Tom Skeritt (a year before THE DEVIL’S RAIN and two decades before “Picket Fences”) is the soulless senator.

“Bad Medicine” – A Native American spirit roams the country, seeking rare jewels for his collection as part of an age-old curse. He targets two elderly rich ladies in Chicago, putting Kolchak on the case. Guest stars: Richard Kiel (EEGAH! and “Jaws” himself) is The Diablero, the giant Native American who can shapeshift into various animals, including a raven and a wolf, Victor Jory (CAT WOMEN ON THE MOON) is a modern-day Native American providing the key to the identity of the jewel thief, Alice Ghostley (“Bewitched”, BLUE SUNSHINE) is a curator of Native American history, and Lois January (an extra in 1934’s BLACK CAT), Riza Royce (THE BAT, SAVAGE INTRUDER) and Barbara Morrison (PROJECT MOONBASE, DARKTOWN STRUTTERS) as rich targets of the Diablero.

Disc 2:

“The Spanish Moss Murders” – A sleep study patient somehow resurrects a swamp monster from the Louisiana bayou…and it somehow gets up to Chicago and stalks through the sewers, emerging to kill random people. It can only be stopped through an ancient ritual involving a specially made spear. Guest stars: the late Elisabeth Brooks (THE HOWLING), has one line as a lab assistant; Richard Kiel returns as the “Swamp Monster”; Virginia Gregg, the voice of ‘Mrs. Bates’ in PSYCHO, as a horticulturist; Hollywood character actor Keenan Wynn as a police captain; and Severn Darden (WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS, JACKSON COUNTY JAIL) as a callous doctor. Directed by Gordon Hessler (CRY OF THE BANSHEE, MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE).

“The Energy Eater” – A brand new hospital in the city is plagued with bizarre electrical accidents, and it is soon discovered that the site was a Native American burial ground. The spirit of an ancient bear god demands revenge! Guest stars: this one’s a cult film fan’s dream! Elaine Giftos (THE STUDENT NURSES) as a suspicious nurse in the hospital, muscleman stunt man and biker movie favorite William Smith as the descendant of a Native American shaman called upon to exorcise the building, the late Joyce Jillson (SUPERCHICK herself, and future psychic!) as a ditzy blonde date of Smith’s, and Ella Edwards (SWEET SUGAR) in a bit part as a receptionist.

“Primal Scream” – This episode is just OK, about an Arctic monster brought back to life after being warmed up in Chicago. But it’s worth checking out for the bit part from Jeanne Bell (TNT JACKSON, THE MUTHERS) as a victim and John Marley (DEATHDREAM) as a police captain.

“The Trevi Collection” – One of the more enjoyable shows, reminiscent of Mario Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. The fashion industry is the setting for a number of strange accidents that all lead back to a beautiful blonde who could be a witch. Guest stars: Lara Parker (“Dark Shadows”, RACE WITH THE DEVIL) gives one of her best performances as the supernatural runway model, she is funny, sexy and evil; Nina Foch (CRY OF THE WEREWOLF) as designer Madame Trevi; and former teen idol Richard Bakalyan (THE COOL AND THE CRAZY, HOT CAR GIRL) as a hood. The concept of an episode filled with beautiful women would have been a great opportunity for many of the drive-in’s most lovely ladies, but nothing doing in the finished product… However, black beauty Beverly Gill was in SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM.

“Chopper” – A mix of biker flicks and horror as the headless ghost of a dead 50s biker begins decapitating former members of his gang with a sword. The headless biker is a goofy sight, but the concept is cool and its execution admirable. Guest stars: Larry Linville (“M*A*S*H*”) as a police captain; Sharon Farrell (IT’S ALIVE!) as a biker widow; Jim Backus (“Gilligan’s Island”) as a motorcycle salesman; and Art Metrano (G.W. Bailey’s temporary replacement in the POLICE ACADEMY series) as a former biker working as a telephone repairman. Future director Robert Zemeckis (BACK TO THE FUTURE, FORREST GUMP) co-wrote this episode.

“Demon in Lace” – A college’s handsome male students are seduced and murdered by a group of beautiful women who turn out to be demons in disguise. Some great make-up effects in this one. Guest stars: Carolyn Jones (“The Addams Family”) as the college registrar (she looks great here, but shortly after, would look embalmed in EATEN ALIVE); Keenan Wynn returns as Captain Siska; Kristina Holland (the voice of the daughter on “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home”, the precursor to “Family Guy”) as a college newspaper reporter; comedian Jackie Vernon as a coach; handsome blonde Snag Werris as the first male victim; Margie Impert (THE HOWLING) as one of the demon women; and bespectacled Andrew Prine (CENTERFOLD GIRLS, SIMON KING OF THE WITCHES) as a college professor who may hold the key to the murders.

Disc 3:

“Legacy of Terror” – A modern-day Aztec cult tries to resurrect a terrifying ancient god by ripping the hearts out of a variety of victims, mostly men (football player, military man). The killings are quite startling in this one, with a colorful assassin in feathery ceremonial garb stabbing the victims while another costumed man plays flute…! Guest stars: another fun cast for cult film fans! Erik Estrada (“CHiPs”) is a pimp-ish hotel vice president, and his harem of women is made up of flame-haired beauty Sondra Currie (POLICEWOMEN, MAMA’S DIRTY GIRLS), blonde Dorrie Thomson (POLICEWOMEN, CHESTY ANDERSON USN), and honey-blonde Merrie Lynn Ross (SCHOOLGIRLS IN CHAINS). Pippa Scott (BAD RONALD) is the hotel public affairs officer, Scott Douglas (the narrator of ASTOUNDING SHE MONSTER!!) is an Army captain, and Victor Campos (SCARFACE) as an anthropology professor.

“The Knightly Murders” – A series of murders seem to have been committed by a medieval knight in a suit of armor, wielding a giant lance and mace, and they seem to be connected to the transformation of a museum into a disco. This episode isn’t one of the better ones, but has an interesting supporting cast. The vastly underrated Lieux Dressler (KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS, TRUCK STOP WOMEN) is quite amusing as the sassy decorator of the disco, Shug Fisher (THE GIANT GILA MONSTER) is an antique store owner, Hans Conried (“Rocky and Bullwinkle”) is the former curator of the museum, Alyscia Maxwell (RAPE SQUAD) is a black novice reporter. Contrary to the IMDB, Lucille Benson (PRIVATE PARTS) does not appear in this episode.

“The Youth Killer” – A hip New Age dating service exclusively for young beautiful people becomes all the rage in Chicago, but when its members begin to show signs of aging, weight gain, or imperfection, their youth is drained from them, leaving a trail of wrinkled corpses across the city. Another very unique episode, with a novel concept that just screams “The 70s!”. Striking Cathy Lee Crosby is “Helen of Troy”, the Greek-mythology look priestess who ritually drains her subjects. Guest stars: Blonde muscle stud Reb Brown (SSSSS, YOR, SPACE MUTINY) has a cameo as a handsome applicant to the dating service, Kathleen Freeman (NAKED GUN 33 1/3, UNHOLY ROLLERS, and countless others) is a mystical dating expert, and former child actor Dwayne Hickman is a police sergeant.

“The Sentry” – Playing almost like a precursor to Stephen King’s “Graveyard Shift” story, underground workers at a storage vault repository are being picked off by a vicious lizard creature. For the show’s swan song, this is a pretty memorable episode, and has some interesting guests: Tom Bosley (NIGHT GALLERY, “Happy Days”) is one of the head honchos at the repository, John Hoyt (ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE, X THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES) plays a doctor performing autopsies on the victims, Andrew Robinson (HELLRAISER and…gulp…the title role in the TV movie LIBERACE!!) plays a shipping clerk, and Margaret Avery (THE COLOR PURPLE) is a lovely data storage worker.

The other episodes (20 altogether) are "Horror in the Heights", "Mr. R.I.N.G.", "They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be...", and "Firefall".

How do the episodes look? Most of them look very sharp, with good color and skintones. Some episodes fare worse than others in the grain department, with several being almost too overwhelming to be watchable. Some viewers have reported glitches on their discs, but this reviewer encountered none of those. (Casey Scott)