Based on a pair of TV movie adaptations by Richard Matheson, the Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974) series ran only 20 episodes, surprising given the popular and commercial success of its made-for-TV movie sources. Critic John Kenneth Muir devoted chapter 5 in his survey of American horror television to the show, noting that when the first movie “premiered on the night of January 11, 1972, it was the highest rated TV movie of the year! It received a staggering 33.1 rating and a 48 share of the audience. Twenty years later, in 1992, The Night Stalker was still considered a success, although it had fallen to 29th place in the intervening two decades.” The series, although organized in a standard episodic fashion, expanded on the initial premise of the movies: a newspaper reporter (“Carl Kolchak,” played by Darren McGavin) covers breaking news stories that turn into an encounter with the occult and supernatural. The show is best known today as the inspiration for the longer-running series The X-Files.
Jack Cole, who created title designs for two other programs that also premiered in 1974 — The Six Million Dollar Man and The Rockford Files — created the title sequence. His design is brief, running 55 seconds and composed of only 18 shots; as with the program’s stories, it employs an unusually high degree of realism (for TV in the 1970s) in the composition and staging of its shots. The entire sequence culminates in an uncanny moment where time stops and Kolchak (McGavin) has an encounter with something we never see: the creation and evocation of this encounter depend on how the three sections of this title were shot. Each employs a different type of cinematic realism: the first section is a continuous long take running 22 seconds (Figure 1a-f); the second section is a rhythmic montage almost entirely composed from details of a manual typewriter filmed in extreme close-up and cut to the beat of the theme music (Figure 2a-f); the third section returns to a standard medium close-up of McGavin while the lighting actively (and impossibly) changes from daytime to night, followed by other shots — a clock, a spinning fan that become visibly still frames (Figure 3a-f). The end of this third, final section is where the uncanny moment emerges. The contrast/discovery of the uncanny with/in the more recognizable and instantly understood realism of the first two sections has a metonymic relationship to the show’s contents — Kolchak’s encounter with a supernatural reality just under the surface of the world we think we recognize — it is a reiteration of the show’s premise. The realism of the sequence (and the show itself) belies the unreality of what appears in the episodes, yet its use here is appropriate for reasons connected to the show’s fictional world — Kolchak is a newspaper reporter who, like Woodward and Bernstein, uncovers “proof” of a hidden truth; in his case, it is a supernatural world of vampires, killer computers, and homicidal monsters all of which have been suppressed by the police, the government and Tony Vincenzo (played by Simon Oakland), Kolchak’s editor. The structure of this title transforms the everyday into the foreign — what is called the “uncanny” — its invocation at the end of the title sequence emerging from an unraveling of the cinematic realism carefully set up at the beginning: the continuous, seemingly natural flow of events, their “reality” onscreen, the “transparency” of the medium producing this illusory world on TV.
Figures 1a-f, Jack Cole, long take in Kolchak the Night Stalker (1974)
Even though it is actually relatively short, the opening shot of this title sequence qualifies as a continuous long-take, although of much more modest duration than more famous opening shots — the 3+ minutes of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) dwarfs both this 22-second camera run and the entire title sequence itself. Nevertheless, it should be considered a long take: this single shot lasts almost 50 percent of the total runtime of this opening. It is also composed in a manner consistent with more lengthy long takes: as in Touch of Evil, it presents an elaborate mise-en-scene containing several discrete scenes — (1a) Kolchak entering in close-up, (1c) stopping at the coffee machine in medium long shot, (1d) a long shot of tossing his hat (and having it fall into the trash) and then, finally (1f) a dolly-in to a medium close-up of him sitting down to work at the typewriter. Throughout these momentary scenes the camera is in constant motion, producing several different views of the action — from lurking behind a bookshelf, to gliding across the office, before finally moving forward to meet Kolchak at his desk. The lighting remains low-key (everything is clearly visible in deep space) throughout the sequence of camera movements. This complex of actions establishes this newsroom as a real, physical space and provides a counterpoint to the fragmentation of the montage sequence. It asserts the inviolate qualities we associate with real spaces — a coherent arena in which actions happen, in sequence, with a visible logic of cause and effect. These elements enable the realism of the opening to assert the verisimilitude needed to accept this office as a real place, not a set or other studio fabrication. This acceptance is essential to its realism.
Figure 2a-f, Jack Cole, montage in Kolchak the Night Stalker (1974)
Where the first part of this title corresponds to the style of filmmaking closely associated with the realism of the French New Wave (Andre Bazin’s famed “long-take” aesthetic), the second part is fragmented: the process of using a manual typewriter appears as a short montage of discrete actions — (2a) feeding a blank page into the machine, (2b) pushing the carriage return, (2d) typing the words onto it — that flow logically in series, yet has been entirely fragmented into graphically composed, independent shots. This contrast between first and second sections, long take versus montage, mirrors the development and audible character of the theme music that begins with Kolchak (McGavin) whistling as he walks into the office; after he gets the cup of coffee, the same theme is played by a flute, as he sits and loads the typewriter with paper, strings join the flute, and their definite beat is matched by the tempo of the edits as they reach a minor crescendo. When he starts typing, this opening theme shifts to a lower register with strings and drums providing momentum. In the final seconds, as the music crescendos a second time, this montage breaks rhythm, (3a) the lights all go out, (3c) a clock stops, (3d) abruptly a desk fan stops spinning, and (3e) Kolchak looks up (Figure 3a-f) — as he does so, there is a dolly into a tight close-up: cut to profile as he turns in slow motion; then, finally a kinestasis shot produced with an optical printer to create a freeze frame of Kolchak and a fast zoom into his eye while fading to black (3f). This final sequence, starting when the lights go out, produces the uncanny moment: it is a complete rupture with the realism portrayed by both the long take and the montage sequence. The contrast of these realist modes is thus essential to the meaning of this sequence and the significance of the uncanny when it does appear.
Figures 3a-f, Jack Cole, lighting changes in Kolchak the Night Stalker (1974)
Where the first section proceeds continuously (“objectively”) as everyday life, the second section is analytic in nature — an appropriate reflection of what Kolchak does as he types his news report — the breaking up into discrete actions mirroring the breakdown and recounting of events being rendered coherent by the process of his narrative. Suggestive words appear on the page as he types: “victim” and “he came at me” are both clearly visible, setting the tone and preparing for his own encounter at the end of the titles (and within the show itself). As with the long take, this montage sequence is carefully organized to create a highly comprehensible sequence of actions, so that even though the editing elides a substantial amount of time — we only see fragments of the story he writes — what has been left out in this process is nevertheless fully comprehensible, if not entirely contained in the shots. These shots are much higher contrast than the naturalistic lighting of the opening long take. It is a different type of realism than the long take, a more immediately and obviously constructed (“subjective”) one that has an implied threat made manifest by the words he writes and the differences in lighting.
This progression from long take through montage to uncanny moment follows a movement away from what Andre Bazin described in The Ontology of the Photographic Image as a (seemingly) uninterpreted reality that unfolds in real time onscreen, produced by “the impassive lens” of the camera. This shifting from an “objective” to a “subjective” construction — the change from long take to montage — reveals the uncanniness in this third sequence to be the change from motion to stillness: it is an inversion of the most basic demand of a motion picture — that it move. What Cole’s design poses is a common (in the 1970s) conception of cinematic realism (long take, associated with the New Wave films produced by the French directors influenced by Bazin), only to counter it by a more obviously manipulated, constructed sequence (montage) that also happens to be lit and organized to produce an expressionist variant of realism. In the montage, all the actions required to set up and type on a manual typewriter are shown, each in its own shot: loading the paper, dropping the tension bar, pushing the carriage return, typing itself. Abandoning the long take’s Bazinian realism is not limited to the shift to montage. The lighting changes as well from low key to high key, an expressionist lighting style that culminates in all the lights going out at the end of the titles. The starting point for this shift is easy to miss since it coincides with the first extreme close-up of his hand rolling the sheet of paper into the typewriter; the shot is less than 1 second long. Once he snaps the tension bar down, the different light is immediately apparent. It signals a shift to an expressionistic style and is the first definite sign the titles are not actually an “objective” recording as implied by the long take.
However, this long take’s objectivity is challenged by the actions shown, suggesting it is instead a careful construction. Kolchak’s tossing his hat on the rack but allowing it to fall into the trash and remain there, unretreived, has a suggestive potential when considered in relation to the shift from low-key to high-key lighting during the montage. It is an action that implies an abandonment of convention — it falls into the trash and he does nothing to retrieve it. This act suggests Kolchak discarding his subservience to the established order of things. At the same time, it also suggests a misunderstanding of things (his hat lands in the trash because he misses the peg to hang it) as well as foreshadows the inevitable response his editor has to the news reports he files on supernatural events in every episode: it won’t be published (it is trashed). This “trashing” of convention can also be seen as an inside joke about the realism of the long take as well: once he begins work, it is immediately replaced by a rhythmic montage that analytically dissects the act of using a manual typewriter — part of the “work” in producing a film is, even with long takes, concerned with when and how to cut (i.e., editing, the literal meaning of “montage”).
The idea of “realism” is in question in these titles. That Kolchak is a newspaper reporter is thus especially significant — not just from within the framework of the narrative where being a reporter provides an excuse for him to investigate strange occurrences, but his reportage is also reflected by the internal conflicts over the realism of the title sequence itself: how much of what he claims is invention and how much is fact? His stories of supernatural horror are “unbelievable” (as Vincenzo says every time he rejects one of Kolchak’s stories). The concept of a fair and balanced reportage that accurately presents events for its readers is an issue of objectivity versus assembly, which also happens to be part of the realist argument for the continuity of the long take. This aesthetic is at the same time a challenge to the validity of montage as a form of realism because of its intrusive assembly.
However, the superficial objectivity of the long take’s mise-en-scene is countered throughout the opening shot by an equally intrusive (but contained by the mise-en-scene) expressionist darkness that surrounds Kolchak, and extends throughout the entire title sequence: he is framed at the start, the typewriter is shown in a very high-key fashion, and when the lights go out, and he is alone in a threateningly black space. As the title starts, this darkness is nothing more than books and other objects sitting on some shelves, but theirs is an amorphous, soft, gliding darkness that spreads across the screen as the camera glides from behind the shelf and out onto the floor, crossing with him to his desk: the essence of uncanniness. These are everyday objects rendered threatening by the dark; they evoke childhood fears of things half-seen in the gloom, the familiar rendered alien.
Darkness plays a significant role in this opening, both in a literal sense (the expressionist section is very graphically dark) and in a metaphoric sense — the idea of “darkness” as a threatening, unknown domain that invisibly surrounds us at all times, but which we are only cursorily aware of being present. This linkage of uncanny with the unknown, with darkness, is central to psychologist Ernst Jentsch’s classic description of the “uncanny” from 1906. It is the uncertainty created by this darkness that can evoke the uncanny for many people:
In the night, which is well known to be a friend to no man, there are thus many more and much larger chicken-hearted people than in the light of day [. . .] Among all the psychical uncertainties that can become a cause for the uncanny feeling to arise, there is one in particular that is able to develop a fairly regular, powerful and very general effect: namely, doubt as to whether an apparently living being really is animate and, conversely, doubt as to whether a lifeless object may not in fact be animate. [. . . ] In the dark, a rafter covered with nails thus becomes the jaw of a fabulous animal, a lonely lake becomes the gigantic eye of a monster, and the outline of a cloud or shadow becomes a threatening Satanic face. Fantasy, which is indeed always a poet, is able now and then to conjure up the most detailed terrifying visions out of the most harmless and indifferent phenomena; and this is done all the more substantially, the weaker the critical sense that is present and the more the prevailing psychical background is affectively tinged.
The shifting of the lights (as they, impossibly, go out) in this opening sequence is exactly such an atypical experience — especially since the first light to “go out” is apparently the Sun shining on the street visible through the windows in the background. Day does not become night so suddenly, so while it is “understood” that what we are watching is fictional, produced with actors (and very likely shot on a soundstage) — this understanding is fundamentally a part of viewing all motion pictures — it is simultaneously not something that the audience will consciously consider — especially when that sequence is designed to assert its own continuous reality as the opening long take in Kolchak: The Night Stalker does. Darkness, literal and metaphoric, dominates this sequence of shots; the musical tone shifting downwards mirrors this increasingly “black” opening as the whistled theme is translated into a lower, baser (darker) key. These musical transitions accompany and audibly mark the shifts in the images, reinforcing the breakup into three discrete sections, each of which is less cinematically “realist” than the preceding one. This movement away from realism is the same as the shift toward the uncanny; it is the vehicle by which this uncanniness arrives.
The uncertainty that is at the heart of the uncanny finds its corollary in the continuously shifting cinematic language of this opening: the inability to settle comfortably into one “style” means that the viewer is always uncertain, unsure how the sequence is going to proceed. Thus, the shift to still imagery — narratively set up as a literal time-stop — is also a fundamental violation (and, paradoxically an acknowledgment) of the nature of cinema itself: that we are watching a moving picture composed from a succession of still images. The transformation of motion into stillness thus comes as both a violation of our expectations for cinema, a comprehensible event within this micro-narrative, and a revelation of the “reality” of the cinema that undermines the conventional realism we watch onscreen: that there is nothing there but a series of still images presented onscreen. The doubling and duplicitous nature of this revelation-acknowledgment reflects the dualities at the heart of the uncanny. As Jentsch notes in his discussion, it is the inability to resolve which of two mutually exclusive possibilities is actually the case — the uncertainty about where someone is alive or dead, for example — that gives rise to the specific sense feeling called “the uncanny.” For this title, this ambiguity lies at the heart of the cinematic image itself — is it a still or moving picture? — a question that is less rhetorical than immanent in this title sequence.
However, this duality is posed yet again by the staging and realism of these short scenes: are they mere records of events actually happening “in reality,” or are they carefully composed, elaborately constructed illusions? The opening long take asserts that this sequence is unstaged, while the montage and the expressionistic lighting of the second and third sections contradict this earlier impression, asserting that the film, much like the material typed up on the typewriter, is actually composed from discrete units and has been assembled for the viewer — that the seemingly continuous reality of the shots is actually an illusion. This unmasking of the cinematic does rhetorical “violence” to the contents of those images, that scene, the realism of what we see onscreen. What stalks Kolchak is thus unrepresentable: it freezes him in place onscreen, zooming into his static eye, this frozen expression (terror?) in sync with the crescendo as everything goes black — in this title sequence the uncanny is the phantasmal nature of the cinema itself. It is a reminder of the observation made by film director and theorist Jean Epstein, who noted in 1921 that “The cinema is essentially supernatural.” What this title sequence announces is a program of specifically cinematic terrors, an experience of horror unique to what we find in motion pictures, something related to our everyday uncanny encounters, but at the same time utterly distinct from them. The shifts and changes, especially in the lighting, visible in this concluding section (Figure 3a-f) are a disturbance of the way that such scenes normally appear in motion pictures. The shift from live action to frame holds — first the clock, then the spinning fan, and finally McGavin/Kolchak himself — is highly unusual. While hold frames do appear in other title sequences, especially obvious in Cole’s design for The Rockford Files (1975), their use in Kolchak: The Night Stalker is limited to this final sequence, and they appear as a transformation of a live-action shot into a freeze frame. This use is in direct contrast with Cole’s design for The Rockford Files, where still frames substitute for live action (but use the same kinestasis technique as the final shot of Kolchak), creating a rhythmic suggestion of motion synchronized with the music (Figure 4a-c).
Figures 4a-c, Jack Cole, Kinestasis on a still image from The Rockford Files (1974)
In Kolchak: The Night Stalker, kinestasis appears as an interruption, an abnormal moment — an uncanny rupture — rather than a uniform stylistic device: these still frames’ function is to accentuate and draw attention to themselves as different than the rest of the title sequence. This shift to freeze frames violates the most basic nature of motion pictures — that they move — drawing attention to their strangeness precisely because of how they break the illusion of the moving picture itself. While the still frames made visible in these holds is a technological fact of motion pictures, it is also one that is fundamentally invisible to our encounter with them — it is a breach whose appearance undermines the realism of what we see: it has an uncanny effect precisely because what are established as the “rules of the game” in the opening long take do not remain constant for the entire sequence. Instead, those rules demonstrate their contingent nature, the realism they produce is nothing more than a construct, and the uncanny is always just under the “surface” of the apparently moving image, waiting to erupt as those images’ true nature. The uncanny and realism in motion pictures are thus linked through the phantasmal nature of the photographic image, its uncanniness erupting not through realism or narrative but through the presentation of the reality that is always actually onscreen. Where we see movement, there is only stillness — in making this fact a conscious feature of the titles, Cole forces us to acknowledge the underlying strangeness of the moving image itself. The uncanny encounter we have at the end of this title sequence is categorically different than what Kolchak encounters. It is our realization that he is not really moving, not really present, is actually a spectral image that tricks us into believing its illusion and accepting what it shows as reality. This discovery that what we accepted (even when we consciously know what we encounter is fictional) as a living, moving presence is actually inanimate; a machine that we took to be a living person is actually a lifeless object, its animation a careful trick that deceives us. For our discovery to happen, the realism of the long take and the fragmentation of montage must work together to assert a reality — the cinematic space we see onscreen — whose internal validity is undone by the eruption of stillness onscreen.
Yet this acknowledgment and its uncanny affect are short-lived. The opening titles encapsulate the appeal of the show itself. The entangling narrative of Kolchak coming into work and undoing “reality” as a result of telling his story organizes all these shots — our understanding of the uncanny moment itself is structured by the narrative of “time stopping” that is simultaneously sustained by the music’s crescendo — and also works to limit and contain the uncanniness within the title sequence. That the thing he encounters is not shown (while it can be understood to be the stillness of these shots, at the same time it remains unknown) gives the concluding section an ambiguous character — the technically uncanny affect of stillness erupting to the surface can be as easily dismissed, allowing for a simpler narrative explanation: that what he encounters are the weird events of the show that follows, expressed by the stillness of the freeze frame but exceeding that limitation. The transfer is inherently connected to the manipulations of realism employed throughout this title sequence, and depends on the ways that “reality” is undone as it moves through each section. This interpretation allows a strict containment of the uncanny affect in the title sequence while allowing its feeling to infuse the program itself.
 Muir, John Kenneth. “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” chapter 5 in Terror Television: American Series 1970-1999 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001), pp. 64-76.
 Kinestasis is an animation technique where we see a camera move, such as a pan or zoom, done with an otherwise still image; in the case of Cole’s designs, these stills tend to be freeze frames drawn from live-action footage.
 Bazin, Andre. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” translated by Hugh Gray in Film Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 4 (Summer 1960), pp. 4-9.
 Epstein, Jean. “The Cinema Continues,” in French Film Theory and Criticism, 1907-1939: Volume 2, 1929-1939, ed. Richard Abel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 66.
 Jentsch, Ernst. “On the Psychology of the Uncanny” (1906), trans. Roy Sellars, Angelaki 2.1 (1995), pp. 7-16.
 Epstein, Jean. “The Senses I (b),” in French Film Theory and Criticism, 1907-1939: Volume 1, 1907-1929, ed. Richard Abel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 246.
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