Movie of the Week: THE NIGHT STALKER and THE NIGHT STRANGLER

Darren McGavin‘s agents called him to say that ABC had purchased the rights to a yet-to-be-published book called The Kolchak Papers. The script by Richard Matheson was in its early stages and McGavin was the intended star of the would-be movie. “Listen,” McGavin’s representative said, “it’s this crazy story about a reporter and some kind of monster in Vegas. You don’t want to do this.” (McGavin) Darren McGavin read the script then gave it to his wife to see if she agreed with him. The consensus was, “it’s terrific.”

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The NIght Stalker aired on ABC on January 11, 1972. Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey and produced by Dan Curtis, best known at the time for Dark Shadows, The Night Stalker became ABC’s highest rated original TV movie and the most widely viewed TV movie to date. The movie did so well, in fact, that it was released as a theatrical vehicle abroad. One thing we can say about audiences in 1972 is that they had fabulous taste because The Night Stalker is indeed terrific.

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If you’re a fan of horror or a fan of film noir The Night Stalker will grab you from the opening scene. “This is a story about the greatest manhunt in history,” we hear Carl Kolchak’s voice say over a tape recorder, “Judge for yourself the story’s believability.” Kolchak is an investigative reporter and the crimes he mentions in the opening are the work of a vampire. We learn this in flashback with definitive film noir style as he retells the incredible story. If you think this can’t happen where you live Kolchak will prove you wrong despite what the authorities might say or how hard the powers that be try to deny the story, which inevitably happens.

As this story goes – there are a series of murders plaguing the Las Vegas strip. All of the victims have had their bodies drained of blood. The suspect’s true identity is discovered by the authorities as one Janos Skorzeny who’s been suspected of blood-draining murders in the past. They even corner Skorzeny when he attempts to rob a hospital of its blood shooting him several times without effect. But there’s no mention of vampirism until Carl Kolchak researches vampire lore and puts the pieces together. Skorzeny has super human strength, he is able to outrun cars and motorcycles, he has the taste for blood thing and so on. Despite these facts, however, Kolchak’s editor, Anthony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) thinks that the existence of a vampire is ridiculous. Vincenzo is often exasperated by Kolchak who never plays by the rules. The two have great chemistry and forge a dependable friendship in between bouts of shouting, which make for enjoyable exchanges at every turn.

Lo and behold after many arguments and suspension of duties, Kolchak is able to convince the police that the perpetrator is a vampire and along with FBI agent, Bernie Jenks (played by Ralph Meeker) he goes to Skorzeny’s lair to destroy him. Kolchak is able to put a stake through Skorzeny’s heart as he’d read it’s the sure-fire way to kill that particular type of monster. This happens after a fierce battle during which several other vampire rules are proven true. For instance, Skorzeny is repelled by a cross and is afraid of sunlight, just as we thought he’d be. By the way, the music by Bob Cobert in The Night Stalker is great as was the case with so many made-for-TV movies of the 1970s, but particularly noteworthy during the final fight scene is that some of the music from House of Dark Shadows (1970) was used.

Luckily for Kolchak he had a credible witness at hand during his destruction of the vampire and yet – adding insult to injury – he is arrested for murder. There is nothing the authorities will do to quell the story of a vampire loose in Vegas. And when Kolchak’s full story appears in the papers it is a different, falsified account of the happenings, which is why our hero is an embittered man telling a tale of deceit as well as murder. Kolchak tells a cautionary tale where the people’s right to know is way down the list of priorities for those who hold all the power.

Darren McGavin delivers such an unforgettable portrayal of Carl Kolchak that he alone is enough of a reason to watch this movie and its descendents. Kolchak is unrelenting in his pursuit of a breaking story. He gets “in” with the beat cops, bribes any and all players who can give him information and is funny as all heck. His voiceovers as the story progresses are a definite plus if you like that sort of thing – and I do. Not only is it reminiscent of noir, it’s a terrific storytelling technique that helps move the pace along and tells us a lot about the character.

Fans of horror might find a bit of camp where the monster element is concerned in The Night Stalker, but if you’re a fan of classics the camp just adds to the enjoyment. Kolchak even mentions Lugosi at one point putting to rest any doubt you may have about who was/is the definitive vampire in popular culture. Barry Atwater plays Skorzeny with flair adding the requisite growls and hisses to the proceedings following is some famous footsteps.

Also in the cast is Carol Lynley who plays Kolchak’s girlfriend, Gail Foster. Charles McGraw plays to type as the Police Chief, Larry Linville of M*A*S*H fame plays a doctor and the great Elisha Cook, Jr. shows up in a small role. Another special treat for classic fans is the appearance of Ralph Meeker. Interestingly – to further the film noir ties in The Night Stalker, which really is more noir than it is horror – both McGavin and Meeker have played Mickey Spillane’s fictional detective Mike Hammer. Meeker played Hammer in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and McGavin in Mike Hammer the TV series (1958-19959).

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Given the success of The Night Stalker it’s no surprise that Carl Kolchak would be back for another dangerous investigation. Our tenacious, imperfect hero turns in another memorable round with a supernatural villain in The Night Strangler, which originally aired on ABC on January 16, 1973. Dan Curtis takes the helm for this vehicle and delivers another quick-paced, humor-laced movie with a terrific lot of players including Wally Cox, Jo Ann Pflug, Scott Brady, John Carradine, Al Lewis of The Munsters fame with the ultimate treat being Margaret Hamilton who plays a professor who’s an expert on elixirs. Back for another turn from the first movie are film noir elements and Simon Oakland as Tony Vincenzo.

Although he vowed never to mention the vampire story to anyone ever again after the last outing we see Kolchak trying to convince people of the story when The Night Strangler opens. Having been fired from the Vegas paper after the vampire fiasco, our investigative journalist finds himself in Seattle, Washington. Luckily, Vincenzo is in Seattle as well and hires Kolchak to cover a series of murders. This time the victims are exotic dancers who have been strangled with such incredible force that their necks are crushed. Also, each victim has had some of her blood removed with a syringe and each has traces of rotted flesh on her neck.

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With the help of a historian/researcher (Wally Cox), Kolchak discovers that similar rash of killings have occurred every 21 years since 1889 with the series lasting 18 days each time. Recognizing that time is of the essence Kolchak presses the authorities to act, but as was the case in The Night Stalker, no one but Kolchak is eager to make the details of the murders public and they drag their feet. That’s especially true when Kolchak tells the police that the murderer is 144-year-old Civil War surgeon, Dr. Richard Malcolm (played by TV favorite Richard Anderson) who is killing to get his hands on the blood needed for his elixir of life, a youth potion that lasts 21 years at a time. I know it sounds kind of crazy, but it’s true!

Needless to say Carl Kolchak gets his man and the scoop. But once again he is fired along with Vincenzo because no one wants Seattle to know the murders were being committed by a corpse so the real story is once again suppressed. Those frustrations are expected, but we get another enjoyable final battle in this entry. This time Kolchak fights the should-be-long-dead Dr. Malcolm in a lost, Civil War-era city that lies hidden underneath Seattle. Malcolm lives, hides and performs his experiments in the hidden city, which is reminiscent of The Phantom of the Opera story and is just as sinister.

The Night Strangler proved almost as popular as its predecessor garnering strong ratings and eventually prompting ABC to order a TV series in lieu of a third movie, which was in the works. The third movie was to be set in New York as we see Kolchak and Vincenzo discussing at the end of The Night Strangler after they’re both fired in Seattle. Instead, the TV series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, features both McGavin and Oakland reprising their roles working for the Chicago Independent News Service. The premise for the series stayed close to the movies in that Kolchak seemed to have a talent for attracting crimes involving the supernatural to include werewolves, zombies and many other creatures of the night.

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In the series Kolchak always has a hard time convincing Vincenzo that the criminals are not products of his imagination, but rather living (more or less), breathing creatures. Those exchanges between the two where Vincenzo loses his temper and Kolchak does what he wants anyway are favorite scenes of mine. Also enjoyable are the villains in the episode, which naturally come from classic stories. The first episode of the series features Jack the Ripper who is alive and well and back to his old tricks.

Although Kolchak: The Night Stalker aired for only one season, from 1974 to 1975 on ABC, it is highly recommended viewing. Many of the enjoyable elements of the movies make the transition to TV and far outshine what you may find on network TV today with few exceptions. Another short-lived series, Night Stalker was given a shot in 2005 with Stuart Townsend taking over the Kolchak role.

I intended this post to be my submission to the Movie of the Week Blogathon hosted by Classic Film and TV Cafe, but alas I am quite late to the party. I didn’t want to ignore Kolchak completely, however, so I offer this as encouragement to the event, its host and Carl Kolchak all of which should not be ignored!

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20 thoughts

  1. Reblogged this on The Last Drive In and commented:
    Once Upon a Screen covers one hell of a groundbreaking pilots for Dan Curtis’ terrific series, with one memorable character brought to life by one of my favorites –Darren McGavin It’s a great choice for the MOVIE OF THE WEEK BLOGATHON hosted by Classic Film & TV Cafe

  2. I was a teenager when these TV-movies and the TV series were first aired, but I never bothered watching them until a member of Twitter did a “Live Tweet” of them on Friday nights last year. These are delightfully tongue-in-cheek, and I’m sorry it took me 40 years to join the party. You did a nice job with them!

  3. ME-TV began showing the Night Stalker tv shows on Sundays, beginning in January. My husband and I have enjoyed watching them. Hubby gets to relive his youth because he remembers watching them with his family. I was not allowed to view the show-too scary!! A couple weeks ago, the episode was about a woman vampire, and hubby remember that that was the one episode that scared him the most! This chick was so strong, she even beat up NFL players!!! Enjoyed your look at the show and the movie. 🙂

  4. Last Hallowe’en I snuggled up in front of the laptop enjoying those movies on YouTube for the first time in eons. What fun!

    My dad was crazy about the show, and would watch it with my kid sister Maureen. I think it gave her nightmares, but father-daughter bonding time would not be denied.

  5. THE NIGHT STALKER is a TV classic and rightly so due to its impact. But I am so glad that you also reviewed THE NIGHT STRANGLER. I think it’s the more original of the two (I think the teleplay was a Richard Matheson original). The underground city was a brilliant idea! It’s too bad Matheson and Dan Curtis weren’t involved with the TV series.

    1. I did read about some controversy concerning the producers of the series. Makes no sense Curtis was left out, but still a fun watch. Thanks so much for hosting this event, Rick. Brilliant idea!

  6. Think Dan Curtis got squeezed out when the show started. ABC had
    misgivings about making it a weekly series, that it would be a “Monster of the week” formula show, with no internal continuity. Which it was.

    He never took Mike Hammer seriously, and you can see some pre-Kolchak in his portrayal.

  7. A review well worth the wait!
    You have nothing to apologize for!
    You’ve captured the “feel” of the two flicks beautifully in the review.
    I’ll be back to see what else you’re discussing….

  8. Aurora, great coverage of two of my all-time favorite TV movies. I covered them a while back on my own blob, but you really did them justice. I enjoyed reading your post, and have been exploring you excellent blog. Glad to be part of the Blogathon with you! Nice work!

    John V of John V’s Eclectic Avenue: http://jveclectic.blogspot.com.

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