|Review||The Night Stalker (1972)||Director||John Llewellyn Moxey|
|Writer||Richard Matheson (screenplay), Jeffrey Grant Rice (story)|
|Cast||Darren McGavin, Carol Lynley, Simon Oakland, Ralph Meeker, Claude Akins, Charles McGraw, Kent Smith, Elisha Cook Jr., Stanley Adams, Larry Linville and Barry Atwater|
“Now are you willing to listen to my insane ideas?” – Kolchak
Reporter Carl Kolchak (McGavin) resides in Las Vegas. A peculiar case gets thrown his way when he tries to get the details of the murder of a waitress. It appears that the victim was practically drained of blood but no official coroner’s report is available. Soon after another victim turns up, again completely drained of blood and in even weirder circumstances than before.
Kolchak’s snooping angers a few higly appointed officials; among them Sheriff Butcher (Akins), Chief Masterson (McGraw) and D.A. Paine (Smith) who seem eager to avoid panic among the public that could hurt business in the city of gambling. Kolchak’s insistence that they are dealing with a real-live vampire is met with ridicule from from everyone, among them his hot tempered editor Vincenzo (Oakland), and the reporter takes it upon himself to prove he’s right.
“The Night Stalker” is a TV movie that was written by the prolific Richard Matheson (“The Last Man on Earth” – 1964) and based on an unpublished story by Jeffrey Grant Rice. It introduces a dynamic character in the form of Kolchak; a nosy, bothersome reporter that continually clashes with authority, has integrity and respect for the truth…no matter how weird. So appealing was this character that a sequel came out a year later and the year after that a weekly series was commissioned that ran for one season.
This is pulpy material with one-dimensional supporting characters but the set-up for the premise is very appealing. A vampire running loose in Las Vegas is enough to peak any genre fan’s interest but this is handled a bit differently and straightforwardly as a detective story with little to no supernatural elements. Kolchak’s investigation (and continual clashes with superiors) is the focus of the feature with doses of fairly realistic violence perpetrated by the vampire thrown in to keep it moving. The movie is short (a mere 74 minutes with credits) and the sharp script relays a lot of information in a short period of time but it’s compactness does not give an overly rushed feel. In fact; Kolchak gets a decent amount of exposure and introduction, the villain registers well and the investigative procedure and the reporter’s subsequent deductions are authentic and well presented.
Stylistically the film looks very decent as I imagine the budget for a 1972 TV movie was fairly modest. There’s actually a semi cinema vérité feel in places here as handheld camera work and realistic looking brawling take up space in action oriented scenes. It also looks like it was filmed entirely on location and the city of Vegas provides a nice backdrop. The jazzy music score by Robert Cobert is also fantastic and provides the film with a distinct vibe that enhances the mood and suspense.
But “The Night Stalker” depends heavily on it’s lead character and performance and thankfully McGavin has all the necessary chops to make Kolchak a winning character. Kolchak is a rather annoying person who’s quite foolish and rash at times but McGavin’s charm and tongue in cheek approach to his loud outbursts and rogue behavior (and incessant belief in his own findings) make all the difference. Oakland’s portrayal of Kolchak’s editor is also a winning touch as their hot tempered screaming matches could simply turn out to be noise pollution but instead, thanks to sharp writing, are entertaining and the pair sell their match-ups as a form of friendship and mutual respect. Barry Atwater, as the vampire, has no lines but he’s very menacing with looks and gnarls and the final showdown inside a deserted house is very suspenseful.
“The Night Stalker” was a huge hit in ratings when it aired. Thanks to it’s straightforward approach, it’s focus on it’s interesting main character, pithy and direct writing and minimizing any supernatural elements (other than the fact that the killer is a super strong vampire) the film still plays well and it’s easy to see why audiences back then were in the mood for more.
|Review||The Night Strangler (1973)||Director||Dan Curtis|
|Cast||Darren McGavin, Jo Ann Pflug, Simon Oakland, Scott Brady, Wally Cox, Margaret Hamilton, John Carradine, Al Lewis and Richard Anderson|
“I’m just a dumb reporter trying to do his job” – Kolchak
This time Kolchak is trying to find work in Seattle. As fate would have it his old boss from Las Vegas, Vincenzo, is managing editor of a newspaper there and gives Kolchak a job. His first assignment; gather information on a recently deceased young woman. Kolchak finds out that the victim was drained of blood with a syringe and specks of rotted flesh was found on her neck. Then there are more similar murders.
Research into alchemy and patterned crimes that date 21 years back regularly convince Kolchak that they are dealing with a man that has been killing for 84 years and can somehow restore his youth. His speculations causes the wrath of Captain Schubert (Brady) who doesn’t want to create panic among the public and the paper’s owner (Carradine) won’t print his findings. Meanwhile Kolchak is convinced that the killer is hiding somewhere in the Seattle underground and goes one on one with the foe to prove he’s right.
“The Night Strangler” is essentially a rehash of “The Night Stalker” with more of the same but in different surroundings. With that said; the film is a modest improvement on it’s predecessor in some ways thanks to a meatier story and location that even utilizes (and fictionalizes too, a bit) an atmospheric real locale in Seattle that adds tremendously to the film’s overall effect. The budget must also have been raised a bit and the film’s use of sets and moody lighting give it a nice look that compliments the story well. Though the location work and grimy handheld look gave “The Night Stalker” a distinguished look of it’s own then the more polished look of “The Night Strangler” gives it it’s own appealing style.
The filmmakers wisely brought back Oakland as Kolchak’s editor and their bantering is as fun the second time around and their relationship actually sheds additional layers. The one-dimensional supporting characters are a bit more fleshed out and the additional running time (90 mins) allows for some pleasing breathing room to slow things down. The mystery unfolds well and the atmospheric locations inside the real and the staged Seattle underground are appropriately eerie. The main villain is handled well with a good backstory but somehow he isn’t as menacing or memorable as the vampire in the earlier film.
McGavin again impresses as the nosy reporter and it’s easy to see why the character became the star of his own series. A series which thankfully will soon be available in Hi-Def by the way.
“The Night Stalker” and “The Night Strangler” are a great watch for retro horror fans. Although they are very similar in tone and story there are a few notable differences in the way they are presented. I tend to sway a bit more to “The Night Strangler” overall but I never watch one without the other. There’s also a vibe, or a feel, associated to these 70’s made for TV efforts that makes sure they age like fine wine. Also it’s funny to think there was once a time when millions of viewers gathered around the TV set at the same time to experience a single movie event. Times sure have changed.