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Darren McGavin is The Night Stalker, 1972

From the video box: Las Vegas is a town where the unusual is considered normal. However, when former top reporter, Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin), meets with police reluctance while covering the murder of a showgirl, his curiosity is aroused.

Suddenly, there is a series of murders, apparently committed by the same killer. When the police again refuse to reveal any facts, Kolchak gets the details on his own and begins to put the deathly pieces of the puzzle together. However, the police and his own editor, Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), make every effort to suppress what Kolchak has learned. The closer he gets to the truth, the less he is able to reveal and the more frightened he becomes. (1972, color)

Mark says: A lot of people remember Darren McGavin as the father from A Christmas Story, but I will always primarily remember him for his role as Carl Kolchak in The Night Stalker.

I was 10 years old when The Night Stalker was released as a made-for-TV movie. I still remember the anticipation of its airing. The TV ads teased us with the scene where Kolchak yells at his editor, “This nut thinks he’s a vampire! He has killed four, maybe five women! He has drained every drop of blood from every one of them!” The Night Stalker did not disappoint, and it left an indelible mark on the psyches of almost everyone who saw it.

After watching The Night Stalker, I asked for a tape-recorder for my birthday. I would walk around the neighborhood “interviewing” people and noting any “suspicious occurrences” (maybe an unusual road kill, or a house I never saw anyone leave during the daytime). It would not surprise me to find that some children, being directly inspired by the movie, grew up to be journalists.

Carl Kolchak is a renegade reporter, asking the hard questions and demanding straight answers. He’s funny, tenacious, unconventional, arrogant, and at times, obnoxious. He’s not only a hero for scoffing at the rules set by those in authority (i.e. his editor, local police, the District Attorney) but because he knows, no matter how absurd his theory, that he is right.

But even with all the anti-hero charm that Kolchak possesses, it’s the paranormal hook of the show that really drew me in. It was amazing to see a movie set in modern times, in a real American setting, that explored the idea of vampirism. What’s more, it is done in a non-schlocky manner. The people and the situations seem real, which makes the added element of the supernatural all the more frightening.

Kolchak is surrounded by an array of characters that try to hamper his style. His most frequent battles are with his editor, Tony Vincenzo, played by Simon Oakland (Psycho). Vincenzo is a strictly “just the facts” kind of guy. He doesn’t like speculative journalism, and is inherently opposed to anything sensationalistic. In short, he’s a responsible newspaper man who just wants to do his job. Though Kolchak continually frustrates him, Vincenzo knows that Kolchak is a dedicated reporter and that he is lucky to have him. In a telling scene toward the end of the movie, we find that Vincenzo actually has a deep respect for Kolchak.

Other characters that prove to be obstacles for Kolchak are District Attorney Tom Payne (Kent Smith, 1942′s Cat People), Sheriff Butcher (Claude Akins, who I fondly remember from the Twilight Zone episode,The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street), and Police Chief Masterson (Charles McGraw). These city officials are far more concerned about the economy of Las Vegas than the protection of its inhabitants. Because Kolchak’s vampire story threatens the city’s nightlife, it also threatens them, and so Kolchak becomes Public Enemy Number One.

But Kolchak is not completely alone; he has some friends in high places. For example, Bernie Jenks (Ralph Meeker, Food of the Gods) is an FBI man who is not opposed to helping Kolchak from time to time. County Coroner Dr. Robert Makurji (Larry Linville, who you will recognize as Maj. Frank Burns from TV’s M*A*S*H) also proves a valuable ally. Kolchak has his spies, too. Most notably, look for Elisha Cook (Salem’s Lot, Rosemary’s Baby) in the role of Mickey Crawford. It is Mickey who discovers the vampire’s lair.

Kolchak’s girlfriend, Gail Foster, is played by Carol Lynley (The Poseidon Adventure). Personally, I’ve always thought Gail was too young and too pretty to be a convincing match for the aging and somewhat washed-up Kolchak. On the other hand, people have been saying that my wife is too young and pretty for me for years.

The vampire, Janos Skorzeny, is played by Barry Atwater. Skorzeny is slightly reminiscent of Barnabas Collins, which isn’t too surprising considering that Producer Dan Curtis also directed the TV series, Dark Shadows. Atwater’s vampire is thoroughly modern. He owns his home, steals blood from hospitals for efficiency, and even haggles with a used car salesman for a better price on his automobile. He’s also very ominous, especially when we get the close-ups of his bloodshot eyes.

Kolchak’s climatic battle with the vampire is exciting, suspenseful, and completely satisfying. It’s difficult to put into words what a thrill this movie was for a 10 year old boy already intrigued with the genre. I remember almost exploding with impatience during the commercial breaks.

Though The Night Stalker strikes me as a little silly now, I still feel that certain thrill when I pop the video into the player and hear the opening music. When you see my rating below, keep in mind this movie has great sentimental value to me, and Darren McGavin’s characterization has worked its way, if ever so subtly, into my own personality.

The teleplay (based on an unpublished story by Jeff Rice) was written by Richard Matheson, author of the novel, I Am Legend, which inspired the movies The Last Man on Earth, Night of the Living Dead, and The Omega Man.

The Night Stalker was produced by Dan Curtis (also known for directing the 1973 version of Dracula starring Jack Palance) and is directed by John Llewellyn Moxey(Circus of Fear, Horror Hotel).

Scene to watch for: Kolchak discovers a particularly ghastly victim tied to a bed in the vampire’s house.

Line to listen for: “Judge for yourself its believability, and then try to tell yourself, wherever you may be, it couldn’t happen here.”

Trivia: The contact lenses Barry Atwater used for his role as the vampire irritated his eyes so much that by the end of the film he did not need them any more, as his eyes had really become incredibly bloodshot.

Personal observation: I always thought it was odd that Kolchak, being such a good investigative reporter, was not able to find his girlfriend after she was asked to leave town.

Note on the TV series: In 1974, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, became a TV series. Though the stories weren’t as interesting or edgy as the original TV movie, they were a lot of fun. The series was short-lived, however, and the last episode aired in 1976.

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! out of 5.

IMDB Link

12 Comments

  1. ….On the other hand, people have been saying that my wife is too young and pretty for me for years…. Funny!

    I don’t remember the movie but I do remember the series – I was 10 or 11 and it scared the poop out of me.

    cheers, and thanks for this really great blog.

    http://goldcoaster.wordpress.com

  2. The movie is actually superior to the series, but both have their charms and I’m happy to have the complete series on DVD.

  3. Hey Mark, I just stumbled across your blog/site via a link from The Groovy Age of Horror & I wanted to drop you a quick line to let you know how much I’m enjoying it. Your reviews & commentary mirrow much of my own opinions. Which, isn’t suprising seeing as how we’re coming from a pretty similar background age & interests-wise.
    I was 11 when THE NIGHT STALKER debuted on ABC & graduated in ’80. I just turned 45 back on October 10th infact. Only five more ’til 50. ARRRGH! I don’t even want to THINK about it. Of course, it sure beats the alternative … LOL

    Anyhow, though I was a “monster movie”/horror film fanatic from my earliest memories ( Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY is actually the very first movie that I can remember watching as a child ) STALKER something altogether new & exciting to me. Like you, I was much more accustomed to all the old Universal & Hammer period pieces that were a constant TV staple of the time. So, seeing a feral, nasty, scary vampire wrecking havoc in a brand new Movie of the Week just excited the hell out of me!
    As it did with you, it became an instant favorite that night & I spent the next several years eagerly awaiting each & every repeat showing of it. During prime time for the the first couple of years & then later, it’s occasional airings on the old CBS Late Movie.
    God, remember the days when getting the new TV GUIDE each week was an exercise in anticipation that often offered a thrill when you saw that one of your favs ( or a film that you’d always wanted to see, but hadn’t yet ) was scheduled to to be broadcast sometime during the week ahead?

    Well, keep up the good work.
    Peace.

    – Jim

  4. Hey Jim,

    Great to hear from a fellow enthusiast!

    This tells on my age terribly (I’ll be 45 next April) but I often think “kids today” are missing out on so much because of the instant gratification society we live in. Like you, I would scour the TV Guide weekly looking for scifi/horror shows or the movie to be featured on that week’s “creature feature.” It’s hard now for kids to imagine a world without video recorders or DVDs. If you saw a program you wanted to watch on Friday, you had to be there to see it (which meant waiting and thinking about it all week). If you missed it, you couldn’t just buy the DVD or record it for later viewing. There really was a tremendous sense of anticipation.

    Thanks for dropping by, Jim. It’s readers like you that make the work on this site feel worthwhile. Mark

  5. Another fan of the same vintage (46 this April) who remembers going through the weekly TV listings largely for signs of movies, especially those on late night and on weekends.

    Any particular reason you jumped right from this movie to the TV series without a mention of the 1973 NIGHT STRANGLER movie? I know it was in many ways a re-sounding of the same note – this time it was a Jack the Ripperish alchemist who needed to commit murders for a specific extract every 21 years in order to sustain his youth and life – but it did pick up some months after the ending of the first movie, this time with him in Seattle, and still had Karl and his situation portrayed in something approaching a serious fashion.

    Once it hit the weekly tv series, the need to keep a cast in place and so the need to keep him in the same locale, matters could never rise to the same dramatic level of conflict with local government and law enforcement as we saw in the movies. Also, week by week, it became less believable that his editor and the authorities continued to not believe Kolchak when he would warn them of the latest bump or beastie in the night.

  6. Hi Mike,

    I had no specific reason for not mentioning The Night Strangler, though it did not stay with me in the way The Night Stalker movie/ series lingered in my memory. I may review it one day.

    You make some very valid points about the TV series. I still watched it regularly, but even as a kid I knew it was losing its edge with each passing week. Still, it was great fun and I can hardly imagine a TV show giving me the same sense of anticipation these days.

  7. Long before Kolchak made his memorable appearance I was already enamored by UFOs, Bigfoot, and stories of the unexplained. I haven’t a clue where or when this fixation with the paranormal began, but by the time I was eleven years old (in the year when The Night Stalker aired) I had amassed an enormous paperback library of everything from the Dover Demon to The Incident at Exeter. I smiled when I read that you got your own tape recorder and started “interviewing” the kids on your block, because I remember bugging my folks to buy me a tape recorder just like Kolchak’s. At that time I had a large Underwood typewriter that I wrote short stories on and I recall feeling a close kinship with Kolchak plucking away at his own typewriter every week as he plumbed the darkness of his bizarre tales. I was deeply saddened when the TV series was cancelled after only a year. It wasn’t until Chris Carter and The X-Files came around in 1993 that another television series would affect me in that same way. These days the unimaginative morons who pass themselves off as writers and directors pollute or TVs with addle-brained schlock like Buffy, Charmed, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. I don’t know when the shift to scantily-clad-empty-headed-female-leads came about, but it was a sad day for all those who long for intelligence, originality, and creativity. Carl, you will be sorely missed.

  8. After reading your review and going through all the responses, I kind of feel rather old, because I was 18-years-old and a senior in high school when this movie aired on ABC. I vaguely remember the TV ads you mention, and also remember looking forward to this cool new vampire movie. (Personally, when it comes to “monster movies” it’s hard to beat a good vampire film.) The night this aired, I had to attend some family function at my aunt’s house. Luckily someone happened to turn her TV on and when “The Night Stalker” came on, it was amazing how a crowd of around two-dozen people became caught up in this TV movie. I’m not just talking about kids my age or younger, but the adults as well. (I can’t remember everyone who was there, but I would venture to say the age range was anywhere from 7 to 70.) Of the many times I was at my aunt’s house, this was probably the only time I can remember where casual conversation and family gossip came to a screeching halt because of a TV show. Unfortunately, about half way through the movie it was time for everyone to go home. Fortunately, I only lived a block and a half down the street from my aunt’s house. But by the time I ran home and turned on the old B & W Zenith, I still had to wait a couple of minutes for it to warm up before I could continue watching. It seemed like an eternity, but I don’t think I missed much. When I later found out it was the highest rated TV movie in history, I really wasn’t surprised because I had seen how it had mesmerized everyone at my aunt’s house.

    I currently have the DVD that contains both “The Night Stalker” and “The Night Strangler.” It’s hard to choose which one of the two is my favorite. Each has its own spooky spots. Maybe the “The Night Stalker” was better written, but my favorite scene takes place in the underground city in “The Night Strangler,” which features a dining room table surrounded by cobweb shrouded decaying bodies. When I saw the original broadcast, I thought it was pretty cool!

  9. Paul: I think I watched the original airing of The Night Stalker with my mom and dad and a few brothers. It really did hold everyone’s interest. Later, when the series ran, my little brother and I had to use the old console TV in my parent’s room so they could watch their programs in the living room.

    I’ve always preferred The Night Stalker to The Night Strangler, mostly because of pacing issues. The Night Stalker seemed to have a more consistent pace, drawing to an unforgettable climax. The Night Strangler seemed slower to me, though I do fondly recall the scene you describe above.

    I have DVDs to all of these programs now (the TV movies and the series), and I have to make myself not watch them too often, because they still give me a special thrill. I tend to watch things to death, but these are programs I always want to savor.

  10. this may well be my all-time favorite tv movie. john

  11. John: I concur, most definitely.

  12. I have this on VHS and love it. I also enjoyed the series. My favorite episode is one where this “trans-dimensional” (?) toothsome creature that feeds on humans, appears to it’s victims as someone they trust (an illusion), and Kolchak is forced to shoot an elderly colleague (apparently) from his paper. Great episode.


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