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.
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.