The ABC Movie of the Week (a beloved American institution on a par with Turtle Wax, disputed Florida elections, and SPAM, and whose history I detailed here) was, during its six season run from 1969 to 1975, a veritable goldmine of cheesy science fiction, mystery, and horror stories… only there were some MOW’s (for you members of the Netflix generation, that’s the acronym for movie of the week) that were a bit better than cheesy, and a rare handful were even better than that — that were, in fact, damned good. At the pinnacle of this admittedly rather small mountain stands The Night Stalker, which chomped its way into millions of unsuspecting living rooms on the evening of January 11th, 1972.
The Night Stalker was produced by Dan Dark Shadows Curtis and scripted by Richard Matheson from an unpublished novel by Jeff Rice. After the show became the highest rated made-for-television movie yet broadcast at that point, the novel found its way into print and it became apparent why it had been unpublished — it’s not very good. (It also bears an uncanny — shall we say, almost supernatural — resemblance to a much better book, Leslie Whitten’s little-known and underappreciated 1965 novel, Progeny of the Adder. Just a coincidence, I’m sure…)
The Night Stalker is the story of a serial killer on the rampage in Las Vegas, except that at the time, the term “serial killer” had yet to be coined by FBI agent and profiler Robert Ressler; he came up with it a full two years later. That’s how long ago 1972 was.
Okay. A depraved murderer prowling through the neon-bright nighttime streets of Sin City, searching through the hicks, hustlers, and hedonists for his next unsuspecting victim while the body count mounts, the populace panics, the press presses, and city hall and the cops ineffectually flail around. That sounds pretty routine, doesn’t it? Well, it would be, except for one thing. Our killer is a freakin’ vampire.
The movie begins with oft-fired, much-traveled newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) shuffling around a seedy apartment, intoning into his tape recorder, “This is the story behind one of the greatest manhunts in history. Maybe you read about it, or rather, what they let you read about it, probably as some minor item buried somewhere in a back page. However, what happened in that city between May 16th and May 28th of this year was so incredible that to this day the facts have been suppressed in a massive effort to save certain political careers from disaster and law enforcement officials from embarrassment. This will be the last time I will ever discuss these events with anyone. So when you have finished this bizarre account, judge for yourself its believability. And then try to tell yourself, wherever you may be, it couldn’t happen here.”
The Night Stalker and The Night Stranger by Jeff Rice (Pocket Books)
The proper paranoid tone thus firmly established, the rest of the story unfolds in a Kolchak-narrated flashback. Via cynical voice-over, replete with hot-off-the-press hyperbole, the reporter leads us through the story’s escalating events. We see several of the murders through the killer’s eyes and as each (invariably female) victim is found, her throat ripped out and her body completely drained of blood, Kolchak, equipped with a police scanner, inside sources, and a keen nose for news, always arrives at the scene just as the cops do — or even before. This, coupled with a manner best described as the interpersonal equivalent of lemon juice squeezed into an open wound, makes him very unpopular with the men in charge. They’re anxious to keep a lid on things, all in the interests of (of course!) preventing a panic. Rest assured that a mercenary desire to insure an unimpeded flow of happy cabbage into the cold embrace of the local casinos has nothing to do with it, nothing at all. (Anyway, as everyone who lives in a gaming-friendly state knows, some forms of blood-sucking are acceptable and some are not.)
Simon Oakland as Vinchenzo
Things come to a head when the obstreperous Kolchak starts turning in stories to his exasperated editor, Anthony Vinchenzo (Simon Oakland), with headlines like “Vampire Killer Loose in Las Vegas!” At this point the only thing keeping the authorities from smearing this loudmouth with peanut butter and staking him out in the desert for the ants to devour is a report from his friend, FBI agent Bernie Jenks (Ralph Meeker). Based on fingerprints found when the maniac (the vampire that is, not Kolchak) knocked over a hospital and made off with a Gladstone bag full of fresh hemoglobin, Jenks identifies the killer as Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater), a reclusive Romanian millionaire who always happens to be around during outbreaks of unsolved murders. He is also, according to his birthdate of 1899, seventy three years old!
Since this supposed septuagenarian seems to be as strong and energetic as a steroids-era home run hitter, the police are understandably skeptical, but when they manage to corner Skorzeny a couple of times he escapes with ease, tossing cops around like discarded gum wrappers and shrugging off billy club blows and bullet wounds as if they were no more than flea bites. (Kolchak, who witnesses one of these fracases, tells the D.A. that Skorzeny was shot thirty or forty times. He exaggerates, but not by much.)
Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak
These humiliating failures finally persuade the bigwigs to give Kolchak and his insane ideas a hearing. In exchange for exclusive rights to the entire story, the reporter agrees to help the hapless cops, such aid consisting of the following counsel: issue every officer in the field a shiny silver cross, a sharpened wooden stake, and a mallet, which is to be used to pound the stake through Skorzeny’s heart.
“There’s a legal phrase for that, Kolchak,” Sheriff Warren Butcher (Claude Akins) disbelievingly barks. “You might have run into it once or twice, in your broad experience — it’s called premeditated murder!” “It’s the only way you’re gonna stop him,” Kolchak returns, and after advising them to give up trying to catch Skorzeny at night, but instead track him to his hideout and kill him during the daylight hours, he finishes his discourse by saying, “Gentlemen, I hate to say this, but it looks as if we have a real, live vampire on our hands.” The look on Kolchak’s face when he says this is so infuriatingly smug that he’s lucky he gets out of the office without having the top law enforcement officials in Las Vegas drive a stake through his heart.
Sheriff Butcher (Claude Akins) and Kolchak
Immediately thereafter, Kolchak runs into degenerate gambler Mickey Crawford (Elisha Cook Jr.) who he had earlier tasked with watching the real estate listings in the hopes of discovering the house Skorzeny is holed up in. Mickey is sure that he’s found that house, and Kolchak tells him to wait half an hour before notifying the police; he wants a look at the place alone first. It is about thirty minutes before dawn, and yes, like every other hero in every other horror movie ever made — none of which he has apparently seen — Carl Kolchak plans on entering the vampire’s lair before the sun is up. Some people just aren’t as smart as they think they are.
Once he arrives at the house (a rotting Victorian pile that nicely resembles the Bates residence in Psycho), Kolchak tiptoes around the interior, popping off flashbulbs at every turn. Shortly after finding and photographing an honest-to-Lugosi coffin filled with dirt, he makes the nastiest discovery of all — a live victim, a woman who had gone missing days before, gagged and tied to a bed with an I.V. set up over her. This is the reason for Skorzeny’s hospital raids; he’s using the stolen fluid to replace the warm blood that he’s draining from his captive. I guess having a source like this close at hand gives him more time to play keno.
The end of Skorzeny
Kolchak starts to free the woman, but before he can get very far the vampire returns home — naturally! — and blocks his escape. Using his cross, the reporter starts to force his way past the creature but only manages to fall backwards down a flight of stairs; perhaps he should have stuck to interviewing dog show winners and changing typewriter ribbons. Skorzeny leaps on him and is about to sink his fangs into Kolchak’s throat, when Bernie Jenks bursts through the door. He occupies the vampire just long enough for Kolchak to tear down the drapes over a window and flood the room with sunlight (it now being after dawn). Once the rays hit him, all the fight goes out of Skorzeny, and this enables our hero to hold the monster down and pound a stake through his heart, destroying the evil thing forever.
It also destroys Kolchak’s hopes of filing a story that will catapult him back into the big time on a New York paper, since at that very moment Sheriff Butcher and his men arrive, just in time to see the reporter commit… what was that phrase, now? Oh yes — premeditated murder.
With the problem of the killer solved (the official line is that Skorzeny was killed in a gun battle with the police), the authorities unsurprisingly (though amazingly, cynical, seen-it-all Carl Kolchak is surprised) use this leverage to solve what is perhaps an even bigger problem, that of an obnoxious, troublemaking newspaper reporter. Kolchak is told to leave town immediately and never come back, or a murder warrant will be served on him. There will be no story.
There will also be no happy resolution to the blooming romance between Kolchak and his girlfriend Gail Foster, because the powers that be run her out of town too. (Foster is played by that 70’s icon, the always lovely, ever bland Carol Lynley. I haven’t mentioned this subplot before, because really, who cares?) The Night Stalker ends back where it started, with a grubby, unshaven Kolchak listening to the taped account of the greatest story any newspaperman ever got a hold of, his story, a story that will remain forever buried (unlike Janos Skorzeny and his victims, who were all cremated.)
A grinning Kolchak contemplates his pile of useless tapes, laughs sourly, and walks out of frame. The end.
It’s a gripping, efficiently told story, directed with great pace and atmosphere by John Lewellyn Moxey, who helmed episodes of just about every television series you can think of during a career that lasted from the mid 50’s through the end of the 80’s. The Night Stalker starts in high gear and never slows down; it’s only seventy two minutes long and it doesn’t have time to dawdle. Powered by a gang of terrific character actors dear to the heart of any devotee of the Late Late Show, it’s a great example of how good pre-prestige era television could be; from start to finish, the craftsmanship is impeccable.
But what makes The Night Stalker so distinctive and distinguished is more than merely the economy and energy of its telling, and more than just the novelty of its injection of the supernatural into a modern milieu (remember, gritty urban horror was much less common then than it is now); it’s that the film is a sterling example of that most difficult of balancing acts, the horror-comedy. Unlike some better known examples of the blend, here both elements are fully present and perfectly integrated.
Barry Atwater as Janos Skorzeny
The horror is quite strong for a network television show of that era, and much of the credit for that must go to Curtis (Stephen King called him “the only producer in Hollywood effectively able to make a picture frankly as scary as The Night Stalker“) and Matheson, and if you don’t know his horror credentials you should be boiled in your own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through your heart. Oh… wait… that’s a Christmas curse. Well, you get the idea. Together Curtis and Matheson established a fear-pervaded mood and then supplied a terrifying monster to fill it. Matheson’s script never evades the issue, but instead tightens the screws at every opportunity, nicely alternating scenes of low key, ominous build up with sudden, nasty shocks.
The scenes of the killer stalking women through the darkened streets of the city are disquietingly creepy and his attacks on victims and police alike are startlingly sharp and violent, with an edge that’s all the keener because of Barry Atwater’s portrayal of Janos Skorzeny. There’s not a single sparkle about this vampire; Skorzeny is nothing less than a demon in human form, tall and angular, with glaring red eyes and an expression that quickly moves from rigor-mortis stiffness to inhuman rage, a creature that’s all coiled menace and sinister silence. Indeed, the fine-voiced Atwater (just like Christopher Lee in Dracula, Prince of Darkness) doesn’t have a single line of dialogue, and is restricted to inarticulate, feral snarls and growls, and, when Kolchak is staking him, an indescribably awful agonized whine. It’s strong stuff, especially considering that this was the 70’s and you had to go pretty far to be scarier than sansabelt slacks, burnt orange shag carpets, and avocado-toned kitchens, though Skorzeny’s shadowy, cobweb-laced lair doesn’t quite manage to be as terrifying as the Brady Bunches’ living room.
The horror! The horror!
Powerful as the horror is, though, the primary reason The Night Stalker is still remembered today (just last year it got a nice new blu-ray release — pretty good for a forty six year old TV movie!) is because of Darren McGavin’s delightfully hammy, funny turn as Carl Kolchak, the mouth that roared. Attired in a cheap looking seersucker suit that he apparently both sleeps and showers in and topped off with a frayed straw hat that looks like it was fished out of a dumpster, Kolchak is a sartorial disaster. That doesn’t bother him, though, because he’s blithely unaware of the impression that he makes on people (he corrects the grammar of Sheriff Butcher even as the lawman is yelling at him — “Kolchak! Now, you’re here by the mutual suffrage of us all!” “Sufferance.” “What?” “It’s sufferance, Sheriff.”)
How to Alienate Friends and Infuriate People is Kolchak’s favorite bedside reading, or would be, if he needed any tutoring in the subject. Smug, smirking, egocentric, abrasive, loud, obstinate, and insubordinate, the reporter has been fired twice in Washington, three times in New York, twice in Chicago, and three times in Boston. (By the end of The Night Stalker and its sequel The Night Strangler you can add once in Las Vegas and once in Seattle to that impressive total.) His journalistic passion for the truth might be admirable, but his palpable delight in being an insufferable jerk makes Kolchak an enormous pain in the… well, since this is a vampire movie we’re talking about, let’s make it a pain in the neck to everyone who has the misfortune of dealing with him.
This especially applies to his editor and foil, the long-suffering Anthony Vinchenzo (consummately played by veteran actor Simon Oakland, who had the chore of tying up all of the loose ends in Psycho.) Eternally put-upon, constantly exasperated, spluttering with ineffectual rage, locked in a never-ending battle with his star reporter, Vinchenzo’s goal is to calm himself down to the point where he can just die of a high blood pressure-induced stroke and be free of Kolchak once and for all. He’ll never be that lucky. McGavin and Oakland were clearly having a ball; they play beautifully together, and their verbal battles are great fun to watch, and provide a needed relief from the tension generated by the movie’s horror elements. The light and dark sides of the story don’t jostle for attention or seem like aspects of two different stories; instead they seamlessly compliment each other, strengthening the whole.
The Night Stalker was a huge hit when it was broadcast and spawned a sequel the next year, The Night Strangler. Again produced (and this time directed) by Dan Curtis and scripted by Richard Matheson, now Kolchak is in Seattle (Vinchenzo too — what are the odds?), tracking down a hundred and fifty year old ghoul who lives in the tunnels beneath the city, who emerges every twenty one years to kill and extract blood from his victims, which he uses to concoct an eternal life serum. It’s fun, though not nearly as scary as The Night Stalker, the emphasis now being more on humor.
Many MOW’s acted as pilots; if audience response was good enough they could generate a series. (That’s what happened with The Six Million Dollar Man.) Thus it was that in 1974, Kolchak: The Night Stalker made its debut. Kolchak and Vinchenzo wind up in Chicago (third time’s the charm) and events take their usual course. I’ve never been to Chicago, but it must be a hell of a town, overrun as it is with giant carnivorous lizards, vengeful Native American gods, Hindu demons, killer robots, evil ghosts eager to possess anyone who neglects to put the chain on the door, seductive succubi, headless motorcycle outlaws, marrow-sucking aliens, cruise ship-prowling werewolves, and so many convocations of witches, warlocks, and Satanists they need their own section in the phone book.
Kolchak on DVD
The series (which Chris Carter cited as the main inspiration for the X-Files, and which earned McGavin an appearance in the series as agent Arthur Dales, the founder of the files) is a real hoot. Ahead of its time (and in a brutal time slot), the show lasted for only one season. As it progressed through its all too brief run, the writers more and more started pushing the outrageous situations into outright comedy, with the result that Kolchak: The Night Stalker is funnier than any pure sitcom of the last fifty years, with the possible exception of One Day at a Time. (In one episode, Kolchak shows up at some sort of demonic cult meeting. You know — just typical legwork for a big city journalist. A hooded acolyte asks him for a “nominal donation.” A disgruntled Kolchak drops something in the plate; the acolyte looks at it and says, “Not that nominal.”)
Vincenzo and Kolchak
The original Night Stalker TV movie deserves its place as one of the best things of its kind; even all these years later, years during which television has become ever more daring, sophisticated, and mature, the movie can still make you laugh and jump in all the right places. It’s an admirable, thoroughly successful piece of entertainment. And though the series was short lived, in the person of Carl Kolchak, potato-nosed journeyman Darren McGavin entered the pantheon of immortals; his shabby, never say die reporter is one of the all time great television characters. Kolchak never wins, but because he refuses to quit banging his hard head against the walls of power, he never loses either. He inspired Chris Carter to believe that the truth is out there, and while I don’t know if I would go quite that far myself, I do think The Night Stalker is definitive proof, not that aliens are among us, but of something even more astounding — that the much-maligned 1970’s produced something better than gas lines, People Magazine, and disco.
That’s plenty weird enough for me.
Thomas Parker is a native Southern Californian and a lifelong science fiction, fantasy, and mystery fan. When not corrupting the next generation as a fourth grade teacher, he collects Roger Corman movies, Silver Age comic books, Ace doubles, and despairing looks from his wife. His last article for us was a review of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.