Monday, February 10, 2014


John Llewellyn Moxey, 1972
Starring: Darren McGavin, Simon Oakland, Carol Lynley, Barry Atwater

Unconventional reporter Carl Kolchak has written a book about recent events in Las Vegas that he witnessed first-hand, but were covered up by the local police. A series of women are found dead with their blood completely drained. Kolchak and the medical examiner believe the deaths to be connected, though the police commissioner hopes otherwise and wants the story repressed. Kolchak’s boss at the newspaper refuses to allow him to write about the murders. He discusses the case with his young girlfriend, believing the murderer to be a serial killer who thinks he is a vampire. She encourages him to read up on vampire lore.

Soon after, Kolchak happens to be present when the police attempt to apprehend the leading suspect, Janos Skorzeny. Despite being shot multiple times, he exhibits superhuman strength and escapes. Kolchak tracks down Skorzeny and is the first to find his basement hide out, where the latest victim is tied up and suffering from blood loss. Can Kolchak free her in time? Is Skorzeny a vampire or just a psychopathic killer?

Written by the late great horror and sci-fi writer Richard Matheson, The Night Stalker is based on a novel by Jeffrey Rice, The Kolchak Papers. The Night Stalker was ABC’s highest rated original film, resulting in a sequel and follow up series. For its time, The Night Stalker was a fairly original experiment. It also came during a time of some truly great horror television, including movies like Trilogy of Terror, Bad Ronald, and Salem’s Lot, as well as shows such as Night Gallery, Twilight Zone, Dark Shadows, and The Outer Limits.

The Night Stalker’s
producer, Dan Curtis, also created Dark Shadows and clearly had an interest in experimenting with vampire characters and the world of the occult. He and Matheson would also go on to do a Dracula film adaptation with Jack Palance. While Dark Shadows is essentially a supernatural soap opera, The Night Stalker is a much darker cross between horror and the detective story. As with Dark Shadows, there is no gore or nudity, just compelling writing and well-used horror elements. Some aspects of the film have not aged well and there are a few cheesy scenes, but I think this adds to the overall charm. Director John Llewellyn Moxey did solid work on The Night Stalker and is also remembered for British horror films Circus of Fear and Horror Hotel, both of which starred Christopher Lee, another man famous for his involvement with vampires.

The Night Stalker was part of the ABC Movie of the Week series, which also included Trilogy of Terror and the Richard Matheson-penned Duel. Due to Stalker’s success, it was followed by a sequel, The Night Strangler, and a single-season TV series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker. An undeniable influence on The X-Files, The Night Strangler will appeal to anyone who enjoys a mixture of mystery and the occult, crime and horror.

The film takes itself utterly seriously, making it more effective than something like Count Yorga, Vampire, the first American film to put a vampire in a modern day setting. Like Yorga, Janos Skorzeny seems to be of Eastern European descent, but the similarity ends there. Skorzeny (played by Barry Atwater from Kung Fu and Night Gallery) is far more menacing than Yorga. In addition to his appearance – blood red eyes – he is also frighteningly practical, both killing women for blood and stealing from hospital blood banks. Unlike the aristocratic Yorga or Barnbabas Collins (a modern day vampire from Dark Shadows) who both rely on wealth, servants, or some sort of entourage, Skorzeny is a solitary hunter living a base existence made up solely of blood and survival. He is not overtly supernatural, at least not until he reveals his super strength and aversion to sunlight at the end of the film.

The Night Stalker is really worth watching because of Carl Kolchak’s excellently written character. Following somewhat in the Sam Spade mold, Kolchak is clever, intelligent, and unconventional. He might appear sleazy at first, but he has a well-defined moral center, certainly more so than the cops, newspaper moguls, and lawyers he deals with throughout both films and the television series. Like Sam Spade, he is eager to ignore rules and laws when they inconvenience him, but has an unshakable personal idea of justice. Again, like Spade, he is also somewhat of an anti-hero and things never go his way. He might solve the crime, but he winds up poor, fired, nearly arrested, and accused of murder. And as Sam Spade would say, he has no luck with dames.

The sarcastic, charismatic Darren McGavin is perfect as Kolchak. Younger generations might be surprised to see Ralphie’s dad from A Christmas Story taking on supernatural crime, but Kolchak is one of the best and most beloved on-screen detectives of the ‘70s. His trademark wit is here in spades, though he may not unleash as much profanity.

There is a great supporting cast made up of almost solely B-movie and horror actors, including Simon Oakland (Psycho), Kent Smith (Cat People), Claude Akins (Twilight Zone), Ralph Meeker (Food of the Gods), Elisha Cook Jr (Rosemary’s Baby), and Charles McGraw (The Birds). Carol Lynley (The Poseidon Adventure) is the weakest link as Kolchak’s young, flighty girlfriend, but even she is tolerable.

The Night Stalker comes highly recommended and is available on a double-feature DVD with its sequel, The Night Strangler. If you enjoy a blend of crime, police procedurals, and/or detective fiction with horror and the occult, The Night Stalker is definitely worth watching. 

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