Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Mark Dawidziak on The Night Stalker

By Mark Dawidziak

     This is the story behind one of the greatest vampire movies ever made. Maybe you read about it in Night Stalking, The Night Stalker Companion or Richard Matheson's Kolchak Scripts. Yes, I've certainly had my say about the impact and importance of this 1972 TV movie that pulled a staggering 33.2 rating (percentage of the nation's TV households) and 54 share (percentage of sets actually in use during the 90-minute slice of prime time when ABC aired The Night Stalker on January 11). I always pause to explain the immensity of those numbers when showing The Night Stalker to the students who take my Reviewing Film and Television class or the Vampires in Film and Television class at Kent State University. Imagine. More than half the TV sets in use that night carried flickering images of determined reporter Carl Kolchak chasing after seemingly unstoppable vampire Janos Skorzeny.

     In this era of overstuffed channel lineups and endless technological choices, only Super Bowls post those kinds of ratings. The vast majority of my Kent State students can't relate to a pre-DVD, pre-DVR, pre-Netflix world with only three networks and no time shifting. So given how much I've had to say about how and why The Night Stalker works, I thought it might be fun to start this discussion by letting you know how the 18-to-22-year-old college student of today responds to this movie. The Night Stalker is the only film I show in both courses (although for greatly different reasons), and since I teach each class twice a year, I get plenty of chance to gauge their response to a 40-year-old vampire drama.

      First off, the general response is one of surprise and delight. Going into my fourth year of teaching these classes, I've only had one or two students who have seen it (or even known about it). Even most of the major-league vampire fans are unfamiliar with it. So I set up the film by explaining it was made when television was a very different medium and Las Vegas a very different town. I explain the limits of television in the early 1970s. And I explain that they'll undoubtedly recognize the actor playing Carl Kolchak -- as the Old Man in A Christmas Story (eliciting smiles and chuckles all around). Then there's a brief discussion of how versatile an actor Darren McGavin was and that they need to get the Old Man out of their minds. They're about to see a younger, more vital actor playing a role forged by a different sense of humor.

      It doesn't take them long to get sucked into the world of Carl Kolchak. They are hooked right from the opening narration, and they all jump as one when that hand shoots out of the dark and grabs Cheryl Ann Hughes by the neck. The film has got them by the neck, too. In The Night Stalker Companion, I wrote: "What worked then, works now. And nothing works better than what Richard Matheson described as a cinema verite approach to a vampire story." This isn't vastly different from the approach Bram Stoker took with Dracula, using diary entries, journals, newspaper clippings and letters to give us the feel of a factual record. What worked then, works now.

      But, OK, not everything works with these 21st-century college students. Nor are they in agreement on many elements of The Night Stalker. There is near-unanimity on McGavin's portrayal of Carl Kolchak and the ingenious idea of setting a vampire story in Las Vegas. And perhaps because they are becoming increasingly mistrustful of politicians and those in power, Kolchak's struggle with the powers-that-be has great resonance for them. The ending -- Kolchak's last confrontation with Vegas officials, not the showdown with Skorzeny -- has tremendous impact for them. Most everyone also likes the pace of the film, which does move like a house-afire. And they like the suspenseful buildup to Kolchak's fight with Skorzeny (although not so much the fight itself).

      The dated aspects, of course, do not go by without comment, particularly since the cleaned-up, digitalized DVD I use boasts a far sharper, clearer picture than was possible with 1972 TV sets. You're spotting things you were never meant to see. What tended to go by without notice 40 years ago looks a bit cheesy by today's standards. I'm primarily thinking of the stunt-double scenes with Skorzeny in full battle mode. Man, that sticks out like a wooden stake in a vampire's chest.

     Here are three elements that tend to split the room, and they are rich topics for debate and discussion:

1.) THE MUSIC. Some just adore Robert Cobert's jazzy and unpredictably weird score. Others find it corny and, after a while, laughable (a view, by the way, expressed emphatically by Kolchak creator Jeff Rice). Myself, I've always greatly enjoyed Cobert's spooky tones, and I continue to put that to a rigorous test, re-watching The Night Stalker at least four times a year. I continue to find Cobert's theme for the movie and Gil Melle's theme for the series equally catchy.

2.) THE SUPPORTING PLAYERS. Some of my students think this is a colorful collection of intriguing characters actors. Others find the peripheral characters, excluding Simon Oakland's Tony Vincenzo, to be an unfortunate collection of stereotypes. I'm, of course, tremendously fond of the veteran character actors in The Night Stalker, starting with Kent Smith and Claude Akins. The teaming of McGavin and Oakland is nothing less than sublime, and a topic worthy of its own discussion. But there always seems to be a six degrees of separation between my books, no matter how divergent the subjects. Both Claude Akins and Larry Linville got their start at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia. Founded during the Depression, the Barter was one of the pioneering companies in the regional theater movement. It was the subject of my first book, and Claude Akins was one of the many Barter graduates I interviewed for that one. From the 1930s to today, the Barter has been an early stopping place for some of America's greatest actors, including Hume Cronyn, Gregory Peck, Patricia Neal, Ernest Borgnine, Ned Beatty and Kevin Spacey. 

3.) THE PORTRAYAL OF THE VAMPIRE. The hissing, animalistic Skorzeny also divides the students who have seen nasty vampires taken to the extremes of From Dusk Til Dawn, John Carpenter's Vampires and beyond. Nobody faults Barry Atwater, a fine actor doing his best with a 1972 concept of the vampire (keep in mind that Christopher Lee's Dracula and Frank Langella's Count also tend to split the room). He is kept in the shadows for much of the film, which works in his mysterious favor, but, when he fully emerges from the shadows, he brings with him an aspect of the TV movie that hasn't aged all that well.

     Personally, I never cease to be amazed by how much of the film holds up so well over the decades and through repeated viewings. No question that Darren McGavin's Carl Kolchak is the main attraction, but the whole "Dracula meets The Front Page" spirit that Jeff Rice crafted for the original novel remains incredibly potent. And The Night Stalker still packs a tremendous metaphoric punch. The best vampire stories reflect their decades, even if the featured vampires don't cast any reflections in a mirror. They consciously and subconsciously capture an era's fears, hopes, anxieties, dreams and nightmares. Look how much the horrors of World War I and the Spanish Influenza pandemic shaped the themes and the depiction of the vampire in Nosferatu (1922). Look how the societal undercurrents of the 1980s inform the original Fright Night and The Lost Boys. Even a minor vampire film like The Return of Dracula (1958) is packed with Red Scare paranoia (the Red Scare being a vampire instead of a communist threatening to tumble the white picket fences of an all-American small town). Jeff Rice says he was just trying to come with a good yarn, but he also came up with a vampire story metaphorically perfect for its time -- and perhaps for this time, as well. I'm guessing that's a major reason why what worked then, works now.

     And making the magic work? Try the ideal star (McGavin), the ideal producer (Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis), the ideal screenwriter (I Am Legend author and Twilight Zone contributor Richard Matheson) and the idea director (John Llewellyn Moxey). It was a fortuitous alignment of talent -- fortuitous for me, that is. I'll not be denying that. When I consider the number of friendships and opportunities that have come my way because of my association with Carl Kolchak, how could I possibly think otherwise?
One of the many benefits of the Kolchak connection: editing two volumes of works by Richard Matheson (never before shared this favorite shot of Richard and me, taken at Jerry's Deli, but figured this blog is the right occasion).

21 comments:

  1. Nice work, Mark. It's always challenging to revisit a subject you've written about so many times before, and I can only hope I did as well in my upcoming spotlight--which, fortuitously, does not seem to overlap your piece much--as you have here. Approaching the film from the perspective of your students was a good point of departure, especially when our own responses to it were so bound up with its era. Agree about the Cobert and Melle themes being equally effective. Keep 'em coming!

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  2. Always glad to read your comments, Mark! Re those two classes you teach, how come they never offered great courses like that when I went to college?!

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  3. I didn't have classes like that available to me, either, so I had to invent them. Still amazing to me that they let me in the building.

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  4. Loved reading about your student's reactions, Mark. Over the years, if I have ever wanted to introduce someone to the world of Kolchak, I always show them THE NIGHT STALKER, and very rarely does it not go over well with newbies. An unrelated question for you - Do you do Paypal at all? Or is the only way to get your books by check in the mail? Just curious.

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  5. Sorry, Doug. I'm not equipped for Paypal or credit cards. I just send books out now and then, hoping to keep fans from paying the highway robbery prices out there. I wish I had a carton of copies of "The Columbo Phile," but they all disappeared years ago. And "The Night Stalker Companion" is radpidly going the same way. I actually have more copies of "Night Stalking" at this point.

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  6. Oh man, I have a *very* worn copy of The Columbo Phile. What an awesome book that is. In any case, great, I will fire you off a check tomorrow. Thank you, Sir!

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  7. Get 'em while they're hot ... or before they increase in price! THE COLUMBO PHILE and NIGHT STALKER COMPANION both still available at abebooks.com, circa $40-$50.

    Delay, wait, procrastinate, and you know what happens ... they go up to $100!

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  8. Mark, can you write something about the publication history of Jeff Rice's book, and about subsequent Night Stalker books?

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  9. Jack, I've written a bit about that very topic for today's posting about "The Night Strangler." If there's anything more you'd like to know, don't hesitate to ask. After the discussion of the 20 series episodes, there will be a posting about the Kolchak activity after the 1974-75 series ended.

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  10. You've covered such hallowed, (happily) haunted ground here. As I sat through it again tonight i was amused by the impunity which Kolchak immersed himself onto the scene of every crime -- I'd dare say that would be impossible today. That initial press conference also comes across as incredibly bizarre, with the presenters totally receiving the 'shocking' details at the same time as the hacksaw press. I loved how they filmed that in kind of a claustrophobic room, packing all those people together around that desk. On the 'hmmm' side, I kind of wish they hadn't have tossed in actors like McGraw and Cook with roles that were slim at the best; Akins seemed to be doing his best Oakland impression (altho flustered and angry were some of his more regular takes) and only Meeker and Smith had much meat to work with IMHO. I'm surprised that the story didn't hint at the 'mob' either as a possible cause or at least as a means to hush things up -- but perhaps I'm trying to modernize what is virtually a perfectly weaved modern day fable.

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  11. Mob control certainly was part of the Vegas Jeff Rice wrote about in his original book. If not overt, it was in the metaphoric mix in the overall picture of corruption Jeff was trying to depict.

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  12. The Music - I seem to watch the series more than the movies, so I'm always struck for a split second by the differences in the scores. I think in the end I prefer Melle's theme and the TV show incidental music over Cobert's by a smidge. The Supporting Players - I adore this cast - it's a pleasure to see so many familiar faces on the screen across the running time. I guess to younger viewers wholly unfamiliar with these actors it just looks like a bunch of old guys yelling at each other. The Portrayal of the Vampire - all for it - so very very tired of the romantic "hunk" vampire with his curly locks and sparkles. Bleh. I like them stinking of the grave and hissing just fine. I am in luck, my good pal Ray and I are going to start working our way through the series (starting with the movies) soon - he grew up around the same time as me, but didn't get to watch any Night Stalker at all. He loves 70's horror and 70's TV horror (we just watched Trilogy of Terror last night, which he thought was terrific) so I think he's going to be knocked out by Mr. K and crew.

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  13. Perhaps I should read Dawidziak's Companion but has there ever been any explanation for the massive TV ratings of this movie on its debut night?

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    1. The marketing campaign had much to do with it, and, yes, that's described and discussed in the "Companion."

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  14. Mark, I have those 2 works you did on Matheson: The Kolchak Scripts (letter KK out of 52, signed by everyone but Chris Carter) and Bloodlines in that awesome redwood coffin(letter SS out of 52). This one's signed by everyone, including John Carpenter and Ray Bradbury! Paid a pretty penny for each but well worth it!

    I was 5 when I sat up with my parents and watched that first movie and it had a profound impact on me. Watched the followup and sat thru each series episode religiously.

    I just wanna know where you guys got that copy of the advertisement for the second movie? They played that so much leading up to it, I had it memorized!

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    1. Thanks, Michael. Gauntlet does quality work, and it's difficult to put into words what an honor it was to be part of book projects with Richard Matheson. Richard did not know about the appreciations we solicited for "Bloodlines." We even sent him a version of the galleys that didn't include them. It was a surprise gift to him that he didn't know about until he received his first copy of the book. And our pal from this blog, John Scoleri, was a major reason that book came out as well as it did. You'll need to ask John and Peter where they found the advertisement. Not one of my contributions, but, I, too, remember it well. All best, Mark

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  15. totally love that flick...remember watching it all squeezed together on the couch with my family...and do you remember who introduced it (yes I even remember that!): a character from 'the mod squad' (which had just finished)...''now stay tuned for 'the night stalker' a tale of a vampire running amok in las vegas'' (or something like that)....despite having seen this flick some dozen times, it's still a classic on so many ways, given the soundtrack (that alone, so dan curtis like and carried over to 'house of dark shadows), and splendid mash of horror and humour.

    unlike today's lame vamps who talk and party (read 'twilight')
    this vampire has no connection at all with anything humane or we can connect to...instead when on camera he's a non talking, snarling and scary hunter.

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  16. "...when he fully emerges from the shadows, he brings with him an aspect of the TV movie that hasn't aged all that well."

    I always thought that Atwater's "animal in a suit" was a good portrayal and probably influenced to a degree by the physicality (not the urbane sophistication) of Robert Quarry's Count Yorga character, one of the best Sub-Draculas that predated TNS.

    What specific aspects of Atwater's portrayal do you feel do not work?

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    1. Elliot, I'm on record many times expressing great admiration for Barry Atwater's performance. In the line you reference, I'm talking about some of my students' reaction to "The Night Stalker." I suppose some of them might have the same response to the "Count Yorga" films.

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  17. I've loved the Stalker since I first saw it as a kid growing up in Sydney, late one night in the mid 70s. It's always been a part of my life; first the 2 MTV movies and then the series. Have seem them all many, many times and I count Kolchak The Night Stalker in my top 3 series of all time.

    I have only just discovered this blog but plan on sitting down and watching them all again-but for the first time in about 6 years, so will put some comments on here in case there's any life left in this blog.

    Question for Mark D ( my same initials and incidentally, I have been asked before if I were you on the Columbo site):

    Wasn't there a script going 'round in the early-mid 90s called "The Return of the Night Stalker" and it dealt with Kolchak of course, but now he was working for Vincenzo's son? Seems Janos Skorzeny had come back from the grave and was up to his old tricks again and once again it was up to old Carl to fight the evil vampire.

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  18. Will the actress who played Cheryl Ann Hughes ever be revealed?

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