Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Night Stalker


ABC Movie of the Week: The Night Stalker
Original Airdate: 1/11/1972
Starring: Darren McGavin, Barry Atwater
Written by Richard Matheson (based on an unpublished story by Jeff Rice)
Directed by John Lewellyn Moxey

Reporter Carl Kolchak stumbles onto the story of a lifetime: it appears there may be a vampire loose in Las Vegas. On his own, with no help from the disbelieving police, Kolchak attempts to track down and destroy Janos Skorzeny before he can kill again.

PE: This was definitely before the days of CSI. A cop stands amidst debris, points at his feet and says "There are signs of a struggle here." Was there ever a time when reporters could stroll through crime scenes, snapping photos? Never mind that. Was there ever a time when Paul Anka and Joey Heatherton headlined Vegas?

JS: I think Moxey was trying to establish that the seventies were a scary time. Speaking of scary, one of my favorite members of Dan Curtis' stock company is also along for the ride; composer Robert Cobert. He did amazing work on Dark Shadows, and continued to work with Curtis through numerous TV movies (and went on to do one of his best scores for the Curtis-directed Burnt Offerings). Like many composers, his scores have a signature feel, and he masterfully creates eerie themes that always manage to fit the subject matter; whether the story is set in a Gothic mansion or on the Las Vegas strip.

PE: I'd say it took balls to cast both Simon Oakland and Claude Akins in the same film. I'd always thought of Simon Oakland as, no disrespect intended, a poor man's Claude Akins. If only Ben Johnson were cast as well.

JS: I think both are great, but you're right. At one point in this viewing, my wife said she thought Akins  should have been the editor. I think those were both great casting choices—Kolchak is basically dealing with the same personality coming and going. The only difference between them being when all is said and done, Vincenzo acknowledges what Kolchak has done.

PE: How does everyone seem to know where Carl is? Kolchak's having a discussion with Fed Bernie Jenks (Ralph Meeker) and he gets a phone call! 

JS: I think it indicates how connected Kolchak is. Matheson throws in several off-hand references to Kolchak's career before he ended up in Vegas. It's just enough to imply a greater backstory without wasting a lot of screen time on what ultimately would be unnecessary details. One of the things I love about the show? There's a ton of shooting around downtown Las Vegas, and I don't think I counted a single process shot!

PE: This must be the worst news town in the United States. At multiple press conferences, Kolchak is surrounded by reporters and yet he's the only one to make a peep.

JS: You get the sense that everyone else is there because they drew the short straw. Carl is the only one who seems to relish his position, regardless of the market he's in.

PE: An early example of "Don't let the news get out, it's bad for the town business" that would catch on with Jaws and then become a staple of pert near every horror film from then on. 

JS: But think about the people who were at risk. The locals are really going to go out of their way to protect the ladies of the night? You'd think they'd take advantage of it to curtail their trade.

PE: What a cast we have here. Oakland, Akins, Meeker, character actor Charles McGraw, Larry Linville (later of M*A*S*H*), Elisha Cook, Jr., and Barry Atwater. Wow! The only weak spot, for me, would be mousy Carol Lynley, who always seemed to play the same character in every role. And then there's the note-perfect Darren McGavin, who's so zoned in as Kolchak, you can't tell at times if the reporter wants to find the monster to be a Good Samaritan or because it means his name in lights.

JS: You quickly appreciate that his acerbic wit is not reserved for his 'enemies,' as he treats everyone the same, from the Sheriff to the D.A. to his pal Bernie (who I wish we would see more of—a Felix Leiter to Kolchak's James Bond, if you will). What I also think makes Kolchak interesting is, despite his silly straw hat and white shoes, he is clearly a ladies man. The cliché would be for him to live alone with nary a female in sight.

PE: The script is near-perfect as well. Akins and Oakland were fast running out of ways to say "Kolchak, get out of here" but that's a nit. What I loved about this film is that it looks sideways at the vampire mythos. Sure, we've seen dozens of the "one guy knows about a monster but no one will believe him" but that's not really a point labored here. A vampire with a station wagon sounds like a goofy idea (why not a hearse, right?) but think about it. The guy's got to get around and, ostensibly, Matheson's not buying into the "man into bat" transformation or, rather, he just doesn't address it. But even if Skorzeny could turn into a bat, or a wolf, how would he carry all those bottles of blood around? With little bat-wing-fingers? How does a vampire dress himself? Does he keep a clean house (not in this case)? How does he buy that station wagon and buy that creepy house? These things, in other movies, are just a given. We don't question them because we just want to be frightened. The house is always a castle and the vampire always wears the same clothes, those he was buried in. Richard Matheson lets us in on some of these secrets but he does so subtly. No one discusses it.

JS: And again, whereas you're used to the stories where no one beyond the main character is willing to even consider the facts being presented, even the good doctor (following his tour of duty with the M*A*S*H unit in Korea) suggests that his claims should not be dismissed outright.

PE: It's interesting that Matheson holds on to some of the old movie tropes - the cross, the stake through the heart, daylight being deadly, soil in the coffin, the coffin itself - but doesn't get into the others - garlic, the mirror, or water (in fact, the vampire falls into a pool at one point). Skorzeny's death scene is right out of Horror of Dracula. I almost want to see if the vampire's corpse turns to dust after the staking but, no, Matheosn ends it at the right... point.

JS: The isolation with the sunlight, sure, but Matheson wasn't going to deny us a staking, and Atwater really sells it when he realizes he's met his match. Speaking of Skorzeny, it was a nice surprise that he was not just another handsome vampire charming his way to the ladies hearts (or necks). He's a lumbering creature from the moment we first see him, from behind, stalking his prey. His house, as you mention, is equally unattractive. While not a Gothic mansion, the last act is almost lit as such, which makes for a very creepy showdown between the monster and our intrepid reporter.

PE: I have one question though: why would Skorzeny hook up Shelly to the bed as a "private blood bank"? It makes no sense to me as the guy kills all his other victims outright.

JS: Think about it—Skorzeny is starting to feel the heat, and he knows he can't keep snatching up ladies of the Vegas night without getting caught. He needs to lie low for awhile, hence stealing blood from the hospital and setting up a tap in the old homestead. I'm more troubled by the fact that Kolchak seems shocked when he fires upon Skorzeny at point blank range with no effect. After all he had seen, I don't know why he even bothered picking up Bernie's gun.

PE: That doesn't really bother me. It's like the military guys who continue to fire their sidearms at Godzilla. It's there. You have to try. Also, even though Kolchak is convinced "This nut thinks he's a vampire," there has to be some doubt, even now, that the guy's the real deal. Just a little doubt.

JS: I can't imagine it's a coincidence that one of Skorzeny's identities was 'Belasco,' a name familiar to fans of Matheson's Hell House.

PE: It's too bad that the vast majority of the millions of fans of The X-Files and Supernatural have never even heard of The Night Stalker and yet, without it, would those shows have been created? At least in the case of The X-Files, series creator Chris Carter continually acknowledged the debt. Good for him.

JS: Click here to check out a period article on The Night Stalker from issue #25 of Castle of Frankenstein magazine, including an interview with Barry Atwater. Thanks to the fine folks at My Monster Memories for posting!

PE Rating:




JS Rating:








Night Stalker montages by ICHH reader Mark O'Neill


Be sure to come back at 12pm PST for Mark Dawidziak's look at The Night Stalker, and 4pm PST for Matthew Bradley's Spotlight on Kolchak's debut!

Next up, Kolchak faces The Night Strangler!

24 comments:

  1. I last saw this 4 decades ago and it didn't seem that dated to me at all. I remember the hot pants craze of the early 1970's and it was funny to see them again. Frankly, I was sort of worried that I might not like this movie because I am just about completely burnt out on vampire movies. The recent Twilight crap was the final straw.

    But what made this vampire film watchable for me, was Darren McGavin and the humor. Though some people gripe about voice over narration, I like it when it is effective and it's well done in NIGHT STALKER. Peter is right about the great cast of character actors backing McGavin up. I believe Simon Oakland was the only character to make it over to the series in 1974.

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  2. First of all, Joey Heatherton was DEFINITELY a Vegas headliner in 1972! She was hot stuff, as I recall, and could sing, too! I never liked Carol Lynley, either, and never understood why she was always cast. I never knew that the Jeff Rice story was unpublished. I remember reading a paperback novel of The Night Stalker by Jeff Rice. I guess it was published after the TV movie was aired. I vaguely recall a good article from Marvel's Monsters of the Movies that had more details on Jeff Rice and the novel, but I read it nearly 40 years ago so my memory may be faulty.

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    1. The incomparable Joey Heatherton http://www.missjoeyheatherton.com

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  3. I always make the same joke about this movie, and I'll do so again: Skorzeny is so unstoppable, it takes TWO Mike Hammers to kill him!

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  4. Looking back, the original NIGHT STALKER telefilm was straighter and more hard-boiled than anything that followed. It was NIGHT STRANGLER that introduced the wacky tone eventually adapted and modified for Universal's weekly version. Although I remember being impressed by the eccentric qualities of STRANGLER and Dan Curtis' flamboyant style of direction (which blew everyone away in 1970 with HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS), the first film, under Moxey's energetic but grounded helming, seems to have the edge over all other KOLCHAK incarnations when viewed today.

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  5. A few observations on the observations: In Jeff Rice's original novel, it's explained that people know where to reach Kolchak because he uses one of the hotels as a sort of unofficial headquarters (as Jeff did when he was reporter in Vegas); also in Jeff's book, Skorzeny's house is made as plain and non-descript as possible (Jeff had scouted just such a house to be used in the film, but it burned to the ground shortly before filming started); and Skorzeny's death scene it the book is far more grisly (the TV movie went about as far as they could with that in the early '70s).

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  6. Yeah, when Bernie spots the bikini-clad babe after guzzling Kolchak's beer by the hotel pool, doesn't he have some sort of throwaway line like, "Nice place you picked to live"? I always thought that kinda covered it, but then again, I've seen this thing innumerable times.

    Gary, you definitely nailed it re: the humor, a point I'll touch on in my STRANGLER spotlight.

    I must join the chorus of "meh" toward Lynley.

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  7. Intriguingly, Jeff Rice didn't have a Gail Foster character in his original novel. The romance was something they felt was needed for a TV movie in 1972. From "The Night Stalker Companion": "The prototype for Gail Foster, Carol Lynley's character, is Sam, a Las Vegas prostitute who is Kolchak's friend -- not his 'rather close friend.' The network was nervous about a hooker as the leading lady (how times would change!), so her occupation, her relationship with Kolchak and even her name were changed."

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  8. I love the scene where Kolchak is advising the cops to carry crosses, stakes and mallets, and he chortles and grins while saying they have a real, live vampire on their hands. I enjoy his gleefulness here.

    I thought it was interesting that we never actually hear any dialogue from this vampire. I thought that was nicely done.

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  9. Christine, interesting that, as a producer, Dan Curtis did the most to humanize the vampire by giving us a vampire with a conscience, Barnabas Collins on "Dark Shadows," then immediately turned around and gave us a vampire so dehumanized, he wasn't even allowed to talk -- just snarl and hiss. Over a six-month stretch in late 1975 and into 1976, two landmark vampire novels were published: Stephen King's "'Salem's Lot" followed by Anne Rice's "Interview with the Vampire." It's almost as if King said, "I side with 'The Night Stalker,' while Rice said, "I side with 'Dark Shadows.'"

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  10. ...I just stumbled across this site while surfing the net for trivia on The Night Stalker and any of it's stars. At 46, I will tell you that somebody in my family must have had the original TV movie on, in '71, as I was aware of it early on. I have an uncanny memory, and still recall the TV commercials advertising the original movie. In fact, I'm convinced that one of the spots had Oakland's saying "Kolchak", in his usual frustrated way, while they showed atwater as the vampire. Because for years, I was certain there was a missing scene of the vampire speaking Kolchak's name.
    Anyway, I digress. That TV movie is the best vampire movie ever made, to me, as it all seems real. Sure, you can tell when it's a stuntman (not on our old B&W TV,though) and there's no gore or digital garbage. And, though creepy, it doesn't leave you emotionally scarred like modern horror movies. But, I love it, right down to the perfect choice of Atwater as the vampire. Today, it would either be a CGI vampire, or a pretty boy. This guy looked real, but creepy.
    What's startling to me, at 46, is to watch this movie, like I just did again, and think how it was over FORTY years ago, and most of it's stars are passed on, and anyone in background scenes is either old or dead...including the bikini clad ladies at the pool. I never can process the passage of time.
    There are many TV reunions that I wish had happened, or that I wish had been done right. In fact, I can't think of one that worked, though I still think reunions could have been done if "Fans" had taken over and the producers backed off. But, a Night Stalker reunion...or sequel, would have been great, say around 1992. Unfortunately, even by then some of the key actors were gone. Had that not been true, it would have been great to see McGavin as Kolchak, again (opening with him, maybe scanning through a newspaper in an old apartment in NYC, while sipping a coffee and in a light mood, when suddenly his face turns deadly serious as he sees a story about a grisly murder, accompanied by a composite of Atwater as the suspect).
    In watching Dan Curtis' interview, along with my DVD, I had forgotten his comment about how, initially, the second movie had Kolchak tracking the vampire in NYC. While I love The Night Strangler, I'd loved to have seen that other version of a sequel.
    In keeping with the theme of the movie, it seems there are almost no publicity shots of Atwater, except the few we see on Ebay, of McGavin holding up a cross to him. I have "one" photo, that I never see, but that's it.
    I think it's a real kick to learn that the "Zombie" was also a heavy in The Six Million Dollar Man episode, One of our Runningbacks is Missing, and how he became, I think, a vice principle. It sort of helps this 46 yeear old get less creeped out when I watch him in Zombie.lol

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  11. BTW; Does anyone know if any of the missing or cut footage from "Strangler" (more of Al Lewis, as well as appearances by George Tobias), as commented on by Curtis, has ever been looked for, or is it assumed to be destroyed?

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  12. Anon - Welcome! Hope you take your time digging through all the content on the site. Mark Dawidziak discusses the lost footage from The Night Strangler in his write-up:

    http://akolchakaday.blogspot.com/2012/01/mark-dawidziak-on-night-strangler.html

    Unfortunately, not the news I'm sure you were hoping to hear.

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  13. Thanks...I'll check out what he wrote. I don't always have time to do alot of digging, but inbetween baby's diaper changes, I'll be sure to look around. Thanks so much,
    Mark

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  14. Hey John...I just tried emailing you at an email address listed on your other site, but it came back to me. I created a Night Stalker montage, and just figured I'd share, if interested. I see no way to post here, and I'm fairly computer illiterate

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  15. Try jscoleri - AT - earthlink - DOT - net

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  16. Just sent it. Thanks

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  17. Akins is more southern than not and making him Vincenzo would have never worked. Oakland is underrated and Lynley hotter than you guys are giving her credit for.

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  18. John, did you receive the photo montage in your email?

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  19. I did, and it's been added to our NS review page. Thanks Mark!

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  20. ...I just sent one more to you, of Dick Ziker, stuntman/stunt coordinator

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  21. PS...I just "had" to include the Bewitched house in one of the montages.

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  22. everyone knows were kolchak is is because back then a reporter , salesman , or business man would let his office know his itinerary and they would forward his calls or let someone know his location

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  23. Hey Peter,
    Re: "It's interesting that Matheson holds on to some of the old movie tropes - the cross, the stake through the heart, daylight being deadly, soil in the coffin, the coffin itself - but doesn't get into the others - garlic, the mirror, or water (in fact, the vampire falls into a pool at one point)."

    Allowing the fanboy in me to rise to the top, it's my understanding that vampire lore suggests that vampires can't cross running water. :)

    -rodan57

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