Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Mark Dawidziak on The Night Strangler

By Mark Dawidziak

     You get the feeling that Richard Matheson still twitches a bit when he recalls the writing of the sequel to The Night Stalker. Coming up with a worthy murderer to follow vampire Janos Skorzeny was, well, murder. Why do a sequel at all? The Night Stalker was a near-perfect TV movie. Freeze it. Leave reporter Carl Kolchak exactly where he is at the end of that January 1972 film. He walks out of frame having uttered the ideal curtain line: "So think about it and try to tell yourself, wherever you may be, in the quiet of your home, in the safety of your bed, try to tell yourself, it couldn't happen here."

    I'll confess to deeply ambivalent feelings here. It's sort of like the end of the first Rocky film. It's perfect. Part of you wishes they'd left it right there, never having done another Rocky story ("Ain't gonna be no rematch" . . . "Don't want one"). Yet part of you wants to revisit this wonderfully appealing underdog character. See, I want the Rocky saga to end with him going the distance, and that distance is the 119 minutes of the first film, and, at the same time, hell yeah, give me more.

     Think of all the fun we'd have missed without those Rocky sequels (as bad as some of them are). Think of all the fun we'd have missed without The Night Strangler and the 20 episodes of the 1974-75 series (as bad as some of them are).

     But ABC had no such ambivalent feelings after The Night Stalker aired and set the ratings record for a TV movie. The incredible success of the original Kolchak movie dictated that there just had to be a sequel, and this time, producer Dan Curtis would get to direct (a decision not without dramatic consequences). As most Kolchak fans know, Richard Matheson wanted the killer to be Jack the Ripper. Kolchak vs. Jack the Ripper? What a sensational idea, particularly since Kolchak creator Jeff Rice  had Carl fascinated by the Ripper murders. Okay, roll cameras. Let 'er rip.

     What stopped this colder than one of Jack's victims was Richard's warm friendship with fellow fantasy legend Robert Bloch, whose classic story "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" had been turned into a ripping good episode of Boris Karloff's Thriller. Richard got the idea that Bob Bloch might be uncomfortable with a Kolchakian Ripper story that echoed his own razor-sharp terror tale. Only one way to find out. Richard called his friend, and although Bloch said he didn't mind, Richard felt that he did ("something about the tone in his voice"). To give you an idea of how deep the mutual regard ran, a few months after Night Stalking was published in 1991, I spent a delightful afternoon in Robert Bloch's company, and he told me: "There is little that can be said about the mechanics of the business (writing). But I'd say that Richard Matheson is a wonderful role model . . . I'd tell anyone wanting to be a writer to read Richard Matheson." And who's going to argue with Norman Bates' daddy?

    But back to the Night Stalker sequel, first titled Time Killer. After much anguish and effort, Richard finally crafted the story of Richard Malcolm, a doctor using alchemy to unnaturally prolong his life. An elixir must be taken every twenty-one years, and a key ingredient is the blood taken from six murdered women.

     And here come the ambivalent feelings. Is there merit to the judgment rendered by both Darren McGavin and Jeff Rice, that The Night Strangler is a formulaic rehash of The Night Stalker, resembling its predecessor in plot and story structure? Yes. Is it also tremendously entertaining, packed with winning performances and directed by Curtis with great flair and vitality? Yes.

    Does it push the humor much harder, sacrificing the noir feel of the original? Again, yes. Do the supporting players in The Night Strangler make for terrific company? Again, yes.

     Deja vu? "That's what it was, all right, in spades," Kolchak says in the sequel that premiered on January 16, 1973.

     Yes, there is a deja vu aspect The Night Strangler. Or should that be deja view? But Richard Matheson planted an undeniably creepy and atmospheric monster in his fanciful version of the Seattle underground (the remains of old Seattle that Matheson discovered during a family trip), even if does take too long for Richard Anderson's Richard Malcolm to emerge from the shadows. I'll fall back on the verdict given in The Night Stalker Companion: "It's certainly correct to say that The Night Strangler repeats much of the Night Stalker formula. It's also correct to say it repeats the formula extremely well. And it's correct to say that the network wanted a TV movie that would repeat the formula . . . And it would be a shame not to have The Night Strangler. There are just too many wonderful moments in the sequel. There's the look on Tony Vincenzo's face when he realizes the voice in the bar belongs to Carl Kolchak. It's an acting clinic -- hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time. There's the spooky world of the underground. There's Tony giving a tip-of-the-hat acknowledgment to the influence of Hecht and MacArthur's The Front Page. There's John Carradine's marvelous face realizing that an employee he doesn't know (Wally Cox) has worked for him for thirty-five years. There's Margaret Hamilton . . . holding forth on the mysteries of alchemy. There's Louise Harper taking in the ruin of Tony Vincenzo and asking Kolchak, 'What have you done to that poor man?' . . . There's the chillingly malevolent look on Malcolm's face when Kolchak smashes the life-sustaining elixir. There's Richard Anderson's profound and tragic, 'Why?' "

    And there's Richard Anderson, so memorable as Malcolm ("You grovel nicely") -- so masterful in that climactic scene with McGavin. And how can I not be fond of a movie that works Mark Twain into the proceedings?

   Never located is the missing footage filmed of Kolchak meeting with retired reporter Jimmy Stacks (George Tobias), although many in the Dan Curtis inner circle searched diligently as a complete a version as possible was assembled for the home video releases.

    It was at the conclusion of filming on The Night Strangler that Darren McGavin and Dan Curtis had their big blowup. They'd been snapping at each other throughout the filming (like two terriers, Darren's wife, Kathie Browne, recalled), and Darren was unhappy with the way Dan was driving the crew. Darren walked out and for years they didn't speak. They did patch it up, but, as Darren put it, "Dan's a street brawler. And I'm not bad a brawling myself. So it was not a happy combination, let me put it that way." Interviewing Dan and Darren, I was struck by how candid each was about the confrontation. They both were great storytellers, too, although Dan was incapable of stringing three sentences together without employing the most startling array of expletives imaginable. In A Christmas Story, Ralphie Parker tells us that the Old Man was a master, working in profanity the way other artists work in oils. That was more Dan than Darren, by a long shot. I always told Dan he should do a one-man show, telling stories from his long career. It would have been well worth the price of admission (if not for the faint of ear).

     Ah, Dan and Darren -- they died about a month apart in 2006. That same year, I was working with Richard Matheson, putting together Bloodlines, his collection of vampire works. We were talking over the dedication, and I suggested we make it to Dan and Darren. We spent several minutes on the phone, getting the wording just right. Richard is a meticulous craftsman, and we were trying to reduce the dedication to the fewest words with the strongest impact. Finally, we agreed on: "To Dan and Darren, both legends." A few minutes later, the phone rang. It was Richard. "I've been thinking it over," he said, "and I think we should make it, 'To Darren and Dan.' " I laughed and said, "You really want to deny Dan top billing?" Richard said, "You're right. He'll come back from the grave to get us if we change this." I thought I was being pretty crafty on Bloodlines. I worked with Gauntlet publisher Barry Hoffman and John Scoleri to solicit Matheson appreciations from the likes of John Carpenter, Mick Garris, Frank Spotnitz, Steve Niles, Rockne S. O'Bannon, Richard Christian Matheson and Ray Bradbury. Richard had no idea. It was to be a surprise when the book was completed. The galleys he received were minus the appreciations. But Richard had a surprise of his own planned. When the book came out, the dedication to Dan and Darren was credited to me. Richard had supplied his own dedication: "To my family with love, and Mark Dawidziak and Matthew Bradley with gratitude." Great writer, and a nice, nice man.

    Right, back to The Night Strangler. The film also is intriguing from the standpoint of Kolchak archaeology. Although the story is original to Matheson, it's remarkable how many elements from Jeff Rice's novel are used in The Night Strangler. There was no room for many of the colorful characters from the novel in the first Kolchak movie, so Matheson renamed them and put them to excellent use in the sequel. Tyrannical professor Kirstin Helms from Jeff's book became Professor Crabwell, played by former Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton. Two other characters from Jeff's book, managing editor Llewellyn Cairncross and publisher Jacob E. Herman were blended into publisher Llewellyn Crossbinder, played by horror veteran Carradine. Tough labor reporter Janie Carlson became Janie Watkins, played by Kate Murtagh. A scene in The Night Strangler in which a student artist is hired to make a sketch of the killer is right out of the original novel.

    It's equally intriguing to see what Jeff did with novelization of Richard's script. Jeff's original novel was published as The Night Stalker by Pocket Books in December 1973. It quickly sold out its printing of nearly half a million copies. Richard had turned Jeff's novel into a script, so now Jeff turned Richard's script into a novel, published by Pocket Books as The Night Strangler in January 1974. And while The Night Stalker as a movie created a romance that didn't exist in the book (Kolchak and Gail Foster), Jeff created a romance (Kolchak and belly dancer Louise Harper) that didn't exist in the film. This led to an eye-catching sketch done by the artist Ed Silas Smith. It was for an omnibus edition of The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler planned by Cinemaker Press in the early 1990s. It finally was printed in Gauntlet's Richard Matheson's Kolchak Scripts, and here it is, in all its glory. It depicts Louise Harper on stage at Omar's Tent. At right is Kolchak (he's slightly burlier and smokes cigars in Jeff's original concept of him). Admiring her, um, art, at left, are two of Kolchak's closest friends, Jeff Rice (with pipe) and Mark Dawidziak.


  1. Excellent as always, Mark, and that picture of Louise is definitely worth a thousand words. I'm only sorry that, without having had access to your piece when I wrote my spotlight, I unwittingly echoed some of it. Well, I guess anybody reading this blog can't get enough of Kolchak, so I probably shouldn't worry...

    My friend Greg Cox, a native of Puyallup (yes, of Daffodil Festival fame) who lived in Seattle at the time STRANGLER was filmed--and is now, quite coincidentally, Matheson's editor at Tor--tells me that the Underground City is far less impressive in real life. But the sets used in the film, with that working elevator, were quite spooky, and the perfect setting for the climactic Kolchak/Malcom confrontation.

  2. Matthew -- some overlap is unavoidable (great minds and all that). Yes, Richard said the Seattle underground was much less extensive than what was depicted in the film. But one of the biggest Kolchak kicks I ever got was when a friend took the underground tour and reported back that they were selling "The Night Stalker Companion" in the gift shop. That was like winning an award. And here's a good place to mention that Greg is a gifted and prolific writer.

  3. When I visited Seattle a few years back, I made sure to take the underground tour - precisely because of this movie! Yup, also a bit disappointed it doesn't measure up to the movie sets - but then it would have seemed HIGHLY unusual to have a city rebuilt over two & three story structures and wide open streets (complete with rolling fog along the ground!). In reality, underground Seattle is mostly one level high, almost like a series of basements connected together by long tunnels.

  4. I remember as a kid being very disturbed/frightened by the skeletal mummies seated around Malcolm's table in the underground. Reminded me a bit of Norman's mother in Psycho, especially when Malcolm starts talking to them, letting us know just how bat shit crazy he really is.

  5. Yeah, I loved when he would turn to his mummified wife after a choice Kolchak comment and say, "You hear that?"