Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Night Strangler

ABC Movie of the Week - The Night Strangler
Original Airdate: 1/16/1973
Starring: Darren McGavin, Richard Anderson
Written by Richard Matheson
Directed by Dan Curtis

A year after the events in Las Vegas, Reporter Carl Kolchak has found himself in Seattle, Washington, where a strikingly similar series of murders is taking place. When Kolchak finds these murders appear to happen at regular intervals through history, he's unable to convince local law enforcement (not to mention his editor) that they must stop this several hundred year-old killer before he disappears for another 21 years.

JS: One cannot deny the similarities between this tale and The Night Stalker, and yet despite those similarities, The Night Strangler remains an equally effective chiller.

PE: For the most part. I think the sequel is slower and could have been shaved of ten minutes and been a stronger film. Don't get me wrong, it's still enjoyable but not on a par with the first one. The boogie man is also kept under wraps quite a bit longer. We only get a real good look at Richard Malcolm at the climax when he has his "meltdown."

JS: Actually, the original version broadcast in 1973 was only 74 minutes. The DVD release contains a 90-minute edit used for theatrical distribution overseas. Thanks to Mark Dawidziak's indispensable Night Stalker Companion, I can tell you that Al Lewis was completely cut out of the broadcast version, and Margaret Hamilton's cameo and the underground tour were both abbreviated.

PE: Well then, that version, sight unseen, gets a higher rating from me than this one does. If I were to fill out an extra 16 minutes, I'd use Jo Ann Pflug's alternate belly-dancing takes rather than anything with the annoying Al Lewis. In some cases, longer isn't better.

JS: I love that when we first see Carl, he's still talking about the vampire case in Las Vegas. Is it a stretch to ask viewers to believe that Vincenzo just happens to have relocated to Seattle as well? Sure, but pitting Kolchak against a Vincenzo clone just wouldn't have been the same as having Simon Oakland in the role. Genre veteran John Carradine does a fine job as Vincenzo's disbelieving boss this time out.

PE: I think it becomes more of a stretch when the duo land on their feet a third time together in a new town for the TV series. And, you're right, Oakland is fabulous in this role (and he only gets better once the series starts rolling) so we don't need stand-ins (as we get with Carl's girlfriend and Carl's enemies on the police force) to try to recapture the dynamic interplay between Oakland and McGavin that sparkled in the first flick. Oakland's impressions of Jackie Gleason as he's chewing out Kolchak are priceless.

JS: The fact that the killer doesn't just strangle his victims—he also draws blood from them—allows the audience to believe that Kolchack may have stumbled across another vampire, but Matheson manages to conjure up an equally interesting 'monster' for our intrepid reporter's second encounter. Richard Anderson, who our regular readers will remember from the saving-grace seventh episode of Thriller, "The Purple Room," does a great job as Civil War doctor Richard Malcom. Kids my age will remember him most fondly from The Six-Million Dollar Man (I hate to think what he'd cost in today's economy), where he played Steve Austin's boss, Oscar Goldman.

PE: When he starts to rot, Anderson looks a lot like one of our old friends, Dr. Jonas Temple (played by The Night Stalker's Barry Atwater), in the Outer Limits episode "Corpus Earthling."

JS: Our leading lady this time out comes in the form of Jo Ann Pflug, who if not the most convincing belly-dancer you'll ever see, is far more beautiful than the inappropriately named Charisma Beauty (Nina Wayne). After this she went on to be one of the regular contributors on Match Game!

PE: She's a lot hotter than The Night Stalker's limp noodle, Carol Lynley. I doubt Lynley could have pulled off the belly dancing routine like Jo Ann does (although I do suspect at times there might have been a body double). I could have done without the scene filmed at the Needle where Jo Ann shows up disguised as a picnic table. As an incidental tie-in with our Marvel University blog (SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT!!), one of Pflug's first steady jobs was voicing Invisible Girl Sue Storm on the Hanna Barbera Fantastic Four cartoon (1967-68).

JS: The great Wally Cox steps into the role of Kolchak's faithful sidekick, as a newpaper researcher who digs out the truth about Malcom's longevity. He's particularly good in the scene where Kolchak finally convinces the authorities of his story.

PE: Oh, for an alternate reality where Wally Cox pesters Carl Kolchak every week on the TV series rather than Ron Updyke. Alas, that couldn't have happened even if the casting director deemed it the right thing to do since Wally died a month after The Night Strangler aired.

JS: Curtis seemingly left no stone unturned when finding stars for cameo roles... in addition to those mentioned above, we also get appearances from Margaret (Wicked Witch of the West) Hamilton and Al (Grandpa Munster) Lewis.

PE: Don't forget Scott Brady (Destination Inner Space, Castle of Evil, Journey to the Center of Time) as Claude Akins' stand-in bully cop, Captain Schubert.

JS: Matheson chose a great setting for this installment, in order to utilize Seattle's famous underground city. You can read up on its history here. Once Kolchak stumbles across Malcom's lair, it's a nail biter right to the end.

PE: Yeah, it's almost too frightening, that table scene, for a TV flick. Very reminiscent of what Tobe Hooper would do with the farm house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre the following year.

JS: Okay, to nitpick. How long do you think it took Malcom to come to the realization that his special elixir required that the lovely ladies blood be drawn within 30 seconds of death? Wouldn't you expect there to have been quite a few more murders back in 1868 as that little factoid was slowly discovered?

PE: You want to nitpick? Why would Malcolm tell Kolchak that if he doesn't take the elixir, he's gonna die? If I was the good doctor, I'd consider everything including a nutty newspaperman who might try to interrupt my ritual. Not a smart monster. And another thing: I get that Gail Foster (Lynley) was run out of town by the cops at the climax of The Night Stalker and probably wouldn't have wanted to see Kolchak above ground ever again, but Louise Harper is in the car and on the way to Chicago with Kolchak and Vincenzo. What happened to her when the series commences? Just wondering. And how does a slob like Carl get these beautiful girlfriends? It ain't his money. Can't be his charm. Doubt if its because he treats a lady like a lady.

JS: Once again, Robert Cobert sets the tone with his musical score. We even get some jazzy riffs a la Lalo Schifrin's Dirty Harry score this time out.

PE: I hated this score. It intruded at the wrong times and blared throughout the balance. The antithesis of the creepy soundtrack we got with The Night Stalker. Don't dare compare this 1970s incidental porn muzak to Schifrin's Dirty Harry score. You go too far, young man!

JS: Just to be clear, Robert Cobert is no Lalo Schifrin. But I wouldn't be surprised if portions of this score were inspired by Schifrin's Dirty Harry score, not unlike how portions of Schifrin's Dirty Harry score were inspired by Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song."

PE: A nice touch was our final scene in the car as the credits roll while Pflug bitches and moans. I love how the director is almost insinuating that this girl's litany of complaints may go on far longer than the credits.

PE Rating:

JS Rating:

Be sure to come back at 2pm PST for Mark Dawidziak's look at The Night Strangler, and 5pm PST for Matthew Bradley's Spotlight on Kolchak's return!

Next up, Kolchak faces The Ripper!


  1. PE: And how does a slob like Carl get these beautiful girlfriends?

    I have to wonder about that, too. I was thinking it was a Dan Curtis thing, since Barnabas also gets the ladies, even without benefit of vampire hypnosis, and he's no hot, young stud either.

    I think the ladies go for Kolchak because of his sense of humor, but that could just be why I love Carl K.

  2. I actually liked this one more than THE NIGHT STALKER. The STALKER suffered from the usual blood drinking vampire while THE NIGHT STRANGLER had by far the better plot with the immortal murderer appearing every 21 years, not to mention the fascinating underground Seattle gimmick. I'm surprised the TV censors did not ax the corpses sitting at dinner scene. This was pretty strong for 1973.

    Pflug's picnic table outfit gets my vote for the most ridiculous looking ensemble I've seen in a long time. I laughed so hard that I had trouble drinking my beer. And I'm sorry, but Charisma Beauty was no beauty! What with all the humor and Kolchak's wisecracks, I now see this series as more of a comedy show than horror. Which is ok with me. I just wish I could laugh and not slobber beer all over the TV screen.

  3. I always loved this movie. Was the Dirty Harry score really inspired by Immigrant Song, or was that a joke? It's not always easy to tell.

  4. Re: your first nitpick, John, I said the same thing to the wife while we were watching it: the requirements for the elixir are SO specific that I hated to think how much trial and error was required!

    I'm fairly sure Pflug did use a body double for the dancing scenes, since their movements don't seem to match and the one shot conspicuously omitted her head, but hey, who's complaining? I'll take two shapely lasses for the price of one.

    Of course, the "I'm going to tell you all my secrets because you'll never live to act on them--BWUHAHAHA!" routine is straight out of the Unwise Villain Playbook.

    I'll third the motion on Charisma's so-called beauty; she wasn't hot enough to offset her total brainlessness, which unfortunately was as over the top as her "husband's" butchness.

  5. PE: ...but Louise Harper is in the car and on the way to Chicago with Kolchak and Vincenzo.

    Actually, if my memory is correct, Kolchak says or implies they are on their way to New York, not Chicago. It's not hard to imagine Kolchak not getting a job or being axed and then going to Chicago.

  6. Yup, it's the Big Apple.

    Kolchak: "You're going to love New York."
    Vincenzo: "New York?!"

    Which works in nicely with the original movie - because even there Kolchak crows about getting the chance to return to New York.

  7. McGavin even said (according to a book by some guy named Dawidziak) that he based his whole characterization of Kolchak on his burning desire to get back to New York "in style." And since more than a year and a half elapsed--at least in real time--between the premieres of STRANGLER and the series, Anonymous is correct that there's plenty of room for additional misadventures, during which they may have lost Louise. Say, there's an idea for a novel that Mark could write: KOLCHAK--THE MISSING TWENTY MONTHS!

  8. Matthew -- actually, Jeff Rice prepared extensive bios for Carl Kolchak and Tony Vincenzo both in the early '70s and when the new novels were planned in the early '90s. These have been used by the various Moonstone writers penning Kolchak adventures for comic books, novels and short stories. Louise figures into this in a major way, but it would be a major-league spoiler to reveal anything more. Those of you who have followed the Moonstone publications know what I'm talking about. The INS stint in Chicago also figures in how Carl and Tony end up in Los Angeles for first my "Grave Secrets" novel and then the Moonstone tales.

  9. My heavens, I've tipped over the apple cart!
    In my defense I'll just say that at my advanced age, I'm happy just to make it through to the credits without falling asleep, never mind making readable notes.
    I'll also say (again, in my defense) that the fact that the car went to New York only furthers my argument about Tony and Carl following each other to the ends of the earth. Were they given the boot in the Big Apple and then got back in the car and drove to Chicago and got side-by-side jobs for at least the fourth time? I'd think the producers would want to get a little of the history in but then maybe they were just concentrating on the monsters.

  10. This movie spoiled the Seattle Underground tour for me. I saw the film as a kid and the Strangler's subterranean lair imprinted itself in my memory and imagination. The tour itself is (or at least was 20 years ago) actually a lot of fun but I kept expecting to be shown an underground city rather than a series of halls and basements.

  11. The most startling sartorial revelation in THE NIGHT STRANGLER is not the wild plaids or huge lapels (standard issue for TV shows through '75 at minimum), but the dramatic change in McGavin's hairpiece since the events of the first film.

  12. Well, he had gone through a hair-raising experience in Las Vegas. Does that cover this?
    On an episode of Jack Benny's radio show, a badly frightened Jack exclaimed, "My hair's standing on end!" Guest Gracie Allen observed, "Yeah, it slipped a little to the side, too."

  13. If that's a hairpiece, then it needs a hairpiececut.

  14. After forty years of watching and reading Kolchak, it occurred to me -- maybe Carl used his contacts to keep tabs on Vincenzo after Vegas. Tony is the malleable yes-man who would certainly land a job. Maybe Kolchak waited until he heard Vincenzo was employed and then wandered up to Seattle. Of course, we still don't know why Tony keeps hiring Carl.

    Alchemists had quite a tradition of secret knowledge passed from one to another (using all sorts of symbols, so outsiders couldn't read it and decide to burn them at the stake). Dr. Malcolm may have just put the final "tweaks" on an elixir that semi-worked for centuries.

    There's a rather contradictory scene in the 90 minute version of STRANGLER. Kolchak is lying on Vincenzo's couch, speculating on how an elixir of life would work. Perhaps after 21 years the user would start to look a little "moldy", explaining the decayed flesh and corpselike look -- implying that the killer looks normal most of the time. Yet later Carl seems flabbergasted that a '50s description of the killer was "rather handsome -- unquote," and that the latest victim had no signs of decayed flesh on her person.

    The 90-minute version also had 3 or 4 extra minutes of Kolchak wandering around the underground city -- which we could have probably done without.

  15. Titus Berry Fans Unite!

    All ... er, two or three of them ...

    When KTNS was rebooted as the NIGHT STALKER series in 2005, parent entity ABC only had the rights to the two Kolchak movies — not the series — and hence could reprise characters only found in the original TVM and sequel.

    There are many, many points of contact, hat-tips and homages to the original Kolchak throughout the latter show. One of the most startling occurs in the episode "Timeless," one of the unbroadcast segments available on the DVD, where our old pal TITUS BERRY (now essayed very well by Stephen Tobolowsky) is revealed lurking in the print morgue of the Chronicle! He not only makes a key connection (heavily inspired by the plot of NIGHT STRANGLER; women killed in groups of three every 35 years), but actually gives voice to several of the original Titus' lines verbatim. "Research — that's where the joy lies ... and the fascination!"

  16. 4 typewriters all the way. I watched the 20 episodes of the TV series first, before I caught up to the two movies. I'm in the minority in that I'd actually place Horror in the Heights and the Trevi Connection ahead of The Night Stalker movie. I'd place the Night Strangler around #6 or 7 out of the 22 combined episodes. The Night Stalker movie is very similar to
    the show, the main difference is more flashy visuals in the movie, also more action. I guess Carl never got over Carol Lynley, so he had no interest in women in the series.
    As for the Night Strangler, my only complaint is that the end is a bit of a cheat. Richard Anderson waits to long to kill Kolchak, Carl distroyes his elixir seconds before Anderson needs to take it. Otherwise great episode.

  17. I preferred The Night Strangler to The Night Stalker, but that may be only because I'm vampired out, and the idea of derelict or forgotten places intrigues me. My review

  18. I recall seeing flashbacks of the night stalker when kolchac was telling his belly dancer companion up in the ride on how he fought the vampire in vegas and driving a stake through his heart. These quick flashbacks were omiited from the night strangler. Why?

  19. One thing that happened with Jo Ann Pflug for real was the same think mentioned about Nina Wayne, a big partial career on MATCHGAME. (Of course, that only explains Jo Ann away from the series, not Louise Harper.)

    Speaking of Nina Wayne, I can't agree with the comments about her. Sure, she didn't hit it big the way her sister Carol did, and sure "Charisma" was dumb, but both sisters made CAREERS out of those "dumb blonde" roles. As far as unattractive, that's the part I really have a problem with. Her attractiveness even gives a happy ending to the movie LUV - Jack Lemmon is willing to drown, but when SHE dives in to rescue him, he changes his mind. And I always BELIEVE it.

  20. Col. Steve Austin would cost the G and NASA some $34,450,765.55 in 2017 dollars to have rebuilt. Not, sure that sum would even keep him barely alive nowadays.