The Night Stalker (1972 TVM)

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“The story may be apocryphal, but I believe it.”
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vt Kolchak: The Night Stalker; vt The Kolchak Papers; vt The Kolchak Tapes
US / 75 minutes / color / Curtis, ABC Dir: John Llewellyn Moxey Pr: Dan Curtis Scr: Richard Matheson Story: Jeff Rice Cine: Michel Hugo Cast: Darren McGavin, Carol Lynley, Simon Oakland, Ralph Meeker, Claude Akins, Charles McGraw, Kent Smith, Barry Atwater, Larry Linville, Jordan Rhodes, Elisha Cook Jr., Stanley Adams, Virginia Gregg, Peggy Rea, Helen O’Brien.

The Night Stalker was the first of two TV movies—the other being The Night Strangler (1973 TVM), which I’ll be covering here soon—that heralded a TV series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974–5). The series ran for just a single season of 20 episodes, which were aired at somewhat irregular intervals, so can hardly have been regarded as especially successful in its day. Even so, it has maintained a cult following ever since . . . as I’ll be pointing out when I write about it shortly for the Wonders in the Dark site’s current TV Countdown.

In the meantime, though, this movie:

Las Vegas, and the authorities are alarmed that there seems to be a serial killer on the list—not so much because he’s killing people as because, if word gets out and punters are deterred from coming to the city and its casinos, business could take a hammering.

Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak.

There’s one really odd thing about this killer. His victims are drained of blood—according to coroner Robert Makurji (Linville), the draining has been done through a bite on the neck. Further, the killer seems to be possessed of enormous strength: one of his victims is found in the midst of an unmarked patch of sand, as if thrown there across a distance of twenty yards or so.

Larry Linville as Dr. Makurji, the coroner.

The only person who’s prepared to face up to the facts and publish the truth is abrasive reporter Carl Kolchak (McGavin), now, after numerous firings from major newspapers, working here in town at the Daily News. Kolchak thinks the killer is a lunatic who suffers under the delusion that he’s a vampire, and, as a good journalist, he’s not afraid to say so. The trouble is that his managing editor at the News, Tony Vincenzo (Oakland), refuses to print the stories.

Simon Oakland as Tony Vincenzo.

The two men don’t really get on anyway. Of Vincenzo Kolchak comments caustically in noirish voiceover:

“Rumor has it that, the day Anthony Albert Vincenzo was born, his father left town. The story may be apocryphal, but I believe it. The only point I wonder about is why his mother didn’t leave too.”

Kolchak’s lovely and very much younger girlfriend, casino worker Gail Foster (Lynley), prompts him into taking his thesis one step further. As the bodies continue to mount up, she posits that perhaps the killer is not just a nut but actually a vampire.

Carol Lynley as Gail Foster.

Of course, in Vegas anything’s possible . . .

The DA, Thomas Paine (Smith), isn’t keen on the notion. If there’s anything more likely to depress business than the knowledge that there’s a serial killer on the loose it’s that there’s a vampire on the loose.

Kent Smith as DA Thomas Paine.

Sheriff Warren A. Butcher (Akins) agrees, as does Captain Edward “Ed” Masterson (McGraw) of the Las Vegas PD. The only law-enforcement officer who’s prepared to give Kolchak’s ideas a hearing is the FBI’s Bernie Jenks (Meeker), although he’s not prepared to stick his neck out (yes, I know) on behalf of his supposed old friend.

Claude Akins as Sheriff Butcher.

Charles McGraw as Captain Ed Masterson.

Did I mention that the killer is also robbing hospital blood banks? When he’s caught in the act he displays that superhuman strength we noted earlier, throwing orderlies around and running off, faster than a pursuing cop car, despite having been shot several times. He also has red, staring eyes, a face of unnatural pallor, extreme halitosis, an aversion to daylight . . .

Still Paine and the others refuse to believe he’s a vampire.

And finally there’s a suspect: Janos Skorzeny (Atwater), born as long ago as 1899 in Croatia, and suspected of going on murderous rampages in London and Canada before recently arriving here in Vegas.

So Kolchak arms himself with a cross, a mallet and a sharpened stake and heads off in search of the vampire Skorzeny . . .

Barry Atwater as Janos Skorzeny, the vampire.

The Night Stalker is very consciously—if not even self-consciously—done in the film noir mode. I’ve mentioned already the voiceover narration provided by Kolchak; it comes complete with the sort of snappy one-liners you’d expect from a 1940s movie PI, or, indeed, from a 1940s movie investigative journalist taking on the role of a PI, which was of course a very common trope not just in traditional film noir but in crime movies in general both before and after noir’s classic era. A common feature of those plucky reporters’ exploits is that they come up against opposition from the authorities. And beautiful girlfriends are pretty much de rigueur too.

Unidentified actress as abductee Shelley Forbes, found by Kolchak in Skorzeny’s house.

Michel Hugo’s cinematography matches this noirish spirit, with lots of shadows in the right places and some great views of nighttime Vegas. Visually the most impressive sequence of the movie comes late on, when Kolchak—in pursuit of a victim, Shelley Forbes (uncredited), whom the vampire Skorzeny has for once abducted rather than killed immediately—breaks into a house that Skorzeny has rented. As Kolchak sneaks around the place, eventually finding Shelley with an IV in her arm (Skorzeny’s “personal blood bank”), the shadowy visuals and the restrained use of sounds build up a tremendously creepy atmosphere—an atmosphere that’s then, alas, destroyed when Skorzeny arrives on the scene for the inevitable, risibly clichéd confrontation.

And this is the problem that the movie has: much of it is just exactly that: risibly clichéd—or, to put it another way, absolute hokum. I’m not talking about the fact that it features a vampire; yes, we all know that vampires are a hackneyed trope, but they’re a staple of dark fantasy and its cinematic offspring, and there’s no reason at all why a vampire movie need be hokum. No, it’s the treatment of the vampire element in the movie that makes The Night Stalker such hokum. There’s no attempt made to portray Janos Skorzeny as any kind of plausible vampire: instead we have what’s in effect a re-creation of the vampire as portrayed by Bela Lugosi, complete with the reddened, maddened eyes and an implacable lust for blood that conquers any other instinct for self-preservation.

This latter characteristic means that the movie’s plot makes no sense. The events of the movie take place over a period of days—a matter of two or three weeks at the outside. During that time our vampire murders four women, abducts another and raids two hospital blood banks. We’re supposed to credit that he’s been keeping up something like this level of criminal activity for the past half-century or so. Wouldn’t it have made international headlines, rather than being just a suspicion recorded in the Scotland Yard archives, if someone had been murdering, then draining of blood, two people a week in London? We’re told that Skorzeny used the Blitz as cover, taking advantage of the fact that there were lots of other mutilated bodies around, but it’d be hard to attribute the exsanguination to German bombs.

Similarly for his decades in Canada—only even more so, because it was no longer wartime.

And what about the efforts of the authorities in Las Vegas to keep a lid on the vampire’s current efforts? Is it at all likely they’d be able to pressurize the Daily News’s Vincenzo into spiking Kolchak’s stories about the murders? Even if somehow they managed to persuade a hardened professional newsman to go along with this, what about all the other newspapers, both within Vegas and outside it? Wouldn’t the New York Times’s local stringers be interested? Or the Washington Post’s? This is before we even think about radio and TV. And what about the gossip factory?

Because the screenplay’s by Richard Matheson, the story has enough drive—even despite the need for a cliffhanger every fifteen minutes or so for the ad breaks—to get us past these logical objections, just about . . . at least on a first viewing. But Matheson could do nothing about the clunkiness of the visual treatment of the vampire.

And perhaps at the time no one really wanted to—perhaps I’m trying to impose on The Night Stalker nearly a half-century’s worth of increasing sophistication in audiences’ expectations of the vampire movie. Maybe the intention was to bang together the Bela Lugosi-style Dracula tradition and the (borderline) film noir mode to see what happened; after all, Matheson was equally at ease in both horror and hardboiled genres. And the combination was obviously successful at the time, so far as the viewing figures were concerned: on first airing The Night Stalker set a new record for the viewership of a TV movie, and has survived in public awareness far better than many of its contemporary theatrical offerings. (It was in fact released theatrically in some territories outside the US.)

Darren McGavin, who’d earlier earned his reputation as the title character in the TV series Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (1958–9), among many other parts on big and little screen and on stage, really made the role of Carl Kolchak his own, right from this first outing; indeed, it’s arguable that the TV series would never have lasted so long as it did had it not been for McGavin as its energetic mainspring.

Ralph Meeker as FBI agent Bernie Jenks.

Oakland would follow McGavin into the series, continuing to play Tony Vincenzo. Of the remainder of the movie’s cast, only Ralph Meeker and Carol Lynley seem outstanding—Meeker because he manages to convey the full sleazebaggery of Kolchak’s untrustworthy fibbie friend, and Lynley because she’s such a surprising piece of casting as Kolchak’s girlfriend yet manages to carry off the role with great flair. There are also a couple of nice cameos, one from noir stalwart Elisha Cook Jr. as Kolchak’s gambling-addict pal Mickey (surname given as Crawford in the credits but Clarke in the screenplay) and the other from Stanley Adams as used-car salesman Fred Hurley.

Elisha Cook Jr. as compulsive gambler Mickey.

Stanley Adams as car salesman Fred Hurley.

Perhaps, too, we should note Kent Smith’s performance as the kind of silver-haired politician who manages over and over to convince the voting public that he’s a pillar of respectability and integrity but who’s really a duplicitous weasel. Smith carries this off very well. Here’s DA Paine on the authorities’ decision to run Gail out of town:

“She’s an undesirable element, Kolchak, and we don’t want undesirable elements in Las Vegas.”

This is Vegas, remember?

ADDENDUM: I posted some notes on Goodreads about the Jeff Rice novel upon which this movie was based, and they drew this informative comment from a Goodreadser who identified herself/himself solely as “J”:

Progeny of the Adder by Leslie Whitten has the exact same plot, including a newspaper reporter as protagonist. It was published in 1965 and is more mature and better written than Rice’s hack work. Bill Crider once wrote a letter to Whitten urging him to sue Rice for plagiarism because of the blatant similarities in The Night Stalker. Whitten replied saying it wasn’t worth the effort. Many people agree with Crider. I’m one of them. Still I’m thankful for the creation of Carl Kolchak in the person of Darren McGavin. He made [the series] the cult sensation that it became even when so many of the scripts and plots sucked major goose eggs.

I haven’t (yet) been able to lay hands on a copy of Whitten’s novel. However, I gather that its protagonist is not a journalist but a homicide cop, Detective Harry Picard of the Washington DC police department. Another Goodreadser, “Shawn,” offers a very interesting breakdown of the many similarities and the few differences between the two here. (Unlike “J,” “Shawn” prefers the Rice novel.)

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19 thoughts on “The Night Stalker (1972 TVM)

  1. Have been wondering when you’d get around to this one, John. Of course you are spot-on when you state that this is all hokum, but there are a few details about the film that explain its incredible popularity at the time (beyond the fact that McGavin and the other “big name” actors are all working at a level so much better than the material).

    First, 1972 is the fraying point for the last strands of America’s willingness to trust its leaders. THE NIGHT STALKER’s cynical, borderline bratty narration is a precursor for how the country as a whole began to toss away decorum to revel in the tawdry. Its setting (Vegas) is prescient because the whole country would, over time, aspire to at least a metaphysical embrace of that ambience and mindset (“mindless”-set??).

    Second, what Matheson does so well in the beginning of the story (I haven’t read Rice’s novel–which, BTW, was not published until after the TV movie became such a phenomenon) is establish a particular tonality of disgust vis-a-vis corruption–launching us into an intoxicating aura of conspiracy theory narrative–already ambient but dormant due to high-profile political murders in the previous decade. McGavin is exceptional at selling this tonality, which winds up permeating everything. As you note, it’s easy to be swept up in all this nearly fifty years later because it is the template for all of what’s followed, but it is done so well that it almost seems fresh again.

    Now, of course, it is unsustainable as a TV series because the supernatural element is cliched to begin with, and to change that to something less hokey would almost certainly mean that the surrounding tone of the show would have to change–meaning that what had drawn so many people to it at that specific moment in American history would not be there. As you point out, the movie barely holds together, but it captures a moment in history that has morphed oddly into the vampirism of our own times–except that the “Kolchak” of our times, with his Slavic-featured, giallo-queen wife, is actually more corrupt than the people he’s stalking.

    Keep up the good work, my friend!

  2. Both the Kolchak tv movies suffer from the same flaw: the climax, in which Our Hero finally confronts his quarry, doesn’t live up to the promise of the hunt.

    • I’m not sure how much I agree with you there. I find the climactic confrontation in Stalker pretty unsatisfying, but I think that’s more because I react to along the lines of “Oh, f**k, no, another hissing, red-eyed vampire fizzled to the dust . . .” If I were a vampire-movie fan, though (as just sometimes I am), I’d probably like the ending quite a lot.

      For a writer like Matheson it was a copout. For a tv series and for a writer like Rice, and for their target audience at the time, I think it was okay.

    • Ooo! I wish I’d known. You probably told me at some point, but at the time I was face-first into a book project (as I’m just about to be again).

      I’ll be posting notes here on the second movie plus the tv episodes over the next couple of weeks; I’d hoped to get to the HBO Night Stalker series (which looks better than the critics apparently thought), but no such luck.

      More later, perhaps. We’re not long back from a 5.5hr drive through Mem Day traffic home from Balticon (Baltimore sf convention). My last panel last night ended sometime after midnight as the Collected Coalition of the Rational tried to contain a ranting libertarian. Pam and I are just about to go aim our heads at the pillows and miss.

  3. Have been wondering when you’d get around to this one, John. Of course you are spot-on when you state that this is all hokum, but there are a few details about the film that explain its incredible popularity at the time (beyond the fact that McGavin and the other “big name” actors are all working at a level so much better than the material).

    First, 1972 is the fraying point for the last strands of America’s willingness to trust its leaders. THE NIGHT STALKER’s cynical, borderline bratty narration is a precursor for how the country as a whole began to toss away decorum to revel in the tawdry. Its setting (Vegas) is prescient because the whole country would, over time, aspire to at least a metaphysical embrace of that ambience and mindset (“mindless”-set??).

    Second, what Matheson does so well in the beginning of the story (I haven’t read Rice’s novel–which, BTW, was not published until after the TV movie became such a phenomenon) is establish a particular tonality of disgust vis-a-vis corruption–launching us into an intoxicating aura of conspiracy theory narrative–already ambient but dormant due to high-profile political murders in the previous decade. McGavin is exceptional at selling this tonality, which winds up permeating everything. As you note, it’s easy to be swept up in all this nearly fifty years later because it is the template for all of what’s followed, but it is done so well that it almost seems fresh again.

    Now, of course, it is unsustainable as a TV series because the supernatural element is cliched to begin with, and to change that to something less hokey would almost certainly mean that the surrounding tone of the show would have to change–meaning that what had drawn so many people to it at that specific moment in American history would not be there. As you point out, the movie barely holds together, but it captures a moment in history that has morphed oddly into the vampirism of our own times–except that the “Kolchak” of our times, with his Slavic-featured, giallo-queen wife, is actually more corrupt than the people he’s stalking.

    Keep up the good work, my friend!

    • What a splendid comment — many thanks! We’ve not long got home through holiday traffic after a totally exhausting sf convention. I’ll offer what I hope is a proper reply tomorrow, once my eyes are back in focus!

  4. I haven’t seen this in ages but I liked it a lot at the time and thought that it’s essentially comic tone and quicktalking, screwball style, in the style of 1930s Warners hardboiled newspaper movies of the day, papered over most of the plot cracks. In many ways though I have always preferred the sequel, THE NIGHT STRANGLER, which is an original by Matheson (though to me it has always seemed that both come by way of Robert Bloch as especially “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”).

    • I agree with you so much about the element of homage to 1930s/1940s movies starring the likes of James Cagney/Spencer Tracy as fast-talking PITA investigative reporters! I agree with you too that Matheson was essentially channeling Bloch here. I first encountered both writers in my teens or even preteens and, ever since, have often had difficulty telling the two apart. Luckily, I like both!

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