The Night Strangler (1973 TVM)

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“Around the necks of both victims there was a residue of rotted flesh as if they’d been strangled by . . . a dead man!”
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US / originally aired cut to 74 minutes; later releases have full 90 minutes / color / ABC Circle Dir & Pr: Dan Curtis Scr: Richard Matheson Cine: Robert Hauser Cast: Darren McGavin, Jo Ann Pflug, Simon Oakland, Scott Brady, Wally Cox, Richard Anderson, Margaret Hamilton, John Carradine, Nina Wayne, Al Lewis, Virginia Peters, Ivor Francis, Kate Murtagh, Diane Shalet, Anne Randall, Francoise Birnheim, Regina Parton.

“This is the story behind the most incredible series of murders to ever occur in the city of Seattle, Washington . . .”

It all begins with a belly dancer. A belly dancer who calls herself Merissa (Parton) when she gyrates on the stage of Seattle niterie Omar’s Tent but whose given name is Ethel Parker.

Regina Parton as Merissa.

But such niceties don’t matter to her any longer because she’s dead—dead in a Seattle back alley, her throat crushed by the grip of a seemingly superhuman strangler and a small quantity of blood syringed from her brain through a hole at the base of her skull.

And there are traces of rotting flesh on that mangled throat of hers . . .

Dead.

As a doornail is dead.

A partially desanguinated doornail.

Just to compound the miseries of the otherwise fair city of Seattle, investigative reporter Carl Kolchak (McGavin) has arrived there too, where he’s busy telling innocent strangers in bars about how he was run out of Las Vegas—at the end of The Night Stalker (1972 TVM)—as part of the authorities’ (so far successful) efforts to suppress his scoop about the vampire serial killer.

Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak.

That killer, too, had the habit of assailing beautiful young women as they went home alone at nights, and of draining blood from them. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking that the setup of this new episode in the Kolchak saga is remarkably similar to that of the first one.

What’s more, Carl’s old Vegas editor, Tony Vincenzo (Oakland), now has a job as editor of Seattle’s Daily Chronicle. Once he’s hired Kolchak to join his newsroom—even though the two men spend most of their time yelling in frustration at each other—everything really is very much as it was when they both worked at the Las Vegas Daily News.

Except that Kolchak is no longer living with Gail Foster (Carol Lynley).

Alas.

Carol Lynley as Gail Foster, with whom Kolchak is no longer living.

However, even if the two movies are closely similar at the outset, the second movie seems almost like a worked example to show how much more the first could have achieved with roughly the same ingredients. As we find out, the villain here is an alchemist rather than a vampire, seeking blood in pursuit of an elixir for eternal life rather than merely as a foodstuff, but this change was presumably because the series had already “done” the vampire theme. As ambitious a plot could have been built on the basis of vampire-as-villain.

Simon Oakland as Tony Vincenzo.

Kate Murtagh as rival reporter Janie Watkins.

Kolchak has barely started work on the new serial-killer case than he starts getting up the collective noses of the Powers That Be—especially the nose of the Seattle PD’s Captain Roscoe Schubert (Brady). Even so, and despite the attempts of both Vincenzo and the Daily Chronicle’s proprietor, Llewellyn Crossbinder (Carradine), to urge restraint upon him, he perseveres in his investigation.

John Carradine as Llewellyn Crossbinder.

In this he’s assisted by one of the dead Merissa’s belly-dancing colleagues, Louise Harper (Pflug), known to the eager spectators at Omar’s Tent as Scheherazade (imaginative, or what?). When another of Louise’s fellow performers, Charisma Beauty (Wayne), birth name Gladys Weems, is slain in her dressing room, Louise throws herself wholeheartedly into helping Kolchak find the killer. After all, she could very well be the next victim.

Nina Wayne as Charisma Beauty.

Kolchak’s other ally in the quest—and in fact a far more important one—is wispy Titus Berry (Cox), the curator of the Daily Chronicle’s morgue. It’s Titus who discovers, as the bodies start to mount up and it’s evident there really is a serial killer at work, that this case uncannily resembles one that terrorized Seattle’s Pioneer Square area exactly 21 years ago, in 1952. In that instance six women were murdered before the killing finally ceased, all strangled so powerfully that their necks broke, all showing traces of having had blood drained from their brains.

Wally Cox as Titus Berry.

The same happened 21 years before that, in 1931.

1910? Yep.

And in 1889 also.

Titus even finds an account of an interview between Mark Twain and a certain Dr. Richard Malcolm, a local physician who was convinced that physical immortality was attainable through alchemical discovery of the correct elixir.

University psychologist Professor Crabwell (Hamilton), under whom Louise has studied—for Louise is doing the belly dancing only to finance herself through a psychology degree, you understand—confirms to Kolchak that indeed there were alchemists who thought this was possible. She adds the chilling detail that an important constituent of the elixir was thought to be . . . human blood!

Margaret Hamilton as Professor Crabwell.

Maybe I should have used more than one exclamation mark there:

Human blood!!!!!!!!

Better?

Anyway, 1889 was also the year of the great fire in Seattle, as a result of which much of the city had to be rebuilt. This was done on top of the old city, which still exists down there beneath what is now the Pioneer Square area and which you, Joe Public, can even visit—there are guided tours on offer. (This is, for those of you unfamiliar with Seattle, all fairly soundly based on fact: see here.)

It occurs to Kolchak that, if all the killings are occurring in the Pioneer Square area, this could be because the killer has a subterranean lair in the alleys of the old city. And the reason for the 21-year cycle might be that, while the elixir the alchemist has developed does indeed bring the effects of ageing to a halt, it does so for only 21 years before a booster dose is required.

Jo Ann Pflug as Louise Harper.

So down Kolchak goes in due course into Seattle Underground, as it’s called, where he discovers a cityscape illumined by candles whose flames, strangely, do not flicker, where he encounters cobweb-adorned mummies, and where he has the inevitable showdown with the man now calling himself Dr. Malcolm Richards (Anderson):

“I’ll not bore you with the details of how I evolved my formula. Suffice it to say that the additive which ultimately made it work for me was the blood of women, removed from their brains in the seven seconds following their death. I found that six were required to supply the quantity of blood that was needed for the eighteen-day period in which the elixir was prepared.”

Richard Anderson as Dr. Richard Malcolm aka Dr. Malcolm Richards.

There’s quite a lot more plot than I’ve outlined above; to find out what it is, you’ll have to watch the movie for yourself. However, in terms of the plot, I have a bit of a personal mystery.

The movie was first aired at 74 minutes. This is the version I watched back in the mid-1990s for the purposes of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997; edited by John Clute and yr humble servant). However, subsequently released versions of the movie run to 90 minutes; it was shot at the longer running time because ABC had plans for it to be theatrically released overseas, as had happened with The Night Stalker.

I haven’t now been able to find a copy of that originally broadcast 74-minute version, so have no real recollection as to what bits of the plot must have been missing from it. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how the longer cut, the one I’ve just watched, could have had over 15 minutes excised from it without serious damage being done to the movie’s integrity. It’s possible the difference is the reason why, a couple of decades ago, I preferred The Night Stalker to The Night Strangler, whereas now my assessment is very much the other way round.

The city beneath Seattle.

It would be easy to pick holes in The Night Strangler—and not just at the level of those unwavering candle flames. My own particular grouse with the movie is that I got beyond tired of witnessing Kolchak and Vincenzo bellowing brainlessly at each other—I can get enough of that on cable news without having to watch it in other forms of televised fantasy. (Perhaps the “lost” 15 minutes represented all the shouting matches?) Yet the movie has some great strengths, too, not least in its cast: we may not see a great deal of Margaret Hamilton and John Carradine in their small parts, but, by golly, that’s Margaret Hamilton and John Carradine!

Virginia Peters as Wilma Crankheimer.

Nina Wayne is fine as dancer Charisma Beauty, as are Virginia Peters as Charisma’s “husband,” Wilma Krankheimer, and Richard Anderson as the nicely sober, stately, gentlemanly bad guy. Perhaps the outstanding cast member, though, is Wally Cox as the newspaper’s archivist, Titus Berry. Cox is probably best known for his starring role as school science teacher Robinson J. Peepers in the TV sitcom Mister Peepers (1952–5) and for playing the titular character in the very fondly remembered—at least by this site—The Adventures of Hiram Holliday (1956–7), based on a 1939 Paul Gallico novel that I came to a couple of decades after having been glued to the series and Cox’s performance in it. He was a close friend of Marlon Brando to the point that Brando once reportedly described him as “the love of [my] life.” Cox married three times, dying in 1973 at the age of just 48.

I’ve put my notes on The Night Strangler, the novel that Jeff Rice based on Matheson’s screenplay, on Goodreads. LINK LINK LINK

The success of The Night Strangler, following that of The Night Stalker, led to the commissioning of a TV series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which ran for 20 episodes in 1974-5. More about the series anon . . .

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11 thoughts on “The Night Strangler (1973 TVM)

  1. Pingback: Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-5), episodes #1-#4 | Noirish

  2. I have the old MGM DVD with STALKER and STRANGLER on it, which presumably has the 90 minute version? When I first saw it on TV it would have been dubbed into Italian and I have no idea what the running time was … hmmm, interesting. In the case of DUEL you can definitely see where the extra bits were plugged in later but I suppose Curtis shot it dual purpose at the time and two cuts were then created? Either way, looks like we are very much on the same page regarding the sequel – can;t wait to watch it again in fact. Thanks chum, as ever.

    • I have the old MGM DVD with STALKER and STRANGLER on it, which presumably has the 90 minute version?

      That would be my guess too.

      I suppose Curtis shot it dual purpose at the time and two cuts were then created?

      According to all the accounts I’ve come across, this is indeed what happened. It’d be wonderful to compare the two side-by-side (or, better yet, their screenplays) to see how this was done, but . . . in another lifetime, perhaps.

      Hope you enjoy the rewatch!

      • Apparently (if you believe the inter web), the additional footage not included in the original TV screenings includes the scenes with the tramp played by Al Lewis, Kolchak’s co-worker, Janie Watkins and reporter Jimmy Stackhaus ( George Tobias). Caveat lector

        • That sounds about right. The tramp scene in particular feels like a slightly odd digression in the full-length version — as if only there to be deleted for the shorter cut.

  3. Pingback: #113 Kolchak, the Night Stalker | Wonders in the Dark

  4. Pingback: Kolchak: The Night Stalker — tying it all together | Noirish

  5. What I remember about it was that Dr. Richards was just finishing his research into the Elixir, and this “spree” was going to be the last one he’d need to do. Then Kolchak trashed his lab……

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