The Night Stalker/The Night Strangler
December 14, 2004
John Llewllyn Moxey, Dan Curtis,
Starring: Darren McGavin, Carol Lynley, Simon Oakland, Ralph Meeker, Claude Akins, Wally Cox, Jo Ann Pflug, Margaret Hamilton, John Carradine, Al Lewis, Richard Anderson, ,
Before there was The X-Files there was Carl Kolchak (McGavin), an investigative reporter who covered a distinctly different beat—a supernatural one. Kolchak was a short-lived TV series that ran from 1974 to 1975. Before that he was introduced to the world in two excellent made-for-TV movies, The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973). MGM has recently released these movies on either side of a single DVD.
In The Night Stalker, Kolchak is a journalist working for the Daily News in Las Vegas. He’s currently investigating the murders of several young women who have all been strangled and seem to have mysteriously lost a lot of blood. The deeper he digs the more resistance he gets from the police and his long suffering editor, Tony Vincenzo (Oakland). Kolchak soon discovers that the killer possesses supernatural strength and may in fact be a vampire!
Richard Matheson’s smart, witty script for The Night Stalker starts off in the tradition of cop/detective shows like Kojak with a very standard structure. This is only window dressing for what is to come: a gripping horror story very much in the style of a murder mystery. No matter how fantastic things get, however, the cop show aesthetic always keeps the movie grounded in realism.
Darren McGavin is great as Kolchak. He brings just the right blend of jaded cynicism and a wry sense of sarcastic humour (“What do you want, a testimony for Count Dracula?” he quips at one point). Kolchak thinks he’s seen it all, until this new case presents him with a series of baffling clues that don’t seem to make sense until he tries thinking outside the box as it were.
The setting of Las Vegas is an apt metaphor for vampirism. The city sucks people’s money away like a vampire drains their blood. It is an ideal feeding ground as gamblers sleep all day and gamble all night and indoors. In a way, they act like vampires. Seeing Vegas as it was in the ‘70s is like visiting a by-gone era where the world, make-up and special effects were all achieved in-camera—no CGI, which makes it all the more tactile and real.
The Night Strangler changes the setting to Seattle as Kolchak is still trying to get people to believe what really happened in The Night Stalker. He crosses paths with his old editor who gets him a job at a local newspaper. Kolchak is soon put on a murder case involving young women being mysteriously strangled with blood being drained from their bodies. Further investigation reveals that the victims were killed by a dead man!
At first glance, The Night Strangler’s premise seems very close to the one featured in The Night Stalker. However, this movie has much more detailed backstory. This current series of murders can be traced back to a similar series in the ‘50s, the ‘30s and so forth, dating all the way back to the turn of the century!
Like with The Night Stalker, the filmmakers do a great job of utilizing the locale. Kolchak searches from the depths of an underground tunnel system in old Seattle to the heights of the Space Needle in pursuit of the killer.
On The Night Stalker side of the DVD is a featurette entitled, “The Night Stalker: Dan Curtis Interview.” The producer of this movie emphasizes that the reason the movie has endured over the years is because of its rock solid story. He talks about getting involved with the project. Curtis says that after he read Richard Matheson’s script his first and only choice to play Kolchak was Darren McGavin.
The Night Strangler side features another interview with Curtis, this time about how he directed that movie. The filmmaker talks briefly about how much he admired old movies of the past and how this led him to cast actors from bygone eras in small but memorable roles, like Al Lewis (The Munsters) and Margaret Hamilton (The Wizard of Oz).
Kolchak’s legacy can be felt in all kinds of supernatural TV shows, from The X-Files (of which its creator, Chris Carter has openly acknowledged as the primary influence) and Angel, with its blending of the detective and horror genres. Kudos to MGM for assembling crystal clear prints of both movies—they have never looked better! Hopefully, the TV series will be released on DVD soon as well. Both movies are scary (yet with a good sense of humour), something-goes-bump-in-the-night horror stories that work as well today as they did back then. Just remember the insightful comments of Kolchak at the end of The Night Stalker, “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.”