Friday, December 09, 2016

Cult-TV Movie Review: The Night Stalker (1971)


The Night Stalker, a TV movie first aired in 1971, was -- and for many years after, remained -- the highest rated TV movie of a generation.

It also introduced a hero, Kolchak who returned in a second TV-movie, a TV series in 1974, and a reboot in the mid-2000s. 

Our journey begins in Las Vegas in the early 1970s.  

There, down-on-his luck reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) is working for a rag called the Daily News under the thumb of editor, Tony Vincenzo. It seems Kolchak was once one of the great journalists of the day, but he's been fired more times than you can count, and is looking for that one earth-shattering story that will catapult him back to the big time in New York City. He shares these dreams with a local prostitute, Gale Foster (Carol Lynley), but she isn't holding out much hope.

In the latter half of May, however, a series of brutal killings are uncovered in Las Vegas. Four women are found dead, their corpses drained entirely of blood. And oddly, the coroner (Larry Linville) has found saliva in their wounds, indicating that an honest-to-goodness vampire might be the culprit.

Kolchak considers this avenue of investigation, but runs into a brick wall erected by the mayor and Las Vegas's chief law enforcement official, Sheriff Butcher (Claude Akins). They refuse to consider Kolchak's theory, and consequently more citizens die.

Finally, once the culprit is named - Janos Skorzeny - the police are unable to stop the 70 year-old man because bullets seem to have no effect on the oddly youthful assailant. Realizing it is up to him to put anen d to this nightmare, Kolchak locates the vampire's house, rescues Skorzeny's latest victim, and finishes off the vampire with a well-placed stake to the heart. But In order to keep the story quiet, Butcher prepares to charge Kolchak with murder...unless he leaves Las Vegas for good. 

Kolchak does so, and also learns that Gale Foster has left town, never to be heard from again.

Richard Matheson (1926 - 2013) is a legitimate genre great, and as such penned some brilliant teleplays, including Duel (1973), too many Twilight Zones to name here and, of course, The Night Stalker

In this project, he provides reporter Carl Kolchak with a real and individual voice, a stirring and interesting first case, and even a sense of humor. The late Darren McGavin (1922 - 2006) does the rest, playing up the role with a rat-a-tat delivery that is unmatched to this day. 

Kolchak's not your typical TV protagonist, but rather a persistent voice for the truth, a fact which distinguishes him in this era of fake news. The Night Stalker introduces us to a man who lives on the edge, in a cynical time, and yet there is an optimism here that I appreciate, having a training in journalism. Embedded in Kolchak's DNA is the once-popular and common-held belief that one man can fight City Hall; that one man can make a difference. In the telefilm and follow-up series, Kolchak is always battling corrupt cops or politicians and trying (and often failing...) to get the truth out to the people. This was before the age of a corporate news business and a compliant media. Kolchak -- for all his failures as a human being -- is a sterling journalist and a paragon of virtue in the sense that he always follows a story...no matter where it takes him.

The made-for-TV movie's story itself -- about a vampire on the loose in Las Vegas -- remains more intriguing, perhaps, for what it doesn't directly tell audiences. Rather than spoon-feeding audiences the background information, there's plenty here that is just mentioned in passing.



For instance, late in the story, Kolchak breaks into Skorzeny's house and finds an open traveler's crate. Inside the trunk, we see Skorzeny's disguises, and even some make-up. He finds face-paint and wigs, and instantly (but importantly, without comment...) we get a sense of the vampire's long history, and his travels from Berlin to London to Canada to the United States (as enumerated in a police press conference.) 

It's just a nice little touch that acknowledges how a vampire could be immortal, and as a consequence of that life span, well-traveled to boot.

I also admire the artistic and efficient way this TV film was shot by director John Llewelyn Moxey. The opening shots are hand-held, on-the-spot views of a busy strip in Vegas at night, and the atmosphere is pure seventies, pure sleaze

As a set-up for the first vampire attack in a dark alley, it's just perfect how quickly and cogently a sense of atmosphere is mastered with one tool -- a hand-held camera -- and one well-observed location (a crowded street corner.) It's an informative opening shot, and an atmospheric one too. The hand-held feel of the camera makes us feel tense immediately, like we're among the street walkers.  There's a feeling here that we're going to see an underside to an underside of Las Vegas.

Watching the tele-film, I also noticed how the soundtrack goes almost completely silent during Kolchak's long, tense exploration of Skorzeny's house. No mood music to speak of; very few sound effects, even. The sequence must have lasted a good four or five minutes, and when the music and sound effects did finally arrive (as Skorzeny returns home...) the transition from silence simply made the denouement all that more exciting.

One of the things that I will always love about Darren McGavin's Kolchak is the fact that we say he's a hero, but he really isn't a traditional, physical hero. As displayed here, Kolchak's great gift is that he speaks truth and common sense to power. That's a wonderful trait. But it's not exactly something that comes in handy while monster hunting. So he's vulnerable in a very sympathy-provoking way.

There's a great moment in this telefilm when Kolchak walks to his car at night. He sits down, starts driving, and then gets a sense -- just a sense -- that there's someone in the car with him. 

He stops the car, jumps out in a panic, and learns that one of his informants has fallen asleep in the back seat. He's pissed off and humiliated that he reacted in such a fashion, and we get a laugh out of him. There's absolutely nothing heroic or grand about Kolchak's case of the creeps or jitters (or his embarrassment afterwards), but boy is it human, and therefore realistic. McGavin's humorous, honest and human portrayal greatly enhances the efficacy of the blood-curdling finale. 


None of the action in the film would work half-as-well if McGavin were a more traditionally handsome, more physically "capable" kind of action-hero. As it is, we breathe a sigh of relief that he made it through the night! (Let alone a TV series and a series of "monsters of the week.")


5 comments:

  1. John, perfect review of The Night Stalker(1971). You really defined what made the two telefilms and twenty episodes work so well. I still remember as a very young boy in the '70s, I watched this first Carl Kolchak telefilm with my family and loved it. Amazing, 1971 was an impressive year in television with both Richard Matheson's DUEL and THE NIGHT STALKER. Carl Kolchak in the '70s had no cell phone in his pocket to call for help. He was all alone which totally made and still makes them scary.

    SGB

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  2. Sheri7:49 AM

    Omigod, I forgot this was written by the great Richard Matheson! Without him, Rod Serling and Sterling Silliphant, television could not have existed.

    I LOVED this movie and the too-short series it spawned. Darren McGavin is an unconventional type of leading man--the kind who looks more like a character actor but who really is a lead, like Gene Hackman or Robert Duvall (or Fredric March or David Niven or Richard Widmark . . . ) I always thought if you combined Walter Matthau's DNA with Jack Lemmon's in just the right way, you'd get Darren McGavin, then he went and proved it in "A Christmas Story."

    Kolchak is indeed 90 percent of the show's appeal; he's a throwback character, a Raymond Chandler-style hardboiled reporter of the kind that no longer exists. He seems tailor-made for McGavin. I think Jack Klugman as the crusading coroner Quincy was sort of modeled on this portrayal some years later.

    Thank you for pointing out the immersive style of the direction, John, which I did notice as a kid and made this show so different from anything else on TV at the time. I wonder if the series that followed would have attracted more of an audience if it had been in black and white. A lot of shows, especially genre shows of this type, tended to look overly cheap in color, whereas they might not have in black and white. If shows like "Thriller", "The Outer Limits", "One Step Beyond" and "The Twilight Zone" had been in color, they might have been exposed in the same way to their detriment.

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  3. Another of Matheson's vampire writings, I Am Legend, has also had a few productions over the years (though none seem to get the theme right, in my opin9ion).

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  4. "Kolchak's not your typical TV protagonist, but rather a persistent voice for the truth, a fact which distinguishes him in this era of fake news."
    I have to disagree in that Kolchak ("between a whore and a bartender") is the epitome of "fake news." There's nothing to distinguish what he writes from fabricated conspiracy fodder--except for the fact that it's real (in the context of the show). He IS a truth teller, though, everything the media and the local government officials try to deny that he is. He's the stake in the heart of the establishment agenda.

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  5. Strangely enough given all the TV movies which I seemed to catch over and over again as a child and teen I never saw any of the Kolchack until a few years back when a friend of mine (of about my age) who had great memories of them had us get together and watch the shows. I really liked them and can see why they were so popular. One thing that makes me sad though is trying to think of how a remake (or re-imagining...) would turn out today. The same thing occurred to my wife when I had her watch Bullitt with me for the first time. She loved it and talked about how a modern movie with the same plot would probably handle the characters and relationships so differently, and probably childishly... I figure the plot would likely be dumbed down quite a bit too.

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