Written by Richard Matheson
Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey/Dan Curtis
Starring Darren McGavin, Simon Oakland
- Featurette: “The Night Stalker: Dan Curtis Interview”
- Featurette: “Directing The Night Strangler“
Released by: MGM Home Video.
Anamorphic: N/A; appears in its original 1.33:1 format.
My Advice: Rent it.
[ad#longpost]Carl Kolchak (McGavin) is one of those reporters who believes in getting The Truth no matter what feathers he ruffles or questionable methods he uses to get them. Now if The Truth happens to bring fame and fortune, what’s a guy to do? He smells a big story when young girls are being murdered in Las Vegas. The police try to downplay the more sensational aspects like the massive blood loss (no blood on the scene), the great strength of the attackers, and the human bite marks on the girls’ necks. Of course Kolchak leaps to the theory that this maybe some whackjob who thinks he’s a vampire. The police, who consider Kolchak a pain in the ass at the best of times, berate him for causing a public panic (and a drop in tourist dollars) but Kolchak is on the scent. Then he realizes that there is more than just a story when he sees the murderer toss cops around like rag dolls and shrug off bullets like mosquito bites. Since no one, even his editor Vincenzo (Oakland), believes Kolchak, he takes up the cross and stake and prepares to face The Night Stalker.
Then…after being kicked out of Vegas with a quasi-legal murder indictment (is killing the undead actually murder?), Kolchak ends up in Seattle, trying to hawk his book of the Night Stalker…but not getting much success. He begs a job from his old editor Vincenzo, but gets into the strange and weird almost immediately. Young women are dying, their throats not bitten but crushed. And blood is missing but only a bit, seemingly removed by a hypodermic. Another freak perhaps, except the newspaper’s archivist shows Kolchak that the same pattern of murders occur every 21 years back to 1889. Is this the same killer? Why is he killing these women? Kolchak will have to battle with the police and his own paper if he wishes to confront The Night Strangler.
I was a little worried about watching these two TV movies. I know that Chris Carter thought enough of them and the subsequent short lived series to be inspired to create The X-Files, but I had seen the series on The Sci-Fi Channel, and while it had some interesting concepts, it was just too cheeseball. And honestly, television movies, unless HBO makes them, are a hit and miss affair at best. Still, I watched them and I can see what Carter saw in them. They’re actually good. But I shouldn’t have been that surprised. The scripts were written by Richard Matheson, a writing juggernaut of novels, films, and television. He’s responsible for The Incredible Shrinking Man, I Am Legend, Duel, and many others. The two scripts are well put together and written like true crime stories with narration filling us in on what’s going on, plus solid investigative work, like a Dragnet of the occult. Matheson still delivers plenty of traditional horror atmosphere with Kolchak prowling the dark streets and the hidden lairs of the fiends he pursues.
McGavin also contributes to these movies by bringing the character of Kolchak to life, taking his belief in giving the public the Truth and mixing in the character’s interest in fame and fortune. One technique I noticed was how McGavin uses the props of his character–his straw hat, his tape recorder, his camera–so effectively. The hat is almost an extension of his body…a perfect barometer of his mood. When denied anything by those in authority, he almost has a temper tantrum, ranting and raving. But below the surface, it shows that Kolchak is a fighter against those who would put political concerns above telling the people what’s really going on, a problem we still have with us today unfortunately. The movies also have an able supporting cast with Kolchak’s long suffering editor Vincenzo trying to inject reality into Kolchak’s world view. But there are plenty of harassed cops, oddball characters, and beautiful girls that add texture to the story.
Still there are problems. If I was a vampire, I would not leave my victims just lying on the street for anyone to find. Now our culprit does rob the odd blood bank and uses other techniques to try and keep going, but he leaves so many clues that any would-be vampire slayer could easily get their cross and stake and ride out to find him. The other thing is that the cops and men of authority are so antagonistic. Kolchak doesn’t exactly help things with his holier than thou attitude, but I think these people have a valid excuse for keeping this under wraps. What politician is going to admit that there are vampires out there killing people? Either he’d be locked up with Kolchak or start a serious panic against Eastern European night owls. I can appreciate Matheson wanting opposition to fuel the plot, but it almost comes off as irrational at times when it doesn’t need to be.
The special features are sadly skimpy. Each movie only has one short featurette with Dan Curtis, the producer of both movies and the director of the second one. He does give a little insight into the making of the films, but he talks mostly about himself. If he balanced that with more information about the two movies, that could be forgivable, but he doesn’t, so it isn’t. I would have loved to have heard from McGavin but conflicts over who was supposed to produce the series and the direction the show took caused some serious bad blood and even Chris Carter couldn’t get him back into that seersucker suit. The movies do make up for the scant features and frankly are of better quality than the supposed horror film renaissance is producing these days. So pick up The Night Stalker/The Night Strangler for the night, turn the lights down low, and enjoy the chills up your spine.