MGM // 1972 // 164 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge George Hatch (Retired) // September 14th, 2004
With a camera and crucifix, a stake and some shtick, investigative reporter Carl Kolchak takes a stab at the supernatural.
The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973) were two made-for-TV movies that racked up such high ratings, their premise was later adapted into a short-lived television series lasting only 20 episodes. Investigative reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin, A Christmas Story) is psyched for a story with a headline and a front-page by-line. Unfortunately, his penchant for the paranormal continually undermines his best efforts. Every episode opened in Kolchak's own words as he dictated notes about his latest case into his tape recorder: "This is the story behind the most incredible series of murders to ever occur...You'll never read about them in your local newspapers or hear about them on radio or television. Why? Because the facts were watered down, torn apart and reassembled -- in a word, falsified." Kolchak always ended up stonewalled and stoned by his editor, the police, and local politicians. His blustery editor Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland, Chato's Land) either condenses the reporter's work into a few vague paragraphs in the back pages, or simply refuses to print it. Kolchak's cocky "know-it-all" attitude, sarcastic grumblings, and outright insults also keep him shut out from any police progress. To his credit, however, he always manages to arrive at a crime scene within minutes of the cops, and snap a few photos to boot. Using solid investigative techniques and a voiceover narration worthy of the original Dragnet and The Untouchables television series, Kolchak usually ended up on his own, "stalking the truth...one monster at a time."
In The Night Stalker, Kolchak is in Las Vegas looking for a serial killer who drains the blood from his victims. When Kolchak discovers that hospital blood supplies are mysteriously disappearing, he concludes that a genuine vampire may be at large. Vincenzo doesn't want to hear about it, even when Kolchak uncovers a police conspiracy: They're airbrushing out the bite marks on the victims' necks before making the photos public. Further research leads him to Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater, Pork Chop Hill), a Romanian who fled to Canada, changed his name, and found his way to Las Vegas. This brings in Bernie Jenks (Ralph Meeker, Kiss Me Deadly) of the FBI who wants to believe Kolchak, but is also frozen out of the investigation by the local police. It's up to Kolchak to expose, apprehend, or destroy Skorzeny on his own. This modern-day vampire has near-superhuman strength; but is he still vulnerable to the old dreaded crucifix and sunlight?
The Night Strangler finds Kolchak in Seattle tracking down the mysterious Dr. Richard Malcolm (Richard Anderson, Seconds), who is strangling women and leaving shreds of decaying flesh around their throats. Titus Berry (Wally Cox, Morituri), chief clerk in the newspaper's morgue and research department, alerts Kolchak to some startling discoveries. Every 21 years, since the end of the Civil War, there has been a similar series of stranglings, and each time the killer also took some blood from the back of the victims' necks. The killing sprees lasted only about two weeks, so Kolchak races against the clock to find Dr. Malcolm before he disappears again. Striving for immortality, Dr. Malcolm is concocting a serum that will allow him to live forever, but so far the effects last only for two decades before he starts to decompose. Clues lead Kolchak to Old Seattle, a city beneath the city, where he suspects Dr. Malcolm may still be perfecting his experiments.
Carl Kolchak was one of the most original and funniest characters ever to hit the TV screen. When asked to describe his take on Kolchak, Darren McGavin said, "The day he was fired from the New York Journal in 1955, he was wearing a seersucker suit, a black string tie, and a white shirt with a button-down collar. So, he's still wearing 'em. He hasn't bought a suit of clothes since he was fired. What he's saying to the world is beautiful: 'The heck with you, brother -- I'll get my story anyway.'" Kolchak's major prop, though, was a beat-up old straw fedora that enhanced his various attitudes. With the brim pulled down to his eyes, he had an "in-your-face" aggressiveness as he confronted cops and suspects. When dealing with his editor, the hat was at a jaunty, "couldn't-care-less" angle off to the side. Most times, you'll find it pushed all the way to the back of his head with a "What-the-heck-is-going-on?" expression on his face.
MGM has reissued The Night Stalker / The Night Strangler, making some small improvements over Anchor Bay's original release in 1998. It's still a double-sided disc, but two very short featurettes have been added, one for each film: "The Night Stalker: Dan Curtis Interview" and "Directing The Night Strangler." Director Curtis doesn't really tell us much about the films -- just how he jumpstarted his career and became a "horror specialist." He directed the excellent Trilogy of Terror and the not-so-great Burnt Offerings, among others, before spooking televiewers by reprising his Dark Shadows gothic melodrama in 1990. It's a shame he couldn't have done a commentary for the film he directed. (The Night Stalker was helmed by John Llewellyn Moxey, a television veteran.) And it would be interesting to hear what Darren McGavin thought about the show after 30 years. Each film now has scene access to 16 chapters. The transfer is bright and color-saturated in Stalker, but Strangler is starting to show its age. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono on both, however, is excellent.
I enjoyed both of these films when they originally aired, and I recently caught a few episodes of the subsequent series on TRIO's Brilliant but Cancelled. Except for McGavin's performance, the films have lost much of their charm. This time around, the tongue-in-cheek approach to horror didn't click with me, and the villains were all old hat "has-beens." Truly unique films, like The Sixth Sense (1999), The Others (2001), From Hell (2001), and The Ring (2002) have become a benchmarks for evaluation. The Night Stalker / The Night Strangler may have filled a gap in the 1970s, but shows from a decade earlier, like The Outer Limits, Boris Karloff's Thriller, and The Twilight Zone, still haunt me and have a tremendous replay value -- an important factor that is sorely lacking in these two films. Chris Carter has admitted that Kolchak: The Night Stalker was his prime source of inspiration for The X-Files, but you shouldn't expect that kind of quality. The first two seasons of The X-Files featured some brilliantly conceived and incredibly bizarre creatures, but the vampire and mad scientist here (along with the zombies, werewolves, and witches) won't scare anybody. Today's younger audiences, weaned on explosive special effects and CGI, may find this Stalker / Strangler combo a curiosity. It may even be looked upon as a relic better left unearthed.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 164 Minutes
Release Year: 1972
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Featurette: "The Night Stalker: Dan Curtis Interview"
* Featurette: "Directing The Night Strangler"
* IMDb: The Night Stalker
* IMDb: The Night Strangler
* Kolchak at SciFi Channel
* Kolchak: The Night Stalker Episode Guide