"Another vanishing corpse, Tony. I tell you, it's terrific!"—Carl Kolchak
Chris Carter has consistently cited it as the inspiration for his shows, The X-Files and Millennium. Horror director Guillermo Del Toro considers it a work of considerable genius, and a major influence on his career and films. It helped cement the popularity of ABC's fledgling "Movie of the Week" franchise and ushered in a wave of made-for-television macabre. It was penned by one of the most prolific and gifted writers of fantasy and horror. It starred a talented Hollywood character actor and gave a show business neophyte a second chance after his efforts to create and produce a gothic horror soap opera failed to catch on with the public. It is still one of the top ranked television movies of all time, and the sequel was equally successful. It spawned a television series that, even in 2002, inspires waves of loyalty, discussion, and praise. With just a simple premise—a vampire in modern day Las Vegas—1972's The Night Stalker became a sensation and the standard bearer for the postmodern ideal of monsters among us. Its sequel, The Night Strangler, cemented the public's desire to see more of Carl Kolchak, average Joe and supernatural investigative reporter. After years of sub-par syndicated appearances, Anchor Bay releases these important films in a bare bones flip disc version that, while not improving on the franchise, at least sets it up for a suitable rebirth.
Facts of the Case
The Night Stalker: Carl Kolchak is a cocky, irascible reporter, on his umpteenth newspaper and next to last legs with editor Tony Vincenzo. He's infamous for throwing himself headlong into each and every story he's involved in, much to his own (and the story's) detriment. While pounding the fact beat in Sin City (Las Vegas), he learns that the circumstances surrounding the death of a young female casino worker harbor some disturbing elements. The victim had a substantial bite mark on her neck, and was drained of all her blood. As more victims turn up, the police coordinate to cover up the disturbing facts, not just to avoid frightening the public, but also to disguise their bewilderment in not knowing just what to do with what appears to be a real live vampire in town. Not one to take police inactivity lying down, Kolchak flies into action, and with a little research into Nosferati, sets out to find and stake this murderous creature of the night, if indeed that's what IT is.
The Night Strangler: Carl Kolchak returns to investigating the otherworldly when fate, and the need of a job, finds him in Seattle (which just so happens to be experiencing a rash of gruesome strangulations). He's re-hired by ex-boss Tony Vincenzo, who has come to the Northwest to hide from the fallout over the vampire/Las Vegas fiasco. Immediately, Carl is in hot water again. He angers the publisher and irritates the police with his nosy, self-inserting style. He really has only one supporter in town, the mousy head of research at the newspaper, who tells him about the connection these recent killings have to murders that seem to occur every 21 years in Seattle, dating back to the 1880s. With the help of an exotic dancer at a club hit hard by the killer, Kolchak discovers Underground Seattle, a maze of streets and buildings buried beneath the city. And it's here where the strangler may be hiding.
Throughout the 1960s, horror on television was measured in laughs, not in screams. Shows like The Addams Family and The Munsters made mockery of the notions of blood drinkers, spell casters, and the living dead. Even when science fiction or fantasy was attempted, it was mostly camped up (Lost in Space), romanced up (Bewitched), or spun into incoherent action adventure (The Time Tunnel). ABC broke the mold by giving fledgling writer and producer Dan Curtis a chance at creating his dream project, the serious gothic horror soap opera Dark Shadows. It told of werewolves, witches, and vampires in a modern New England town filled with secrets and added serial like, cliffhanger storylines to the mix. A modest success, it made pitching a reality-based TV movie about a reporter on the trail of a bloodsucker in modern Las Vegas easier for Curtis. The project was quickly approved, and the legend of Carl Kolchak was born. The Night Stalker was a true phenomenon in 1972. It was the most watched made-for-television movie in the medium's short, 30-year history. It was fodder for water cooler and schoolyard discussions and dissections. Within months of Stalker's success, The Night Strangler was rushed into production. It too was a huge ratings winner, and the call for a weekly series was on. But for some reason, the network dragged its feet. By the time Kolchak: The Night Stalker came along, the audience for televised terror seemed to have disappeared, lost to big screen boogiemen like The Omen or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
As films, The Night Stalker/Strangler are serious, sensational fun. There's no blood, no zipper suited moldy monkeys, or gruesome ghostly grue, just straight-ahead horror told in a contemporary, urban setting. There are some aspects that reach a little, reading as far-fetched and overly coincidental. Oddly, none of them have to do with the more insidious aspects of the stories. Unlike the series, which occasionally pulled its beasties out of the back pages of The Tired Old Almanac on Creatures of The Dark, The Night Stalker/Strangler presented pragmatic, well known monster types interacting within the everyday life of the modern world. Structurally, they are not mysteries; they are intense, well constructed thrillers where the killer is known to all except the people in jeopardy, and its eerie, evil presence provides the recipe for fear and loathing. Due to their tight 90-minute movie framework, Kolchak is occasionally too omnipresent for his own good, arriving at the scene of a crime, sometimes while it's in progress. This ability to be at the right place at the perfect time tends to whittle away at the hard-established neo-realistic tone. Not overly solemn, and featuring some very funny and winning moments, Stalker/Strangler are genuinely creepy, suspense filled television films with only a couple of minor cinematic problems.
The Night Stalker has the benefit of being new, the novel presentation that seems fresh, fearless and very frightening. The dialogue is witty, without being brash, and carefully gerrymanders the thin line between character interaction and exposition. Kolchak can be somewhat of a loud mouthed jerk, but it's the fact that he is right more times than not which draws the audience's sympathy. While all the thick-necked bureaucrats around him are screaming psycho, Kolchak's staunch sarcastic belief in what the audience knows is true creates a symbiotic bond that accentuates the fright factor and makes us care for Carl and fear for his safety. The Night Strangler, unfortunately, suffers from a minor case of the sophomore jinx. This is because the story, while mirroring The Night Stalker's format, over-plots itself into becoming more clever than frightening. The recurring theme of murder "every 21 years for 18 days" (with all the issues of case similarities or lack thereof) is constantly replayed, expanded upon, and reexamined. It monopolizes the entire middle third of the film, and by the time Wally Cox makes his third appearance as the newspaper's research editor, you're saying to yourself, "Couldn't he have found this before?" Still, in set up (the throat crushing, Underground Seattle) and the ending (the rot and decay of the "lost" city, the corpse tableau) The Night Strangler is more or less a sinister success. It's more of a hoot than Stalker, since all involved are familiar with, and better understand the universe that Kolchak exists in, and there's a smidgen of self-deprecation added to the mix.
The world of The Night Stalker, however, would be nothing without a dynamic and dangerous presence at its core. And there is no one more perfect in his portrayal, in his ability to sell the audience on who he is and what he is experiencing than Darren McGavin. Known to most filmgoers as the foul-mouth, furnace-hating, turkey-loving father in A Christmas Story, he is dead on flawless as Carl Kolchak, he gives the rascally reporter the proper tone of cheekiness, charisma, and chutzpah. McGavin meets his acting match in Simon Oakland, as the harried and hopeless Tony Vincenzo. Their scenes consist of wonderful over the top histrionics and sonic boom blast arguments that occasionally require hearing protection in order to avoid decibel damage. No one in the history of television, before or since, could scream better at one another than Carl and his put upon boss Tony Vincenzo. Both scripts, by famed author Richard Matheson, resonate with memorable characters; clever, humorous exchanges; and old fashioned tension building suspense. Stalker director John Llewellyn Moxey should be credited for keeping the pace quick, the tone earnest, and the shocks genuine. Dan Curtis, who manned Strangler, occasionally gets lost in the creation of an entirely original creature mythology (as stated before, this is a weakness in the sequel), but still manages to make the most of Seattle, its historic and unusual architecture. It's easy to see why this talented group was asked to translate Kolchak and friends into a weekly fright fest. It's just too bad that by the time it reached the air, indifference and shortcuts undermined the work done previously.
It's also too bad that Anchor Bay didn't go out of its way to make this double feature into something more special. What we get here is a flip disc—one full screen film on each side—and nothing else. No special features, documentary, commentary track, featurette, or even an idea of how much time has passed as the disc play. There is no indication on the DVD player screen, or digital readout that time or chapters are passing by. There is individual scene accessing, but they are not presented as chapters per se. Visually, The Night Stalker is a stunner, looking as fresh and clean as the day it was first presented on ABC (better, even, since you do not have to bother with antenna or reception issues). The Night Strangler, on the other hand, has some serious visual drawbacks. It takes place mostly at night, with very few scenes featuring direct or indoor lighting. This highlights the grain and compression defects. In some scenes, it is tolerable. In others, it is so bad that a vague, light gray wash affect covers the screen. Audibly, the DVD is in faux stereo, but the sound is good, balanced, and dynamic. With so many famous people being fans of the show, Anchor Bay should have involved some of them to raise the profile of the package, perhaps to the point where even more elaborate features could have been producer. Many of the principles are still alive. Involving them in the DVD process could have yielded a wonderful commentary track, or at least an interview or video essay on the material. While the films can and do stand on their own, it is unfair to the consumer (when there is so much material out there) to require them to do so. Anchor Bay has done a good job recently in presenting titles in ultra special editions with more extras than the subject actually deserves. They need to revisit this title, and flesh it out in a more formal and respectful fashion.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When was the last time you were scarred by a vampire? It's tough, even in these days of CGI and technological breakthroughs to make anything, let alone some doofus who wants to sip your neck juice frightening. And this dated, hackneyed experiment in terror is silly, not scary. First and foremost, it's implausible: the things that happen to Kolchak could not and would not happen to him. The police would not castigate and belittle him. His editor would not challenge and tolerate him, the various and sundry contacts and stoolies would not squeal to him. What they would do is have him locked up as certifiable unhinged. They would prep his place in the padded palace, throw on the restraining jacket, and bounce him off the walls. Kolchak is not a noble, postmodern anti-hero; he's a loon. And a big bad loon at that. Forget manners. Forget common courtesy. Forget clean clothes! Carl Kolchak is to journalism what Smokey Bear is to fire prevention: a joke wrapped inside a pompous outer layer. The fact is that these movies, with their screaming meanie overacting and their lame-as-a-duck members of the creature club give horror and the macabre a very bad name indeed. People who have fond memories of these motion pictures from the past must also pine away for gas lines, WIN buttons, and Ho Chi Min. Especially when Anchor Bay does little more than provide you with the films. The Night Stalker/Strangler package should be relabeled The Night Stinkers.
There is such a thing as selective memory and the over romanticizing of the past. Events or people that seemed special or important 30 plus years ago can be revealed to be imperfect and ridiculous later on. The same could be argued for The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler. As years have flown by, they can be viewed as relics from a different universe, a place where the simplest of ideas, executed near flawlessly and with great skill can still seem tired and old fashioned. But maybe, it's that old fashioned approach that is so special about these films. They don't wow you with special effects, or realistic makeup. They move you with story. They drive you with acting. And they startle and shock you because the offer a chilling, disturbing question: could this really happen? The fashions may seem passé and the faces a little square. But the overall realistic, almost docudrama-esque tone these films create sells them as compelling, believable works of terror. They can be enjoyed as horror, as nostalgia, or exercises in intelligent writing, directing and acting. They may not provide visceral evils, or over the top gore stunts, but they speak to a notion rarely seen in the modern macabre: the intersection and action of the real and nether worlds. While they may not rank high on "best of" lists, there will always be a place in the history of horror for Carl Kolchak, bad suit and all.
The court finds both films NOT GUILTY. Anchor Bay is held in contempt for not offering extras, and special commendation is made to Darren McGavin for creating a lasting, enduring, and sadly, badly missed, classic character.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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