Retro-View: The Night Stalker (1972)

I distinctly recall watching the ABC Sunday Night Movie on January 11, 1972. “Tonight, on ABC…” intoned legendary voice actor Ernie Anderson (also known as famed horror host Ghoulardi and father to P.T. Anderson) and then we were off to the made-for-television premiere of THE NIGHT STALKER, based on the novel by Jeff Rice, teleplay by the great Richard Matheson, directed in 18 days by John Llewellyn Moxey and starring Darren McGavin. Even to my young eager monster-kid eyes, I knew this was a very special vampire film. I was drawn not only to the modern take on a Las Vegas bloodsucker run amuck among the other casino bloodsuckers, but to the political paranoia encountered by nosey reporter Carl Kolchak as he tries to suss out who — or what — is responsible for the string of murders. Once the cyncial, determined Kolchak comes to the conclusion that “it looks like we have a real live vampire on our hands,” he must fight city hall and eventually the vampire himself, Janos Skorzeny. With very 1970’s results.

THE NIGHT STALKER turned out to be the most watched made-for-TV of all time, imprinting a generation with the fearless exploits of Carl Kolchak, leading to a sequel, THE NIGHT STRANGLER (1974) and the short-lived series that couldn’t overcome the strained premise that every week, Kolchak must defeat yet another supernatural threat (Chris Carter was a fan which led to THE X-FILES years later). I watched the TV show religiously, primarily because I had a boy-crush on Darren McGavin, still one of my favorite character actors. My parents bought me a tiny miniature camera, and to solidify my beat, I wore a straw hat and snuck around home and hood snappping photos of what I hoped was yet another supernatural threat. Other kids on my block wanted to be Evel Knieval or Joe Namath; I wanted to be Christian Kolchak.

What separates THE NIGHT STALKER from other vampire films was not only the creepy ambiance of the attacks on blood banks and cocktail waitresses, but characters who were vivid and wonderfully played by stalwarts such as Elisha Cook Jr., Ralph Meeker and Claude Akins. Barry Atwater remains one of the genre’s most memorable vampires, along with his brazen bloodthirstiness. But the highlights of the film are the verbal duels between Kolchak and Vincenzo, his gruff editor, ripely played by Simon Oakland. Matheson wrote some terrific dialogue, particularly in my favorite exchange when Kolchak is arguing that the public must be made aware of the vampire threat and Vincenzo accuses, “All this means to you is a byline!” Kolchak’s answer is simple yet truthful: “Who cares what the hell it means to me?” In other words, he isn’t some noble night of the press, but his motivations are to get back to a big-city paper with a big story. It’s also a nice moment when Vincenzo finally tells Kolchak what he really thinks of him at the end. Of course, Darren McGavin owns the role of Carl Kolchak, embodying all the old-school qualities of a Ben Hecht-style reporter; it’s a tremendous genre performance.

What chilled me the most about THE NIGHT STALKER is the ending, with not only the vampire destroyed, but Kolchak’s career, as he is railroaded out of Las Vegas after saving it. The final scenes are unrelenting in showing how the city controls the flow of information, and all that’s left to Kolchak is his tape-recorded account of the events. “Try to tell yourself, it couldn’t happen here,” spools his voice from his recorder in a cheap hotel room, the last visual a perfect prophecy of the Watergate Era.

6 Responses to “Retro-View: The Night Stalker (1972)”

  1. Such a great vampire movie and story. Why does this not get any play on TV?

  2. christian Says:

    Probably to keep the dvd sales up…

  3. NO WAY!!!!!!!!!!!!

    kolchak was my IDOL when i was a kid, i largely credit him for my love affair with the spooky, and mcgavin was legend! (that ‘kolchak’ pic is priceless. thinking about it, i think i was a weird kid)

    ‘the night stalker/strangler’ are on DVD? what about the tv series? i’ve never seen either here on DVD, being so out of the loop is depressing sometimes.

    damn christian, kudos (and double kudos for sneaking around your house and stomping ground with a camera in a straw hat like a little mcgavin, that’s epic)

  4. christian Says:

    Yep, both tv movies are available on dvd as is the series. I’m going to revisit the show, which I watched religiously late Friday night, but even to me it was kind of silly: Kolchak goes on a cruise and finds a werewolf; Kolchak discovers a sewer monster; etc…I wish the premise had just been vampires. But it was great to get Darren McGavin as Kolchak for one season.

  5. i’ll have to hunt those down, how exciting

  6. christian Says:

    Grab your hat and camera and get on the beat.

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