The made-for-television movie The Night Stalker first aired on ABC on January 11, 1972. Adapted from Jeff Rice’s then unpublished novel The Kolchak Papers by legendary writer Richard Matheson, it featured an investigative reporter by the name of Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin), who covered a distinctly different beat — a supernatural one. The ratings were so strong for the movie that another one was made, entitled The Night Strangler (1973). It too was a hit and this led to a short-lived T.V. series that ran from 1974 to 1975. With varying degrees of quality from episode to episode, the show failed to catch on but it already planted the seeds in the minds of several creative talents that would bloom later on in the form of shows like The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The movie begins with an enticing teaser as Kolchak listens to an audio recording of himself recounting the tale we’re about to see – “one of the greatest manhunts in history” and whose facts have been “suppressed in a massive effort to save certain political careers from disaster and law enforcement officials from embarrassment.” His narration continues with the tantalizing final thought, “Try to tell yourself, wherever you may be. It couldn’t happen here.”
A woman is brutally attacked in an alleyway and we never get a good look at the assailant. He doesn’t say anything, just growls like an animal. Kolchak works for the Daily News in Las Vegas. He’s currently investigating the murders of several young women who have all been strangled and seem to have mysteriously lost a lot of blood. He checks his usual sources and doesn’t find too much out of the ordinary except for the huge blood loss. However, as the murders continue, he discovers a few similarities. The deeper he digs the more resistance he gets from the police and his long-suffering editor, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland). Kolchak soon discovers that the killer possesses supernatural strength and may in fact be a vampire (Barry Atwater), which doesn’t sit well with the powers that be. They tell him to drop the story but of course this only encourages him to continue on.
Darren McGavin is fantastic as Kolchak, a man dedicated to uncovering the truth. He brings just the right blend of jaded cynicism and a wry sense of sarcastic humor (“What do you want, a testimony for Count Dracula?” he quips at one point). He delights in verbally sparring with the grumpy Vincenzo and their scenes together give the film moments of welcome levity. Kolchak thinks he’s seen it all, until this new case presents him with a series of baffling clues that don’t seem to make sense until he tries thinking outside the box as it were. There are also hints at a troubled past, a maverick reporter fired multiple times from newspapers all over the country, who has “become extinct in his own lifetime,” as he dejectedly muses at one point. Kolchak doesn’t have too many chances left – in fact, this may be his last try at regaining respectability.
Fans of character actors will delight in spotting several of them populating key roles in The Night Stalker. There’s Larry Linville (Frank Burns on MASH) as a young coroner, Ralph Meeker (Kiss Me Deadly) as Kolchak’s FBI buddy, Elisha Cook Jr. (The Killing) as a gambler and one of Kolchak’s contacts, and Claude Akins (The Killers) playing a sheriff who barely tolerates Kolchak’s presence. It is a lot of fun to watch these seasoned pros bounce off of McGavin’s scrappy journalist.
Richard Matheson’s smart, witty script for The Night Stalker starts off in the tradition of cop/detective shows like Kojak with a very standard structure. This includes Kolchak’s narration that is chock full of wry observations sprinkled among “just-the-facts” hard-boiled gems, like when he describes the function of a journalist in society: “Socially, he fits in somewhere between a hooker and a bartender. Spiritually, he stands behind Galileo because he knows the world is round. Not that it does much good, of course, when his editor knows it’s flat.” This is only window dressing for what is to come: a gripping horror story very much in the style of a murder mystery. The horror elements kick in after the first 23 minutes when we finally get a good close-up of the killer’s eyes – bloodshot and piercing. No matter how fantastic things get, however, the cop show aesthetic always keeps the movie grounded in realism.
The setting of Las Vegas is an apt metaphor for vampirism. The city sucks people’s money away like a vampire drains their blood. It is an ideal feeding ground as gamblers sleep all day and gamble all night and indoors. In a way, they act like vampires. Seeing Vegas as it was in the 1970s is like visiting a by-gone era where the world, make-up and special effects were all achieved in-camera — no CGI, which makes it all the more tactile and real. This is due in large part to John Llewellyn Moxey’s solid direction. For example, the vampire’s assault on a hospital’s blood bank is impressively staged as he takes on several orderlies and the police with Kolchak taking photographs of the killer’s daring escape. This is topped by a second action sequence where the vampire takes on four cops. There’s a great money shot when the police have pumped the vampire full of lead and think they finally have taken him down but he just looks up, a ragged scratch along his forehead. He gives them an intensely scary look with those bloodshot eyes, which Moxey zooms in on for maximum effect. He then proceeds to hop a fence and take off despite being shot repeatedly. Moxey also has a good eye for detail, like the vampire’s lair, which is appropriately dark and moody, resembling that of a run-down flophouse with trash strewn everywhere. It is the lack of disregard for the place that makes it look even spookier.
Jeff Rice had always wanted to write a vampire story and author a tale set in Las Vegas. He merged these two ideas together for a novel entitled The Kolchak Papers. However, not many publishers were interested in buying the manuscript. Fortunately, agent Rick Ray read it and felt that it would make a good movie. The ABC television network bought the rights and honcho Barry Diller picked Richard Matheson to adapt Rice’s then-unpublished novel. It was a smart move on Diller’s part as Matheson wrote one of the quintessential vampire novels, I Am Legend. He was also a regular contributor to the original incarnation of the popular genre T.V. show The Twilight Zone. As faithful as Matheson was to the source material, he did tweak the character of Kolchak who was then given an additional spin with McGavin’s iconic take. During filming, Matheson was unavailable to do rewrites and so Rice took over at producer Dan Curtis’ request and actually put material from his novel back into the screenplay.
When The Night Stalker aired, it pulled an impressive 33.2 rating (percentage of American households) and a 54 share (percentage of sets in use during that time slot) – unprecedented for a T.V. movie back then and even today. Kolchak’s legacy can be felt in all kinds of supernatural TV shows, from The X-Files (of which its creator, Chris Carter has openly acknowledged as the primary influence) and Angel, with its blending of the detective and horror genres. The movie is scary, yet has a good sense of humor, with a something-goes-bump-in-the-night horror story vibe that works as well today as they did back then. Just remember the insightful comments of Kolchak at the end of The Night Stalker, “And try to tell yourself, wherever you may be: in the quiet of your home, in the safety of your bed, try to tell yourself, it couldn't happen here.”
NOTE: Check out this wonderful blog dedicated to all things Kolchak.