Those pesky reporters! Always nosing around our crime scenes, looking for the latest scoop. Parasites. Lucky for us cops, we’ve got the law and superior detecting skills on our side. Ghouls and ghosts, indeed! Harumph! That’s what I say! Harumph.
That’s all well and good, but what happens when the aforementioned bloodhound of a snoop is right? That’s the question posed by the iconic protagonist Carl Kolchak in 1972’s hugely successful TV movie The Night Stalker. As played by the beloved Darren McGavin, Kolchak is a doggedly determined investigative journalist with gut instinct and a lucky streak of being at the right place at the right time. The success of Dan Curtis’ production led to a follow-up movie, The Night Strangler (1973), then a well-loved but quickly cancelled TV series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975). There have been hundreds of shows about rogue reporters who don’t play by the rules, but this one provides the ultimate twist to that tired genre. Kolchak doesn’t cover your everyday criminal activity. Supernatural occurrences seem to stick to him like white on rice. Some lunatic is roaming the sleazy streets of Las Vegas at night, draining women of their blood. Although initially skeptical, Kolchak starts to believe the culprit might be an honest-to-goodness vampire. But that would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it?
In 1972, this must have been an incredibly original idea. Based on an unpublished novel by Jeff Rice, it was optioned by ABC as a low-budget production and shot in less than two weeks. It’s common knowledge that Chris Carter drew major inspiration for his mega hit The X-Files, which often surprised interviewers since shows like The Twilight Zone were much more popular than this short-lived 70’s cult series. Producer Dan Curtis had already hit paydirt by creating the legendary Dark Shadows; tapping into the public’s unexpected fascination with the mysterious and macabre. He’d later go on to direct arguably the most terrifying TV movie of the 70’s, Trilogy of Terror (1975). Granted, that anthology is mostly famous for its final segment only, but it’s a doozy. Kolchak presented just the kind of story Curtis excelled at bringing to the small screen.
Directed by veteran TV director John Llewellyn Moxey, we’re immediately introduced to Kolchak (McGavin), looking weary and living in a rundown motel room. He’s playing back his trusty tape recorder, which will serve as the noirish narration for the run of the film.
What makes Kolchak’s voice-over so distinctive is his attention to detail. Vegas resident Cheryl Hughes is a swing shift change girl at the Gold Dust Saloon and “just mad enough to walk the eight blocks home.” She is, as McGavin intones, “en route to her doom.” Making her way down a dark alley (never a good idea), she’s grabbed by an unseen figure with pale hands. The handheld camera swivels behind the massive frame of the attacker and as his back fills the screen, there’s a clever transition to much later as garbage men are picking up the trash and discover her body amongst the refuse.
Credit screenwriter Richard Matheson with the witty dialogue and intelligent repartee. Sometimes it’s weird thinking that a true legend of the science fiction genre was just a guy who also wrote for movies and television. Besides his landmark novels, which included The Shrinking Man (also screenplay) and I am Legend, he’s responsible for the teleplays of some of the best original Twilight Zone episodes (‘Steel,’ ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,’ ‘And When the Sky Was Opened’) as well as the screenplays for Spielberg’s Duel (1971), Roger Corman’s Poe series, Night of the Eagle (aka Burn, Witch, Burn) and Curtis’ own Trilogy of Terror. Like Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, or Philip K. Dick, I sometimes don’t even think Matheson is a real guy, or at least someone who left the house. What he wrote and created feels other-worldly, perhaps because most of his subject matter was just that.
Surgeons examine Hughes’ body, with a poorly-choreographed scalpel incision, and discover a massive amount of blood loss. Meanwhile, it appears The Daily News in Vegas isn’t Kolchak’s first job in journalism. In fact, there’s indication that he’s worked at (and been fired from) several major news outlets. He’s given old news assignments by his permanently-annoyed editor Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland, who would reprise his role for the next movie and series and is probably best remembered as the psychiatrist in Psycho that has to explain everything). Thanks to an informant at the hospital, he learns about the unusual blood-letting angle. Everyone seems to know Kolchak and just barely tolerates him. A second victim turns up, this time in the middle of a sandy patch with no footsteps anywhere near her. She too has been drained of her blood and it’s clear it was taken from her throat. Kolchak realizes something is seriously wrong, despite his editor’s skepticism.
An ugly pattern begins to form after a third victim is found in her home, despite her roommate hearing no commotion or struggle. He grills his friend in the FBI, Bernie (Ralph Meeker – Mike Hammer in Aldrich’s paranoid Kiss Me Deadly, as well as Paths of Glory, The Dirty Dozen, and amusing schlock like Food of the Gods and Without Warning), about the murders, which he can’t comment on. They both find it highly amusing that the causes of death all resemble the work of a vampire. Count Dracula is brought up and Bernie even asks, “Do you believe in vampires, little boy?” Always satisfying when a horror movie is self-aware.
Something resembling a press conference is called. It’s a bit odd as the city officials seem to be hashing things out among themselves while a few members of the press listen. There’s a veritable who’s who of character actors sitting at the table, including Sheriff Butcher (Claude Akins, great in Inherit the Wind and The Killers, also the ridiculous Tentacles), Chief Masterson (Charles McGraw, The Narrow Margin, Spartacus), D.A. Paine (Kent Smith, the original Cat People, cult director Curtis Harrington’s Games) and the coroner Dr. Makurji (Larry Linville, Kotch and the bonkers C.H.U.D. II). Makurji informs the rest that the wound resembles a bite mark and there was human saliva found as well. Kolchak questions whether the killer’s motivation was to drink the victim’s blood, to which Butcher shouts, “You’re here for the mutual suffrage of us all!” Kolchak corrects him, “It’s sufferance, sheriff.” I adore scenes like this where level-headed people refuse to believe the unbelievable. Kolchak is told to keep his mouth shut about the vampire angle, so he merely puts “Vampire Killer in Las Vegas” in his headline, along with a question mark. Vincenzo will have none of it.
“125 luscious pounds, less the weight of twelve pints of blood, of course.” Another pretty young woman, another victim. The girl’s mother witnessed the murder and a sketch is released. A large figure checks out his creepy mug in the newspaper and the camera tracks him through a casino, where he draws disturbed looks from the patrons. Our first real look at the killer comes with a legitimately scary zoom into a pair of red eyes. A woman is stalked and although her Doberman Pinscher tries to protect her, they’re both killed.
“You’re a sadist!” No, switchboard operator Helen O’Brien (Peggy Rea, from The Waltons, The Dukes of Hazzard, and Grace Under Fire) didn’t just meet the killer. Kolchak is bribing her with delicious chocolates. While she keeps her ears open, Vincenzo and Kolchak have a massive argument in an excellent scene. Vincenzo insults Kolchak by referring to him as a “has-been, big city reporter” and he responds, “What do you want, Vincenzo? A testimonial from Count Dracula? This nut thinks he’s a vampire. He’s killed four, maybe five women! Now that is news, Vincenzo! NEWS! And we are a NEWS paper!” Their chemistry and antagonism toward each other would serve the series well over the course of the character’s history.
O’Brien reports that a man with menacing red eyes haggled with a used car salesman and Kolchak’s sometime-girlfriend Gail (Vigilante’s Carol Lynley) gives him some vampire books. Although he chuckles at the thought, he’s starting to have his doubts.
Our potential blood-sucker helps himself to some large jars of blood at a local hospital. A nurse catches him and there’s an epic battle as the incredibly strong man pulverizes multiple orderlies, even throwing a man one-handed out of a second story window. The police, as well as Kolchak, who heard about it on the police radio, arrive and fire at him several times, which doesn’t even slow him down. Later, in another get-together with the officials, they figure out who this madman is. Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater, Surak on the original Star Trek, as well as The Twilight Zone’s great ‘The Monsters are Due on Maple Street’) is supposedly over 70 years old and has assumed many phony identities. It’s also quite peculiar that bodies seem to start popping up as soon as he gets to a new town. Kolchak makes the bold statement that maybe this guy really is a vampire. As usual, the men dismiss his claims and even warn him that if he keeps at it he’ll “get your pushy tushy kicked right out of town, ya dig?” McGavin is great here when he says all they’re worried about is not appearing stupid rather than trying to catch this guy.
Skorzeny is cornered again, but even though several cops gang up on him, he’s far too strong. There’s even a bit of underwater fighting as he’s dragged into a pool, then shot many times. Kolchak knows there’s no doubt anymore. “I hate to say this, but it looks like we have a real live vampire on our hands.” He informs the officials that he’ll help them catch and destroy him if he gets the exclusive rights to the final story. He produces a bag of tools, namely a cross, a mallet, and a stake. It’s a little ridiculous but the movie earns it by letting the other police officers confirm that Skorzeny is not human. Another one of Kolchak’s informants Mickey (Elisha Cook Jr., whose fabulous credits include Shane, The Killing, The Maltese Falcon) tells him he thinks he’s found Skorzeny’s house. Kolchak tells him to let the authorities know a little later so he can have time to check things out on his own.
The only wrong move Kolchak makes is that he goes to the house at night. Not a good idea. There’s a fridge of blood, disguises, a coffin, and a bound woman who seems to be a blood bank way before Fury Road (2015). Although there’s very little gore, this is a pretty gruesome idea for 1972. Skorzeny returns and there’s a tense scene as Kolchak hides in a closet, having re-tied the woman to the bed. Just when you think he’s gone, BOOM! Skorzeny yanks the closet door open and there he is, fangs and all. A huge fight ensues with Kolchak keeping Janos at bay with a silver cross, but he’s knocked down and nearly bitten. Bernie shows up and they’re able to subdue Skorzeny long enough for Kolchak to drive a stake through his heart. I didn’t actually expect this since it would probably be more beneficial to keep him alive for the police, but Kolchak has been pushed to the edge and just as he finishes hammering the stake, the police show up.
We later find him finishing the story and promising to marry Gail. Vincenzo tells him to see the officials and begrudgingly tells him he’s a good reporter. He enters the office whistling but he’s quickly told that he’s under arrest for murder. They’ve double-crossed him and are going to cover-up the true nature of Skorzeny’s identity. They even force Gail to leave town and never contact him again. Having lost his job once again, he reflects on whether all of Skorzeny’s victims were ever found. According to his research, those bitten by a vampire will return as vampires themselves, but all of them were cremated. At least he thinks all of them were.
If you search for Darren McGavin on IMDB, the main picture that comes up is his Kolchak character. That’s the staying power of this series and his outstanding performance. Even in his very early appearance in Otto Preminger’s 1955 The Man with the Golden Arm, it’s clear he was an extraordinary performer. I’m often frustrated when character actors are difficult to describe as they play so many varied roles, but for McGavin, he’s fortunate to have played a very well-known character seen by millions of people multiple times. If I say I watched Gods and Monsters or Kind Hearts and Coronets with Ian McKellan and Alec Guinness respectively, someone may ask, “Who are they?” Luckily, I can refer to them as Gandalf and Obi Wan Kenobi and there’s instant recognition. For McGavin, one can easily point to Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story (1983), where he plays The Old Man, Ralphie’s dad. Of course, there’s also his other collaborations with Bob Clark, his uncredited work in The Natural, acting circles around Schwarzenegger in Raw Deal, dealing with his idiot son in Billy Madison, and even ridiculous fare like Dead Heat and Albert Pyun’s Captain America.
With The Night Stalker, McGavin was given a tightly-scripted narrative to step up as a leading man. Thanks to his flawless acting, Curtis felt the film turned out so well it could have been released theatrically. Television movies used to get a bad rap, but this one rises above to be something truly special.