Kolchak: The Night Strangler (1973)
When it comes to sequels, there are various approaches a production can take. You can up the ante by essentially multiplying the original antagonist, as in the case of Aliens (1986). You can build on an established universe to create a richer portrait like in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Gremlins 2 (1990) goes for a clever satirical/spoof approach where it points out the incongruities of the first film. Films like the awful The Hangover Part 2 (2011) think they’re being clever by constantly making call backs but merely accentuate the weakness of the sequel itself. The worst example, however, are the sequels in which characters either mostly or entirely ignore the events of the previous film. This doesn’t include sequels that merely skip an entry in the series, like conveniently forgetting about Freddy’s Revenge, any Superman film between the first two and Superman Returns, or the constant rebooting of the Toho Godzilla movies. I’m a defender of Ghostbusters II, but it’s frustrating that everyone treats them with the same skepticism as the first film despite the overwhelming evidence regarding the existence of ghosts.
In the sharply written continuation of reporter Carl Kolchak’s dealings with the supernatural, there are near-constant reminders that the events of the previous film did indeed happen. Both The Night Stalker (1972) and its fine sequel The Night Strangler (1973) work as redemption stories. In Stalker, he’s just trying to do his job and sees the possible existence of a vampire as his ticket back to the big time. With Strangler, our re-introduction to dear Kolchak (played as always by Darren McGavin) finds him in a dimly lit bar trying to sell a man on the very events of the previous film, producing cut outs from his articles written for The Daily News in Las Vegas. It just so happens his old friend/occasional obstacle Tony Vincenzo has stopped by this particular watering hole for a drink. Upon hearing the rat-a-tat delivery of the former thorn in the side, he says “Oh no…” Here we go again…
Producer Dan Curtis takes the directing reins this time and writer Richard Matheson returns to scripting duties in a slicker production. The glitz of Las Vegas has been replaced by the gloom of Seattle, where someone or something is strangling women and draining their blood. We’re informed right from the start by Kolchak’s customary narration that: “This is the story behind the most incredible series of murders to ever occur in the city of Seattle, Washington. You never read about them in your local newspaper or heard about them on your local radio or television stations. Why? Because the facts were watered down, torn apart, and reassembled…in a word, falsified.” It appears that he’ll uncover some dark truth and once again he’ll have his story suppressed. Although we know how it will end, it’s a fun and entertaining ride.
If any gripes are to be made about The Night Strangler, it’s that the pattern is very much the same as the first film. The same beats and the same events take place, it’s just the people and locations that have changed. That said, it’s always great to hear McGavin’s unexpected delivery of even the most random bits of dialogue. “Merissaaaaa” is heading home and she at least takes a shot at grabbing a cab when she senses someone following her. There might be a sly anti-smoking message at play here because her biggest mistake is stopping for a soothing cigarette to calm her nerves and our killer suddenly pounces from out of frame.
Tony knows how talented Kolchak is and, despite his reservations, gets publisher Llewellyn Crossbinder (screen legend John Carradine) to hire him. McGavin knows when to play possum and he stands before Crossbinder, hat literally in hand. In just about two weeks, he’ll be out on his ass again, but for now, he’s given another old murder to check up on. After a few dead ends and no leads, including an interview with the wonderfully named bubblehead belly dancer Charisma Beauty (Nina Wayne) and her ‘husband’ Wilma Krankheimer (Virginia Peters, whom you may remember as that waitress at the Bavarian joint in Fast Times at Ridgemont High), he meets another belly dancer named Louise Harper (Jo Ann Pflug, The Fall Guy). She’s a delightfully motor mouthed gal who actually is working her way through college by stripping. He’ll find her backstage later, hitting the books, still dressed in her exotic finery.
Kolchak takes the front row center seat, along with his trusty tape recorder, at a press conference after another murder. We meet yet another pissed off law official. This time it’s Captain Schubert (former hunk Scott Brady who would end his fine career as Sheriff Frank in Gremlins), who knows Kolchak’s reputation and can barely suppress his annoyance. Medical examiner Dr. Webb (Ivor Francis) explains the circumstances regarding the deaths and reveals the victim’s necks were not just strangled but crushed by a great deal of force. Even more bizarre is a residue of rotted flesh found on the women. In other words, the women were “strangled by a dead man.” Sounds right up Kolchak’s alley.
Although he abhors research, Kolchak finds a great ally in Titus Berry, the man in charge of records down in the basement. Berry is played by Wally Cox, best known as the voice of Underdog and longtime friend (or something else) of Marlon Brando, and he’s quite good as a meek but quietly brilliant stickler for detail. He realizes similar strangulations have occurred every 21 years for quite a while. As they dig further, Kolchak says, “Mr. Berry, shall we try for 1889?” The similarities are striking and Vincenzo is even convinced to publish a disturbing sketch of the killer. As usual, the police captain is apoplectic, calling it “yellow journalism” and Kolchak gets a distinct sense of déjà vu. “I had once again taken permanent residence in a pressure cooker.” His turns of phrase are priceless.
There’s a real pride taken in honest-to-goodness reporting techniques. In The Night Stalker, Kolchak was roaming the streets, listening to the police radio and sometimes just getting lucky. Here, I appreciate that through hard work and detailed research, he proves “facts don’t lie.” It’s clear from the previous news items that these killings last 18 days and then stop for 21 years. We get our standard cops vs. villain scene where the cops get the crap kicked out of them. Kolchak happens to be around and even gets some pictures, but they’re confiscated by the police.
He takes Louise on a ‘date’ of sorts to the Seattle Underground, where he believes the killer, now identified as a doctor known as Dr. Richard Malcolm/Dr. Malcolm Richards, is hiding. There’s an amusing but needless fake-out as he’s attacked by a tramp played by Grandpa Munster himself, Al Lewis. Later, Kolchak explains his reasons for pursuing the killer to Louise, detailing the events of the previous film. The scene has a great capper as we find he’s been telling her all of this in an elevator full of shocked people.
He tracks down a Professor Crabwell, played by the wicked witch herself, Margaret
Hamilton. She tells him about the hypothetical ‘elixir of life,’ whose ingredients include human blood. When pressed as to whether this elixir could actually be real, she scoffs and claims if it were real she’d “be sitting here an 80-year old sexpot.” As in the previous film, the characters here are not dumb. This doesn’t just include researchers and professors. Captain Schubert tells off Kolchak and pokes multiple holes in his theories by doing his own research. He even searched the underground, to which he sarcastically adds, “Yes, we did that without consulting you. I hope that’s all right.”
There’s another massive fight with Vincenzo (what else is new?) and Berry finds an article written by Mark Twain, of all people, who spoke with Dr. Malcolm about a way to live forever. The conversation took place far earlier than first noted since the doctor was a civil war surgeon, putting him living sometime around 1868. The hospital in which he worked is now a clinic and Kolchak vandalizes the front lobby’s portrait of its founder by drawing a beard on it and sees the similarities between the two men. He’s handcuffed and taken to a meeting with Vincenzo, Schubert, and Crossbinder. Fortunately Berry, totally cool, shows up with even more evidence, prompting the group to be stunned into silence. “Facts, gentlemen. Facts,” says Kolchak, with finality. Believing he’s home free, Kolchak is instead assigned to cover the “Daffodil Festival,” which sounds hilariously emasculating. He has a better idea.
Using Louise as bait, they try to lure the doctor out of hiding. Nothing comes of it besides some creepy shots, but a woman doing the books in a nearby restaurant is terrorized and killed. There’s nothing wrong with the scene, but it does feel like an action beat that didn’t need to be there. Lucky as always, Kolchak overhears a couple of officers discuss a suspect disappearing down an alley very close to the Seattle Underground.
He tells her to give him 30 minutes (like in the last film) to get his exclusive, then call the cops. It may be similar, but at least Louise is taking an active part, unlike Carol Lynley in the previous film. Kolchak discovers a hidden city, depicted in a fabulously misty set with stage coaches, old buildings, and brown vegetation. He finds what can literally be called a lair filled with decaying bodies sitting in chairs around a candle-lit dinner table. The doctor is in as Malcolm (Richard Anderson – Forbidden Planet, Paths of Glory, and his long-running stint as the boss on The Six Million Dollar Man) steps out of the shadows.
He’s clearly mad and even talks to his ‘family’ of skeletons. Kolchak introduces himself as a reporter and tries to stall the doctor by asking him questions. “You grovel nicely,” says Malcolm. Many James Bond movies are criticized when the villains won’t stop talking and just kill Bond, but here, it’s pretty well done as they walk through the ancient city. Malcolm explains that he wanted to give his gift of eternal life to mankind but discovered the effects only last 21 years. In a particularly macabre detail, he indicates that the secret ingredient to his ‘elixir of life’ recipe is the blood taken from a female victim’s brain 7 seconds after death. He must take his medicine soon and Kolchak assumes more women will die 21 years from now. Dr. Malcolm replies, “What’s a few lives compared to immortality?” Kolchak smashes the beaker containing the elixir and is nearly strangled to death before the doctor ages rapidly. The police barge in as he falls over a railing to his death.
If you’ve already seen The Night Stalker, you know that Kolchak whistling is not a good sign of things to come. Still, there he is, doing his thing, until he sees the front page headline. He’s screwed once again, screams at Vincenzo, who fires him, and he smashes Tony’s window for good measure. In a fun twist, Vincenzo is also fired; so he, Kolchak, and the also-fired Louise head to New York for more adventures. We get the same highlight reel credits as in the previous film, with the doctor’s attacks followed by a final ominous shot of our villain.
Thanks to returning composer Robert Cobert, the music provides a comforting continuity even with our old friend Kolchak in a new and exciting place. The success of this film would lead to the cult series, which was scuttled by a poor timeslot. It’s very unfortunate that the trend of trilogies wasn’t popular back then since Matheson had come up with a story (completed by horror writer William F. Nolan), involving Kolchak in Honolulu investigating aliens that replace government officials with cyborgs. Athough it sounds silly, the talent of the creators could have made it work.
The Night Strangler represents the television movie at its finest. Refusing to engage in an ‘idiot plot,’ it leans into the events of the past rather than ignoring them. In the age of the internet, it’s easy to check up on continuity errors, but in the early 70’s, it’s commendable that real effort was made to create a solid foundation for a character whose story potential was practically endless. The anchor, as always, was Darren McGavin, slipping right back into his great character with the same enthusiasm and panache he’d bring to the television series as well as to the other roles he’d play in his long career. Carl Kolchak. The grandfather of seeking the truth when no one else will.