Night Stalker, The (1972)

The Night Stalker (1972)

Las Vegas newspaper reporter Carl Kolchack investigates a series of murders believed to have been committed by an animal but that they are the work of a vampire. However, no will believe his theory as they are more concerned about the negative impact upon the tourist industry of so many murders.

 

The Night Stalker and it’s follow-up, The Night Strangler, were a pair of hugely successful TV movies in the 1970s which preceded Kolchak: The Night Stalker, a single-season TV series about a news reporter who investigates reports of the supernatural, monstrous, or things that can only be explained as science fiction. Kolchak: The Night Stalker was an excellent show which achieved cult status and, according to Chris Carter, was a tremendous influence in him creating the even better The X-Files over twenty years later – you can clearly see the similarities between both shows (in a nice nod to it’s origins, Kolchak actor Darren McGavin did appear on The X-Files for a pair of episodes).

The Night Stalker was the highest rated TV movie all of time upon its release in America in 1972 (54% share of the eligible viewing audience, an amazing feat) and it’s easy to see why, with the easy-going charm of the main actor Darren McGavin and its updated version of vampire lore giving audiences something fresh and exciting to get their teeth into (sorry!). Weaned on decades of cape-wearing, suave aristocrats stuck in chilly castles in Eastern Europe and all situated in period settings, The Night Stalker was one of the first films to bring the classic tale into the then-present day. No longer were the vampires stalking buxom serving wenches in taverns in small villages but prowling the streets of modern-day civilisation.

Writer Richard Matheson must take the credit for this. Known for his excellent science fiction writing both in literature and in television and film (I Am Legend being one of his novels), Matheson crafts a sharp script full of dramatic irony – the audience know well-full there’s a vampire on the loose before any of the other characters do and, thanks to years of vampire films, they know exactly how to deal with one. Matheson plays upon this a fair bit, having Kolchak run through the repertoire of vampire-killing techniques and establishing just enough legacy in the creature to make it menacing without being too familiar.

Having seen the TV series before I watched the pair of earlier TV movies, you’d be hard-pressed to tell which was which due to the almost identical production values. At seventy-four minutes, the film moves briskly enough and gets straight into the action. There’s no dramatic build-up, just Kolchak dictating to the audience about the chain of events that have led to the first bodies turning up. It’s a tactic used to good effect in the TV series to save time being unnecessarily wasted on exposition. The thing with these Kolchak stories is that they’re not very scary, focusing on the police procedural elements over anything else. So if you’re expecting to be bamboozled with blood and violence, then think again. There are some action sequences but given the constraints of the budget and the context in which they’re being shown, they’re about as effective as they need to be. Watching the vampire burst through a police cordon and take out lots of cops is one of the film’s highlights but you can tell it’s hardly cutting-edge stunt work. Likewise, the scenes involving the vampire and his victims are timid, even by the 1970s standards.

Darren McGavin is fantastic as Kolchak and this quickly became his signature role. His reporter could have come off as a really irritating, obnoxious nosey parker but McGavin imbues the character with enough likeable charisma, cockiness, wits and, above all, intelligence, to really get you behind him, even on the occasion when his decisions are a little controversial and life-endangering. Kolchak is a reporter, above all else, and his determination to get the story, rather than stop the criminal, is what keeps him going.

 

The Night Stalker is a breezy and efficient way to spend your time, with the film moving with pace from one moment to the next with one of the genre’s best characters, Carl Kolchak, and a fine performance from Darren McGavin to anchor everything. The legacy that The Night Stalker left upon the world of TV horror and science fiction far outweighs its actual end product.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

To All a Goodnight (1980)

To All a Goodnight (1980)

You’ll Scream ’til Dawn

At the Calvin Finishing School for Girls, a student is teased by her friends during a game and falls from a balcony to her death. Two years later during Christmas vacation, a small group of girls stay behind to sneak in their boyfriends for some festive partying. But one by one the students begin getting murdered by a killer in a Santa Claus costume.

 

Pre-dating Silent Night, Deadly Night by a few years, To All a Goodnight is the first full-length feature film to throw a killer Santa Claus good and centre into the fray (I’m not counting short stories from anthology films like Tales From the Crypt). However, most people remember the infamous former, as well as 1980’s Christmas Evil, purely because they do a better job of using the jolly character for nefarious purposes. Hardly in the top ten of holiday-themed horrors, To All a Goodnight is a slasher which beat Friday the 13th to the punch by a couple of months back in the day but one glance at this and you’d think it a cast-off from the dying days of the 80s.

Director David Hess should have been able to churn out a better offering for his first directorial outing. After all, the guy was something of a genre staple throughout his acting career with credits ranging from nasty characters in The Last House on the Left to House on the Edge of the Park and should have known a thing or two about how to craft an effective horror-thriller. But he was let loose with a camera, a ten-day shooting schedule and little else by the looks of it. To All a Goodnight is dreadfully dull, brought about by deathly interactions between a bunch of horrendous actors who are trying their hardest to make a terrible script sound even worse. At a certain point during the film one when red herring has turned up dead, I thought that the film was going to kick in for the Final Girl finale before I realised I was little over half-way through! With the sluggish pace of the film, that felt like I’d been sat there for hours, let alone forty-five minutes.

The story itself is wafer-thin, as evident in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it prologue (not sure which one came first in 1980 between this and Prom Night but it’s virtually the same introduction, only shorter), and doesn’t know what it wants to do with anything apart from have the characters lounge around their bedrooms or the living room all of the time. People go missing and they continue to sit around. They even discover a body and report it to the police, whereby they continue to hang around the house despite the fact there’s a murderer loose! Hell, they don’t even acknowledge there’s a problem until the final third of the film even though pretty much all of their friends are now missing. These characters deserve to die for their stupidity and obsession with sex. I know that slasher formula dictates that the bulk of the younger characters are meant to be full-on with their feelings and hormones but this lot swap partners and move on without a second guess.

There is a substantial body count here, with no fewer than fifteen corpses to add to the tally by the end of the film. That’s impressive for any early 80s slasher and it’s just such a shame that the majority of them are so poorly planned and drawn out for maximum impact. There’s little tension or suspense with any of the kill scenes – the killer just pops up and does the deed with little fanfare or build-up. There is a decent variation in the methods of dispatch and, whilst not going to win any awards for most gory slasher, there is a bit of blood splashed around. And whilst the killer does sport the classic red Santa outfit, the difference here to the rest of the Santa slashers that followed is that the killer actually wears a creepy old man mask to go along with it. It’s a good costume but as the film is too dark and there’s little creativity in the camerawork, the killer is badly wasted. Even the creepy gardener who is thrown in there as a red herring doesn’t seem to have a proper role apart from randomly appear in the bedrooms of some of the girls at weird times of the night.

 

To All a Goodnight is a generally fright-free festive frolic which is a real chore to sit through. Clunky, uninspiring and failing to make the most of the holiday theme, it’s strictly one for purists. There are much better Santa slashers out there to fill your perverse needs at this time of the year!

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆