The Night Stalker (1972)
"A vampire killer loose in Vegas? It's hard to believe, isn't it?"
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.
The Night Stalker
Director(s): John Llewellyn Moxey
Writer(s): Richard Matheson (teleplay), Jeffrey Grant Rice (story)
Actor(s): Darren McGavin, Carol Lynley, Simon Oakland, Ralph Meeker, Claude Atkins, Charles McGraw
Duration: 74 mins