The Night Stalker (John Llewellyn Moxey, 1972)

by Douglas Buck November 25, 2018 5 minutes (1250 words)

‘Sherman Duffy, of the New York Herald once said ‘A newspaperman is the loneliest guy on earth. Socially he ranks somewhere between a hooker and a bartender. Spiritually, he stands with Galileo, because he knows the world is round.’ Not that it matters much, when his editor knows it’s flat.’

‘Judge for yourself its believability and then try to tell yourself, wherever you may be, it couldn’t happen here.’

-the voiceover one-of-a-kind, porkpie hat and seersucker suit wearing Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin)

As usual, a new Blu Ray release and a chance to revisit another film after so many years unseen, this time one I hadn’t revisited since catching clips here and there on syndicated television all the way back in high school, as well as having it live on so fondly in my memory. To hear again the wonderfully film noir-inflected cynical voiceover, sprinkled with just the perfect dash of self-aware humour from brilliant wordsmith (and legendary genre author and screenwriter) Richard Matheson and to follow the street smart, opportunistic, always hustling – yet entirely endearing – Kolchak (in that get-up that remains somehow passable without going off the rails into silliness), as he leaps enthusiastically, with his unorthodox law-bending methods, into the (obviously not so) wild belief that it’s nothing less than a true blood-sucking vampire that is serial killing Las Vegas dancers and draining their fluids at night (to be fair, and to Matheson’s credit, it’s the enthusiastic reporter’s strict adherence to the facts which leads him to that conclusion) that drives his disbelieving editor Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) — another simply perfectly chosen name that McGavin clearly relishes having his Kolchak role off his tongue with an amused disdain — into fits of apoplexy, it makes complete sense how this deliciously enjoyable mash-up of film noir (with the shifty reporter ever at losing war against the greater political city forces above him) cascading headlong into horror (with just the right touches of both humor and Las Vegas sleaze – I vaguely remember a ‘parental advisory’ warning – ah, what innocent times those were) was such a ratings bonanza (it was the highest rated television movie premiere in history at that point). I can’t imagine audiences had seen anything like it before (certainly not something done this well).

Kolchak, whose only real goal in life is to win the Pulitzer as he shucks his way around Police Chiefs tired of seeing him at crime scenes and sneakily into extracting information from his sources at City Hall, is played with such energized aplomb by Darren McGavin, it’s a role that – I know it’s clichéd to say, but, like two other actors linked to television character for small screen eternity, Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy Summers and Carol O’Connor as Archie Bunker, there’s just no other way to say it – he was born to play. He’s pure joy to watch. In another wonderful bit of casting perfection is the permanently agitated Oakland (a little over a decade after his controversial appearance as the psychiatrist explaining what exactly it is that mentally ails poor captured Norman Bates driving him to murder in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho). Along with Oakland, The Night Stalker is peppered with all sorts of colourful character actors from film noir yesteryear, including that once-permanent fixture of the sweaty urban underground, Elisha Cook Jr, and tough-guy Ralph Meeker (Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer himself in the Robert Aldrich adaption of Kiss Me Deadly An aged Kent Smith, of producer Val Lewton’s profoundly influential 1940’s ‘horror films of suggestion’ fame, even makes an appearance as the District Attorney who is gonna make sure that Kolchak goes down in disreputable flames before doing even a hint of damage to the lascivious night-time pleasures the tourist trade enjoys by admitting an actual vampire was ever on the loose.

My single issue with the casting is the early appearance of Claude Akins as the white Stetson hat wearing Sherriff who tries shooing the pushy Kolchak from a crime scene, as a young female dancer lies dead in a culvert. While I certainly don’t mind Akins as a performer (in fact, I like him a lot) and the scene works really nicely both to set up the antagonism between Kolchak and the officials he faces at every step, as well as the humor and the horror that define the entire movie, Akins’ physique is so similar to actor Oakland (I’ve spent a large part of my early television and film viewing confusing the two), I momentarily ended up mixing up the two characters! Yes, it’s perhaps a slight grievance (especially as Akins disappears after this scene) but a pesky one for me.

Simon Oak….I mean Claude Akins with Darren McGavin

The night-time Las Vegas setting works with the victims being all club stage dancers (though, as if in some kind of alternative reality that only family minded television could conjure, the gals do a lot of prancing about on stage while never quite getting naked, which leads to the obvious question of why the eager men in the audience inexplicably remain, rather than evacuate for the full nude clubs that must be right next door) provides just enough of an undercurrent of downbeat grit and sleaze (the murder scene mentioned above is quite stark) to add a valuable resonance to the tale.

The Night Stalker is so well written and performed, and exciting on a story level, that it’s not too hard to overlook the bland (unfortunately common to the time) television lighting; less so, however, the relatively weak final confrontation between Kolchak and the monster he’s been following, with the action staging not particularly excitingly crafted and, worse, the creature of the night himself revealed as limp and unimposing; more like one of the early vamps a vampire hunter would put out of his misery long before getting to the head honcho Dracula (or whoever the head villain himself), rather than the master vampire himself.

Kolchak might get unceremoniously booted out of Las Vegas (along with his exceedingly unglued editor Vincenzo) for uncovering the monstrous truth, but they were destined to show up again, in another big city (namely, Seattle), based simply upon the massive audience success… for a second TV movie a year later (fortified with a more impressive budget), followed by a television series a year after that (which lasted a mere single season – which I eagerly devoured every Friday night for the twenty or so episodes it lasted).

If I remember correctly, with the continuing monster-of-the-week format (one that _ The X-Files_ creator Chris Carter has openly sited as a major influence for his much longer-lasting ground-breaking show), it grew exceedingly hard to suspend one’s disbelief on an every seven day basis (with Kolchak being assigned a story in which he stumbles yet again across another creature that he still can’t convince Vincenzo or the disbelieving government mucky-mucks is real), which I’m sure led to the flagging interest and cancellation. While I don’t remember my exuberant wide-eyed adolescent enthusiasm over the show ever being extinguished, I do remember even I was questioning the intelligence of endlessly going back to the same well and relying on the same coincidence again and again. Saying all that, I say it’s high time to continue with the Kolchak investigations, on to the sequel (The Night Strangler) and into the series to at least see how my memory served me.

The Night Stalker (John Llewellyn Moxey, 1972)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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