The Night Strangler (Dan Curtis, 1973)
‘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 newspapers or heard about them on your local radio or television station. Why? Because the facts were watered down, torn apart, and reassembled… in a word, falsified.’
From the distinctive voice of Darren McGavin colorfully delivering the introductory monologue, setting the scene for what we’re about to see (and that could have exactly fit, minus only the specific city location, into the previous film’s opening oration), to following the first victim (another fine-figured slightly-disreputable young lady out way past a respectable hour) choosing a dark alley to stroll down (the perfect place for a lurking predator to await in the shadows) sealing her fate, it’s immediately obvious that any wonders to be found in this second TV movie instalment following the anything-for-a-story (and that dream Pulitzer), insufferable, though somehow endearing, big-city news reporter Carl Kolchak (McGavin, continuing on, dans the familiar pork-pie hat and seersucker suit, in the role he was born to play, with the one slight added distraction being the sudden appearance of a hairpiece covering the lengthening forehead apparent every time he took off the hat in the first one) and permanently irritated editor Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland, doing yeoman’s work as well in his return) aren’t going to be found in some wildly daring departure from the formula established in the previous year’s television uber-success The Night Stalker.
Watching the two television movies back to back, while I didn’t exactly time out the events across them, it was obvious that, with everything from the pacing of the murders (pretty girls out way past their bedtimes), to Kolchak’s piecemeal realization of the fantastic possibilities of the story he’s stumbled across, to the confrontation with the police in a city alleyway that Kolchak witnesses the super-human strength of the ‘monster’, all the way to the the final un-masking of the ghoul himself, “Strangler” was constructed to almost exactly mirror the first.
Vibrantly written yet again, in deliciously clever film noir style (with that same dash of self-aware humor), by the legendary genre writer (of many a noted story and film) Richard Matheson and directed this time by equally noted in his own right, original Kolchak creator (and horror show producer) Dan Curtis, the goal was clearly to give the audience the exact same ride as “Stalker”. And while that’s not necessarily a bad thing (especially with such a wonderfully innovative – for its time, anyway – genre-mashing of noir and horror), there admittedly was a tugging at the required suspension of disbelief in having Kolchak and Vincenzo arrive in the rainy city, after getting tossed out by their ears from Las Vegas by ungrateful officials not willing to admit that what Kolchak uncovered was a real-life vampire, for Kolchak to almost immediately stumble across a new series of murders that lead to another ‘monster’ – this one being a living ghoul who has discovered immortality — by drinking of an elixir of life every twenty one years which has as its main ingredient human blood (naturally).
Where this second instalment of Kolchak sets itself apart, however, is in the increased budget off of, I can only assume, the success of the first movie. With an effectively evocative, high-contrast, noir-style theatrical film look (as contrasted against the bland wash lighting of the The Night Stalker), impressively large, ornate and pumping fog-machine sets located within Seattle’s long-abandoned underground city (I have no idea how accurate any of it is but if it is — and you can tour some of these cool ancient places? – man, I’d love to get there one day!), The Night Strangler has a legitimate theatrical scope that the original, as fun as it was, couldn’t come near.
There is also the single most astonishing set-piece of either movie, a scene that quite surprisingly sharply breaks from the narrative conventions set up throughout (as in, there’s neither a Kolchak voiceover to set the scene or Kolchak himself there to see it), moving us from the hard-scrabble city streets to a suddenly more lyrical, mood- and color-saturated dream-like atmosphere, as a beautiful woman sits alone in anxious contemplation when the black-clad killer suddenly smashes spectacularly (if entirely unnecessarily, but who cares as the moment is so inspired) in slow motion through the front picture glass window and proceeds to brutally attack her. As the scene plays, it feels momentarily disorienting, as if we’ve switched to another film, or some alternate cinematic reality. Who knows, perhaps, with the success of The Night Stalker, Curtis was granted a little welcome leeway to explore and indulge in some cinematic riffing, at least in one scene, in this case maybe even on Mario Bava’s wildly colourful and stylish early Italian body count film Blood and Black Lace from the previous decade. However it happened, it’s a striking sequence.
A worthwhile continuation of the first movie’s formula (as well as common to much film noir tradition) has Kolchak’s investigations leading him again to cross paths with many a colourful side character, which includes a number of fun cameos. Familiar-faced comedian (and best friend of Marlon Brando) Wally Cox shows up as nerdy library researcher Titus Berry (you can just imagine the fun Matheson and Curtis had making up some of these character names) who is the one who first uncovers the every-twenty-one year link. The Wicked Witch of the East herself, Margaret Hamilton, shows up for an amusing scene as a somewhat intimidating professor, as well as legendary low— (to no—) budget horror icon John Carradine (with his fingers, already deformed from severe arthritis, on full display) as bigwig city newspaper publisher Llewellyn Crossbinder, who seems to have more power and pulls more strings in the town than any politician. Johnny Guitar‘s Dancin’ Kid, Scott Brady, shows up as the Police Chief in town who – like the white Stetson hat wearing Las Vegas head cop in the first (played there by Claude Akins, an actor a bit too distractingly physically similar to Simon Oakland) – doesn’t look to kindly upon Kolchak’s constant interferences.
Richard Anderson, very soon to be familiar to an entire nation as the straight-laced, clandestine government official and confidante to bionic man Steve Austin (Lee Majors) named Oscar Goldman from the popular television show _ he Six Million Dollar Man_, adeptly plays the ghoulish villain, ably replacing the significantly less impressive vampire from the first. The final aging makeup is a bit amateurish, true, and yet, with the impressive and evocative lair deep beneath Seattle’s underground city surrounding him, and Anderson’s handsome and imposing presence as the ghoulish villain, as with most of the flaws in this sequel, it’s a mere trifle that doesn’t get much in the way of all that does work.
Now let’s see how the short-lived ‘monster-of-the-week’ Kolchak: The Night Stalker television series, continuing the adventures of the aforementioned higher newspaper reporter and his bemused editor Vincenzo, premiering just a year later, holds up.