The Night Strangler (1973)

The second of ABC’s two TV movies about Carl Kolchak seems to suffer by comparison to the original in the public mind, but it’s still a truly fine and creepy movie. Our son certainly suffered. He was so strung out by the murders in Seattle that when I quietly pointed out that one actress was the Wicked Witch of the West, even that set him behind the sofa.

The Night Strangler reunited Darren McGavin and Simon Oakland with writer Richard Matheson and producer Dan Curtis, who directed this time out, in a story about another series of killings. These strangulations – six of them – happen over an 18-day range every 21 years. Time is ticking. If the murderer isn’t found, he’ll vanish without trace until 1994.

As much as I love the original Night Stalker, I think this movie is almost as good. True, some of the set pieces are very familiar. There’s a repetition, not just of tone, but of incidents. But the setting is delightfully unusual, which gives the movie a really interesting angle. Television just didn’t go to Seattle in the 1970s, and so the story finds a reason for Kolchak to ride the monorail, and to take his girlfriend-of-the-story to lunch at the revolving restaurant atop the Space Needle.

But the draw is the Seattle Underground, which had just opened to the public a couple of years before this was filmed. The historian who started the tour and led the public fight to get the old streets opened again, Bill Speidel, even gets a cameo to talk about it before Kolchak joins a tour. I don’t know about you, but I can just imagine Curtis or Matheson reading a newspaper story about how all these eighty year-old boarded-up storefronts and muddy cobblestone streets had been unearthed and thinking what an amazing place that would be for some supernatural killer to hide out.

The film clearly takes some liberties with just how much old Seattle might be underneath Pioneer Square – a little visual effects trickery around a heck of a good set makes the final confrontation look more like Judge Dredd’s Undercity than what tourists will really find – but I love the symmetry between Kolchak’s long, edge-of-your-seat look through a boarded-up house in the first movie and the just-as-long, just-as-tense search through a boarded-up city block, complete with skeletons posed around a dinner table and cobwebs everywhere. Nightmare fuel.

Anyway, joining Darren McGavin and Simon Oakland for this adventure are Richard Anderson as the mysterious killer, along with the aforementioned Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton, and John Carradine, Wally Cox, Al Lewis, and Jo Ann Pflug. Sadly, Pflug wasn’t asked back when the weekly series started about a year and a half later, although she is last seen joining our fired heroes on a cross-country drive to New York to start fresh. Kolchak and Vincenzo would be setting up shop in Chicago, and when I told our son that we’ll be watching that show next month, he winced, grimaced, and gulped. He said that this story wasn’t so much “scary” as it was “insane.” I wished him pleasant dreams.

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