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.

The Night Stalker (1972)

I wished my son pleasant dreams tonight and got an earful. “I am NOT going to have pleasant dreams! You showed me a vampire movie and I am NINETY-NINE POINT FOUR PER CENT CERTAIN that I’m going to have nightmares tonight!”

Yes, our son did not like tonight’s movie one little bit. He made his feelings very clear by telling us that his favorite scene was when our hero, Carl Kolchak, puts a cassette in his little tape player about ten seconds into the picture and presses play. It was all downhill from there. He didn’t like the fights, he didn’t like the shootouts, he didn’t like the car tires squealing on the roads around Las Vegas, because he was freaked out, frightened, and scared out of his wits by this great, great TV movie.

I sometimes wonder how ABC promoted this movie back then, because they did something right. It’s not like vampires couldn’t have been seen in dozens of films over the previous decade, and as much as we all like the great Darren McGavin, it’s honestly not like he was television’s biggest draw. But the stars lined up and I guess that CBS and NBC had a lousy evening, because when the Nielsens came in, The Night Stalker proved to be the highest-rated TV movie the industry had ever seen to that point, with a mammoth 48 share. The film was produced by Dan Curtis, directed by John Llewelyn Moxey, and scripted by Richard Matheson from a then-unpublished novel by Jeff Rice.

I think it’s one of the very best, and sometimes I think it’s the all-time greatest vampire movie ever made. Sometimes I pick this and sometimes I pick Christopher Lee’s first Dracula movie for Hammer. But I love the way that Carl Kolchak is the hero here, and the vampire is a dark, silent killer. And Carl Kolchak is one of television’s greatest characters, a ten-time loser who’s too proud and too smug to play by the rules and is the architect of his own undoing. We aren’t told what got him fired from papers in Washington, Chicago, New York, and Boston, but we see it here: his attitude. Kolchak’s been fighting City Hall, and losing, for years, and this time, when City Hall is covering up a vampire, City Hall isn’t going to take prisoners.

Joining McGavin in this debut adventure, there’s Simon Oakland as his long-suffering editor Vincenzo, and Claude Akins as the first of many policemen to have had it up to here with this nosy reporter. Carol Lynley plays Carl’s doomed girlfriend – but not doomed in the way that girlfriends in vampire movies are typically doomed – and there are small roles for Larry Linville and Elisha Cook Jr.

He protested that he hated this, but our son did come to life when the vampire – named “Janos Skorzeny,” unforgettably, and played by Barry Atwater – started throwing around orderlies in a hospital. “He’s as strong as a dozen men!” he marvelled, and he wowed when one man is thrown through a window to his apparent death. The vampire stuff is incredibly well done, with the climactic search through the home where Skorzeny has holed up going on for what feels like forever since the tension is so incredible. Yes, our son was behind the sofa. I didn’t think he was ever coming out.

My copy of the two Kolchak TV movies is Anchor Bay’s old double-sided release, and both my player and my laptop are unhappy with it. The player stretched it into widescreen – even the Anchor Bay logo and the menu – and no setting would restore it, and the laptop’s navigation slider was disabled. The films have since been given a new 4K restoration and the editions that were released last October have a lot of positive reviews. I might upgrade them, but I may have some expenses this month and so our next visit with Carl will be on the same edition. I assured our son that when we meet Carl again, there will not be a vampire. “Well, who does he fight? Frankenstein?” I said we’ll see.