I’ve mentioned before the mindset of network television programmers back in the early ’70s; you know, that dark age before the eight-hundred and seventy-nine cable channels with nothing on worth watching that we enjoy today. Back before the dearth of entertainment we have now with our digital streaming and our RedBox, there were three (sometimes four, if the weather was right) channels on the ol’ tube, and those channels worked really hard to get you to watch them and not the other guys. Worse still (and I know you younger Fellow Fans out there will shudder at this), there wasn’t really an option to see movies on TV back then unless it was something ten years old or so, or a made-for-television production that was typically cheaply-done. This being the climate, seeing films in theaters was still something that people did a hell of a lot more often than they do now, and this meant a lot of them weren’t at home and in front of the TV on Friday and Saturday nights. This, of course, kept some advertising dollars out of the network’s pockets. Well, those guys weren’t gonna give up without a fight…so every now and then they’d pull out the stops, pony up a little cash, and get some real talent to come up with an original teleplay. They wanted something that would keep those butts on the couches and eyes glued to the screens (and more-importantly, the Gillette Trac II and Hamilton-Beach Butter-Up Popcorn Popper commercials).
One of the finest of these, whose influence still being felt today, is the 1972 made-for-TV film, The Night Stalker.
Las Vegas is in full swing; the adult playground of America plays out it’s nightly drama of gambling, romance, and carousing, as well as the darker aspects of swindling, infidelity, and assorted other “what-happens-in-Vegas” vignettes. There’s a new player in town, however; a man with a totally different taste for the ladies than even the jaded eyes of Sin City are used to — a man who leaves the corpse of a murdered woman behind, thrown away like so much trash. Of course, murder isn’t anything new to Vegas, but the coroner’s inquest does show one completely unfathomable detail; the woman’s body is completely drained of blood. Cynical reporter Carl Kolchak has one thing that’s still going for him after he’s disgraced himself in the newspaper biz; his nose for a story…and this smells big. As more exsanguinated bodies begin to appear, the persistent newsman begins harassing the local police (and enlisting the aid of his friend and local FBI man, Bernie Jenks); Kolchak asks the hard questions, and with the help of a few bucks to the right people, gets all the answers that the police don’t want to get out. His beleaguered editor Tony Vincenzo, seeing the fiery reporter still beneath the grizzled, seemingly washed-up exterior, encourages Kolchak to chase the story…but when this pursuit starts to produce copy about a man believing that he’s a supernatural creature of the night (not to mention the angry, “let’s-not-cause-a-panic” attitude of the local law), Vincenzo urges him to either drop it or stick with the real facts. Undaunted, Kolchak persists that his facts are real, and as he draws closer to his quarry, just how real those facts are becomes a horrific nightmare for the steadfast journalist…
Veteran TV horror master Dan Curtis, taking a turn as producer, took Richard Matheson’s screen adaptation of Jeff Rice’s (at the time unpublished) novel and made something extraordinary. Director John Llewellyn Moxey uses his considerable talents with macabre storylines to maximum effect, creating a living, breathing real-world of Las Vegas of the time, contrasting the backgrounds of the neon lights with the darkness of the alleyways to create a film with a sinister, fearful vibe that carries over extremely well to the small screen. There is a definite feel to the movie, something akin to the more gothic atmosphere of the Hammer films of that era, but completely integrated and functional in the “modern” American setting. The script itself is snappy and crisp, with intelligent, thought-provoking dialogue that asks questions that, for the time, were quite revolutionary; the concept of government cover-up and manipulations behind the scenes of public disclosure are common precepts today, but in 1972 you didn’t see a lot of it on your television screen. The casting is remarkable; from character greats such as Claude Rains, Ralph Meeker, and Elisha Cook, Jr., to genre faves like Carol Lynley, the supporting cast is credible and talented. Simon Oakland, best remembered by us Fellow Fans as the psychiatrist Dr. Richman in Psycho, is impeccable in his portrayal of temperamental news editor Tony Vincenzo; his banter with Kolchak, though at times light and somewhat comedic, nonetheless has a ring of authenticity to it as a veteran newsman still seeing hope in a flame others think extinguished…which brings me to Carl Kolchak himself; Darren McGavin will always, in my memory, be the world-weary yet still sharp and inquisitive reporter.
His flair for comedic sarcasm, coupled with his completely convincing portrayal of a man who will not, no matter how visibly frightened he becomes, give up pursuit of the truth that he seeks, creates one of the most remarkable television characters of that era. His dogged determination can’t even be dismissed by the revelation of a childhood nightmare made real; Barry Atwater, as said nightmare, is an imposing figure, strangely evoking some grudging sympathy during fleeting moments. With no dialog at all, he has to rely strictly on his physical performance and facial expressions to transmit the horror of a vampire, loose now in a world where his hiding must be more careful, more meticulous…a world with too much light and too many prying eyes. There are no real special effects, other than fangs and bloodshot eyes; let’s face it, the attitude of the era wasn’t going to give us a lot of grue in a Friday-night Prime Time slot; however, this isn’t something that daunted these filmmakers. Indeed, the lack of bloody effects adds to the overall patina of the film, suggesting throughout the first part of the flick that maybe this “vampire” is just a looney who thinks he’s a vampire…this grounding in reality makes the final reveal that much more shocking.
Spawning a sequel a year later, and a short-lived (but beloved by many) television series the year after that, The Night Stalker more than proved itself a quality made-for-television horror-flick. It was at the time the highest-viewed television movie, and went on to win an Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Television Feature in ’73; it’s still largely considered to be one of the best vampire flicks of all time.
Chris Carter even names the series as his inspiration for The X-Files. With such a pedigree, it’s no wonder that the film still has a loyal fan-base after some forty years now.
The Night Stalker and it’s television progeny remain some of my favorites of the genre, and are in no small part responsible for my love of horror films overall. Check it out if you get the chance.
I’ll throw out a whole nickel for this one.