Ever since I first saw it on TV on January 11, 1972, I have maintained that The Night Stalker was one of the top ten vampire movies of all time. After watching it recently, though, I’m not sure I can continue to make that argument. Conversely, I’ve always thought its sequel, which I first saw on TV on January 16, 1973, was inferior. After watching it recently, though, I now believe it is actually the better movie of the two.
The thing about The Night Stalker is that it’s really just a standard vampire tale, and not a particularly good one. What makes the movie special is the character of reporter Carl Kolchak, played by Darren McGavin. Kolchak is one of the greatest television characters of all time. In this movie, the sequel and a subsequent 20-episode series, the concept of the “monster of the week” television show was born.
The two movies and the series episodes had the same exact structure. After a series of murders, Kolchak would discover something supernatural. No one would believe him, but he would pursue the story anyway. After ultimately dispatching the particular guest monster of the week, he would somehow be blamed and his story would be buried. Lather, rinse, repeat.
In The Night Stalker, the supernatural element is Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater), a vampire killing Las Vegas showgirls. When his editor, Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) and the sheriff do not believe Kolchak, even after being witness to incredible events, Kolchak takes it upon himself to track him down and drive a stake through his heart. Of course, when he’s successful, it is Kolchak who is arrested for murder. Rather than jail time, though, he’s simply run out of town.
In The Night Strangler, the supernatural element is Dr. Richard Malcolm (Richard Anderson), an immortal underground dweller who surfaces every 21 years to refresh his elixir of life by killing Seattle women and collecting their blood. When his editor, Vincenzo (apparently fired and run out of town as well) and the police do not believe Kolchak, even after being witness to incredible events, Kolchak takes it upon himself to track him down and destroy his magical elixir. Of course, when he’s successful, he and Vincenzo are fired and last seen in Kolchak’s car heading for New York City.
The two movies are framed with Kolchak’s after-the-fact, likely embellished, narration about the events that occurred. He speaks earnestly, as if what he has to say is of grave importance. For example, The Night Stalker ends with him stating, “One fact that cannot be buried: Janos and all his victims were immediately cremated. Try to tell yourself it couldn’t happen here.” But he has some very funny lines, as well, such as his response to being booted out of Las Vegas, “I pull your fat out of the fire and you turn around and do this to me!”
Kolchak’s relationship with Vincenzo is also great fun to watch. Their verbal sparring, often escalating to near fisticuffs, is another signature of the movies and the television series. They must have a history, because Vincenzo warns him, “If you keep going on like this, you’re going to be fired again.” It’s a little coincidental that they both end up in the same bar in Seattle in The Night Strangler, but it soon doesn’t matter; you’re just glad they’re back together.
The Night Strangler is a more effective horror film than The Night Stalker. Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows), producer of the first one, took directing reigns in the second, and he is better than John Llewellyn Moxey at creating thrills and chills. The Night Stalker is almost documentary-like in the way the scenes with the vampire are filmed; there’s no suspense. But The Night Strangler has spookier sets, better lighting and more creative camerawork. Curtis-regular Robert Cobert provides the music for both, and it’s even a richer score in the second movie.
The Night Strangler is also more fun than The Night Stalker. Its cast is full of cameos and guest stars familiar to genre fans. Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West, is a professor with whom Kolchak consults. Horror legend John Carradine is the newspaper’s publisher. And Al Lewis, Grandpa Munster, shows up as a “tramp” who may have some information about the murders. 70s movie and TV regular Wally Cox has a more extended role as Mr. Berry, a researcher for the newspaper who gives Kolchak most of the historical information for the case.
Since we’ve already been introduced to Kolchak in The Night Stalker, McGavin is really firing on all cylinders playing him in The Night Strangler. The banter between him and a Seattle policeman asking a witness questions is hilarious. You begin to realize in the second movie that the monster or supernatural element is almost irrelevant. It’s Kolchak whom we want to watch. Apparently, the formula wore out it’s welcome, though, since the series was cancelled after one season. But that’s material for another day…
For more on these movies, visit It Came from Beneath My Mind and the Countdown to Halloween 2014.