THE NIGHT STALKER (1972)/THE NIGHT STRANGLER (1973)
Directors: John Llewellyn Moxey, Dan Curtis
MGM

When the character of Carl Kolchak--created by writer Jeff Rice--was brought to the small screen, it caused something of a fascination from television audiences of the 1970s. The introduction of the devoted but tactless newspaper reporter occurred with THE NIGHT STALKER, which gained a reputation as the most-viewed TV movie up until that time. The successful mix of modern-day mystery and gothic chills justified a follow-up the following year, THE NIGHT STRANGLER, and it too also faired well in the ratings. The two telefilms (and the subsequent short-lived but exceptional series) have been precious commodities in the eyes of devoted horror fans for decades, and a double feature DVD was issued by Anchor Bay some years ago, now long out of print. The rights to the two features have reverted to MGM, who have now released an improved edition at a much lower retail price, and better packaging as well.

First broadcast on ABC on January 11, 1972, THE NIGHT STALKER involves the straw-hat wearing journalist Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin), whose undignified personality got him fired from nearly every newspaper in every city. Now in Las Vegas, Kolchak narrates a series of morbid occurrences on his hand-held recorder, recounting how a maniac is on the loose in the city, killing and draining the blood of young women. Kolchak's angle is that this night stalker may be a vampire, or at least someone who thinks he's one. Of course, the authorities led by Sheriff Warren Butcher (Claude Akins), Chief Ed Masterson (Charles McGraw) and District Attorney Tom Payne (Kent Smith), deem him a nut and downplay his theories, while his agitated editor Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), is also having a difficult time keeping his wild speculations at bay. Kolchak only seems to confide in girlfriend Gail Foster (Carol Lynley) and old pal Bernie Jenks (Ralph Meeker), an FBI man willing to reveal vital information to him. But it's little Vegas snitch Mickey Crawford (Elisha Cook, Jnr.) that leads Carl to the dwelling place of the bloodsucker, and when he confronts toothy Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater), it's a classic showdown with Kolchak acting as an in-the-know modern-day vampire hunter.

THE NIGHT STALKER is a true genre classic, and possibly the finest TV horror movie of all time. Richard Matheson's screenplay is thoughtful, clever and humorous, and there are some scares as well. British director John Llewellyn Moxey (HORROR HOTEL, CIRCUS OF FEAR) delivers a neat rendering of the Matheson story tightly packed into 74 minutes, and Robert Cobert's ("Dark Shadows") score fuses contemporary jazz with haunting melodies to great effect, although Kolchak creator Rice reportedly despised his soundtrack. The cast of familiar veteran and upcoming actors (including MASH star Larry Linville) enhance the production, but it's Darren McGavin's interpretation of Kolchak that really makes it all work--you can't imagine anyone else in this role, and he IS Kolchak from the get-go. Barry Atwater's vampire, without the use of heavy make-up or dialog, is animal-like and genuinely pathetic in his desperation of blood, and the actor pulls it off with flying colors. Probably the only thing that hinders THE NIGHT STALKER to this day is the overexposure of Atwater's stuntman Dick Ziker. When Ziker's stirring stunt work is intercut with the less-agile Atwater, the difference in appearance is painfully obvious and the film loses a bit of credibility. Otherwise, this is a classic!

Dan Curtis ("Dark Shadows") had produced THE NIGHT STALKER, but for the sequel, he stepped into the director's chair as well, and Matheson was back with another witty script based on the characters created by Rice. First broadcast on ABC on January 16, 1973, THE NIGHT STRANGLER brings back McGavin as Kolchak and Oakland as Vincenzo, now in Seattle after both being fired in Vegas. Vincenzo (constantly drinking milk to nurse his ulcer) reluctantly hires Kolchak and their love/hate working relationship endures. Kolchak is immediately assigned to cover the murder of a strangled belly dancer, but his investigations uncover further slaughter with ties to the supernatural, and thus get him in hot water with his job and the police. This time a phantom with super-human strength appears on the streets at night, strangling and then extracting spinal fluid from his victims with a large syringe. The nerdy head of research at the newspaper, Titus Berry (wonderfully played by Wally Cox shortly before his death) tells Kolchak of a connection that these killings have to similar ones that occur every 21 years in Seattle dating back to the late 1880s, after a massive fire destroyed most of the city. With the help of quirky and pretty dancer/pre-med student Louise Harper (Jo Ann Pflug) Kolchak stumbles upon a hidden city underneath the ground that will doubtless lead him to the strangler.

A more than worthy follow-up, Curtis' direction maintains just the right amount of suspense, and although the formula is admittedly identical to the original, Matheson's story contains more well thought-out characters and unique ideas such as the underground liar, complete with a banquet table full of rats and rotted corpses. Richard Anderson ("The Six Million Dollar Man") is the villain this time out (a 100+ year-old alchemist who finds the elixir of life), and although his scenes are limited, he plays it with both eccentricity and pathos, making his confrontation with Kolchak all the more tense and eerie. McGavin continues his flawless interpretation, and his shouting matches with Oakland as Vincenzo create a priceless chemistry that would no doubt be the foundation of the short-lived series to come. Fine support also comes from horror icon John Carradine, WIZARD OF OZ star Margaret Hamilton, Nina Wayne, Al Lewis ("The Munsters") and Scott Brady as the tough police captain (naturally).

In terms of the transfers of the two features, MGM's release of THE NIGHT STALKER/THE NIGHT STRANGLER is an improvement over the old Anchor Bay release. Even if they were culled from the same master sources as before, both full frame transfers have vibrant colors, natural fleshtones and deep black levels. The Dolby Digital mono audio tracks are as clear and crisp as can be--I don't think they could sound any better. STRANGLER tends to be dark in some scenes, but this probably originates from the shadowy lighting that much of it was shot in. Regardless, excessive grain and digital artifacting, apparent on the AB version of STRANGLER, are hardly evident on the new MGM release. Also, the sharp technical people at MGM have fixed an audio mistake that was on the AB version of STALKER: after his poolside conversation with Bernie Jenks, you now hear Kolchak getting paged on a loudspeaker, the way the scene was meant to be. Note that STRANGLER is again the longer cut of the film running around 90 minutes. Both films have optional English, French and Spanish subtitles.

Included on each side is a featurette comprised of enthusiastic video interviews with Dan Curtis, who talks about his involvement with the two Kolchak movies with great pride. "The Night Stalker: Dan Curtis Interview" (14:33) is on side A, and has Curtis stating that he never came across a story better than "The Night Stalker." He also mentions his first meeting with Richard Matheson ("my favorite writer"), how they became great friends and collaborators, and shares a great anecdote about when the film was shown at an industry screening. Curtis also calls McGavin "the guy who made Kolchak Kolchak." He concludes the conversation on the subject of how hard it is to sell a simple, fun idea for a TV movie to the studios these days, calling those days a "great period of time." "Directing 'The Night Strangler'" (7:28) is on the flip side, and Curtis talks about his early days of getting into the TV business, describing his then tiny New York office. After going into the casting of THE NIGHT STRANGLER, he closes on the reason why he thinks these two efforts have held up so well after all these years. This a highly recommended, must-have release, especially if you missed it first time around. (George R. Reis)

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