Synopsis: An abrasive Las Vegas newspaper reporter investigates a series of murders committed by a vampire.
Stars: Darren McGavin, Carol Lynley, Barry Atwater, Simon Oakland, Ralph Meeker, Claude Akins, Charles McGraw
Director: John Llewellyn Moxey
Running Length: 74 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: I’ve lamented before on this very blog how much I miss the decline of the made-for-television movie. We’re sort of getting back to a similar model with the ascent of Netlfix/Amazon and other streaming services producing their own content but there was something a little more special about the movie of the week that aired on your basic TV stations. Aside from the mini-series that gathered large patches of the American viewing public for multiple nights, there were a few key examples of crown jewels of these one-shot films produced for the small screen and in the horror genre The Night Stalker is most definitely at or near the top of the list for horror yarns.
Airing in a 90-minute block on ABC on January 11, 1972 (that’s 47 years ago as of this writing!), The Night Stalker evokes strong memories for many and watching it again after several years I was reminded why. This was one my parents always talked up to me when I was younger because of my childhood obsession with all things Dracula and vampires. When I did see it, it didn’t land quite as they or I had expected, likely because I was perhaps a little too young to fully appreciate the sophistication of the script from Richard Matheson (Jaws 3-D). This is more of a scary movie for adults looking for chills, not teens out for quick thrills. Revisiting it again in 2019 for this series, I was struck by what a fantastically entertaining film it was.
Told as a flashback by Las Vegas newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin, best remembered as The Old Man Parker from A Christmas Story), The Night Stalker follows Kolchak as he gets involved with a police investigation into a rash of deaths. Women are turning up dead and drained of blood with some fairly nasty bite marks around their necks and the police want to keep a lid on it so as not to scare aware tourists and send residents into a panic. Kolchak sees a great story and insinuates himself into the mix to keep receiving information, all the while forming his own profile of the killer. Piecing together clues and coming to the unbelievable conclusion that a vampire has come to Vegas and feeding at an alarming rate, Kolchak will have to remain one step ahead of the monster and the law if he wants to stop the murders.
Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s when producers were looking for a director for television they went to John Llewellyn Moxey and producer Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows) was lucky to nab him for this. British director Moxey was the go-to person behind a number of television shows in the US and the UK and an incredible array of television movies (like previous 31 Days to Scare entry Home for the Holidays) but he strangely never made a feature film. Moxey’s sure-handed direction is paired well with Matheson’s sharp script, economical in design and engaging throughout. McGavin narrates the movie dictating into a recorder and it works so well, better than most voice over narration which so often is used by filmmakers to mask flaws in the plot or coverage. For a 74-minute movie, I was surprised at how instantly sucked into the action I was and amazed it held onto my attention with such a firm grip throughout.
McGavin is aces as the gruff reporter who thinks he’s seen it all but comes face to fang with a rather freaky vampire. You like him from the start and his everyman quality endears him to the audience while easily rubbing his colleagues and law enforcement the wrong way. As the bloodsucker, Barry Atwater has no dialogue except for a couple of well-timed hisses but he’s quite effective whenever he’s on screen – definitely adding to the movie’s legitimate unsettling mood. No jump scares here but that doesn’t mean you won’t be feeling some tension as Kolchak seeks out the killer in numerous dark and shadowy locations. The rest of the cast is filled with good character actors that sort of blended together for me by the end. If we’re being honest, the only dud here is Carol Lynley as Kolchak’s girlfriend…super pretty but super bland.
A year later, McGavin would return in The Night Strangler before starring in a short-lived TV series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker so it was clear the character struck a chord with the public. I’m almost surprised this first outing has been eyed for a remake by someone like Sam Rockwell in recent years. It would be hard to top this first go around with Carl Kolchak, though. The short running time makes this one an easy commitment and one that you absolutely should check out or revisit if you are a fan of vampires, horror, or have that same nostalgia I do for the lost art of made-for-TV movies.