The Night Stalker / The Night Strangler

by D. Bishop
Tuesday Aug 24, 2004
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The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, two films featuring Darren McGavin as the indomitable Carl Kolchak, are among the most memorable and well-crafted made-for-television movies from the early 1970ís. Intelligent writing, a lovably irritating protagonist, and a healthy dose of supernatural mayhem provide a wonderfully entertaining and occasionally frightening experience that no fan of the horror genre should miss out on.

Carl Kolchak is an open-minded but extremely pugnacious reporter with a history of being fired from a multitude of positions over his tendency to run afoul of his superiors, local law enforcement and occasionally civic leaders when they donít see things his way. In The Night Stalker Kolchak is called back from vacation to handle a murder story that at first seems unremarkable, but quickly turns into a complicated series of mysteries that Kolchak determines, much to the annoyance of his editor and the chief of police, are the work of nothing less than a vampire. Kolchak, out of a concern for the safety of the citizens and a desire to break a story that will help him regain credibility with larger publications, is determined to establish the validity of his theory, despite warnings from those in authority. He will have to risk his career, and his neck, to stop the killings and convince the police that, hard as it may be to believe, the undead do indeed hunt the streets of Las Vegas. Similarly, in The Night Strangler, Kolchak finds himself relocating to Seattle just in time to cover another bizarre series of murders, this time seemingly committed by what evidence and witnesses indicate must be a walking corpse. Once again, Kolchak takes it upon himself to see justice done at the risk of his job despite staggering disbelief and outright resistance from his boss and the police. In both cases Kolchak ultimately demonstrates that his outlandish ideas are not as crazy as they may sound, but also learns that being right doesnít necessarily guarantee success.

Carl Kolchakís fiery personality and sarcastic wit, portrayed brilliantly by Darren McGavin, are absolutely perfect qualities for an investigative reporter forced to deal with unbelievable case facts and insurmountable opposition to the truth as he sees it, making the Kolchak character at once both strongly appealing and memorable. The viewer knows he is right and wants him to succeed, and yet recognizes that his cockiness earns him some perhaps well-deserved contempt, damning him to ignominy just when he should be reaping the rewards of his hard work. His strong but flawed nature makes him extraordinarily well-rounded, very easy for the viewer to connect with sympathetically and to appreciate in terms of his relationships with the other characters. For example, his rather lively exchanges with his editor in both films, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), are not only very entertaining in an aggressive sort of way, they help demonstrate why so many men end up dying of heart attacks due to stress on the job. The writing that makes these dialogues so engaging and the overall story so compelling does so without pandering to the baser nature of the audience or speaking to its least common denominator, a very welcome change from the usual. The only true flaws in these films are a few problems with continuity and props that, while not drastically affecting the overall experience, do occasionally cheapen the quality of the film and speak to the haste with which many television movies are filmed. (Examples: several sets of tire tracks in the same place where Kolchak skids to a stop in one scene, indicating several takes had been made for that scene, and very poorly assembled newspaper archives with frayed edges showing where they had been pasted together.) All in all though these films are highly entertaining without being gruesome and well worth the watch.

These two films sit on either side of the DVD, each with itís own unique interview with the producer, Dan Curtis, who speaks at length about a wide variety of subjects including the difficulties involved in securing the rights to the stories, the Seattle Underground (which, as it turns out, does actually exist), and the remarkable reception the films had when first broadcast (The Nightstalker broke all previous records regarding marketshare the night it aired in 1972.) He also laments about the changes in the made-for-television movie industry over the last few decades which, I admit I hadnít really thought about before, but which I find myself agreeing with whole-heartedly. I havenít watched a television movie on television in years, perhaps he has a point.


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