Reviews / October 30, 2019
The Night Stalker
Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey
Like many folks my age, I first encountered crusading news photographer Carl Kolchak (played by the eminently charismatic and recognizable Darren McGavin) thanks to The X-Files creator Chris Carter’s repeated praise of the character as one of the biggest influences on his creation of Mulder and Scully in the 1990s. The single 1974-1975 season of Kolchak: The Night Stalker found itself brought out of mothballs and re-aired on cable thanks to Carter, and I caught a couple of episodes here and there. But I’d never seen either of the network TV movies (the 1972 original or 1973’s follow-up The Night Strangler) that introduced Kolchak, and both of my fellow editors were effusive about how much I would enjoy this hoary vampire tale set under the glaring neon lights and flashing marquees of early 1970s Las Vegas.
Carl Kolchak, as mentioned, is a Las Vegas newspaper photographer who’s called back from vacation to get snaps for his boss on a series of sensationalistic murders where the victims turn up exsanguinated. Kolchak, well-acquainted with both the Vegas police and the town’s criminal underworld, soon discovers that all the murders have the whiff of the supernatural about them: the perpetrator is superhumanly strong and the murders have happened under mysterious conditions (one victim is left in a sandy culvert but with no footprints leading to the body, another snatched from her home completely silently). Kolchak’s convinced that the killer at least thinks he’s a vampire, but it’s not until he arrives at a local hospital blood bank, where the killer is on a rampage, that we discover the serial killer is a no-fooling, actual member of the undead. The vamp, Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater), has been at large for nearly a half-century, sucking his victims’ blood from his native Romania to Nazi Germany to Britain and finally to America. Kolchak tries to convince the authorities that they’re going to need to adopt real vampire-hunting tactics to catch Skorzeny, but given that they have covered up the occult circumstances of the murders up to this point, Kolchak has to make a deal: the cops trust his knowledge of vampire lore (given to him by his sometime girlfriend Gail Foster, played by Carol Lynley) and use the stakes and mallets on Skorzeny, while giving Kolchak exclusive publishing rights to the story. If Kolchak’s wrong? He has to split Vegas in 12 hours. Coming upon Skorzeny’s lair (and its captive “private blood bank” of young women tied to beds), Kolchak gives him the stake, but the powers-that-be break their promise: he has to leave town without publishing his story or even finding and saying goodbye to Gail: a complete downer ending.
The whole time I was watching the first half of The Night Stalker, it really felt like something I’d seen before: maybe an early-’70s Columbo TV movie (no surprise, considering both The Night Stalker and Columbo were broadcast as TV movies on ABC). Darren McGavin’s Kolchak, just like Peter Falk’s Columbo, is an eminently comfortable presence and reassuringly down-to-earth character. About halfway through the film, I posited the alternate universe where McGavin played Lieutenant Columbo and Falk was cast as Kolchak, and honestly, I’d watch either of those switched-up roles in a heartbeat. McGavin is at his best when he’s just “hanging out” with everyday working stiff witnesses: professional gamblers, used car salesmen, switchboard operators. “Socially, [the reporter] fits in somewhere between a hooker and a bartender,” Kolchak quotes an old newsman as saying in voiceover. I believe it’s this quirky yet undeniably noir sensitivity that was a big part of Kolchak being seared on the pop culture subconscious in the ’70s (The Night Stalker set record Nielsen numbers: over half the TVs that were turned on in America that night were tuned to ABC) and beyond. Novelist Jeff Rice had been working on a novel about a vampire serial killer, unable to find a publisher, until his agent told him to submit it for consideration as a film script. Science fiction television mainstay Richard Matheson subsequently adapted the novel for the small screen. The Night Stalker is a real noir, with a real recognition for the iconic hard-boiled elements that make great detective fiction: a working-class schlub pitted against the men in power.
Along those lines, there’s something very special, maybe even uncompromising, about how this TV movie portrays the seamy side of early-’70s Las Vegas, full of disposable cocktail waitresses and showgirls, and the urban weirdness of one of America’s fully pre-fab metropolitan areas. The location shooting really helps the movie; the brief glimpses of that old school glitz from the era of Scorsese’s Casino are endlessly fascinating. Given that the film was shot in 1971, there’s a chance that while Darren McGavin was stalking Glitter Gulch, across town Hunter S. Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta were on their drug-fueled rampage through the Mint 400 or the National District Attorney Association’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The Night Stalker is very much a perfectly meshed product of a time, a place, and the period’s occult receptivity. Of course a vampire would end up in Las Vegas, with the city’s large night owl population. As Kolchak says to Gail (who might herself be a sex worker, but ABC was perhaps not ready for the implication to be spelled out explicitly back in 1972): “That weirdo’s hit five girls, and they were all night workers.” Gail’s more than just a noir moll, though: she knows her vampire lore and acts as Kolchak’s expert—his van Helsing if you will—even if she’s not there at the end of the hunt to drive the stake home. But she also doesn’t end up a victim, which is a refreshing switch from what one might expect from a detective/vampire tale.
The actor playing Skorzeny, Barry Atwater, was a reliable heavy and, given a crude haircut and some grey makeup, makes for a passable vampire, and the scenes where he shows off his superhuman strength and endurance tread a delicate line between laughable and genuinely weird and unsettling. One scene in which a victim sics her dog on Skorzeny and he effortlessly crushes its head is a perfect example of the “a lot done with a little” aesthetic. Maybe it was just the faded early-’70s film stock and questionable lighting, but the scenes with Skorzeny possessed a jagged, almost Nosferatu-like Expressionistic uncannyness. Even knowing how violent network TV was in the late ’60s and early ’70s, even by 21st century standards, I was surprised at how edgy The Night Stalker was. As mentioned earlier, the implication of the “living blood bank” of victims tied up on dank dingy beds is like something out of True Detective. Speaking of the film’s treatment of vampire lore, one of the elements I found really intriguing was the slow evolution of Kolchak’s own opinion of the killer: pegging the perp first as an “ordinary” serial killer, then a guy who thinks he’s a vampire, and finally an actual supernatural monster. Kolchak’s gradual realization, so key to what makes this film believable, seems to exist on that same axis of ’70s Weirdness I’ve written about time and again: the understanding that paranormal and supernatural phenomena, if they exist, might have scientific or psychological explanations; but if those explanations are ruled out, you’d better be ready to accept the Weird into your life. Kolchak accepts that challenge, readily.
Kolchak’s belief in the paranormal puts him at odds with the authorities, and this same conflict was expertly re-used by Chris Carter for The X-Files, obviously. It’s a conflict that pinpoints the real antagonists of the film: the police and politicians (and other, more shadowy men, perhaps?) in charge of Las Vegas, all of them looking to keep the murders and their possible supernatural origins quiet. The various authority figures who Kolchak constantly annoys with his dogged need to get to the truth possess the kind of absolute power that can ban a man from Las Vegas for life. Was Kolchak’s forced exile a way for Rice and Matheson to hint at the Mafia figures who at this point in history were widely and openly known to run Las Vegas? The plot of The Night Stalker, where an ordinary reporter takes on mysterious conspiracies that cops and feds seem reluctant to even touch, seems like an eerie prefiguration of the Watergate scandal about to begin unraveling on American television screens. While trust in figures of authority had already been rapidly on the decline thanks to the escalation in Vietnam during Nixon’s first term, Kolchak’s specific travails—a reporter who begins investigating a story simply out of the desire for a payday and publicity but soon becomes enraged at the injustice of it all—are a perfect encapsulation of the fall of the Nixon presidency. But let’s remember that at the end of The Night Stalker, Kolchak has lost: he’s lost his story, his girlfriend, his right to reside in Las Vegas. And the powerful bad guys won because Kolchak took it upon himself to destroy Skorzeny when the cops wouldn’t. It’s probably important to note that the film is told in flashback, as Kolchak listens to the real, true story of what happened in Vegas after the fact in a dingy hotel room—as told to his tape recorder.