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The Night Stalker (1971)
Director: Dan Curtis
review by Octavio Ramos Jr
Wisecracking, fast-talking, abrasive and intrepid reporter Carl Kolchak, played flawlessly by Darren McGavin, returns to Las Vegas to cover a third-rate murder and soon finds himself investigating a series of killings that may lead to the existence of a vampire. Following his nose and eavesdropping on radio transmissions from the Las Vegas Police Department, Kolchak encounters the killer several times, in the processes building a case for vampirism.
Even though Kolchak has logic behind him, the authorities - law enforcement, local politicians, and editors (particularly Tony Vincenzo, played with vigour by Simon Oakland) - steadfastly refuse to believe that a bloodsucker is loose in Happy Town USA. Unfortunately, the authorities cannot dismiss facts, particularly when FBI agent and Kolchak's buddy Bernie Jenks (Ralph Meeker) identifies the killer as Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater), a 100-year-old man with a penchant for blood and violence.
When the authorities finally buckle, Kolchak makes a deal with Police Chief Ed Masterson (Charles McGraw), Sheriff Warren Butcher (Claude Akins), and District Attorney Tom Payne (Kent Smith): He will leave town if Skorzeny is not a vampire; if he is, he will receive exclusive rights to the story. With the help of his girlfriend Gail Foster (Carol Lynley) and friend Mickey Crawford (Elisha Cook Jr), Kolchak tracks Skorzeny to his mansion lair, where the two face off like Dracula and Van Helsing of old.
After staking the vampire with the help of Jenks, Kolchak then prepares his story. Unfortunately, the authorities have backstabbed the reporter and they force him to leave town. The wraparound story has Kolchak writing a book about the events.
The Night Stalker is a unique combination of horror, humour, and action created during a time when supernatural horror still had some respectability in the United States. The cast is superb, with McGavin playing Kolchak like a 1940s' reporter who has emerged from a time capsule into the 1970s. If you thought the reporter in Hawk's The Thing From Another World was abrasive, you ain't seen nothing. Supporting McGavin is a host of character actors, all of whom take seriously their roles and thus make the film extremely effective.
Directed by Dan Curtis (Mr Dark Shadows himself), The Night Stalker was adapted from a Jeff Rice story by none other than Richard Matheson, a prolific writer whose novels include The Legend Of Hell House, I Am Legend, and most recently Stir Of Echoes (all of which were made into movies, with the second example inspiring two films, The Last Man On Earth with Vincent Price and The Omega Man with Charlton Heston). Matheson's writing is inspired: his modern take on vampirism is chilling. Skorzeny is an animal preying on humanity; he may be dapper, but when cornered, he is a beast.
What makes Kolchak so endearing as a character - and immortal given that the film is now almost 30 years old! - is his integrity for the truth. Kolchak is the everyman fighting the bureaucracy whose sole interests lie in placating the public and making sure business is not affected. At the end of the film, Kolchak has destroyed the vampire, but like so many nice guys, he finishes last.
Perhaps the most chilling thing about this film is Kolchak's stark view of reality and the place of the supernatural in that reality. One of the film's best lines sums up this philosophy: "Judge for yourself its believability, and then try to tell yourself, wherever you may be, it couldn't happen here."
The Night Strangler (1972)
Director: John Llewellyn Moxey
review by Octavio Ramos Jr
A sequel to The Night Stalker, The Night Strangler opens with the following narration: "This is the story behind the most incredible series of murders to ever occur in the city of Seattle, Washington. You never read about them in your local newspapers or heard about them on your local radio or television station. Why? Because the facts were watered down, torn apart, and reassembled - in a word, falsified."
The words belong to Carl Kolchak, who is looking for yet another job as a reporter. Fortunately, Vincenzo is now working as a newspaper editor in Seattle, and unfortunately, he overhears Kolchak in a bar. What is Vincenzo's response to Carl's voice? He asks the bartender the following question: "Take a look around that corner and see if there isn't someone that looks like he just came from a road company performance of The Front Page."
This time, Kolchak is on the trail of a serial killer who preys on young women who work at night, in particular exotic dancers. Kolchak eventually tracks the killer to an underground city beneath Seattle, where he discovers that the killer is using fluid taken from the women to create an elixir of life. Kolchak and the immortal killer face off, with Kolchak taking the upper hand. Once again, however, Kolchak is fired, along with the long-suffering Vincenzo. The coda has Kolchak, Vincenzo, and exotic dancer and medical student Louise Harper (Jo Ann Pflug, army nurse "Hot Dish" in Altman's M*A*S*H) driving down a dark highway and of course driving each other crazy.
Directed by television veteran John Llewellyn Moxey, The Night Strangler is not as strong an entry as The Night Stalker. The problem does not lie in the performances, which again are dead-on, except maybe for the villain, played by Richard Anderson. Genre buffs will also get a kick out of spotting John Carradine, Margaret Hamilton, and Al Lewis in the film.
The film's weakness is its script, once again written by Richard Matheson. Matheson explores a theme inspired by Robert Bloch, the writer behind Psycho. Bloch was very much interested in Jack the Ripper and often speculated that he was a supernatural and immortal being. For example, Bloch explored this theme in fiction (his story Yours Truly, Jack The Ripper) and even through television (Star Trek episode, Wolf In The Fold). The Night Strangler feels like homage to Bloch, homage similar to Matheson's undertaking as editor of the book Robert Bloch: Appreciations Of The Master. It is perhaps because Matheson is not in command of the subject that the film comes off as almost superficial in its execution.
The Night Strangler meanders through the plot, with too many scenes of young women being stalked and too many false scares. Then there is the low-key villain who is more like a misguided Dr Jekyll than a serial killer. There are some inspired moments, such as when the killer tells Kolchak that "he grovels nicely" (the line and its delivery are sure to send chills up the spine), but otherwise the villain is lacklustre. Despite these quibbles, The Night Strangler remains superb entertainment.
previously published online, VideoVista #30
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