Tuesday, July 21, 2009

John Llewellyn Moxey's The Night Stalker (1972)

Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) is both the quintessential and stereotypical investigative news reporter. Kolchak hits the streets and collects his facts, with numerous sources around town who give him hot tips, and writes his stories with the sole aim of accurately describing a series of newsworthy events to keep the public informed. Kolchak is impulsive, ambitious, and talented; however, he is also sometimes abrasive, especially to those in control, like his editor or the district attorney's office or the sheriff. For either being abrasive or abrasively inquisitive, Kolchak has been run out of all of the nation's major cities and their newspapers. Kolchak is now in Las Vegas, has a pretty girlfriend, Gail Foster (Carol Lynley), and new story: another pretty young female has been found dead with all of the blood drained from her body. Darren McGavin's Carl Kolchak is a wonderful portrait character in John Llewellyn Moxey's The Night Stalker (1972), penned for the small screen by Richard Matheson. As much as Kolchak appears stereotypical, his character is somewhat of an enigma. Over the course of his investigation of the titular night stalker, Kolchak uncovers some serious and eye-opening facts, and if those facts are proved true, then that truth would be enough to shake anyone's foundation for rationality, morality, and even reality. All appearances of this killer, who is steadily draining the Vegas strip of young female victims, point to this perpetrator having all of the characteristics of a classic vampire. However that cannot be. Las Vegas Law Enforcement will not accept that idea: it's ridiculous and will cast the officers in a poor light and put the population in an unnecessary panic. Kolchak's editor won't even hear of this vampire theory: Kolchak can produce all of the facts that he wants, but no one, absolutely no one, will weigh those facts as credible. Kolchak persists. In his investigation, he begins with the assumption, informed by his intuition, that the killer believes that he is a vampire. The coroner supports Kolchak's theory: human saliva was found on the first victim's sole wound on her neck. The police are stubbornly not adhering to that theory: the killer is regular folk, like anyone else, and increased police awareness and diligence will capture the killer. A robbery at a local hospital raises a few eyebrows but gets little notice by the press. Kolchak makes the logical link between the robbery and the murders: the thief stole blood from the hospital and Kolchak thinks it's the wannabe vampire's work, getting blood from the source to satiate his needs. After a police confrontation at another robbery at the hospital by the killer, the police and the hospital staff get tossed aside like rag dolls by the killer, and the police fire multiple bullets into the killer's body, who still manages to escape. Kolchak presses the police for answers, and the Sheriff (Claude Akins) and the District Attorney (Kent Smith) give him evasive ones. Kolchak, himself, doesn't really believe the killer is actually what he purports to be. Kolchak is after the hot story that will put him back on top, and whatever the underlying truth is, it just is. One evening, Gail puts some books on vampire lore in his lap and demands sweetly that he read them. Kolchak's ambition to uncover the truth is rivalled by his personal ambition. He wants out of Vegas and go back to New York, and the story is big enough to get him to the Big Apple. Kolchak proposes to the District Attorney and the police that each officer be given a silver cross and a mallet and wooden stake to take down the killer. The police agree with conditions: if Kolchak's theory is true, then he gets the exclusive rights to the story; but if his theory is wrong, then Kolchak has to leave town and never come back. Kolchak's ambition rings true and he accepts the deal. Made for television during an era where the audience was witnessing one of journalism's finest hours in the uncovering of truth during the Watergate scandal, Moxey's The Night Stalker is ultimately about the revelation of the truth, regardless of the consequences of its revelation. Kolchak seemingly does not care or subordinates the actual existence of vampires. If the killer is proven a vampire, the consequences will later be borne by society. Richard Matheson's teleplay of The Night Stalker is one of his finest accomplishments. Matheson, who penned one of the best horror novels of the twentieth century (about vampires), I Am Legend, informs his script with his previous treatment of vampires: non-romantic and animalistic yet keeping the classic traditional notions, such as crosses, sunlight, coffins, etc. In fact, the "vampire" character in The Night Stalker never speaks a word. Matheson's teleplay is about the uncovering of actual truth and and society's unwillingness to accept to it. In a lot of ways, The Night Stalker can be seen as a playful satire of the Watergate scandal. All my hot air and theorizing aside, Darren McGavin is absolutely fantastic as Kolchak. McGavin would later appear again as Kolchak in another made-for-television film, The Night Strangler (1973), before making twenty one-hour episodes in a short-lived Kolchak series (1975). McGavin's performance is extremely likable and endearing; however, his character has a little bit of a sharper edge than did his famous role as Ralphie's father in Bob Clark's classic, A Christmas Story (1983). Just imagine McGavin pronouncing "fragile" correctly but with the same charm in both pronunciations. Moxey is an interesting director and delivered a couple of terrific thrillers with Christopher Lee, The City of the Dead (1960) and his terrific carnival mystery, Circus of Fear (1966). Moxey would go on to have a very prolific and diverse career in television. Visually, his style is more suitable for the stage, but the narrative of The Night Stalker is handled adeptly and competently. Matheson, as noted, crafts a wonderful teleplay: a rather difficult form, where the writer has to craft his dramatic breaks around the almighty dollar...err, I mean commercials, to keep the viewer from switching the channel. Kolchak's confrontation with the killer is standout for its dark atmosphere and dread. The Night Stalker is full of mystery and intrigue, and seventy-five minutes flies by. Totally unassuming, The Night Stalker is fun from another era, equally fun today.


victory said...

The Novel, The Night Stalker was originally called the Kolchak Papers and was written by Jeff Rice.

Aaron said...

First of all thanks for covering a movie that I've actually seen. :)

Secondly, I love me some Kolchak. I remember the show fondly from my childhood and have recently re-visited both made-for-TV movies. I also bought the entire series on DVD but haven't watched it yet. I'll be sure to make room for a Kolchak marathon soon though. The Night Stalker is a solid, solid flick that was highlighted by McGavin's awesome performance.

What I love most about the Night Stalker, and even the Night Strangler for that matter, is that it's a real testament to old-school made-for-TV movies and how awesome they were. You won't see anything like this or Gargoyles or Night of the Scarecrow on TV nowadays and if you do it'll be condemned to "Sci-Fi original" land. Good stuff as always, Hans.

Hans A. said...

Thnx to both of you for reading and commenting. I sincerely appreciate it.

Aaron, yeah, old-school made-for-tv horror flicks are incredible and I've been watching a few lately, like Satan's School For Girls and The Midnight Hour. Maybe, with some time, I'll write about a few more.

Mr.LargePackage said...

Hans, you always blow a lot of hot air and theorize, but I have never minded. Fragile. It must be Italian and large and in charge.