WEEK OF MADE FOR TV MOVIES: The Night Stalker (1972)

At one point, network TV was the only home entertainment option. And for so many genre fans, they were rewarded with some truly amazing offerings. Sure, there are plenty of fangless horror telepics, but there are also so many more incredibly frightening and well made ones, too. We say all the time — they don’t make them like this any more — well, this is one time where that’s completely and utterly true.

Originally airing on the ABC Network on January 11, 1972, The Night Stalker was based on an unpublished Jeff Rice novel, adapted by Richard Matheson (I Am LegendThe Incredible Shrinking Man, Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum, The Devil Rides Out, even Jaws 3-D) and produced by Dan Curtis (Dark ShadowsBurnt Offerings, Trilogy of Terror), The Night Stalker remained one of the highest rated TV movies for nearly a decade.

Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey (Home for the HolidaysGenesis IINo Place to Hide, The City of the Dead/Horror Hotel), this is 75 minutes of concentrated horror all with a main character that would directly connect to the fears and worries of the 70s. As part of the heroic press, a muckraker who won’t take no for an answer and who is willing to push and push and push to the point that his happiness and life are in constant danger, Carl Kolchak has been kicked out of nearly every major newspaper in every major city — more than once. He’s now a reporter in the gleaming neon world of 70s Vegas, working for  (more like driving crazy) editor Tony Vincenzo.

The film opens with Kolchak listening to his own dictation of his last major story. Seems like a vampire — or something a lot like one — has been attacking women and draining them from their blood. Thanks to Kolchak’s fact checking and nose for clues, the police, sheriff’s department and DEA land on a suspect – Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater, who also hosted the Horro-Ritual that played before Dracula A.D. 1972), who is way older than his physical appearance suggests. Murder and chaos have followed Janos around the world, which the Vegas cops get to see for themselves when he’s shot nearly thirty times at point blank range before killing four cops and putting one in the hospital. Even though he accomplishes all of that — and outruns a police motorcycle — the forces of order refute Kolchak’s claims that they’re facing a vampire (thanks to the urging of his dancer girlfriend, Gail Foster).

Finally, the police realized that they have to listen to Carl, setting up a deal: if he’s wrong, he’ll leave Vegas forever. But if he’s right, he gets to publish his story. The pursuit of the vampire ends with Carl staking the creature while an FBI agent — finally, a credible witness — watches.

The real reason why I love The Night Stalker comes after all of this action. Kolchak is overjoyed — he finally has the story that will bring back to New York City. He proposes to his girlfriend, finally gets praise for being a great reporter from his editor and goes to see the mayor, ready to tell him to eat crow. But you can see it in Darren McGavin’s nuanced performance that the moment that Vincenzo tells him that he’s a great reporter that he knows that everything is about to unravel. This is a hard man, a man who has tumbled from the heights so many times that he is used to the fall.

Turns out the powers that be don’t want the story to get out there. They publish a false story written by Karl and charge him with the murder of Skorzeny — unless he leaves town. He tries to call Gail, but she’s been forced to leave the city for “unsavory activities.” His bags are already packed. And that’s that — we return to that empty hotel room, Kolchak explains that he spent his life savings trying to find Gail again by placing personal ads all over the country. He can’t prove his story — and everyone else involved has disappeared or is dead. Even the vampire and all of his victims have been cremated.

The success of The Night Stalker led to another movie, The Night Strangler, and a series (while it only lasted a season, it still plays on ME-TV 40 years later and four of the episodes were edited into movies for the rest of the world). Plus, this show is the spiritual father to The X-Files, a fact acknowledged when McGavin played the father of the X-Files, Arthur Dales (creator Chris Carter wanted him to play Kolchak, but he refused). Well, spiritual father to the show in the way that almost every episode of The Night Stalker was referenced by Carter’s show — but we do imitation here, don’t we?

There was a great double disk of the first two Kolchak movies that’s out of print now. But it’s worth seeking out. You’ll be impressed by how much story, character and mood can be jammed into 75 minutes.

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