Now that I’m finished with Dark Shadows, I’ve decided to go on to another short-lived but influential series that began life as a Dan Curtis production and the movie that started it off.
The Night Stalker, screenplay by Richard Matheson, aired on ABC in 1972. According to the interview with Dan Curtis on this DVD, it was a huge success, hitting the highest ratings for any made-for-TV movie up that point. Different from Curtis’s previous work with its gothic settings and trappings, this was a thoroughly modern and cynical horror movie that let a vampire loose to hunt in a big and brash city, and introduced a vampire hunter who was nothing like Van Helsing.
We first see Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin), not in what would become his trademark seersucker suit and battered straw hat, but as a guy in a T-shirt in a small and shabby apartment. He pushes the Play button on his pocket tape-recorder, then gets a beer from a tiny fridge, and wanders around in the background before settling down on the bed to listen to his own recorded voice saying:
“This is the story behind one of the greatest manhunts in history. Maybe you read about it–what they let you read about it, probably some item on a back page. However, what happened in that city between May 16 and May 28 of this year was so incredible that to this day the facts have been suppressed to save certain political careers from disaster and law enforcement officials from embarrassment.
This will be the last time I will ever discuss these events with anyone. So when you’ve finished this bizarre account, judge for yourself its believability and then try to tell yourself, wherever you may be, it couldn’t happen here…”
We have it right up front before situation or characters have been established: Something strange and remarkable has happened to this ordinary guy, and there’s been a cover-up to prevent the truth of the matter from getting out to the public. This would be commonplace on The X-Files, but around the time of Watergate in the early 1970s, it would’ve resonated strongly with viewers. This man, whose name we haven’t learned yet, is going to tell us what really happened.
“That city” mentioned in the taped introduction turns out to be Las Vegas. The pithy narration continues as the story unfolds.
On May 16 at approximately 2:30 a.m., a woman wanders off the main streets, which are still brightly lit and crowded at that hour, into an alleyway, where she is murdered by an assailant we don’t get a good look at. But he appears to be pale and kind of creepy.
Carl Kolchak hasn’t appeared in his own story yet–he’ll be called back from a vacation to his job as a newspaper reporter to cover this murder. It’s the city coroner (Larry Linville), who first observes during the opening credits that the victim was drained of blood.
The second murder, which Carl is there to view with the police, is even stranger. Another woman is found lying dead in the middle of an area of sand on a construction site, and there are no footprints anywhere near the body. It looks as if she were killed on a spot at least 40 yards away, and the killer threw her that far. Again, the victim is drained of blood.
The city officials realize that they’re faced with an unusual type of serial killer. When they hold a press conference, the coroner speaks with tight-lipped reluctance about rapid and total blood loss, tooth marks on the victims’ throats, and traces of human saliva; he won’t go so far as to say that the killer thinks he’s a vampire, but Carl is quick to jump on that idea. He’s only kept from publishing the facts by his editor, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland).
Between the third and fourth murders, plus the theft of blood supplies from a hospital and a police-chase ending up with an ineffective fight around a swimming pool, much of this movie involves Las Vegas’s police department, district attorney, and higher-ups in the city government trying to deal with the problem of a vampiric killer on the loose. They have to think of the tourists, and they don’t want to panic the people in their city with alarming stories about vampires. They certainly don’t want any newspaper articles like the kind Carl is eager to print.
Carl’s friend in the FBI produces a suspect named Janos Skorzeny, who is already wanted in the UK for another series of murders. Skorzeny’s criminal history around Europe goes back to before World War I, and Carl finds it hard to believe the man he saw throwing cops and hospital orderlies around can be over 70.
I grew up with The Night Stalker series as part of my 1970s childhood viewing, and didn’t get to see this TV movie until much later on. Carl Kolchak as he first appears is a little bit different from the character as he later develops. This is, after all, the hard-bitten, old-style news reporter’s first encounter with a supernatural monster, and his outlook on these matters will change over time. More than that, in spite of the emphasis on the story’s cynicism, this Carl Kolchak is a more idealistic and optimistic man.
It’s like watching the original pilot movie for Columbo and being surprised to see that Peter Falk’s hair is combed and he’s wearing a nicely pressed suit and a trenchcoat that doesn’t look like he’s been sleeping in it.
Not that Kolchak’s grooming is much better here than it will be when he has his own series, but he does have a girlfriend Gail (Carol Lynley) who irons his shirts for him. He even speaks of marrying her once his big story comes in and he has the money to support a wife. He hopes that this vampire story will lead to a job offer from a more prestigious paper in a bigger city; New York is his dream.
It’s Gail who first suggests the idea that the police aren’t simply dealing with a kook who thinks he’s a vampire, but with an actual vampire. She has some books she wants Carl to read (Everything You Wanted To Know About Vampires, But Were Afraid To Ask), which cover the basic lore that everyone who’s ever seen a Dracula movie is already familiar with: vampires can’t go out in the sunlight; they don’t like crucifixes; they can be killed by a wooden stake through the heart. Carl rolls his eyes, but at Gail’s insistence, he reads.
Fifth victim. When a threatening man comes at her in a parking lot, she demonstrates that she’s prepared for just such a situation and releases the Doberman she keeps in her car. I’m horrified at the idea of that poor dog being shut up in a car for who-knows how long, but poor doggie doesn’t have very long to live anyway. The vampire throttles the dog, off-camera, and the woman’s eyes widen in terror as he comes for her next. The dead dog and open car are found the next morning, but the woman is missing.
As Carl comes around to the idea of a real live undead vampire, so the city’s officials are likewise forced to recognize that they have a killer they can’t deal with by conventional methods. When, after another press meeting, Carl suggests that all police officers be issued a large crucifix, a wooden stake, and a mallet, they don’t kick him out as crazy. They even agree to give him exclusive rights on that big story he hopes to publish.
Using his informants around town, Carl finally locates the house Skorzeny has rented–and we head away from the bright lights of the city and back into the gothic trappings of classic vampire movies. The old house on the outskirts of town resembles the one Norman Bates used to live in, but with some nice Victorian stained glass on the tall windows in the stairwell. It’s not lived in, but it stores everything Skorzeny needs. A steamer trunk containing clothes and a theatrical make-up case with false mustaches and other disguises sits in the living room. There’s a fridge containing big bottles of blood stolen from the hospital. And upstairs is the missing fifth victim, still alive and tied down on a bed so the vampire can take a bite whenever he feels like it.
He defeats the vampire using the traditional lore he’s hastily acquired from his book-reading, and drives the stake in just as the police and his FBI friend show up. But he doesn’t win out in the end.
The conclusion of the movie is the most cynical and depressing part of it. Now that the vampire has been dispatched, the city officials of Las Vegas have no intention of keeping their word. Carl Kolchak’s big news story will not be published. He’s out of a job and has a very limited period of time to get out of town; they tell him he’s lucky he’s not being arrested for murder. Gail has already been given the same ultimatum to leave town. After months of searching, Carl has since given up on finding her, but he still has hope of seeing the truth about Janos Skorzeny and the murders in Las Vegas coming out. Hence the tape-recorded narrative playing out in his shabby room somewhere.
Little does he know that this kind of thing will soon become routine for him.