Thursday, February 20, 2014

70's T.V. Terror - THE NIGHT STALKER 1972

    On Tuesday night Jan. 11 1972 at 8:30 PM over half the T.V. viewers in the United States tuned into watch the ABC Movie of the Week, concerning a vampire stalking thru contemporary Las Vegas (which when you think about it is the perfect place to be a vampire). Scoring a 33.2 rating and a 54 share (which in TV talk is off the charts), it blew away the previous record holder BRIAN'S SONG and became the highest rated TV movie up till that time and still ranks among the top. A once in a lifetime confluence of "right time at the right place" talent including a literate script by Richard Matheson, production by Dan Curtis (TRIOLGY OF TERROR & DARK SHADOWS),direction by John Llewellyn Moxey (HORROR HOTEL) and of course a career defining performance by Darren McGavin as pain in the ass reporter Carl Kolchak . It became THE TV horror movie event of the decade and there is even an argument to make of it being the finest horror movie of the 70's including theatrical releases.

    Although the vampire & horror elements all presented with grim seriousness, the movie has just a light touch of humor thanks to the wonderful performance by Darren McGavin (can you picture ANYONE else in this role ?) and his interaction with a whole gang of familiar faces. One of the cool things about 70's TV movies is that they gave work to hosts of character actors, as by now with the decline of westerns & low budget gritty crime films work for those "faces" became network television. Oakland as Kolchak's long suffering editor is basically written as a one note character ("stand behind desk & yell"), but Oakland somehow rises above this and gives Tony Vincenzo depth and humor (plus you just know he secretly has a begrudging respect for Kolchak).

    It’s their fireworks together that gave the movie (and its subsequent sequel and later TV series) some of its best remembered scenes – excluding the monsters. Also in the cast are Charles McGraw, Claude Akins, Ralph Meeker, plus Carol Lynley, Larry Linville (M.A.S.H) and a cameo by Elisha Cook Jr. Watching it today it’s pretty amazing to see what a nail biting experience it still is and how truly creepy the film is as it ratchets up a considerable amount of tension with the horror elements pushed to the forefront as much as possible, including close-ups of bloody necks and a women kept tied to a bed and used as an ongoing source of nourishment. Plus some other elements that are broadly hinted at - such as what Carol Lynley, who as Kolchak's girlfriend, actually does for a living.

   Narrated by McGavin’s charctor the plot kicks in immediately with the first murder and proceeds thru to the conclusion at rapid fire pace with Kolchak butting heads with unbelieving officials along the way. The vampire killings are shown by both the actual attacks alternating with the aftermath of others and along the way we get a couple of pretty nifty brawls including an attempted blood theft at a hospital and later the police attempting to subdue the vampire in a residential pool.

    The movie does show its TV lineage at certain points including an obvious stunt double for Atwater in some of the fight scenes and depending on your TV screen you might catch a glimpse of the stuntman’s fall mattress during the hospital brawl. Although there is some establishing exterior shots in Las Vegas (along with some casino interior stuff) , the rest of the movie is rather set bound with those familiar Universal back lot streets filling in for residential Vegas (you keeping expecting to see ADAM-12 come cruising by). McGavin and Oakland would relocate to Seattle for 1973’s very worthwhile alchemy based sequel THE NIGHT STRANGLER (which substituted John Carradine for Elisha Cook as far as your horror cred cameo) and later both would appear in THE NIGHT STALKER TV series. With his seersucker suit, porkpie hat and tennis shoes McGavin’s presence makes all these worthwhile with the zombie episode from the TV series being a true standout.

Here's the Pussycat Go Go Bar where Raquel Welch was tearin' it up in 1969's FLAREUP


  1. Great TV movie. Oddly, I saw the series before I saw the movies. And I thought for sure they were getting at that Kolchak was gay. But then I saw the movies and saw that he wasn't. I guess that would have been too shocking for 70s TV.

  2. LOVE these movies - LOVE the series. This is an excellent overview of the two TV movies. I did a three parter on the whole shmear a while back - if I'm not stepping on toes I'll link in here with the three parts. (If you came over there and commented a link back to this post we could have a never ending feedback loop of Kolchak going on forever!)