Thursday, August 13, 2015

More 70's TV Terror - THE NIGHT STRANGLER 1973

One & Only Darren McGavin (AKA Carl Kolchak) Returns For Another Classic Small Screen Horror With a Belly Dancing Jo Ann Pflug, Mad Doctors, Alchemy AND John Carradine !


     With the mega success of 1972's THE NIGHT STRANGLER it was inevitable that ABC would follow it up with a sequel continuing the supernatural adventures of intrepid reporter Carl Kolchak as portrayed by Darren McGavin. Premiering on Jan. 19 1973, THE NIGHT STRANGLER was another major ratings success prompting the network to order up an ongoing series. Playing out almost as a remake of the first the movie THE NIGHT STRANGLER improves on some plot items carried over from STALKER while others fall a bit flat compared to the earlier outing. With the "monster" not reveled until the closing moments STRANGLER plays out more like a mystery but contains enough mention of horror elements to keep us reminded of what we tuned in for.
     After being run out of Las Vegas in the previous movie THE NIGHT STALKER, Kolchak ends up in Seattle, WA. where in a bit of happenstance he hooks up with his old publisher/nemesis Tony Vincenzo (the incomparably grouchy Simon Oakland) and is duly hired to work as a reporter. To add to the fun (and the horror cred) the newspaper publisher is played by everybodys favorite old curmudgeon John Carradine, who not surprisingly enough plays an old curmudgeon newspaper publisher (and sporting a horrible black dye hair job). This was one of six roles for ol' John in 1973 (which is nothing compared to the 11 (!) he would cash a paycheck for in 1977 !).

     Kolchak is immediately assigned to cover the murder of a belly dancer in the rough & tumble area of Seattle known as Pioneer Square and of course (also immediately) begins to come across supernatural elements related to crime. As other bodies begin to appear with their necks crushed and a small amount of blood missing (and all working at the same belly dancing establishment) they seem to tie into a string of murders that go back over 100 years with a string of 8 killings every 21 years. Along the way Kolchak butts heads with the usual bunch of incompetent and/or perpetually pissed-off authority figures. Eventually things lead to a 140 plus year old doctor who's practicing alchemy while hiding in the bowels of underground Seattle preforming experiments that require the blood of young women.

     While it can be augured that the film is basically a remake of the previous movie (the first 20 minutes after Kolchak's assignment to the initial story is almost shot for shot from STALKER) it does stand on its own as a great small screen chiller. Returning scriptwriter Richard Matheson serves up several excellent sequences including the creepy underground city and the doctor's mummified family setting around the cobweb strewn dining room. STALKER producer Dan Curtis (DARK SHADOWS) steps into the directors chair and and in some ways STRANGLER is a better movie that along with Matheson's writing it presents more fleshed out characters and keeps the mystery and "what's going on ?..." aspect of plot more interesting - although having the majority of the victims all working at the same bar is a bit of a stretch (the police don't seem to pick up on it) and was most likely done for economies sake.

     When the movie premiered it ran at usual 74 minute running time in a 90 minute slot but was expanded for European theatrical release to 91 minutes and its this longer version that appears on the MGM DVD. Although its always interesting to see a longer cut, unfortunately the extra time doesn't add anything to story as it drags out several guest star sequences that get in the way of the plot such as Al "Grampa Munster" Lewis as a wino and Margaret Hamilton (THE WIZARD OF OZ) as grouchy professor and alchemy expert.
     For Kolchak's female companion we have the wonderful and bubbly Jo Ann Pflug (who now days works as a motivational speaker) playing a part-time student (and part-time belly dancer - which is one of the STRANGLER's highlights). She's eons better then Carol Lynley's underused and limp noodle character in STALKER and I always thought it was a bit of a shame that she didn't show up in the later series, as the ending leaves open that possibility. Also on hand is Scott Brady (who takes the place of STALKER's Charles McGraw as the grouchy police captain - and also sporting a questionable black dye hair job) and best of all Wally Cox, who in one of his final roles plays a scene stealing newspaper archivist (his scene with Carradine is one of the highlights of both movies). Nina Wayne (younger sister on Carol Wayne), plays a ditsy blonde belly dancer in several alternately creepy/humorous (& 1970's unPC) sequences with her "husband" that would never pass muster today.

     Even though he has a very limited amount of screen time Richard Anderson (who was just starting THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN) is excellent in the role of the title character and his final scene still packs a bit of a jolt to this day. For all that's been said of Darren McGavin's portrayal of Carl Kolchak (and it is excellent - literally no one else can you picture in this role) its Simon Oakland as the ever suffering editor Tony Vincenzo who is the background heart & soul of these movies (along with the forthcoming series). Easy to see on just the surface as simply a loud mouthed buffon he helps ground the plots and brings a smile to your face whenever he's on screen.
    The movie has enough filmed in Seattle bits to give it a local flavor (the space needle, Jo Ann's houseboat) with the Universal back lot filling in for the remainder.  I swear after you watch enough Universal 70's television with that same street you always keep expecting to see Adam-12 come cruising by at some point. For a short time afterwards ABC toyed with the idea for a third movie with Barry Atwater returning has the (un)dead vampire Jonas Skorzeny from NIGHT STALKER to confront Kolchak in New York City or an even more bizarre plot idea concerning UFOs, nuclear power & aliens in Hawaii which was to be titled THE NIGHT KILLERS before green lighting a series.


  1. I like the movie a lot too - but the very fact that it does have those remake elements makes it the slightly lesser of the two TV movies. The series - warts and all - is one of my favorites and always will be. Excellent overview and review, buddy!

    1. Thanks Craig ! I too love the movie and the series. I think for what ever faults they may have its Darren McGavin (and Simon Oakland) who really help these rise above (especially in the cases of series) the sometimes mediocre material.

  2. I enjoy the Kolchak series quite a bit, this film included. I have the double feature DVD with both movies as well as the series boxset. McGavin really makes the series for me. He is a great example of the un-likely hero.

    1. Hi Rob,
      Thanks buddy . Your right, it's McGavin who really makes these tick - and Simon Oakland !