IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE NIGHT STALKER (1972)

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“This nut thinks he’s a vampire!”

So says reporter Carl Kolchak to his editor Tony Vincenzo, as he tries to convince him to publish his story.

THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) is not only one of the best horror movies from the 1970s, it’s also one of the best horror movies period.

Even more impressive, it was a made-for-TV movie, which isn’t surprising for the early 1970s, as that part of the decade was a great time for made-for-TV horror movies. Films like THE NORLISS TAPES (1973), GARGOYLES (1972), and TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975) were all made-for-TV shockers.

The best of the lot was THE NIGHT STALKER.

THE NIGHT STALKER starred Darren McGavin in the role that most of us consider to be his signature role, the inexorable reporter Carl Kolchak.

This movie earned such high ratings when it premiered on television on January 11, 1972 that in a largely unprecedented move, it was released theatrically after it played on TV because the film was that popular. Amazing.

And it really is a superior horror movie, which is no surprise since it was produced by Dan Curtis, the man behind the Dark Shadows phenomenon. It’s also an incredibly lean production, as it clocks in at just 74 minutes. There isn’t an ounce of fat on this baby.

THE NIGHT STALKER boasts a fantastic script, and you would expect no less since it was written by Richard Matheson, based on an unpublished novel by Jeff Rice. The legendary Matheson wrote a ton of movies and so it would be difficult to call THE NIGHT STALKER his best screenplay, but I will say that for me, it’s probably my favorite Matheson screenplay.

In 1972 Las Vegas, young women are being murdered, their bodies drained of blood. The authorities want this information kept out of the news to avoid a panic, but reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) sees this story as his ticket back to the big time, as he’s been fired from one major newspaper after another, due to his in-your-face abrasive style.

Kolchak’s efforts come much to the chagrin of his hard-nosed irritable editor, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) who has a love/hate relationship with his reporter.  Kolchak describes his boss in a voice-over, “Rumor has it that the day Anthony Albert Vincenzo was born, his father left town. The story may be apocryphal, but I believe it. The only point I wonder about is why his mother didn’t leave too.”

Vincenzo recognizes that Kolchak is a top-notch reporter but grows increasingly frustrated that he can’t control him. Their verbal exchanges are some of the liveliest parts of the movie.

The vampire, Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater) possesses superhuman strength and performs such feats as hurling doctors through windows, tossing police officers about like twigs and outrunning police cars. He’s a type of vampire seldom seen in the movies, and to 1972 audiences he made for a violent shocking killer.  He’s quite scary.

The film does a nice job building to the inevitable climax where Kolchak finally tracks down Skorzeny.

Carl Kolchak was a perfect role for Darren McGavin and it’s no surprise he’s most known for the part. What I’ve always liked about Kolchak in THE NIGHT STALKER is unlike other heroes in vampire movies, Kolchak knew absolutely nothing about vampires.  For him, it was just a story, and at first, he didn’t even think it was a real vampire until he saw with his own eyes the vampire in action. He then researches the supernatural, and before you know it, he’s the one who’s telling the police about crosses and wooden stakes through the heart.

The vampire scenes in THE NIGHT STALKER are second to none.  Barry Atwater makes for a chilling vampire, hissing and dashing in and out of the shadows a la Christopher Lee, and like Lee in some of his Dracula portrayals, Atwater has no dialogue. In fact, Atwater’s performance as Skorzeny is even more visceral and violent than Lee’s Dracula. The success of THE NIGHT STALKER also influenced Hammer Films to make their next Dracula movie, DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972) as a modern-day vampire tale set in 1970s London rather than the usual 1890s period piece. THE NIGHT STALKER is the superior film, by far.

The film enjoys a fine supporting cast, led by Carol Lynley as Kolchak’s girlfriend Gail Foster. There’s Claude Akins as the aptly named Sheriff Butcher, who also butchers the English language. During one press conference, he yells at Kolchak saying the reporter is there by the “mutual suffrage of us all,” to which Kolchak quickly corrects him, “it’s sufferance, sheriff.””

The cast also features Kent Smith as D.A. Paine, Ralph Meeker as Kolchak’s friend and FBI contact Bernie Jenks, and Elisha Cook, Jr. as another of Kolchak’s sources, Mickey Crawford.

The best supporting performance though belongs to Simon Oakland as Tony Vincenzo. Oakland would reprise the role in both the sequel THE NIGHT STRANGLER (1973) and the subsequent NIGHT STALKER TV series.

Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey, THE NIGHT STALKER is a quick efficient thriller with enough chills and thrills for a movie twice its length. The early scenes chronicling the violent attacks on women in Las Vegas are scary and unsettling, and thanks to Richard Matheson’s superior script, the story moves forward with nearly every scene as the suspense continues to grow..

Moxey worked mostly in television, and he directed other genre TV movies as well.  He also directed the little seen Christopher Lee horror movie CIRCUS OF FEAR (1966), also known as PSYCHO-CIRCUS, a West German/UK co-production, and Moxey directed the English language version.

But the biggest reason, of course, to see THE NIGHT STALKER is Darren McGavin’s performance as reporter Carl Kolchak. Kolchak is a man who isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers or get into the faces of the authorities in order to tell the truth.  That’s part of the attraction of the character.  That he’s fighting through the lies of the establishment.  As he says in another voice-over, “Sherman Duffy of the New York Herald once said, ‘A newspaperman is the loneliest guy on earth. Socially he ranks somewhere between a hooker and a bartender. Spiritually he stands with Galileo, because he knows the world is round.'”

McGavin would play Kolchak again in the sequel THE NIGHT STRANGLER and in the NIGHT STALKER TV series (1974-75), which sadly lasted only one season.

He also gets the last lines in the movie, as he speaks into his tape recorder and concludes, “So think about it and try to tell yourself wherever you may be in the quiet of your home, in the safety of your bed, try to tell yourself, it couldn’t happen here.”

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973)

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Far out, man!

The early 1970s was such a groovy time the vampires just couldn’t keep away.  Dan Curtis’ THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) unleashed a superhuman vampire onto the streets of 1972 Las Vegas, while Hammer’s DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972) and THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973) resurrected Dracula (Christopher Lee) in 1970s London.

Likewise, the black exploitation films BLACULA (1972) and its sequel, SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973), the film we’re looking at today, revived a vampire in 1970s Los Angeles.

When you hear the name Blacula, you no doubt laugh.  You shouldn’t.  The BLACULA films, in spite of their campy titles, are no laughing matter. They’re actually decent horror movies.

I’ve always enjoyed the two BLACULA movies, and like Hammer’s DRACULA A.D. 1972, they were dismissed back in the day as silly 1970s schlock, but they have aged well.  In fact, they’ve gotten better.

For me, the main reason the BLACULA movies have aged well and the number one reason to see them is the performance by William Marshall as Blacula.  Marshall was a Shakespearean trained actor and it shows.  With his deep majestic voice, he’s perfect as the noble vampire, Prince Mamuwalde.  In a way, it’s too bad these films came out in the early 1970s and Marshall had to star in a film called BLACULA because he easily could have portrayed Stoker’s Dracula, and had he done so, he’d be in the conversation as one of the screen’s better Draculas.  And that’s not to take anything away from Marshall’s Mamuwalde character, because he’s a memorable vampire in his own right.  It’s just that you don’t often hear Marshall’s name in the conversation about best movie vampires. Perhaps it’s time that changed.

SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM continues the story of  Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall), the vampire introduced in BLACULA.  In that film, Mamuwalde, an African prince, was bitten by Dracula and then locked in a coffin where he remained until he was resurrected by an antique dealer in 1972 Los Angeles.

In SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM, he’s revived yet again, this time by voodoo.  In fact, voodoo plays an integral part in this movie’s plot.  The voodoo scenes in SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM reminded me a lot of similar scenes in the first Roger Moore James Bond movie, LIVE AND LET DIE (1973) which immersed Bond in early 1970s culture.  I told you the early 70s was a happening time.  Even James Bond got in on the action.

Anyway, in SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM, cult member Willis (Richard Lawson) vows revenge against his fellow cult members because he feels slighted at not being chosen as its new leader.  He decides to use voodoo to resurrect Blacula thinking the vampire can exact revenge for him, but things don’t go as planned as Blacula has other ideas and quickly makes Willis his slave.

The young woman who does lead the voodoo cult, Lisa Fortier (Pam Grier) crosses paths with Blacula who immediately takes an interest in her.  He seeks out her help, as he wants her to use her voodoo skills to perform an exorcism to free him of his vampire curse.  But Lisa’s boyfriend Justin (Don Mitchell) and the police arrive, spoiling the moment, and Blacula vows revenge.  Now seeing Blacula as a threat to her boyfriend, Lisa changes her tune about the vampire prince and uses her voodoo powers to combat him.

As far as vampire stories go, the one that SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM  has to tell with its voodoo elements is actually pretty cool and quite different.  You don’t see that combination of vampirism and voodoo very often.  The screenplay was written by Joan Torres, Raymond Koenig, and Maurice Jules, and it tells a pretty neat tale.  The dialogue is standard for the period, with lots of early 70s groovin and hip jargon.  You expect to see Kojak or Starsky and Hutch racing to the crime scene.  In fact, Bernie Hamilton who would go on to play Captain Dobey on STARSKY AND HUTCH (1975-79) has a small role here.

Bob Kelljan directed SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM, and he’s no stranger to 1970s vampire movies, as he also directed COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970) and THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA (1971), two films that also featured a vampire in modern-day Los Angeles, Count Yorga (Robert Quarry), and these films actually pre-dated THE NIGHT STALKER, which is often credited as launching the vampire-in-modern-times craze of the early 1970s.

There’s some pretty creepy scenes in this one, as William Marshall makes for a frightening vampire, and when he gets really angry, he suddenly breaks out in wolf-like make-up. There are also some entertaining scenes featuring Blacula on the streets of L.A., and one in particular where he tangles with some street thugs.  Needless to say, things don’t turn out so well for the thugs.

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Blacula (William Marshall) getting angry in SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973).  You won’t like him when he’s angry.

Is it as frightening as THE NIGHT STALKER?  No, but Blacula’s scenes are as scary or perhaps even scarier than any of Christopher Lee’s Dracula scenes in DRACULA A.D. 1972 and THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA.

Again, William Marshall does a fine job as Blacula.  Marshall also appeared in the demonic possession film ABBY (1974) and went on to appear in many TV shows during the 1970s and 1980s. Probably the last film I saw him in was the Mel Gibson version of MAVERICK (1994) in which he had a bit part as a poker player.  Marshall passed away in 2003 from complications from Alzheimer’s disease.  He was 78.

Pam Grier is also very good as Lisa.  Grier has and still is appearing in a ton of movies.  The last film I saw her in was THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS (2012), and arguably her most famous role was in Quentin Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN (1997), an homage to her own FOXY BROWN (1974).

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Pam Grier and William Marshall in SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973).

Also in the cast is Michael Conrad as the sheriff.  Conrad would go on to fame for playing Sgt. Phil Esterhaus on the TV show HILL STREET BLUES (1981-1984).

But it’s William Marshall who gives the most biting performance in SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM.  Marshall is thoroughly enjoyable as Blacula/Prince Mamuwalde, and his work in both BLACULA films is noteworthy enough to place him among the better screen vampires.

So, don’t be fooled by the title.  SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM is more than just a silly 1970s exploitation flick.  It’s well-made, it has an engrossing story that implements voodoo into its vampire lore, and as such it’s all rather refreshing.  It’s also done quite seriously.  It’s not played for laughs, and William Marshall delivers a commanding performance that is both dignified and frightening.

If you haven’t yet seen SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM or the first BLACULA movie, you definitely want to add them to your vampire movie list.  They’re part of a special time in vampire movie history, when the undead left their period piece environment and flocked to the hippie-filled streets of the 1970s.

Get your voodoo dolls ready.  It’s vampirism vs. voodoo!  It’s SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM!

Just watch where you stick those pins.

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