“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STALKER boasts a fantastic script, and you would expect no less since it was written by Richard Matheson, based on an unpublished novel by Jeff Rice.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.”