The Night Stalker
Today the teenagers watch Breaking Bad and The Sopranos. Sophisticated but innocent young people have no idea how awful American TV used to be. It might help them to imagine a Saturday night, late February in 1982 in Atlanta, Georgia. I was ready to leave a motel, go downtown and watch a soul band on Peachtree. Before picking up the car keys I flicked around the TV channels. The main Atlanta channel had three programmes to fill Saturday night. In Atlanta on a Saturday adults unable to find child minders and trapped in their homes would watch Fantasy Island, Charlie Angels and Love Boat. The dreams of the children made more sense than the TV watched by the adults.
The Night Stalker appeared on television in 1972. It is a mystery how it was approved by the producers and sponsors that then controlled American TV. American TV movies had constant sunshine and cardboard sets, all recorded on overexposed colour film for the sake of badly tuned televisions. TV movies were made in a week and filmed either in the studio or sanitised LA streets near the film studio.
The investigative reporter Kolchak spends a lot of his time either peering inside dark houses or driving around a Las Vegas that is overcast in the daytime and filled with black sky at night. Watch Kolchak and it is difficult to believe that he is passing the same bright lights that sparkled in the Elvis Presley musical Viva Las Vegas. The Night Stalker does not have great dark noir photography but it does have locations and real Americans, often poorly dressed overweight tourists wandering around the big Las Vegas hotel foyers. Just as important, someone had the nerve to turn down the setting of the exposure wheel on the camera. The Night Stalker is best watched in an unlit living room. Otherwise the detail in the dark images is missed.
There have been promises that The Night Stalker will be remade as a cinema movie and Johnny Depp will star. More sensible and not as expensive would be a decent restored version of the original movie for DVD. The Johnny Depp rumour has faded. Some gossip, though, prevails. The Night Stalker inspired Chris Carter to create The X Files. That TV series may have awful dialogue and a political sub-text that is best ignored but its makers did insist that TV movies could have dark lighting. After the tans and blue skies of Fantasy Island and the rest, The X Files felt like cultural freedom.
When The Night Stalker appeared in 1972 it became the most popular TV movie that year. Sequels were inevitable. Kolchak – The Night Strangler appeared in 1973. This was followed by a series of 20 episodes. After that Darren McGavin, who played Kolchak, became bored. The scriptwriters had exhausted not just the actor but also the various horror genres. Even in the United States there are only so many supernatural monsters that an intrepid hero can fight. The Night Walker returned as a TV series in 2005 but this time it was an X Files lookalike. The hero had been traumatised and he had a cynical female partner. The series was not popular but the symmetry between the recreation of the original and the tribute to what the original inspired is neat.
The original Night Walker TV movie had a script by the great Richard Matheson, a key contributor to The Twilight Zone. His novel I Am Legend is not only a pulp masterpiece it has the bonus of being free of smug Wilf Smith. Neither is the bogus religiosity of the movie adaptation in the novel. In I Am Legend the vampires form the post-apocalyptic community. The human is the monster that haunts them. I Am Legend borrows from Robinson Crusoe. Taking his empirical cue from Daniel Defoe, an 18th Century Englishman, Matheson creates a modern 20th Century suburban American who, when not assassinating vampires, dissects the vampire myth and provides scientific explanation. Matheson avoids the science in The Night Stalker but, as in I Am Legend, he is adept at updating the bloodsucker. In The Night Stalker the vampire is a lone assassin and kills his victims. In this guise he is believable as a 20th Century villain. The idea is compromised by a line of dialogue near the end of the movie but it can be ignored as a slight flaw. Since The Night Stalker other filmmakers have created contemporary vampires in the modern world and delivered fine movies. The Lost Boys is an obvious example. But back in 1972 Matheson was the exceptional success. Hammer Films made miserable attempts to bring vampires into the modern world.
In The Night Stalker a lone reporter suspects that the latest assassin in Las Vegas is a vampire. Darren McGavin is a likeable actor and believable as Kolchak. He has a raspy voice that is similar to that used by the great Joseph Cotton. The best moments of Cotton were when he was being betrayed by Orson Welles. Both Cotton and McGavin suggest weariness, not weak men but characters bruised by the compromises of others. Cotton and McGavin act as if the modern world is both a surprise and a disappointment. They may be unreachable but they are not self-sufficient. Unimpressed by progress their appetites are jaded and their consciences frayed. Kolchak is dishevelled inside and out. He clings to his old pork pie hat like some men do their shabby armchairs. But it is not all gloomy for Kolchak. Carol Lynley is his girlfriend. Most who watch the film will expect a final scene where Kolchak has to save his girlfriend from the omnipotent vampire. Matheson, though, is better than that. Lynley is important to the plot and denouement but she does not feature in the confrontation with the vampire. It makes sense. No vampire would be tempted by the attractive but anaemic looking Lynley.
The Night Stalker has a good cast. The rows between Kolchak and his editor have been heard before but McGavin and Simon Oakland have so much fun hurling insults and losing their tempers they are easily indulged. The two men need each other. Ralph Meeker, Claude Akins, Charles McGraw and Elisha Cook Jr. are a blessing in any film. All possess blunt coarse decency and all are capable of persuading us that they know tough American streets. If certain scenes depend on familiar confrontations between the lone reporter and authority, the dialogue has interesting detail that maintains interest. Characters sometimes make irrelevant remarks. Misunderstandings and baseless protests add authenticity but it is also a pleasure to see the reaction of McGavin to conversations that slide out of control.
Barry Atwater was the son of a famous landscape painter. His acting career was varied and busy but, as the vampire, he has no dialogue. Apart from what he does with his teeth to necks, Atwater is tight lipped. Atwater also played a Vulcan in an episode of Star Trek. In The Night Stalker he looks like Dracula might have if he had discovered a modern gymnasium. This is okay. The action scenes require a bloke with bulk because the vampire causes havoc. Atwater or his stunt man has a neat way of throwing people through windows and across swimming pools. All this happens at night. Despite the darkness Kolchak is not deterred. The final encounter with the vampire in his home, which is just as gloomy as the empty swimming pool at night, is an excellent scene and contains both suspense and tension. The scene is not short, and after that there is a lengthy and complicated denouement that has implications for almost everyone but especially Kolchak and his girlfriend. The Night Stalker avoids the pitfall of most ambitious thrillers. Complex development is not undermined by subsequent glib exposition and empty grins.
Matheson is nothing if not conceptual but in this instance he adapted an unpublished novel by Jeff Rice. Not much happened to Rice after The Night Stalker. God, it is tough out there. There is not a complex sub-text to the movie or if there is it is beyond me. The Night Stalker is accomplished entertainment that should be accepted on those terms. It cannot be a coincidence, though, that the movie was set in Las Vegas. The vampire myth includes important elements such as the powerful parasite, the need to gamble on infinity and what is the price worth paying for immortality. Despite the sleek glamour and energy of Elvis and Ann Margret, Las Vegas is not a place where dreams come true. Most visitors no longer believe that contrived odds and stakes can challenge fate. Instead Las Vegas offers inconsequential relief for people already doomed. These lost souls are ignored by Kolchak as he searches for the vampire. They can be seen, though, wandering without purpose and waiting to spend their money. They hope to feed themselves with the gold of others. Like the vampire, those who have the gold have other plans. These plans have existed for some time.
Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.