One of the first TV movies that I can recall enjoying very much was a vampire thriller more than 40 years ago: “The Night Stalker” with one of my favorite actors, Darren McGavin. It has thrills, it has chills and it earned the highest-ever ratings for a TV movie to that date (I believe the mark stood for at least two years). Being a TV movie from that era, “The Night Stalker” has to rely on tension and surprise for its terror, not blindingly disgusting CGI gore. It’s a very effective combination when used correctly, as it is here. It will take a little effort, but you can find “The Night Stalker” today. Find it, if you like vampire flicks.
‘The Night Stalker’
(1972; 74 minutes; rated NR; directed by John Llewellyn Moxie and starring Darren McGavin, Carol Lynley and Simon Oakland)
‘NIGHT STALKER’ REVIVED THE VAMPIRE GENRE IN THE ’70s
(NOTE: I expanded this review with more opinion, additional trivial and the updating of links on Feb. 15, 2017.)
Scaring the audience is a staple of movies and TV from the dawn of each media. One of the most venerable genres is about vampires – you know, those nocturnal creatures with a taste for human blood. The first film titled “Dracula” was in 1931, according to IMDb.com, but today I’m taking a look 41 years later at “The Night Stalker.”
“The Night Stalker” knocked TV on its ear. Emerging from an era of variety shows and westerns, “The Night Stalker” snagged a 33.2 Nielsen rating for ABC with more than half of all televisions tuned in to it on that Jan. 11. The top rated TV show that year was the iconic “All in the Family” and it earned a top rating of 34. In comparison, the highest-scoring TV program in the 2013-14 season was Sunday Night Football at 12.8. Yikes!
“The Night Stalker” was based on the unpublished novel “The Kolchak Papers” by Jeff Rice (it would be published and would win Rice awards).
The plot of “The Night Stalker” is easy enough: a vampire has landed in Las Vegas and begun hunting for blood. A newspaper reporter who once was a big shot in New York but who has fallen on hard times begins reporting the murders. After first believing the killer to be just a run-of-the-mill psycho attacking women at night, he comes to realize that – horrors! – a vampire must be at work.
Of course the reporter has a difficult time getting anyone, especially the authorities, to believe him, but they finally do after a chase where officers shoot him dozens of time without any apparent effect. The reporter winds up tracking the vampire to his lair and pounds a stake through his heart – and thereby gives authorities the ability to cover it up with the threat of a murder charge for the reporter.
Here’s a look at some of the principal cast:
- Primetime Emmy nominee (not for this one) Darren McGavin plays “Carl Kolchak” and does the arrogant, superior and annoying reporter very well. He’s also the movie’s narrator and his rumpled suit and porkpie hat are as dated as his time in the spotlight and he’s looking to make it back to New York. McGavin breezes through this one with an ease that only comes from his deep well of talent. McGavin is probably best known as the father in “A Christmas Story” (click here for my review) and has also been in the superlative “Turk 182!” (click here for my review) as well as dozens of TV shows including “Mannix,” “Magnum P.I.” and “The Love Boat” (I especially like “The Love Boat” – click here to read my evaluation of the show). McGavin earned his nomination for “Murphy Brown.”
- Veteran character actor Simon Oakland plays “Tony Vincenzo” and is McGavin’s editor at the newspaper. He is longsuffering and caught between his insistent reporter who wants to write the truth and the authorities worried the truth will hurt Las Vegas’ commercial efforts. Oakland is solid, but doesn’t really distinguish himself here. He was also in “West Side Story,” the Steve McQueen classic “Bullitt” as well as dozens of TV shows including “The F.B.I.” and up to “Quincy M.E.” the year before his death of cancer at 68 in 1983.
- It’s obvious that two-time Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Carol Lynley is tossed in for her looks (not as spectacular as a “Bond girl” of the era, but certainly attractive) and not so much for her acting ability as “Gail Foster” — yeah, her acting’s pretty grim here. She’s a call girl and McGavin’s girlfriend. Lynley was also in “The Poseidon Adventure” as well as … you guessed it … dozens of TV roles from “Charlie’s Angels” to “Fantasy Island.” Linley’s Globe nominations came for “Best Newcomer” in 1959 and 1960. I guess you can be a “newcomer” twice!
- Claude Akins plays “Sheriff Warren A. Butcher” and does his usually good turn as a vocal and somewhat volcanic law enforcement official. However, like other supporting roles, Akins’ time on screen is limited. Akins has had quite a varied career from “The Caine Mutiny” with Humphrey Bogart (click here for my review) to “A Man Called Sledge.” He, too, is a veteran of dozens of TV shows and movies and died at 67 of cancer in 1994.
- It was a busy 1972 for Larry Linville, who you remember best as “Maj. Frank Burns” in the classic TV series “M*A*S*H.” From that hit to “The Night Stalker” to “Adam-12,” Linville notched seven TV roles that year. As “Dr. Robert Makurji,” he’s called the “boy coroner” by McGavin and knocks this brief role out with a workmanlike effort. Oddly enough, Linville, despite his years on “M*A*S*H,” was never nominated for an Emmy. He died at 60 in 2000 from complications following cancer surgery.
- As for the vampire, Barry Atwater plays “Janos Skorzeny.” Atwater, a veteran of “General Hospital,” is very deliberate in his creeping around at night; at a hospital’s blood bank; and is vigorous in his big fight with police. In the most scary moment of the film, you first see his reddened eyes in the rearview mirror of his car as he’s about to capture a woman to use as a living blood bank. Atwater was also in “I.S.T.” and he, too, was in dozens of TV roles in his career. He died at 60 after suffering a stroke in 1978.
One of the treats of “The Night Stalker” is the scenes in Las Vegas from more than 40 years ago and the way that McGavin went about his reporting duties: there are no Tweets, Facebook posts or updates to the newspaper’s website (that kind of technology resided only in science fiction of the day). In fact, McGavin’s editor actually wants CONFIRMED facts before publishing anything. What a change in just two generations!
“The Night Stalker” had a sequel called “The Night Strangler” the next year (click here for my review – it is really creative, too) and McGavin starred in a “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” TV series that lasted one season 1974-75 and another revival as simply “Night Stalker” in 2005 that lasted only 10 episodes.
The No. 1 film of the year was “The Godfather” with $133.6 million at the box office, according to Wiki. Since “The Night Stalker” is a TV flick, it wasn’t ranked. Here are other films from 1972 that I’ve reviewed:
- “The Getaway” (nearly perfect Peckinpah) – click here for my review
- “The Hot Rock” (solid Redford) – click here for my review
- “Joe Kidd” (OK Clint Eastwood) – click here for my review
- “The Mechanic” (among Bronson’s best) – click here for my review
Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):
- Legendary stunt man Buddy Joe Hooker has an uncredited appearance as “intern” in the hospital fight scene. Hooker has been one of the best and most prolific stunt men in the movie business and had an uncredited role in Burt Reynolds’ “Hooper” (click here for my review) and that film is basically an homage to Hooker (“Hooper,” get it?).
- Producer Dan Curtis was amazed at how unconcerned casino patrons were during some filming so he had Atwater wander through one casino in full makeup – and no one even blinked, according to Curtis.
- In addition to McGavin, other actors here who appeared on “The Love Boat” include Lynley, Akins and Linville. I give a hearty “thank you” to each one for doing an episode of this great series.
- McGavin’s real name was William Lyle Richardson and he died at 83 in 2006.
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “In the scene where he is exploring Skorzeny’s house, Kolchak opens up a refrigerator and finds one of the bottles of blood stolen from the hospital. The bottle is labeled, “Richards, Benjamin”. This appears to be a leftover prop from The Immortal: Pilot (1969), a TV-movie (later a series, The Immortal (1969)) about a man named Ben Richards whose blood makes him immune to aging and disease.”
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