Movie review: ‘The Night Strangler’

After seeing “The Night Stalker” (click here for my review) in 1972, I was overjoyed to hear that a sequel called “The Night Strangler” was coming out the next year. “The Night Stalker” took TV by storm and racked up the biggest ever TV movie ratings and while “The Night Strangler” didn’t quite match those ratings, it was a winner both with numbers and with horror fans. It’s not as good as “The Night Stalker,” but “The Night Strangler” isn’t shabby (well, maybe in its cinematography).

‘The Night Strangler’
(1973; 74 minutes; rated NR; directed by Dan Curtis and starring Darren McGavin, Simon Oakland and Jo Ann Pflug)

A VERY CREATIVE VILLAIN IN THS SEQUEL

A really creative plot isn’t always the norm in Hollywood and in horror movies it can be the first sacrifice to quality. No so with the 1973 TV movie “The Night Strangler,” which is the sequel to “The Night Stalker” from the year before. “The Night Strangler” has its killer for sure, but his motive and work is very creative and helps overcome the film’s several severe deficiencies.

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The Night Strangler” has a good but not spectacular cast and has a nice supporting turn from Margaret Hamilton, who was that wicked witch from “The Wizard of Oz.” The movie’s biggest deficiency is its cinematography and it looks like a 1970s made-for-TV flick, but don’t let that put you off if you have a chance to see it.

From the beginning “The Night Strangler” looks and feels like the clone it is of “The Night Stalker.” Only the plot and supporting actors change here: a serial killer who strikes every 30 years is killing again in Seattle and Darren McGavin as blustering, annoying reporter “Carl Kolchak” is soon covering the story. He’s been hired by his former boss from “The Night Stalker” days and soon comes up with an interesting set of murders. The killer is stalking exotic dancers (of course, since that is a euphemism for “stripper”).

With the help of the newspaper’s librarian (an anachronism in today’s Google-search world and cheap news organizations who couldn’t wait to automate and ditch their human librarians), McGavin finds out that the killer has been skulking through Seattle for decades. He ultimately, with information provided by Hamilton, comes to realize that the killer is taking a small amount of blood from each victim to help him create an “elixir of life” that allows him physical immortality. Since the elixir is taken over a period of time, the killer’s appearance changes from one of corpse-like to finally a vital man (the changing appearance is one way the police initially discount McGavin’s theories).

On the topic of technology, McGavin’s character didn’t have to Tweet or use Facebook or update his organization’s website with fresh reports every few minutes, but he was a new-wave journalist in his day as he always carried a tape recorder and a camera and it wasn’t uncommon for many newspaper reporters to use such tools back in the day as pioneers to today’s multi-tasking journalists.

McGavin does his usual breezy, off-hand effort here and is a pleasure to watch as he puts his best used-car salesman pitch to get interviews and information. The versatile actor, who was in dozens of TV roles throughout his career, can knock this one off with ease and did so. McGavin was also the father in “A Christmas Story” as well as a little-remembered TV movie “The Challenge” and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for a guest shot on TV’s “Murphy Brown.”

Veteran TV actor Jo Ann Pflug plays “Louise Harper,” who looks like she’s on the killer’s to-do list and becomes McGavin’s love interest here. Pflug is bright, fun and gets caught up in McGavin’s quest since her friends are the victims. She does an OK job here (no complaints) but nothing outstanding. Pflug has been a nurse in the “MASH” film (yes, no asterisks in the official title – watch the credits) as well as her final role in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and has since been a motivational speaker.

Simon Oakland reprises his role as city editor “Tony Vincenzo” and his longsuffering status dealing with reporters is shown early in the film as he has milk as his “usual” at a bar. Oakland does a solid turn here and has also been in “The Sand Pebbles” as well as dozens of TV shows including “Mission: Impossible,” “Combat!” and “Hawaii Five-O.”

The best supporting job is by another TV veteran, the mild, meek and retiring Wally Cox. He plays newspaper librarian “Titus Berry” and comes up with the link to previous series of murders. Cox does meek so well that his work here is as good as any TV role (and he had dozens) but not as excellent as the sonar operator he plays in “The Bedford Incident” (click here for my review).

Most interesting here is the brief work of Hamilton, who was the iconic “Wicked Witch of the West”/”Miss Gulch” in the classic “The Wizard of Oz.” Hamilton plays “Professor Crabwell,” who is an expert on the occult and alchemy, and has one great scene with McGavin. In a career spanning six decades until her death in 1985 at the age of 82 of a heart attack, Hamilton did everything from TV (“The Addams Family”) to films (“The Invisible Woman”) to variety. Her last role was on TV’s “Lou Grant.”

The killer, “Dr. Richard Malcolm,” is played by Richard Anderson, who is probably best remembered as the boss of TV’s “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “The Bionic Woman.” Anderson does a good job in his bit as a stoic, superior person who looks upon his murders as necessary. Good, but nothing special here by Anderson.

Of course in the end McGavin solves the case (like in “The Night Stalker”), confronts and bests the bad guy (ditto) and is forced to leave town by his own newspaper and the authorities (ditto, but this time with friends including Oakland and not alone).

Since it was released on TV, “The Night Strangler” doesn’t figure in 1973’s list of top films at the U.S. box office. However, theater audiences that year made “The Sting” the No. 1 hit with $156 million in ticket sales while other top films included “The Exorcist” at No. 2 with $128 million and Clint Eastwood’s “Magnum Force” (click here for my review), which is the sequel to “Dirty Harry” (click here for my review) and brought in $39.7 million for sixth place.

Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):

  • One special bit part is the “tramp” played by Al Lewis, who appears to make a vampire-like attack but isn’t the killer. Lewis is most famous for playing a vampire as “Grandpa Munster” on TV’s “The Munsters.”
  • John Carradine plays newspaper publisher “Llewellyn Crossbinder” and is caustic and sharp in his small part (he also has a wickedly bad dye job). He the father of the acting Carradine brothers (David, Keith and Robert) but had 138 roles from 1930 to 1990 (he died in 1988) and was in “The Grapes of Wrath” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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