Wednesday, October 20, 2010

31 Days of Dread!

The Night Stalker/The Night Strangler

(Part 1 of 3)

One of my favorite TV shows ever started out first as a novel by Jeff Rice. Then, during the heyday of TV movies in the early 1970's, Rice's novel was commissioned for a TV feature by ABC.

(original airdate 1/11/72) -

Kolchak's opening narration:
Chapter One. This is the story behind one of the greatest manhunts in history. Maybe you read about it, or rather what they let you read about it, probably in some minor news item buried somewhere in the back page. However, what happened in that city between May 16th and May 28th of this year was so incredible that to this day the facts have been suppressed in a massive effort to save certain political careers from disaster and law enforcement officials from embarrassment. This will be the last time I will ever discuss these events with anyone, so, when you have finished this bizarre account, judge for yourself its believability, and try to tell yourself, wherever you may be, it couldn't happen here.

    Britisher John Llewellyn Moxey directed from a teleplay by Twilight Zone veteran Richard Matheson, based on Rice's novel, and the whole shebang was produced by Dan Curtis (TV's Dark Shadows). They got the perfect star for the movie: Darren McGavin (formerly a TV Mike Hammer). The rest of the great case includes Simon Oakland (Psycho) as Kolchak's long suffering editor Tony Vincenzo; Carol Lynley (The Poseidon Adventure); Ralph Meeker (who also played Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly!); Claude Akins (Tentacles); Charles McGraw (The Narrow Margin '52); Elisha Cook, Jr. (Blacula); Larry Linville (TV's M*A*S*H*); Stanley Adams (Star Trek's Cyrano Jones himself!); and Jordan Rhodes (Mr. Majestyk).
    McGavin plays intrepid reporter Carl Kolchak, a veteran newshound in a really bad suit who doesn't have an automatic disbelief in the supernatural; more of an open mind. He needs it too, as he promptly runs afoul of vampire Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater - Battle at Bloody Beach) in Las Vegas! No one believes him for a while, until the evidence just piles up too high. Finally, the authorities, led by Sheriff Akins and police chief McGraw are forced to accept Kolchak's help in ridding Las Vegas of the vampire as the body count rises. But they're determined that ol' Carl won't have the last laugh...

Darren McGavin (l) and Barry Atwater (r) find themselves at cross purposes.
This is simply a homerun movie, slammed right out of the park, and double that because it's a TV movie! It is clever, funny, entertaining, and most of all, actually scary! It did amazingly well in the ratings too: at the time of its original airing, it was the most widely viewed TV movie ever, with a 33.2 rating and a 54 share.

Such success cannot be left to stand alone, especially in television, so ABC quickly commissioned a second TV movie, bringing back producer Dan Curtis - this time also directing - and writer Richard Matheson. They hashed around several story ideas and monsters, almost landing on a still alive-and-killing Jack the Ripper, but angling away from that idea when Matheson's friend Robert Bloch, who'd written a similar story, was less than thrilled with the idea. So they went a different route, and luring Darren McGavin and Simon Oakland back to reprise their roles, almost exactly one year later, ABC aired a sequel to The Night Stalker.

(original airdate 1/16/73) -

Kolchak's opening narration:
This is the story behind the most incredible series of murders to ever occur in the city of Seattle, Washington. You never read about them in your local newspapers or heard about them on your local radio or television station. Why? Because the facts were watered down, torn apart, and reassembled... in a word, falsified.

This time Kolchak is in Seattle Washington, and ends up pursuing a serial killer who steals spinal fluid from his victims.  Our hero's open mind comes into play when it is revealed that these current killings are the latest in a ritualized cycle of murders occurring every twenty-one years reaching back more than a century! Could the same man be responsible for all of the deaths, across more than a hundred years? Once again, the producers line up a heck of a cast to support McGavin and Oakland: JoAnn Pflug (Cyborg 2087), Scott Brady (Wicked Wicked), Wally Cox (The Boatniks), Margaret Hamilton (The Wicked Witch of the West herself!), John Carradine (House of Frankenstein '44), Al "Grampa Munster" Lewis, and Richard Anderson (Oscar Goldman himself!).

Kolchak wanders into the ultimate episode of Hoarders.

Altogether, some think this is the better of the two movies, because McGavin and Oakland get more screen time together and have established their chemistry. I find it (only slightly) the lesser of the two, because the two films are structured very (too?) similarly, and their monsters are kind of the same as well. But it's still a bang-up flick! The whole subplot about the "underground city" in Seattle is really very cool, and that alone would warrant a recommendation! Kudos to everyone involved!

The Night Strangler did very well in the ratings too, nowhere near the astronomical numbers the original movie posted, but plenty big enough to make ABC rub their hands together with glee. In late 1973 Richard Matheson and William F. Nolan were commissioned to write a third telefilm: The Night Killers. It would have been about a plot to replace VIPs with android duplicates. This would have been about the same time that the movie Westworld was released, which has androids but no plot to replace people; but two years before the release of Westworld's sequel Futureworld (1975), which did have the android replacement plot.
But I digress. In any case, before The Night Killers went into production, ABC decided it wanted a TV series of The Night Stalker instead. It took almost a year, but they got McGavin to agree to reprise the role in a TV series. This time, though, their star was also going to have a hand in the making of the show as an executive producer.


Til next time, you Can Poke Me With A Fork, Cause I Am Outta Here!


  1. As a kid, I loved this show. It was the only horror-fantasy series that caught the interest of my pop, and thus, the only one I got to watch.

    And watch it I did.

    I haven't seen this show since disco was in season, but I can still recall particular plots and scenes of certain episodes.

    Thanks for putting Kochak back on my radar.

    Now if only I could find one of those spiffy hats...

  2. I don't even have to say how much I love these movies and the subsequent tv series. These 2 tv movies are on my Halloween film festival must-see list.

  3. Again....great article. Did I ever tell you, I decided, totally at random to have a Kolchak marathon as I owned the tv series dvd. It was a Saturday morning in the middle of winter.....I went to sleep after watching a few episodes(had to work midnights that night, of course) and woke up to the news that McGavin had died that day. Even sadder, he had a website that his son was running. His son requested that you send him an email as he read all of them and that it cheered him up since he was ill.....I planned on it, but couldn't quite figure out what to say.......never got to send it. Sad.

  4. Love the info.... Great lil read. Fellow Darin McGavin/Kolchak fan here.

    1. Thank you very much. The other two parts are available with two clicks!