How to describe what The Night Stalker (1972) meant to us in the 1970s? By us, I mean scrappy little kids who couldn't believe a vampire had made it onto prime time television. We went to school the next day after it had aired - and it seemed to play throughout the decade - as giddy as kids of today would after a Marvel comics movie. More so, perhaps, because we hadn't been saturated and weren't jaded about monsters and such. I remember reading a quote from Barry Atwater, the actor who played the fiendish Janos Scorzeny, and how it made the movie seem so adult. He said, "I played the vampire as if he were a drug addict, and wouldn't let anything stand between him and a fix."
Now The Night Stalker is seen as a cheesy old thing. Made-for-TV films of the '70s are an unappreciated genre. Only true TV buffs react to the name of producer Dan Curtis, for his projects had none of the '70s camp or funky soundtracks that keep other movies of the period in a kind of nostalgic memory cloud. Yet, the news that Kino Lorber will be releasing a newly remastered Blu-ray edition later this year has fired me up.
Actually, even a shitty old VHS tape of The Night Stalker can do it for me, or the regular DVD that came out years ago, or even a poorly transferred post on YouTube. Starting with Darren McGavin's opening narrative, explaining that he's about to tell a story that we won't believe, to the first shot of the dark Las Vegas streets, to that first scene of a woman in a short skirt being grabbed in an alley, and I'm a kid again. I remain a kid until it's over. I'm not surprised that it received a 33.2 rating and a 54 share of viewers when it originally aired on ABC. It was one of those nights where people called their friends and told them something unique was on the idiot box - a vampire was eating hookers in Las Vegas.
The plot is deceptively, beautifully simple. Women are being killed in Las Vegas, the bodies found with bite marks on their necks. Carl Kolchak (McGavin), a rumpled reporter, is sent to cover the story. He's reluctant at first, until he begins to suspect there may be a vampire, or someone acting like one, on the loose. After the usual exchanges of "Surely, you don't expect me to believe in vampires," Kolchack takes it upon himself to find the devil. What does he have to lose? He's been fired from various jobs, and his editor (Simon Oakland) hates him. He has a girlfriend who works as a call-girl (Carol Lynley), and his only dream is to get out of Las Vegas and return to New York where he once worked. The vampire murders might be the big story that gets him out of his rut.
Director John Llewellyn Moxey got his start in British television before landing in America to direct shows like The Mod Squad and Mission Impossible. In that mood, he takes this vampire story and makes it feel like a cop drama. This, perhaps more than anything else, is what gives The Night Stalker its unique feel. It's not cobwebs and organ music we're getting, it's squad cars and fist fights. There's a Gothic menace, sure, but in the land of Starsky and Hutch.
The scene that bagged us all was when Scorzeny simply strolls into a hospital to raid a blood bank. Granted, a vampire in a blood bank sounds like a joke from MAD magazine, but what else should a vampire do? Tall, pale, with what looks like a cheap toupee on his head, the vampire looks right, his eyes glowing like Christopher Lee's in an old Hammer horror. The difference is in the way he handles himself. When hospital orderlies try to prevent him from stealing bottles of blood, he starts throwing these guys around, bashing them against walls. The vampires I'd seen in other movies were stately, hypnotic. This one was a flat-out brawler.
Kolchack, though, is a formidable foe. The TV series that this movie would spawn gave us a Kolchack who was constantly running in fear from various creatures, his arms overloaded with tape recorders and cameras. But the Kolchack of the movie was a tough bastard. McGavin was already 50, but he was an athletic, broad shouldered man. We believe that he could slam a wooden stake into the heart of a vampire. He also delivers the dialogue by screenwriter Richard Matheson with a kind of weary sarcasm, like he's channeling William Holden in Sunset Boulevard. "A newspaperman is the loneliest guy on earth," Kolchack says early on. "Socially he ranks somewhere between a hooker and a bartender. Spiritually he stands with Galileo, because he knows the world is round. Not that it matters much, when his editor knows its flat."
The movie gradually eases into a traditional horror format, with Kolchack tracing the monster to his lair. He finds a woman chained to a bed, still alive but being used by the vampire as a kind of long lasting treat. (The image of a chained woman, incidentally, seemed quite seedy to those of us brought up on Happy Days and The Waltons). There's a showdown of sorts, and so different was Scorzeny from other vampires that he actually held Kolchack down as if to bite him. That went against the legends, too. Bela Lugosi only bit young women. Scorzeny didn't care. Get in his way, you became his lunch. Kolchack manages to wriggle free and kill the vampire, but the story has a downbeat, almost noirish ending. The press, the cops, just about everyone in Las Vegas, had been against Kolchack from the start.
The movie owes a lot to McGavin's performance. A veteran of TV and films - he began his career as an extra in A Song to Remember (1945) - he'd already played a variety of soldiers, cops, and detectives. He even played Mickey Spillane's hardboiled hero, Mike Hammer, for 79 episodes in 1958-59. Some of Kolchak's weariness may have been McGavin's.
Even Kolchack's suit, as definitive as Columbo's raincoat or Archie Bunker's chair, was McGavin's idea. Matheson's script, based on a novel by Jeffrey Rice, had described Kolchack as a kind of beach bum, wearing a Hawaiian shirt. McGavin figured Kolchack had been hired as a reporter back in the 1950s, so he'd probably still be wearing the suit he first bought for the job. Hence, Kolchack's look was born.
The movie is lean, having been shot in only 12 days. There's no fluff in it. The supporting cast includes some great character types from the past - Ralph Meeker and Elisha Cook Jr. - plus Claude Akins, whose career went back nearly as far as McGavin's. Unfortunately, the filmed spawned a dull sequel, The Night Strangler, and a weekly series that lasted one season. The formula could be stretched only so far. McGavin, unhappy with the program, bowed out after a mere 20 episodes. That's just as well. The show had grown increasingly cheap and shrill. Had it gone on much longer, we might have seen Kolchack wrestling a giant squid.
What made the original movie work so well was the idea that a vampire could lurk around Las Vegas. Not Transylvania, not London, but Las Vegas. Dan Curtis once said that no one on location took a second glance at Atwater when he was in vampire garb. For a laugh, Curtis sent the fully made up Atwater into the Sahara casino to see if he'd create a stir. For 40 minutes a pale, red-eyed vampire strolled among the gamblers and tourists. No one noticed. There may be no such thing as vampires, but one could certainly slip around Las Vegas, claim a victim, and stalk the night.