The ultimate conspiracy has been uncovered. The Smoking Man isn’t the father of “The X-Files” Mulder. Reporter Carl Kolchak is. . In January 1972 ABC ran a movie of the week they had mixed feelings about. The promos had received a good response and preview audiences rated it as highly as a very good theatrical film. “The Night Stalker” seemed like it was slumming since it really was a horror movie about a vampire stalking women in modern day Las Vegas. The modern day Van Helsing hunting down the vampire is a veteran, cynical reporter in a seersucker suit. Reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) has had many big stories in his day but his sensationalistic style rubs his editor Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) the wrong way. Kolchak has a habit of ticking off city officials and generally getting the paper in hot water. When Kolchak announces in his story that a modern day vampire stalks the city streets he runs into a city cover up. Kolchak becomes the only person that can stop the vampire (Barry Atwater) because no one will believe his incredible story.
“The Night Stalker” really put ABC’s “Movie of the Week” on the map. With an unheard of 54 share (meaning over half the audience in the United States were watching the program), it blew away every other TV movie including the well regarded “Brian’s Song” that came before it. Writer Richard Matheson (“The Twilight Zone”, “What Dreams May Come”), producer Dan Curtis (“Dark Shadows”) and veteran TV and movie director John L. Moxey (“Circus of Fear”) crafted an amazing TV event. When it was first shown to ecstatic preview audiences ABC vice-president Barry Diller realized that they should have turned it into a theatrical feature. McGavin’s Kolchak and the second TV film and 1974 TV series that followed became the inspiration for Chris Carter’s “The X-Files” and “Millennium”. The first TV film holds up very well thirty-three years later. Moxey’s sharp, realistic direction, Matheson’s humorous but no nonsense script and the strong performances from the cast make this that rare TV movie that has the same qualities as a dynamic theatrical movie. At 74 minutes the brief, powerful first film is the better of the two. The sequel “The Night Strangler” also set the industry abuzz with a script that took all the best elements of the first film and crafted another suspenseful story that, if slightly less effective, still managed to capture the imagination of TV audiences.
“The Night Strangler” takes place in Seattle, Washington. Kolchak was fired at the end of the first film. Vincenzo now the editor of the Seattle Daily Chronicle runs into a drunk Kolchak showing his clippings about the killer in the first film to any reporter that will sit still. Vincenzo takes pity on Kolchak and, against his better judgement, hires him again. The dead end story of the murder of an exotic dancer suddenly inflames local officals when Kolchak discovers that the same pattern of murders reoccur every 21 years. The circumstances are quite different from those of the first film. The victims all had their necks broken but with 7cc of blood and a puncture mark at the base of the skull. Kolchak’s incredible story causes Vincenzo’s ulcer to act up. Suddenly, Kolchak is hunting monsters again very much on his own.
With a strong supporting cast, witty well written script and taunt direction by Dan Curtis, “The Night Strangler” also became a huge success prompting ABC to commission yet a third script from Matheson. Instead, the network decided to develop the films into a TV series but then, strangely, dumped it in the TV graveyard on Friday night at 10 o’clock. It was summarily cancelled after only 21 episodes but the inspiration of “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” and the rest, as they say, is history.
An exceptional transfer that looks great, there’s very few analog blemishes that I can detect. The picture for both “The Night Stalker” and “The Night Strangler” occasionally appeasr a bit soft but, overall, the sharp images and vibrant color restores these TV classics to the way it should be viewed. The mono sound is faithfully reproduced.
We get two short featurette/interviews with producer/director Dan Curtis on the history and production of the film. Both include clips from the respective movies but little more. A bit more on the production and perhaps some of the publicity materials also would have been interesting to include.
This dynamic duo of classic TV movies presented on a single dual sided disc both were overdue for such treatment. The transfers here appear better than the previous Anchor Bay editions. The brief featurettes with Dan Curtis discussing the history of both movies provide a fun glimpse into the challenges of producing TV movies in the 70′s. A pity there’s no commentary track from Dan Curtis, Richard Matheson or any of the surviving cast members for either movie.
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At long last…the two chilling, thrilling, witty and expertly crafted pilot TV movies to the cult 70′s TV series “The Night Stalker” are finally available on DVD.
“The Night Stalker” pilot telemovie was based upon the short novel “The Kolchak Papers” written by ex-journalist Jeff Rice, and then adapted to the screen by well known thriller writer Richard Matheson, who has contributed some wonderful scripts to fantasy cinema including “The Incredible Shrinking Man”, “The Martian Chronicles”, and Steven Spielberg’s first hit movie, “Duel”.
Darren McGavin truly brings alive the character of the crumpled, abrasive, intrusive, but above all lovable newspaperman, Carl Kolchak in these two thrilling explorations into the undead set in modern day Las Vegas & Seattle.
“The Night Stalker” sees our courageous hero investigating a series of blood drained bodies amongst the glittering lights of Las Vegas. At first reluctant to believe that the murders could involve the supernatural, the cynical Kolchak is soon led to the conclusion that he is indeed tracking a modern day vampire. Kolchak must battle his long suffering boss, Anthony “Tony” Vincenzo (wonderfully portrayed by Simon Oakland), the local law enforcement headed by Sherriff Butcher & Chief Masterson (Claude Akins & Charles McGraw) and the manipulative district attorney to prove that an actual vampire is committing these grisly murders. Further depth is brought to the cast by zany character actor Elisha Cook Jnr as a compulsive gambler, and gorgeous Carol Lynley is the cocktail waitress romantically entwined with Kolchak. When “The Night Stalker” originally aired on January 11th, 1972 on ABC, it attracted nearly 54% of the TV audience between 8.30pm and 10pm, and for many years it held the title of the most highly rated telemovie ever aired on US TV ! Tightly scripted with horror, wit and humour…this film has not dated in over thirty years !
With the first outing being such a runaway success, another script was written pitching Carl Kolchak against the forces of evil. “The Night Strangler” sees our unfortunate Carl, after having been run out of Las Vegas, now calling Seattle home and landing another reporters role with his old boss, Tony Vincenzo. Before long, there is another series of brutal murders and Kolchak is on the trail of a mysterious Civil War surgeon with an elixir to cheat death ! Suave Richard Anderson ( best known as Oscar Goldman from “The Six Million Dollar Man” ) portrays the malevolent serial killer, Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz) has a delightful cameo as an intimidating professor of the occult, ex-screen vampire John Carradine (House Of Dracula, House of Frankenstein) is Kolchak’s new boss, the tyrannical newspaper owner Llewellyn Crossbinder, sexy Jo Ann Pflug catches Kolchak’s roving eye as belly dancer Louise Harper, and ex “Munster” Al Lewis nearly steals the show as a boozy tramp…plus Wally Cox portrays the resourceful newspaper archive clerk Titus Berry, assisting Kolchak with his gruesome investigations into Seattle’s past !
PlUS, If you are a keen Kolchak fan…then grab the highly entertaining book “Night Stalking : A 20th Anniversary Kolckak Companion by Mark Dawidziak. It’s everything you ever wanted to know about the series, but were afraid to ask ! Additionally, keep your eye open for the chilling 1973 telemovie “The Norliss Tapes”, another Dan Curtis directed pilot for a supernatural TV series, that unfortunately never took off. Roy Thinnes from “The Invaders” plays a writer investigating fake psychics, shonky fortune tellers etc. who comes across an artist who has returned from the dead with a thirst for human blood. It stars Roy Thinnes, Claude Akins, Angie Dickinson & Nick Dimitri.
After the two successful telemovies, Kolchak became a TV series (total of 20 episodes) featuring an interesting line up of guest stars including Jim Backus, Richard Keil, Tom Skerritt, Phil Silvers, Cathy Lee Crosby, Tom Bosley, Carolyn Jones & Keenan Wynn to name but a few !!
There is a real chemistry in both the Night Stalker / Night Strangler productions that is intelligent, witty and exhilarating entertainment…if you’ve never seen what inspired Chris Carter to create “The X-Files”…now’s your opportunity to see Carl Kolchak on his two best cases !!
I can’t praise these two movies enough. Kolchak is a reporter, a shamus, and a general pain in the you know what all wrapped into one. The movies represent, in my amateur opinion, some of the finest work ever produced by Dan Curtis and Richard Matheson.
I own both the Anchor Bay version–which is out of print–and the new MGM version. I haven’t done a proper comparison of the two but based on memory, I think the blues really stand out more in the Anchor Bay edition. However, the MGM seems to me a fine transfer with no noticeable digital flaws of any kind. Now, if only someone would give the go ahead to release the TV series on DVD. Wouldn’t that be something to write home about!