Thursday, December 24, 2009

Carl Kolchak and things that stalk the night

Here are two fine made-for-TV-movies that are nearly 40 years old and still scarier than many big-screen horror movies that are released today. Their stories and the main character are timeless, meaning they are also as fresh today as they were back in the early 1970s.

The Night Stalker (1971)
Starring: Darren McGavin, Simon Oakland and Carol Lynley
Director: John Llewellyn Moxey
Steve's Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When a bizarre series of murders hit Las Vegas, down-and-out crimebeat report Carl Kolchak (McGavin) thinks he might have found his ticket back to the Big Time newspaper business. As he pursues leads, however, he becomes increasingly convinced that the murderer is a vampire. Met with disbelief and scoffing from his editors and a desire to cover up the murders from Las Vegas police officials, Carl goes from crusading reporter to crusading vampire hunter.

"The Night Stalker" is an excellent movie, easily equal to many big-budget theatrical releases despite its humble television origins. The dialogue is snappy, the script and characters are all believable and well-crafted, and the mix of humor and suspense is perfectly balanced throughout.

McGavin gives a fabulous performance as Kolchak, going from a wise-cracking beat reporter (coming across almost as having been transported from the 1930s to the 1970s, yet never seeming out of place) with no goal other than to rehabilite his career, to a man who is willing to risk everything to stop a monster that no one but he seems willing to take on. The supporting cast is also universally excellent, as is the camera work. The only complaint I have is the score. It is downright annoying in its innapropriateness at times.

The Night Strangler
Starring: Darren McGavin, Jo Ann Pflug, Simon Oakland and John Carradine
Director: Dan Curtis
Steve's Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

This is another excellent adventure in humor and supernatural suspense, so well-crafted that you'd never imagine that it was originally a TV movie.

Darren McGavin gives another excellent preformance as Kolchak, who, after losing everything but his life as a result of the events in "The Night Stalker", has drifted westward to Seattle. He gets himself hired on with the city's top paper after promising to not make waves... but when he starts covering another series of violent crimes, a disturbing pattern emerges: Every 21 years since the mid-1800s, there have been a series of identical strangulation murders and what few eye witnesses there were have described the same killer. Kolchak again finds himself in the awful position of uncovering a truth that no-one wants to face or deal with. Once again, he is the only one able and willing to take action and stop the deaths.

"The Night Strangler" is one of those rare sequels that is actually better than the original. The dialogue and wit is sharper, McGavin's performace of Kolchac is even better than before, and the suspense in the story gives way to downright scary on several occasions.

(Trivia: Dan Curtis and Richard Matheson had planned a third "Night Stalker" film, in which Kolchak discovers the vampire he faced in "The Night Stalker" wasn't dead. The film never happened, but in its place was the "Night Stalker" televison series, one episode of which incorporated the story idea that would have been the movie.)

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