Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Accidental TV Movie Week: The Night Stalker (1972)

aka Kolchak: The Night Stalker

Accidental TV Movie Week is what happens when I read the excellent “Are You in the House Alone?” edited by blogger and podcaster Amanda Reyes and spend a week only watching the sort of US TV movie treated in the book. Don’t be afraid.

Let’s start this thing off with a classic, one of the handful of US TV movies known and loved even by those horror fans who have little interest in or knowledge of this specific side of the genre. As is often the case, find myself in between, by the way, a dabbler but neither completely clueless about nor a full-blooded fan of the classic US TV movie.

The Night Stalker’s plot is simple and to the point: dedicated reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) has been exiled to Las Vegas for his unwillingness to play politics as much as for his love for purposefully pissing off any authority figure he might encounter. Investigating a series of murders of young women that leave the victims without blood, many curious facts begin to add up to a crazy conviction – the killer is an actual vampire. The fact that the police will only ever half believe what is going on even once they have repeatedly encountered an inhumanly strong man impervious to bullets, and even if they do, won’t let any of this get in front of the eyes of the public (vampires are apparently bad for business), just might turn Kolchak into an improbable vampire hunter.

Apart from being straightforward (which doesn’t mean stupid, mind you), The Night Stalker’s plot has the distinction of being point-perfectly executed. Scripted by the great Richard Matheson (and produced by Dan Curtis, the patron saint of US TV horror of the 70s), the film is as tightly written as possible, exclusively consisting of scenes that move forward the plot and reveal character and explore the film’s themes, with no filler whatsoever. The dialogue, while always absolutely of its time, is always sharp, often funny, and provides information and flavour at the same time. Because this is Matheson at his very best, at least every second scene features an absolutely brilliant idea, just as brilliantly executed. If that sounds as if I’m laying it on a bit thick here, I’m not – this is as flawless a script as a viewer can ever hope to encounter, the sort of thing you’d wish any prospective writer of genre films would study closely.

Even better, the TV gods put the script in the hands of one of the most talented TV directors (whom I have once or twist in the past inexcusably belittled as merely dependable, but who was actually as brilliant a stylist as the rules of TV and TV production of the 70s allowed), John Llewellyn Moxey, a man who apparently recognized gold when he found it and treated it appropriately. So Matheson’s brilliance is treated with all the respect it deserves here, with Moxey delivering a series of very effective horror set pieces (the climax in the vampire’s genuinely creepy house with one particularly creepy detail being a particular favourite of mine), sharply shot dialogue scenes, and buckets of drive and atmosphere. The vampire (Barry Atwater) is genuinely wonderful too, with effective corpse-like make-up and even presenting a high degree of physical menace when he isn’t out-running cars or eating bullets.

The acting – featuring mainstays like Carol Lynley (as Kolchak’s girlfriend Gail, who has the distinction of having a brain as well as of not being threatened by the vampire in the end), Simon Oakland, Ralph Meeker, Elisha Cook Jr and Claude Akins – is absolutely on the level of the script too. McGavin’s portrayal of Kolchak is fantastic, managing to keep the guy likeable while also being honest about how much of a pain in the butt he must be for everyone around him. Usually, a character who is right about everything and very loud about it should be perfectly insufferable, speaking truth to power or not, but Kolchak even at his smuggest also has a difficult to define quality of vulnerability under all of his swagger, created by McGavin and Matheson in concert.

So obviously, I think The Night Stalker is the masterpiece everyone says it is. Much of the rest of films I’ll talk about during this week (and the overflow of TV movies you can expect coming up during the next half year or so) of TV movies won’t be able to hold up to these standards to various degrees, but that’s nothing for anyone to be ashamed or disappointed about, for when it comes to intelligent yet pulpy 70s horror, this is one of the touchstones.

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