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'The Night Stalker' Crept Through the 1970s Constraints of Made for TV Film

Barry Atwater as Janos Skorzeny in The Night Stalker (1972) (IMDB)

In the '70s there was something sinister sneaking into suburban homes between the sitcom and the 11 o'clock news where the real horrors played out. The made for TV horror film The Night Stalker would be among the best.

The Night Stalker
John Llewellyn Moxey

Kino-Lorber

2 October 2018

Other

The "1970s Made-for-TV Horror Movie" remains a unique and much less traveled side road in the study of the horror film genre. When I say "the 1970s", I'm talking about the decade between 1969-1979, starting with Paul Wendkos' Fear No Evil in 1969 and ending with Tobe Hooper's adaptation of Stephen King's Salem's Lot in 1979. What falls between are some of the most memorable and nightmare-inducing movies ever made and it was the medium of television itself that made them so effective.

I don't know if there was ever a more compromised narrative form than the made-for-television movie. Of course, all network television programming is the result of forced parameters. Commercial breaks for floor cleaners don't exactly help with the dramatic flow. But as it's been said many times, creativity often flourishes with restrictions. The made for television horror film was forced to develop new narrative strategies. With Standards and Practices forbidding any potentially offensive content, television horror had to be less explicit and more suggestive. But the films were often more disturbing because of it.

The economics of production even affected the visual style. Short production schedules forced directors to stage scenes simply and directly, while composing shots specifically for the small screen. This placed a premium on closeups over wide shots where the action would be harder to read and ended up prioritizing characters over spectacle. Consumer television sets of the '70s could not effectively display scenes shot in low light, so the lighting was often brighter than expected. This resulted in more inventive scenes of daylight horror and often a reliance on the convention of day-for-night shooting to suggest scenes shot at night. By its very paradoxical nature, "day-for-night' photography looks completely surreal, like Magritte's The Empire of Light, which depicts a street in the dead of night and under a bright blue sky at the same time.

But more importantly, television in the '70s was a comforting medium with mostly safe programming. From brightly lit sitcoms and cozy police procedurals with tidy conclusions to medical dramas that usually just hinted at the horrors of mortality, prime time TV was a warm flickering fire for the family to huddle around. But for this one decade in particular, there was something sinister that was sneaking into their homes between the sitcom and the 11 o'clock news where the real horrors played out.

Bat image from OpenClipart (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Going to a horror movie in the cinema was a different experience. You went to those movies fully expecting to be scared. But the television horror film was like an intruder into your home. It took over your television and unleashed werewolves, demons, gargoyles, psychotic killers, evil Zuni fetish dolls, killer trucks, killer bulldozers, possessed children, haunted houses that wouldn't die, satanic coeds, and of course, vampires.

Vampires were a specialty of the most prolific producer of television horror, Dan Curtis. Curtis was the creator of the popular soap opera Dark Shadows, which focused on the tortured vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid). But Barnabas was not really scary because he was a reluctant vampire and a victim of circumstance. Curtis would take a different approach when he was offered an unpublished novel by Jeff Rice called "The Kolchak Papers". It was about a particularly nasty vampire/serial killer stalking prostitutes in Las Vegas and the wise-cracking reporter who pursues him. Adapted by the equally prolific Richard Matheson (I am Legend), the film would be retitled The Night Stalker and premiere on ABC in 1972.

Dressed in a wrinkled seersucker suit and straw boater hat, Darren McGavin would help make wise-cracking reporter Carl Kolchak into a genre icon and would go on to play the role in a second television movie The Night Strangler (Curtis, 1973) and the short-lived TV series Kolchak The Night Stalker.

Kolchak is an obnoxious but resourceful reporter whose beat is the Vegas strip. He's after a big story that will get him out of this journalistic purgatory and back on a real big-city paper. But he's also a real thorn in the side of the corrupt authorities and this will turn out to be his blind spot.

Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak (IMDB)

Kolchak runs around town juggling tape recorders and cameras while chasing down leads in a series of local homicides he feels are connected. All of the victims are found with bite marks on their necks and their bodies mysteriously drained of blood. He spends his days arguing with editor Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) and his nights hanging with his girlfriend Gail Foster (Carol Lynley,) who may just be a call girl. If so, Kolchak is getting her for free.

It's Gail who first suggests that Kolchak look into vampire lore, since the killer seems to be acting just like a vampire. It doesn't take longer than a commercial break or two for Kolchak to go all-in on the vampire theory and suggest that the local police holster their guns and use stakes and crosses instead.

This lack of mystery surrounding whether or not Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater) is a vampire is what makes The Night Stalker feel so modern. As obvious as Christopher Lee's 1948 feral Dracula, Skorzeny has fangs, drinks blood, and is so unnaturally strong he can take on an entire police force singlehandedly. At the same time, he drives around the city in a nice car, hangs out at the casino, and seems to have a very clever modern vampire plan on how to make the best use of his blood supply.

As Tim Lucas suggests in his commentary, it seems that Skorzeny keeps one young lady imprisoned in his house just so she can be used as a human blood warmer for the blood he keeps refrigerated. He gives her transfusions of the refrigerated blood and then drinks from her. Now that's one of the most ghoulish ideas I've ever seen in a vampire movie.

Carol Lynley as Gail Foster, Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak (IMDB)

It's hard to convey how good Darren McGavin is as Carl Kolchak. McGavin had played the role before, in the TV series of the same name (ABC, 1974-75) and would have a long career afterward in films such as A Christmas Story (Clark, 1983) for which he will always be remembered for pronouncing the word "fragile' as "FRA-GEE-LAY". But no role ever fit his acting DNA so well as Kolchak.

The reporter begins like a stereotype out of a 1930s newspaper flick. The hustling, wise-cracking cynic who's seen it all. But McGavin doesn't play it as a joke. He makes Kolchak human by playing it straight and emphasizing the character's desperation to get out of this low rent job. Kolchak is often funny but we don't laugh at him. We are with him for the ride and root for him to one-up the corrupt bureaucrats who just want to chew him up and spit him out. I found the Vegas officials to be more sinister than the vampire. At least he's honest about his motives.

McGavin is surrounded by a cast of great character actors. Very few horror films made for the big or small screen can equal the cast of The Night Stalker. Most of them are veterans of classic Hollywood cinema. Simon Oakland (Psycho), Ralph Meeker (Kiss Me Deadly), Kent Smith (Cat People), Claude Akins (Rio Bravo), Charles McGraw (The Narrow Margin), and Elisha Cook, Jr. (The Maltese Falcon) deliver Matheson's sharp dialogue with style. The one actor without any lines is Barry Atwater, but his powerful presence as Janos Skorzeny is all that needs to be said.

The Night Stalker was directed by veteran British filmmaker John Llewellyn Moxey (Horror Hotel). Moxey takes all of the restrictions of television and turns them to his advantage. Unable to afford elaborate stunts or special effects, Moxey shoots the vampire action realistically. We merely observe Skorzeny jumping out of third-story windows, running down alleys, and tossing police officers around like rag dolls. All of this is shot in a loose, almost documentary manner with a casual air that makes it look all the more startling.

Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak (IMDB)

The Night Stalker was the highest-rated made-for-TV movie up to that point, with an estimated 70 million viewers. It's hard to imagine that large an audience for anything these days; at least on the initial airing. Streaming and "binge-watching" have changed the way we watch television and it's becoming increasingly difficult to even say what "television" is anymore. The parameters which defined the "1970s Made-for-TV Horror Movie" are largely gone now, but I don't know if that's proven to be such a good thing. Few modern television "shows" or "movies" are as lean and effective as The Night Stalker.

Kino-Lorber has released The Night Stalker on Blu-ray in 4K restoration. It looks so good it almost belies its origins as a television movie. The extras include an eight-page special edition booklet by film critic Simon Abrams, a trailer for Dan Curtis's later film, Burnt Offerings (1976), and interviews with director John Llewellyn Moxey, composer Bob Cobert, and producer Curtis. Moxey discusses his experience making theatrical and television films and stresses his work as a craftsman. The 94-year-old Robert Cobert has an amazing memory about his work on the production. He discusses the role of the composer in movies and television and his work for Dan Curtis.

The music of Billy Goldenberg and Robert Cobert has always defined '70s TV horror for me. The minute you hear Cobert's music you will immediately be transported to this old world of television thrills and chills. Curtis talks about the origins of the project and his initial problems with writer Richard Matheson. You get the impression that Curtis regrets not directing the movie himself but he's full of pride regarding everyone's work on it.

As usual, the best extra is the commentary by film historian Tim Lucas. I think I've praised Lucas' commentaries a few times before but this one is as good as any he has recorded. I've seen The Night Stalker about 783 times since I was nine-years-old, but his commentary made me see the film from a completely new perspective. I was really surprised that so many of its innovations eluded me.

Barry Atwater as Janos Skorzeny (IMDB)

When I was 13-years old I made a three-minute vampire film called Fangs shot on glorious Kodachrome 40 Super 8mm film. I'm not sure if I was conscious of the fact that the "story" was nothing more than the climax of The Night Stalker reset in my parents' suburban home. Instead of just using the house as a suburban home, I worked hard to try to make it look like an old, dark mansion. Listening to Lucas' commentary I realized how influential that climax was to my humble amateur film and so many horror films that would follow.

Kolchak doesn't confront Skorzeny in some modern Vegas apartment, but rather an isolated gothic mansion. For some reason, this never seemed odd to me, but since the rest of the movie takes place in such a modern world (for 1972) the obvious way to end the film would be to confront Sorzeny in some luxury high rise or even a casino hotel suite. But instead, the film moves us back in time to the old world of classic horror films.

Kolchak enters the old dark house and confronts the vampire himself like Peter Cushing in any number of Hammer gothic horrors. Lucas points out that this would be seen in many films in the genre afterward including Salem's Lot (Hooper, 1979). Salem's Lot takes place in a modern small town but by the end, we return to the old Marsten House sitting up on a hill and existing far outside the time and space of that story.

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