The Night Stalker (1972)

October 23, 2010 § 1 Comment

“Sherman Duffy of the Chicago Globe once described a reporter as follows: socially, he fits in somewhere between a hooker and a bartender. Spiritually, he stands beside Galileo, because he knows the world is round. Not that it does much good when his editor knows it’s flat.”

Vegas reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) predates the X-Files by a few decades (and undoubtedly helped pave the way for it, and similar shows) as a man struggling with officials, and determined to let the world know a serial killer is actually a vampire. With a screenplay by Richard Matheson (based on an unpublished novel by Jeff Rice), The Night Stalker is B-movie TV that manages to be memorably good fun. In fact, promotional spots must have created a buzz before it was shown, because it became the highest rated TV-movie up to that point, inspiring a second TV-movie and brief TV series.

It certainly does have some memorable, stylish moments — one stuntman is required to leap out of the way as a crashing police motorbike comes unexpectedly sliding straight for him — that I think would’ve been quite bold for TV in 1972, and good performances from a number of American character actors like Claude Akins and Elisha Cook Sr, most of whom seem to recognize that taking any material seriously helps to elevate it. In particular, Darren McGavin as Kolchak rails against his editor for “suppressing” the truth and interrupts news conferences with important questions like he’s in a Shakespeare play, clearly relishing the role. On a certain level the scenes with Kolchak and his editor literally yelling at each other (which is every scene they’re in together, it seems) should be absurd, but somehow it works, maybe as some kind of weird physical manifestation of some of the themes, or the conflict between revealing the truth and editing it, so the public won’t panic. It might also be the first appearance of a particular kind of genre-crossing, considering it’s a vampire story with narration typical of film noir and hard-boiled detective stories (the above quote is from the film).

If the film has a fault, it’s that it doesn’t include women, except to have them around as potential victims. In a scene where one woman is stalked in a parking lot, they don’t even appear to have arranged a professional actor, and her caricature of a terrified person turns the scene into parody. Kolchak has a girlfriend, but by the end of the film city officials have told her to leave him, so she does. Aside from that, they said to leave town, so she does. It certainly dates the film. It ain’t just a world with vampires, it’s a man’s world with vampires. Otherwise, The Night Stalker is an above-average vampire film, because aside from a suspenseful vampire hunt, there’s a lot implied about the importance of checks and balances, and plucky individuals who demand the truth. If it were remade today, it would probably be about the most determined blogger in the world.

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