Classic TV: ‘The Night Stalker’

I noted here a couple of days ago the news that director Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”) and actor Johnny Depp were close to collaborating on a big-screen movie version of “The Night Stalker,” the 1970s TV movies/TV series that starred Darren McGavin as intrepid reporter Carl Kolchak, who pursued big bylines, splashy headlines and … monsters.

The possibility of a remake prompted me to break out my DVD of the original 1972 TV movie “The Night Stalker” and give it yet another viewing.

“The Night Stalker” is one of my favorite TV movies, heck, one of my favorite movies. I saw it when it originally aired, when I was all of 12 years old, and loved it then. I love it now.

Despite the fact that … gulp … 40 years have passed, the movie is rock solid. The elements of the story that are dated now only serve to give it a time capsule, slice of life feel.

With its lean 70-minute running time, the movie — produced by “Dark Shadows” creator Dan Curtis, directed by journeyman TV director John Llewellyn Moxey, written by the great Richard Matheson (“The Incredible Shrinking Man,” “I Am Legend”) based on a book by Jeff Rice — drags only near the very end, when McGavin spends a little too much time skulking around an old dark house.

Most of the movie is a dark-humored, action-filled, bitterly realistic take on newspapering, crime and big-city politics. In fact, it’s one of the best movies ever made about newspaper reporting. Kolchak is egotistical, insulting to his competition, intolerant of his bosses, dismissive to the public and resistant to authority. He is a classic newspaper reporter.

Kolchak, a reporter for a Las Vegas newspaper, narrates the plot, which unfolds in flashback. As the story proper begins, Kolchak is grumbling about being called back from vacation by his editor, Tony Vincenzo (the blustery, ill-tempered Simon Oakland) to cover what looks like the routine murder of a female casino worker.

Kolchak has, more so than many less realistic reporters in movies and TV shows, a fully-developed set of sources, both high and low, and one within the medical examiner’s office tells him the victim lost a lot of blood.

Before Kolchak can even consider that odd detail, another dead woman is found, also drained of blood.

The scenes set at crime scenes in “The Night Stalker” are some of my favorites. Inevitably, Kolchak shows up — sometimes right behind the police, including the nasty-tempered sheriff played by Claude Akins, sometimes even before the police show up.

Kolchak talks to cops and witnesses and in general has free run of these crime scenes. It’s a running gag that was probably unlikely then and is outlandish today, but they are fun scenes to watch.

Bodies, all drained of blood, keep turning up and one woman goes missing when, about halfway through the movie, Kolchak’s girlfriend, casino worker Gail Foster (Carol Lynley) suggests that maybe the killer really is a vampire. Kolchak scoffs at the idea but begins to read the old books Gail gives him.

Eventually, Kolchak tells the authorities — who barely tolerate his presence at press conferences, another realistic touch — that they won’t capture the killer unless they consider the possibility he might be a vampire.

I’m not sure that in the early 1970s a real-life coroner, police chief, sheriff and prosecuting attorney would call as many press conferences as the characters do in this movie, but they’re also fun scenes as Kolchak gets the cops and officials all riled up with his questions. The time capsule element of the press conference scenes is that officials expect the reporters to cover up the grisly, panic-inducing details of the murders. Now, of course, the press conferences would be live-streamed online and the reporters would have been tweeting all along. (Which is why officials today wouldn’t call this many press conferences.)

Besides the crime scene and press conference scenes, “The Night Stalker” boasts some pretty cool action scenes. Although there are a few scenes where Atwater, as vampire Janos Skorzeny, stalks his victims, there’s surprisingly little horror in the movie. Instead we get action scenes with a real sense of the unreal, as Kolchak and the cops come upon Skorzeny’s trail only to have the vampire kick their asses and escape.

The movie’s ending, with the authorities ensuring that Kolchak’s story won’t be told, is as downbeat and dark as anything on TV at the time or since. Ultimately, Kolchak has only the satisfaction of knowing he’s a good reporter to keep him warm at night.

McGavin — a dozen years later immortalized as the dad in “A Christmas Story” — has the right mix of schmoozer and attack dog that a reporter needs. Oakland is wonderful as that TV show cliche, the boss who yells.

Atwater, who died only a few years after the movie aired, is terrific as the vampire. He makes a big impression without a word of dialogue. Atwater’s most significant other role was as Vulcan leader Surak on a single episode of “Star Trek.”

The movie was the highest-rated TV movie of its time and prompted a sequel, “The Night Strangler,” a year later, and a weekly series, “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” two years later. Both the sequel movie and TV series were fine, but they couldn’t match the original.

“The Night Stalker” influenced a generation of young fans of the horror genre who went on to pay tribute in a variety of ways. Perhaps the best known homage to the Kolchak concept was “The X-Files,” with FBI agents pursuing mysteries and monsters each week. McGavin even appeared on “The X-Files” as a retired FBI agent.

If Wright and Depp do a modern version of Kolchak — or even one set in the 1970s — they might do a terrific job. I’ll be shocked, though, if they can top the original, which is a classic of its kind.

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