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Vampire noir came into its own 50 years ago with The Night Stalker


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We know this story: A hard-bitten, oft-fired reporter, looking for a fast track back to a big-city newspaper job, hopes to milk a sensational story for everything it’s worth. In the process, he shakes things up in a tough desert town.

Yep, that’s the plot of Ace in the Hole, the 1951 classic directed by Billy Wilder and starring Kirk Douglas as the unethical reporter.

But of course, as you know from the headline, we’re here to talk about The Night Stalker, which has everything Ace in the Hole has, plus police corruption and vampires.

The basic premise—a hard-luck loser, whether he’s a reporter or cowboy or private eye or drifter, runs up against the powers that be in a one-horse town—is a familiar one and really lends itself to noir films.

I’ve previously declared in this space that The Night Stalker, the 1972 TV-movie that finally (FINALLY!) added a vampire to the genre, is a noir film. It was for years the highest-rated TV movie. It inspired not only a sequel TV movie but a spin-off series (itself remade decades later) and nods from The X-Files to True Blood and Near Dark, which adopted the vampire noir idea and ran wild with it.

But the film itself, and its beginnings and its legacy, is fascinating.

From the time it aired on Jan. 11, 1972—about a half a century ago—The Night Stalker made history. The movie might not have been intended to be a genre fusion film of noir and horror, but it was and it’s still the best of the rare sub-genre.

‘Third-rate murder’

The Night Stalker is simple and straightforward and its 74-minute running time is tight. To watch it now, without commercials, feels like watching a slightly-longer-than-usual episode of some streaming service drama, complete with end credits featuring clips of the cast.

Darren McGavin plays Carl Kolchak, a Las Vegas Daily News reporter. For all its glitz, Las Vegas seems like a hick town to Kolchak, who has been fired from several “big city” newspapers—three times in Boston alone, he ruefully admits—and longs to get outta this town and get back to a real city.

Kolchak’s classic noir voiceover, dryly reciting several murders in the city, has the right tone of world-weariness. His on-screen comments are as harsh and dismissive as those spouted by Douglas as the lead of “Ace in the Hole.”

“A two-day-old, third-rate murder,” Kolchak says when he’s told by his editor, Tony Vincenzo (the priceless Simon Oakland) to cover the killing of one of Vegas’ apparently endless supply of young women.

Is Kolchak a not-nice guy or just a newspaper reporter? Or both? Can we forgive him for being so dismissive of the murder until more bodies pile up and the whole thing turns into a bigger story?

And pile up the bodies do. Second, third and fourth victims are found, drained of blood and cruelly discarded. A fifth woman is missing and considered likely dead.

And human saliva was found around the bite marks on the victims’ necks.

Now that’s a story. Kolchak shifts into high gear.

Vampires and corrupt officials, two of a kind

In one of the most realistic portrayals of reporting ever, The Night Stalker shows Kolchak working on stories about the murders by working his sources: a doctor, the telephone operator at the courthouse—he gives her a box of candy—and a wizened old card player played by Elisha Cook Jr., once the young gunsel from The Maltese Falcon.

Kolchak bribes (the candy), wheedles, badgers and cajoles his sources, including beer-drinking buddy Bernie Jenks, an FBI agent played by Ralph Meeker.

Before long, of course, Kolchak runs afoul of corrupt Sheriff Warren Butcher (the great Claude Akins), Police Chief Ed Masterson (Charles McGraw looking like a rumpled pile of laundry) and most sinisterly, Kent Smith as district attorney Tom Paine. Sure, Butcher threatens Kolchak, but the DA is the truly dangerous figure and Smith plays him with oily menace.

The level of anxiety among the officials as Kolchak begins to report the killer might be “a nut who thinks he’s a vampire” rises along with the death toll. Smith’s district attorney character, phony smile affixed to his face, says something that could have influenced dialogue for the Amity mayor in Jaws three years later: “We don’t want to cause a panic. It’s bad for police operations. It’s bad for the people. And it’s bad for business.”

Contrary to the wishes of this unofficial Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, the killer keeps on killing and Kolchak keeps on reporting.

A truly scary monster

One of the greatest strokes of The Night Stalker is the character and casting of its vampire. Played by Barry Atwater, whose previous roles included a Vulcan elder on Star Trek, the killer is truly frightening.

There are no shades of Bela Lugosi in evening wear or Christopher Lee all in black to this monster. Atwater is terrifying as the creature that never says a word on camera but does plenty of hissing and throat grabbing.

Dracula might have been a somewhat sympathetic vampire in some respects, but this was not the case with Janos Skorzeny, either as played by Atwater or as written by Richard Matheson. Skorzeny is a straight-up monster, killing victims—and a dog—and terrorizing Las Vegas. The revelation of who the vampire is and how thoroughly it confounds the authorities is one of the best moments in “The Night Stalker.”

We know it’s a modern-day story—or modern for 1972—as opposed to a gothic piece because the killer does things like buy a used car and rent an old house for his lair—and as a place to keep his own private blood bank, as Kolchak observes: the missing victim.

And we know it’s a modern-day story because in the end, the hero kills the vampire but loses his job and his girlfriend. He gets to keep only his sense of satisfaction that he was right. He was right all along.

Sadly, that’s about as much as some newspaper reporters ever achieve.

Talent behind and in front of the camera

That The Night Stalker is untypical is thanks to Jeff Rice, who wrote The Kolchak Papers, the then-unpublished novel that the aforementioned Richard Matheson, master of horror fiction, turned into a screenplay. Matheson needs no introduction to this audience, but he was a grand master of horror and science fiction who wrote books and screenplays that included I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, Hell House and the Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”

Rice, who died in 2015, had been quoted as saying he wanted to write a Las Vegas story and a vampire story. And did he. The Kolchak Papers, which he wrote in 1970, offered a truly unique blueprint for the movie.

There’s almost no moment in The Night Stalker that isn’t thrilling and doesn’t ring true. The characters are human—well, except for Skorzeny—and flawed, even Kolchak. The Las Vegas settings were unlike the standard Los Angeles or New York of many noirs. The neon- and strobe-lit setting was also far from the gothic world of most vampire stories and was truly unique.

Director John Llewellyn Moxey directed more than a hundred TV shows and movies, according to his IMDB listing, including crime classics like Murder, She Wrote – 18 episodes! – and Magnum, P.I. It’s likely no contemporary director’s work was seen by so many viewers who had no idea who he was. But while Moxey was a craftsman, there’s art to his direction of The Night Stalker.

Besides the cast and the director, no one brought as much to The Night Stalker as composer Robert Cobert. Cobert was best known for his scores for Dark Shadows producer Dan Curtis, who produced The Night Stalker. Cobert’s score for The Night Stalker is full of moody cues and brassy, dynamic blasts.

For so many of these reasons, Carl Kolchak’s legacy lives on.

The legacy, one item at a time

At the end of the movie, McGavin sums up the facts of the whole bloody affair in a verbal bullet-point style, introducing each as an “item.” In that spirit, I’ll do the same here.

Item: A sequel TV movie, The Night Strangler, aired in 1973 and got good ratings. This one was directed by Dan Curtis and written by Richard Matheson and it’s fun but feels a little like what it was: an amiable attempt to cash in. Bonus points for the return of Simon Oakland as Tony Vincenzo, the appearances of Wally Cox, John Carradine, Margaret Hamilton and Grandpa Munster himself, Al Lewis, as well as the wonderful Jo Ann Pflug.

Item: Carl Kolchak returned in the fall of 1974 in Kolchak: The Night Stalker, a 20-episode ABC series sequel that lasted only one season and produced some effective hourlong thrills but ultimately was not renewed due to its ratings. Best episodes include an early one, “Vampire,” that was a sequel to The Night Stalker movie in which one of Janos Skorzeny’s victims returns from the grave as a vampire. “The Zombie” was an especially scary outing. “The Sentry,” about a lizard creature killing workers in a huge underground complex, was ambitious but sabotaged by a truly awful creature costume, which the director wisely kept in the shadows as much as possible.

Item: Kolchak returned—recast and played by Stuart Townsend—in 2005 in a short-lived series by Frank Spotnitz of “X-Files” fame. I need to overcome my distaste for the concept of an updated Night Stalker and try it sometime. After all, it’s got the divine Gabrielle Union in the cast.

Item: The name Janos Skorzeny would return a few years later, but not in a sequel to The Night Stalker. Skorzeny was the frightening antagonist of Werewolf, a short-lived 1987 series on Fox. Veteran actor Chuck Conners played Skorzeny and in this case the monster was a werewolf and not a vampire, but I insist on believing the two Skorzenys are one and the same.)

Item: When “The Night Stalker” aired on Jan. 11, 1972 on the ABC Movie of the Week, it drew a 33 rating and 48 share, meaning that nearly half the TVs in the country were tuned in. The movie’s ratings record stood for years.

Item: Composer Robert Cobert wrote the themes for game shows that included Password, The 25,000 Pyramid, and To Tell the Truth. Go ahead, go ask your parents or grandparents to hum a few notes of one of those. I bet they can.

Item: McGavin returned to the world of the weird in “Travelers,” an episode of The X-Files from March 1998. McGavin played a retired FBI agent and X-Files creator Chris Carter, who acknowledged the debt that his series owed to “The Night Stalker,” had reportedly hoped to cast the actor in other parts, including protagonist Fox Mulder’s father or even as Kolchak himself, but this role was the one that came to pass.

Item: There’ve been rumblings that Kolchak might return in movie or TV form, but The Night Stalker has mostly lived in the world of comics in the past couple of decades. A 50th anniversary graphic novel with an introduction by writer Richard Christian Matheson, son of Richard Matheson, is planned.

Item: I have no more items, so I’ll leave you with Carl Kolchak’s own words, from the final moments of The Night Stalker, as a word of caution for those dismissing his fantastic tale of horror in an unlikely place.

“I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since all this happened, and now, you might find it difficult too. … Try to tell yourself, wherever you may be, in the quiet of your home, in the safety of your bed, try to tell yourself … it couldn’t happen here.”

__________________________________

Keith Roysdon was a hard-bitten newspaper reporter for 40 years but he never had the pleasure of writing about a vampire. He’s written plenty of investigative pieces about the kind of political corruption that Carl Kolchak runs up against, though, as well as CrimeReads pieces about juvenile mysteries, noir films and classic TV movies. His first novel, “Seven Angels,” won the 2021 Hugh Holton Award for best unpublished novel from the Mystery Writers of America Midwest. He’s holding out hope for the chance to write about vampires in fiction and non-fiction.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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