Mention made-for-TV movies to most people and you'll be greeted with blank stares at best, or groans and retching noises at worst. These movies have the reputation of being poorly written, badly acted, and hurriedly made, and that reputation is well deserved for the most part. Even so, there have been a few really good movies that were originally shown on the small screen, and one of the best is The Night Stalker. Written by Richard Matheson (the writer of Duel, another great TV original, a number of classic Twilight Zone episodes, and scores of other works,) at the time that it aired in 1972, The Night Stalker was the highest rated TV movie ever broadcast by a wide margin. It had a 32.2 rating and a 54 share, blowing away the previous record holder, Brian's Song. Of course, a movie that pulls in viewers like that deserves a sequel, and this movie was no exception. In 1973, Darren McGavin reprised his role as the inquisitive news reporter in The Night Strangler, another good movie also penned by Matheson. Now MGM has released a new version of both of these classic movies on a single DVD at a very attractive price.
The Night Stalker:
Carl Kolchak is a top notch reporter who has a propensity for getting fired. Once running with the big dogs working in New York and Chicago, now he finds himself writing for the local paper in Las Vegas. At first he's miffed about being called back from his vacation to work on a run of the mill murder story until he turns up some odd facts. It seems that the woman who was killed was drained of all blood, but none was found at the murder scene. When another woman turns up dead, also missing her blood and having a pair of bite marks on her neck identical to the first victims, Kolchak thinks that there is a manic loose who things he's a vampire.
This is the last thing the police want to hear. After all, Vegas runs on tourism, and news of a 'vampire killer' would keep the gamblers away. Exerting pressure on his editor, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland,) all of Kolchak's stories are heavily altered or killed. This galls the reporter to no end, since he sees this as his chance to move back up to the big time. So he keeps on the case, but as the evidence mounts, Kolchak realizes that his theory is wrong. There isn't a crazed killer on the loose who thinks he's a vampire. The killer really is a vampire.
This is a great film, arguably the best made-for-TV movie ever broadcast. I remember watching it when it was first aired, begging my mother to let me stay up past my bed time to see the conclusion. (She let me...thanks mom!) I was enthralled with the film then, and it still holds up pretty well today. Yes, it is a little dated, but that doesn't interfere with enjoying the movie.
The way the movie was set up, with Kolchak narrating a story that he's already lived as the events unfold for the viewer works very well. It gives the impression of a 1st person narrative, but also lets us see things that Kolchak found out later. Kolchak is also able to tell us what he's thinking without having to resort to conversations with strained dialog to get this information to the viewer.
The most striking thing about seeing this film is that it is still scary and suspenseful all these years later. The movie has several eerie moments in it that work quite well. From the dead woman laying in a sand pit with no footprints around her to the climax in a dark, quiet house, the film was able to create a mood, and hold it for the whole production.
It is interesting to see how the creators were able to take the limitations of a TV movie, (no sex, little violence, small budget,) and use them it to their advantage. The lack of sex and gore doesn't hamper the eeriness of the film, it actually enhances it. And the almost total lack of special effects helps the show stand up when viewed today. There are not any hokey transforming into a bat scenes, or obviously fake severed heads. The effects that were used for such things in the 70's would have looked horrible today and caused viewers to stop suspending their disbelief. As it is, this is an easy movie to just sit back and enjoy.
The acting for all the characters is very good. Many of the supporting players were long time Hollywood staples, and they do a great job with even the slightest roles. Darren McGavin really makes the movie with the job he does portraying Kolchak. He gives his character a moral reason for wanting the truth to get out, but also adds that element of desperation to get one more huge story. This makes Kolchak a three dimensional character instead of a crusading paladin.
That isn't to say the movie is perfect, because it isn't. While Barry Atwater does a great job as the silent vampire Janos Skorzeny through most of the film, his performance does go a little over the top at the climax. Some of the plot devices seem quaint today also. The press conferences where Kolchak is able to pound on the sherif's table are pretty unrealistic, but the rest of the movie is so entertaining that it is easy to overlook these minor flaws.
The Night Strangler:
Carl Kolchak has hit the skids again. He finds himself in Seattle where he's trying to convince anyone that he really did find and kill a vampire in Las Vegas the previous year. His old editor from Las Vegas, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) hears him ranting in a bar and against his better judgement offers him a job, mainly because he feels sorry for him. Tony gives Kolchak a story about a belly dancer who is found strangled in an alley. It turns out that she wasn't only strangled, but her neck was crushed, traces of rotting flesh were found on her throat, and some of her blood was missing. When a second girl is killed in the same way, Kolchak realizes that something odd is going on. Digging into the newspaper archives, Kolchak finds out that similar murders have happened every 21 years. Six women are strangled over a period of 18 days, and then the murders stop. This pattern has been going on, every 21 years, for nearly a century. The reporter knows that there is only a short period of time to find the murderer before he disappears again, but he finds it hard to convince his editor, much less the police, that an ageless killer with super strength has been stalking Seattle for years.
This movie was really good, especially for a sequel. In a way, this one works better than the original. Since the viewer doesn't know what type of monster that Kolchak is tracking, there is a little more mystery in the story. It had more humor as well, which they were able to work into the narrative without being distracting or seeming silly. The look on McGavin's face when he brings his article on the long history of identical strangulations in Seattle to his editor is priceless. Of course, there is a good amount of suspense in this movie too. The ending where Kolchak stalks the killer through the Seattle underground is just as creepy as the ending to the first film.
The acting is just as good in this film also, though Kolchak's character is a little more two dimensional. He no longer has that burning desire to return to the big time, he is just happy to have a job. Not so happy that he'll play along with watering down his stories though. The script is very similar to the original movie, with Kolchak narrating, but the events now take place in the present. This movie, like the first, had the police wanting to cover up the evidence, going so far as to steal Kolchak's camera that has a picture of the killer on it. I found this a little harder to swallow in Seattle than I did in Las Vegas, but they do make the police Captain more intellegent and than in The Night Stalker.
One thing I liked about watching this movie is that there are a lot of guest stars. It's fun to see how many you can spot. John Carradine, Al Lewis, Margaret Hamilton (Wizard of Oz) and Wally Cox, in his last movie, are just some of the actors who appeared in this film.
These two movies are presented on one double sided DVD. I was glad that they didn't try to squeeze both films onto one side, though people who store their DVD in a mega-changer might not feel the same way. Anchor Bay previously released these two movies on a single DVD, but that version has been out of print for a while, and I was not able to locate a copy to compare with this new version.
The two channel English soundtrack has held up pretty well over the years. The dialog is clear, as is the incidental music. Some of the music in the first film, especially during the fight scene by the pool, is a little corny and dated but it still sounds crisp. The audio isn't very dynamic, but that's to be expected for a 30 year old TV movie. Any hiss was inaudible at normal levels and there wasn't any distortion.
I was pleasantly surprised that the quality of the video for both films. The colors were accurate, and there was an excellent amount of detail. The dark scenes in the original movie, such as when Kolchak is creeping through the vampire's house, have just the right amount of contrast giving the film an eerie look, but not being so dark that you can't tell what's going on. The sequel was a little darker with details harder to make out, but still acceptable. As far as digital defects go, there is a little aliasing, with Kolchak's pinstriped suit causing some problems, but this is minor. All in all a good looking disc.
There are a couple of extras included with these movies. On The Night Stalker side is a very good 14½ minute interview with Dan Curtis who produced both films. Curtis come to fame as the creator of Dark Shadows, and he reminisces about how he got involved with the project, meeting author Richard Matheson, and getting all the actors together. At the end of the interview he has some interesting comments on what it takes to get a TV movie made today and what it was like in the 70's.
The Night Strangler side has more conversations with Dan Curtis in Directing the Night Strangler. This is a 7½ minute interview, filmed at the same time as the other interview, where Dan talks about how he got into show business and why he started directing. A good featurette, though I wish it had been a little longer.
These are nice, but I would have loved a commentary track by writer Richard Matheson and star Darren McGavin. There was also a sequence that was deleted from The Night Strangler where Kolchak tracks down a reporter (played by George Tobais) who covered the previous cycle of murders. I was hoping that this scene would be included, but unfortunately it wasn't.
Although these movies were both made-for-TV, they are both excellent. The Night Stalker is one of the best TV movies ever broadcast, and its sequel is just as entertaining. Together they make a fabulous DVD. Highly Recommended. Hopefully the short lived TV series that these two movies spawned will be released soon also.