In writing the previous series of articles about the many film versions of Dracula, I kept bumping up against wanting to mention certain vampire movies that I really loved. I really couldn’t include them, because they weren’t adaptations of Dracula. There is something fascinating about vampires as characters, something compelling and, ironically, so very human about a creature that feeds off the life force of others. We all know a vampire or two, don’t we? As a cinematic creation, vampires have been able to survive and thrive because they are so easily adaptable as symbols of whatever socio-cultural ill exists at any given moment.
And with that realization, I also figured out something about The Cinemorph. In introducing these particular series, be it He’ll Geek or I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch Of Draculas, they don’t have to end. I can put them up on the shelf and take them down and add to them as the opportunity arises. Maybe one day I’ll write about Lost In La Mancha, Terry Gilliam’s indefatigable quest to make a movie of Don Quixote. If so, I can just add another chapter to The Movie And The Movie About The Movie and put it back on the shelf until next time.
With that in mind, I’d like to introduce a new series right here. They Only Come Out At Night – Vampire Movies That Ain’t Dracula. I probably will do just a couple now and then move on to another deep dive, but regardless, I did want to take this opportunity to discuss my favorite vampire movie of all time, hands down, no joke. It’s a beautiful little gem. A 1972 Made-For-Movie called The Night Stalker.
The Night Stalker began life in the mind of author Jeff Rice, an actor and novelist who had worked as a reporter for the Las Vegas Sun. Rice wrote a novel called The Kolchak Papers, in which told the story of a scrappy, die-hard reporter named Carl Kolchak. Kolchak was a former big time New York journalist who apparently stepped on some important toes one time too many and found himself exiled to the journalistic backwaters of Las Vegas. Soon after, showgirls start showing up dead, and drained of blood to boot. But who cares? And herein lies the brilliance of Rice’s premise. This wasn’t 19th century London, this was Las Vegas in the early 70’s. Showgirls showing up dead was not front page news, sad to say. Additionally, the Manson trial was on the front pages every day, and if a corpse was found drained of blood, was that any weirder than what had just happened in the Hollywood hills? Only Carl Kolchak smells something extraordinarily rotten, and he puts what little career and life he still has left on the line to prove it.
Jeff’s novel was bought unpublished by ABC. ABC publishes books? No. At the time, ABC was one of the three major broadcast television networks. Ratings-wise, ABC consistently came in third out of three. As reported by Mark Dawidziak in his excellent book, The Night Stalker Companion, one thing ABC did excel at was Made-For-TV movies. The Movie Of The Week, as they were called then, were nifty and effective as counter-programming. At the time, a young executive named Barry Diller (who would go on to highly publicized reigns at Paramount and the Fox network) ran the department in charge of made-for-TV movies. Diller was a fan of Rice’s book and, with a horror story on his hands, called ABC’s horror guy, Dan Curtis.
Dan Curtis was a tenacious TV producer who got his start in New York coming up with new and exciting ways to televise golf (I did not now there was one). Then he struck gold with Dark Shadows, the late sixties soap opera that became a pop culture phenomena. Dark Shadows had just left the airwaves, it was spring of 1971, and Curtis was – according to Dawidziak - in upstate New York directing one of a pair of feature film spin-offs of the show - it was that popular - called Night Of Dark Shadows. We’ll be getting to that films prequel, the criminally underrated House Of Dark Shadows, in this space later this week.
As Curtis was already directing a movie and was leery of getting pigeonholed as a “horror director,” he agreed to produce The Night Stalker, but not direct it. That responsibility fell to veteran director John Llewlyn Moxey. Curtis’ next two decisions were back-to-back grand slams. He hired Richard Matheson (The Twilight Zone, I Am Legend, Duel) to write the script and to star in the film, I’ll quote Curtis from an interview in the DVD extras, “Darren McGavin was my first thought.”
Bullseye! Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak was one of those perfect, when-actor-meets-role moments. Connery as Bond, Shatner as Kirk, McGavin as Kolchak. It’s just that indelible. Simon Oakland played Kolchak’s permanently exasperated boss, Tony Vincenzo. Kolchak and Vincenzo’s relationship is the beating heart of the film. Their, “Get the hell outta my office!” repartee could have come straight out of The Front Page, just imagine if Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau were arguing over whether or not Earl Williams was a vampire instead of whether or not he was falsely accused.
The vampire? Barry Atwater, a Star Trek and Twilight Zone alumni, (The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street) gave a terrifying performance. There was so much talk, talk, talk in Dracula about what he was, what he meant, what he symbolized. Was he a fallen angel, a tragic romantic hero, a symbol of the New World’s fear and rejection of the Old? There is not one iota of that in The Night Stalker. In fact, if vampires were real, I think Atwater’s Janos Skorzeny might be the most realistic depiction on screen. Skorzeny is absolutely feral. He wears clothes and can fake enough civility to walk around, but rarely, if ever speaks. He’s a predator, looking to feed from the instant of dusk to the onset of dawn. The scene in the film’s finale when Atwater discovers Kolchak hiding in the closet scared the beejezus out of me as a nine year-old kid and it still packs a wallop today.
The other star of The Night Stalker? Las Vegas. If Kolchak and Vincenzo clawing at each other’s throats is heart of the movie, then Las Vegas itself is the soul. Vegas, in the late 60’s / early 70’s was a euphoric collision of generations, style and culture, with the middle-aged dudes with wet hair and pork chop sideburns cueing up to see Elvis in his jump-suited heyday while go-go girls in their Aqua Net and blue eye shadow assured middle America you could still look groovy while thinking Nixon was cool. A dystopia in bellbottoms watched over from above by Howard Hughes, ensconced in his Desert Inn penthouse, surrounded by a praetorian guard of clean-living Mormons, watching Ice Station Zebra and letting his toenails grow.
The Night Stalker, shot in about two weeks, was made for a 90 minute time slot including commercials, barrels along at a breakneck 72 minutes, and every one is great. As I like to say, it moves like a Dragnet, Just the facts. Boom! Boom! Boom! It aired on Tuesday, January 11th, 1972. The next day and again, thank you to Mark Dawidziak for unearthing these numbers, 75 million people watched it. 54% of the television sets in use that night were tuned to The Night Stalker. Unimaginable today.
It was so popular, ABC soon announced a sequel and Curtis, not wanting to miss out this time, signed on to direct as well as produced. The Night Strangler, also written by Matheson, aired in 1973, followed in 1974 by a television series, the short-lived, beloved and hugely influential, Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
One of that show’s die hard fans is me, obviously. But another, much richer one? Chris Carter, who often cited the show as one of his major influences for The X-Files. In The X-Files’ fifth season episode Travelers, Fox Mulder visits Arthur Dale, a retired FBI agent involved in the very first X-File. Since Arthur Dale was the spiritual father of X-Files, there was only one man who could play him. The spiritual father of the X-Files. Darren McGavin.