Even though I grew up watching old movies and seventies US TV, I was too young to appreciate what slightly older Americans were getting. On prime-time, they could watch (mostly dreadful) TV shows in which the aging guest stars were decrepit versions of the same actors in the late night movies. Like depressives with diurnal variation, or like vampires, or like, well, actual astronomical stars, the stars came to life at night.
Telemovies The Night Stalker, The Night Strangler and follow-up series Kolchak: The Night Stalker display this phenom beautifully, though we were watching for other reasons. We got the familiar faces as a bonus. Here’s Charles McGraw, his once-chiseled features, his lightning-bolt profile, all turned to melting waxwork folds and softness, as he reads his lines off a sheet of paper. Beside him is a crusty Kent Smith, playing a horrible politician, the kind of interesting part he never got when he was young and smooth as an apple. Here’s Elisha Cook Jnr, who spent the seventies battling the undead, it seems, whether it be Janos Skorzeny, Kurt Barlow or Blacula. Here’s Claude Akins, looking more and more like General Aldo from BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, the first role I saw him in, and here’s Ralph Meeker. Ralph has still got it, it just takes him longer to find it.
I had seen a little of this series and hadn’t been impressed, but then everybody had a great time with the original movie at the Edinburgh International Film Festival when Niall Fulton programmed it in his TV movie season, and I missed out. And the first two are written by Richard Matheson (story by Jeff Rice).
The Night Stalker is fairly dumb for a modern-day vampire story. It doesn’t gain much by transplanting an old-time horror character into the modern age. Maybe if he’d been played by one of the aging hams, that would have granted some pathos. But I will say that Barry Atwater, the guy they chose, has a great face. The main innovation is seventies-style cynicism about authority figures — it’s hard to believe this is pre-JAWS, since it anticipates the head-in-the-sand “don’t panic the tourists” official stance, and adds a big cover-up at the end for good measure. THAT I liked. It’s surprisingly bleak.
What’s also impressive is the sheer pace, especially the opening. Matheson crams his set-up into brisk, violent scenes with Darren McGavin’s snappy narration propelling it along. John Llewellyn Moxy brings plenty of his namesake quality to the staging. There are occasional good lines.
Then comes the sequel, in which Jack the Ripper is stalking Seattle, and one realizes that it’s EXACTLY the same as the first movie. Strippers get murdered. McGavin shouts at and is shouted at by his boss. Crepuscular hams of the week: John Carradine (impressively restrained!), Scott Brady, Margaret Hamilton, Al Lewis, Wally Cox (wonderful – television cannot contain him). The only development is that we get to meet and talk to the monster, nicely played by Richard Anderson (“Steve Austin’s boss!” exclaims Fiona) in his lair of dry-ice and mummified family. The floor-hugging disco mist is exactly the reason these things struggle to scare: the accumulation of thoughtless visual clichés.
The other thing that becomes apparent is the misogyny, which lies low but creeps into everything, like dry ice. In the second film, there is no compelling reason why all the victims have to be female. Women are just assumed to be natural murderees. Why kill a guy when you can kill a woman, which would be more heterosexual and therefore normal? McGavin’s commentary is an anthology of shocking victim-blaming (woman out at night: “She wanted to get ahead. She should have settled for staying alive.”) and salaciousness (a corpse is “luscious”). This kind of thing carries on into the series, where Kolchak is more than once paired with fat chicks, who are there to be patronized and abused. Of course it was slightly forward-thinking at the time for an American TV show to even admit the existence of women not shaped like Carol Lynley (girlfriend, first film) or Jo-Ann Pflug (girlfriend, second film).
This stuff is all on YouTube, by the way. Have only dipped into the series itself, but it does benefit from the involvement of David Chase on script. The Sopranos creator has been around a long time! When a zombie terrorizes Chicago gangsters, it becomes apparent that the writer has researched the mob and is able to supply convincing detail about how they operate. It’s the first sign that Kolchak, purportedly a modern character in the modern world but really lifted from 20s newspaper movies (“If you see a guy who looks like he stepped out of a road company production of The Front Page…”) is actually operating in contemporary reality.
The series seems to alternate between the unwatchably hackneyed and the possessed-of-an-occasional edge, so we may dip into more. Jimmy Sangster wrote one! Phil Silvers is in it! Some of these might surface during The Late Show: the Late Movies Blogathon (early December — please contribute!)