Seeing as how this playful horror show is not only a modestly budgeted telefilm but also the first of two pilot movies that preceded a short-lived series, The Night Stalker has cast a long shadow. A cult favorite for its mixture of humor and shock value, The Night Stalker and the weekly show it spawned—Kolchak: The Night Stalker—have been repeatedly cited by producer Chris Carter as the principal inspiration for his enduring X-Files franchise. Indeed, prior to The Night Stalker, it was rare for episodic television to feature ghouls and and monsters, except in the safe zones of anthology shows (e.g., The Twilight Zone) and comedies (e.g., The Munsters). Tellingly, one of the key players behind The Night Stalker, producer Dan Curtis, tested the public’s tolerance for small-screen scares by creating the vampire-themed daytime soap Dark Shadows, which ran from 1966 to 1971.
The Night Stalker teamed Curtis with gifted fantasist Richard Matheson, who adapted the script from a book by Jeffrey Grant Rice. Like Curtis, Matheson was highly skilled at making spooky stuff palatable to TV viewers—witness his success with episodes of The Twilight Zone and the Steven Spielberg-directed telefilm Duel (1971). But enough about pedigree. While The Night Stalker is particularly interesting for its place in TV history, the movie is fun on its own merits, although its power to thrill has dulled with the passage of time and the accompanying coarsening of filmed entertainment.
Darren McGavin, perfectly cast, plays Carl Kolchak, a low-rent reporter with a vivid imagination. Exploring the circumstances of bizarre murders in Las Vegas, Carl latches onto the wild idea that the killer is a real-life vampire—not a crazy person who acts like a mythical bloodsucker, but an actual supernatural creature. Naturally, this notion vexes Carl’s long-suffering editor, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), as well as local authorities including the hot-tempered Sheriff Warren A. Butcher (Claude Akins). Undaunted, Kolchak gathers enough evidence to persuade everyone that the preternaturally resilient murderer Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater) must be staked in the heart. Easier said than done.
Unfolding with the familiar rhythms of a police procedural—clues, setbacks, witnesses, etc.—The Night Stalker builds a decent head of steam, with reliable TV director John Llewellyn Moxey delivering a lively version of the Dan Curtis house style. Think dramatic lighting, slow-burn suspense sequences, and zesty fight scenes. McGavin’s performance, as well as the motor-mouthed dialogue that Matheson provides for the actor, elevates the material considerably. Kolchak’s exasperation at the reluctance of authorities to believe the obvious is palpable, and his tap-dancing way of trying to play events for his advantage is consistently amusing. If there’s a weak link in the formula behind this piece, it’s Curtis’ usual predilection toward showing things full-frame instead of opting for mystery—the producer subscribes to the blunt-force-trauma school of storytelling.
Nonetheless, the combination of the offbeat material and McGavin’s winning performance was worth sustaining, hence a second telefilm, The Night Strangler (1973), which Curtis directed from a Matheson script, and the 20 weekly episodes of Kolchak, airing between September 1974 and March 1975. A poorly received revival series, titled The Night Stalker and featuring Stuart Townsend in the lead, flamed out over the course of 10 episodes in the 2005–2006 TV season.
The Night Stalker: GROOVY