“Judge for yourself its believability and then try to tell yourself, wherever you may be, it couldn’t happen here.”
“The Night Stalker” premiered on ABC television (American Broadcasting Company) on January 11, 1972. The television movie garnered record numbers, becoming at the time, the most watched television movie in history, receiving a 33.2 rating and a 54 share; it would remain at the top for years after its initial airing. The movie opens in a dingy hotel room, where journalist Carl Kolchak, wonderfully portrayed by the late, great character actor, Emmy nominee Darren McGavin (A Christmas Story), is listening to his voice coming from a handheld tape recorder. He has been recounting what took place during his last assignment in Las Vegas.
While leaving to begin a two week vacation, Kolchak is summoned back to the Las Vegas newspaper he works for by his editor, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland). The piece he is assigned seems the sort of article that any rookie reporter could cover, the unfortunate homicide of a Las Vegas cocktail waitress. What at first seems like an ordinary story becomes anything but, as Kolchak begins to investigate the woman’s death. Kolchak even begins to believe the story could be so big, that he might be able to leave his job in Las Vegas, and go to work in New York, where he’s worked before, and desperately wants to get back to. The first aspect of the woman’s murder Kolchak latches on to, is that her body has been completely drained of blood. In the coming days, other women begin to turn up dead, who have also had the blood drained from their bodies. Furthermore, there have been robberies at blood banks. All of that information makes Kolchak speculate that the killer is a deranged person who believes he is a vampire.
Law enforcement, led by District Attorney Paine (Kent Smith); Sheriff Butcher (Claude Akins); and the head of police, Chief Masterson (Charles McGraw) are quick to dismiss, what they consider, Kolchak’s wild theory. In fact, they demand that he not put what he suspects in print, so as not to hurt business. Dr. Makurji, the police coroner, portrayed by Larry Linville, who is most famous for playing the character Major Frank Burns on “M*A*S*H,” insists that, based on his own findings, Kolchak’s theory shouldn’t be ignored, but he is also dismissed outright. Kolchak’s only friend in law enforcement, FBI agent Bernie Jenks (Ralph Meeker), who is stationed at the FBI’s Las Vegas field office, keeps Kolchak informed as best he can, but the aggressive Kolchak has to circumvent the police, whom he has a contentious relationship with, in order to pursue his story. Kolchak is able to do this by relying on a network of informants he has built up, which include: his girlfriend Gail Foster, who works at one of the popular casinos, is played by two time Golden Globe nominee Carol Lynley (The Poseidon Adventure); hospital coroner Dr. O’Brien (Jordan Rhodes); regular casino gambler, Mickey Crawford (Elisha Cook Jr); and a switch board operator (Peggy Rea).
As viewers, we know from the outset, that Kolchak is right. The man committing the murders is not, however, pretending to be a vampire, but is, in actuality, a vampire. His name is Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater), born in 1899. He has traveled the world extensively, and now is stalking the streets of Las Vegas for victims. He’s intelligent, extraordinarily strong, and seemingly impossible to stop; everywhere he has gone, a series of murders, the likes of which are happening in Las Vegas, have occurred. What is done with the Skorzeny character advances the vampire narrative past its usual story. Prior to “The Night Stalker” television movie, vampire films and television depictions usually took place during the Victorian era, and featured a cape wearing vampire who resided in a castle. “The Night Stalker” brings the vampire into the modern era, imagining how the vampire would have to adjust to living in the early 1970s. The movie focuses on several key questions: What lengths would he or she have to go to in order to get blood, to perpetuate their existence? How would law enforcement go about stopping such a creature? Would those in charge, even be willing to entertain the notion that vampires really exist?
“The Night Stalker” was directed by John Llewellyn Moxey (Murder She Wrote), and produced for television by Emmy winner Dan Curtis (War & Remembrance). Curtis would later state that he regretted not releasing the 74 minute movie as a feature film, because the test screenings that were held before it aired on television were overwhelmingly positive. The teleplay was written by Richard Matheson (The Twilight Zone) based off of an unpublished novel by Jeff Rice (The Night Strangler). “The Night Stalker” was so successful that, it was followed up by a second television movie, “The Night Strangler,” which aired on January 16, 1973. There were plans for a third television film which was to be titled “The Night Killers,” the plot of which centered on Kolchak accepting a job in Honolulu, Hawaii, and while on assignment, he discovers that there has been a cover-up that involves UFOs, a nuclear power plant, and people being replaced by androids. Instead of producing the third television movie, ABC decided to turn Kolchak into a television series. The series “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” aired on ABC from September 13, 1974 through March 28, 1975. The series lasted a mere 20 episodes, and primarily consisted of a ‘monster of the week’ format. McGavin was dissatisfied with the material, he wanted it to branch out into more intricate and entertaining stories. Chris Cater the creator of the “X-Files,” was enamored with the television movies, as well as the short lived series; he credits both as major sources of inspiration. Carter approached McGavin about reprising his role of Kolchak for the “X-Files,” but McGavin politely declined, citing the passage of too much time. McGavin did, however, very much like what Carter was doing with the “X-Files,” and appeared in the series. McGavin portrayed the character of Arthur Dales, a retired FBI agent, known as the ‘father of the ‘X-Files.’ (As an aside: Richard Matheson won the 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, USA).
Will Kolchak be able to convince law enforcement that they are dealing with a real life vampire? What lengths will he go to in order to pursue the story? Can Kolchak stop Skorzeny from killing again? Will the vampire be caught, or move on to another town to kill more helpless victims in order to satisfy his needs? All of those questions and more, will be answered by the conclusion of the television movie.