Thursday, October 3, 2013

Monster Serial: THE NIGHT STALKER, 1972

Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!


What would it be like to live forever? Ideally, immortality should offer a life free of consequences, where even your worst mistakes would eventually be forgotten. You might have to watch others wither and die, but problems like sickness and suffering would be concerns for other people. Fantasies of immortality have less to do with a fear of death than it does the indulgence of one's own ego: "I am too special to die."

THE NIGHT STALKER, the 1972 television movie that introduced intrepid newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak to the world, is a film preoccupied with questions of ego, not to mention immortality. This is to be expected from a movie about a vampire. That's part of the allure of this monster, whose life is equal parts gift and curse. But, the vampire is only an incidental element of THE NIGHT STALKER. The character has not one line of dialogue in the film, and what little we know about him is conjecture on the part of the other characters. He leaves the film the same way he enters: A mystery.

If you're willing to overlook the presence of a vampire serial killer, THE NIGHT STALKER is a pretty typical film noir. In fact, the film has more in common with the existential nightmares of Raymond Chandler than the monster movies produced by Carl Laemmle for Universal. The vampire is far and away the least dangerous villain of this film. Had it been made 30 years earlier, it might have starred Fred MacMurrary.

As is typical for noir, THE NIGHT STALKER lacks the presence of a hero. Oh, it has a protagonist in the form of Kolchak, played by Darren McGavin, but there's nothing especially heroic about him. As the story begins, he's a down-on-his-luck reporter working, he insists frequently, for a crummy newspaper in Las Vegas. Beside Kolchak's complaints, we aren't given any examples as to how the newspaper is lousy. It's likely he's voiced these same criticisms of his previous ten employers, which is why he's so prone to unemployment. In short, he's an asshole.

Kolchak makes a connection between a series of murders in the city, insisting they're the work of one person. This "connection" is held together less by facts than by Kolchak's own need for validation, though. You get the sense that Kolchak has a score to settle ... not just with his former employers, who were clearly correct when they fired him, but with the world at large. There's always a weird moment in vampire films when a character has to make a logical leap to believing in the supernatural, but this transition feels right for Kolchak. You never get the impression that he really believes his own bullshit, and mostly latches onto his serial killer/vampire theories for no other reason than they'd make for good stories.

Good stories with his name attached to them, I should say. Based on what we see in THE NIGHT STALKER, Kolchak is not a good newspaper reporter. He's not a responsible one, at any rate, and he seems to have gotten lucky with his vampire conclusion.

A little research eventually identifies the killer as Janos Skorzeny, a wealthy Romanian national born in 1899, and played by character actor Barry Atwater. Skorzeny has spent most of his life traveling, apparently in search of innovative ways to integrate himself into society. Posing as a doctor, we're told he preyed on air raid victims in London hospitals during World War II before moving on to Canada in the late 1940s. At some point, though, Skorzeny surrendered any pretense of humanity. When Kolchak finally corners him in the movie's climax, we see the vampire has been living like a vagrant in an empty house on the edge of town.

Kolchak has a crushing need to be acknowledged, a need that's ravaged his career, but Skorzeny's life has become structured around avoiding notice. The vampire had become consumed with the idea of survival, even when life had nothing to offer him.

Ultimately, it's all a wasted effort on Kolchak's part, though. Yes, he succeeds in rescuing Skorzeny's final victim from captivity, but he wastes no words of concern for her. The Powers That Be in Las Vegas  use the slaying of Skorzeny to force the obnoxious Kolchak out of town, threatening to charge him with murder if he doesn't seek more friendly climes. Just to twist the knife, they also offer Kolchak's girlfriend a similar proposition: Leave town, or face charges for unspecified unsavory activities. The movie ends with Kolchak alone, unemployed and in possession of  a book he's written about his experiences that he can neither publish nor substantiate. Like Skorzeny, he's been damned to a life without consequence.

Skorzeny has no dialogue in the film. While the device makes him a more interesting character, it becomes more curious when compared to producer Dan Curtis's previous horror success, DARK SHADOWS. Jonathan Frid, the actor who played Barnabas Collins on that show, reportedly had a less-than-warm relationship with Curtis. Frid also had problems memorizing his copious amount of dialogue for the live-on-tape TV show, and walked away from the franchise not long after shooting the feature film adaption, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, in 1970. While it's probably a coincidence, I can't help but wonder if Curtis took some satisfaction in watching the surly McGavin pound a stake into the heart of a silent Frid stand-in. 

THE NIGHT STALKER works astonishingly well on a story level. As a movie, though, it's on much shakier ground.  While television movies on the 1970s were generally more ballsy than their modern counterparts, THE NIGHT STALKER's overall production is hopelessly quaint. The movie's photography, commercial-dependent story structure, sound ... everything physical about the film just feels small and pedestrian today.

McGavin's performance still sings, though. As Kolchak, he's a man blissfully unaware of how close he's standing to the edge of the world, yet also someone who probably spends a great deal of time resisting the urge to leap into the abyss. It's the kind of film noir Robert Altman might have made if he better understood the genre, only with more vampire action. If you're a fan of horror, THE NIGHT STALKER is worth the 74 minutes you'll spend with it. It wouldn't hurt your experience if you were to lower your expectations a little, though.

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