So! Now we move to the first of the actual TV episodes. The rumor is that Darren McGavin enjoyed working in TV movies and only agreed to tie himself to a television show with the promise that he would also be executive producer. Then, on the first day of shooting, he found another executive producer on the set.
According to the story I heard, he felt betrayed and acted as the executive producer anyway. Essentially, the set had two bosses. Things became so contentious that at the end of the first season McGavin begged for the show to be cancelled.
Still, this was the first episode, aired 9/13/74. I wasn’t allowed to watch it, but I did end up seeing it later in syndication. Currently, all episodes of the TV show are available on streaming on Netflix. If you want to switch over to watch it (it’s about 50 minutes long) do so now, because I’m about to post some spoilers.
Really short plot synopsis: Jack the Ripper is loose in modern-day (circa 1974) Chicago, and only Kolchak recognizes him for the super-human killer that he is. Too bad for Our Hero that another reporter has been assigned to the story and he’s been relegated to a week of answering “Dear Emily” letters. Not that Kolchak would let that get in his way. Written by Rudolph Borchert, Directed by Allen Beron.
What happens in detail: more »
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by Harry Connolly
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“Apple is best understood as the Singapore of technological ecosystems—smart, forward-looking, and every so often you get caned for chewing gum. ”
— Patrick Nielsen Hayden
(posted after I realized that the Mac OS disables “Grab”–the screen capture utility–while “DVD Player” is running, because God forbid anyone want to post an image from a movie or TV show they’re writing critically about)
Finally I can talk about the sequel to The Night Stalker.
As I mentioned in the previous post, the first movie was a hit. It had the highest rating of any TV movie up until that time. A sequel was inevitable.
And it was just as inevitable that it would be good, but inferior to the first. Richard Matheson won an Edgar Award for the script of the first movie and he’s back again for the sequel. However, this time around producer Dan Curtis took over the directing job from John Llewellyn Moxey, and he doesn’t have the chops to pull this one off. Still, it’s a Kolchak story, and it’s pretty damn good.
As I mentioned in the previous writeup, the first two films are available from Netflix as a double feature. You can also buy them online through third party sellers, since the DVD is OOP. If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to be spoiled, skip to the “Commentary” section.
Also, this writeup will be shorter than the first one.
What happens: The movie starts off the way every out of towner starts a film set in Seattle–a long shot of a ferry crossing Elliott Bay. Then we cut to a young woman (described in the voice-over as “a belly-dancer named ‘Marissa’”–you can hear the air quotes in Darren McGavin’s voice) leaving the club where she worked. Compared to the bright, crowded opening night scene of the Vegas Strip that opened the first movie, this is dark and lonely-looking. She takes a short cut through an alley but sees a stalker moving in the shadows and bolts for the street.
A cab screeches to a halt just as she runs into the driver’s door. She pleads for a ride and says a man is following her but the cabby apparently hates money and human safety, because he drives off without her. “Marissa” can’t see anything in the alley and apparently decides that there’s nothing to be afraid of after all. She casually strolls to the bus stop on St. James Street (?) and lights up a cigarette while waiting for the 3 am bus. The shadowy figure grabs her and we cut away.
Vincenzo, the editor from the first movie, breezes into a press club bar. He hears Kolchak’s voice grating from another part of the bar, haranguing a poor extra about good journalism and trying to get the guy to read his book of clippings about the vampire from the first film. So much for “You will never hear this story.” Vincenzo isn’t happy to see him, but Kolchak talks his way into a job.
Kolchak gets the “Marissa” murder. He tries to run down the angles–at the police station, the bar where she danced, the whole thing–and comes up with nothing. He visits the two other dancers at the club–first, “Charisma Beauty” (aka Gladys), a blonde airhead in a stereotypical lesbian relationship (which of course the film makes fun of) and then “Scheherazade” (aka Louise) who is only dancing so she can (you guessed it) pay for college. Louise Harper quickly becomes The Girl, although there’s never a moment of romantic spark between her and Kolchak.
That night a waitress is killed. The next morning during a press conference (one of only two in the movie!) the M.E. tells the press that a small amount of blood had been taken from the victim’s body. How they could tell is anyone’s guess, but never mind. Kolchak makes a nuisance of himself, and that’s the ten minute mark.
Dissatisfied with the report, Kolchak sneaks a bottle of scotch into the morgue to bribe an attendant. They do a joke about drinking out of a dirty morgue beaker and cut to a scene at Vincenzo’s office, for the first shouting match. It seems that the attendant liked the booze enough to admit that the women were not just strangled, their neck bones were crushed as though the killer was tremendously strong. Also, they found rotted flesh on the victim’s necks, “as if they’d been strangled by a dead man.” 11 minutes.
Kolchak goes back to the club to talk to the second belly dancer, Louise. She’s struggling with her studies, but what does Our Hero care about that? He takes her out to get some kind of sandwich from a food cart (which were apparently allowed in the distant past of our city) and sees an Underground Tour go by. This prompts Charisma to drop exposition about the underground city: After the fire in 1889, the city was rebuilt on higher ground, and there are older streets below the modern ones. That’ll be on the test later.
Next he visits the “morgue” at the newspaper, where all the old issues are kept. The researcher there (Wally Cox, in one of his last roles) tells him there were six strangulations very similar to these in the ’52. Many of the details are the same, including the missing blood, the crushed necks, and an eye witness who said the killer had the “rotted features of a corpse.” Cue another “I can’t print this!” shouting match with Vincenzo in his office.
Next we show another woman walking alone at night in Pioneer Square, except this time she’s a witness. We get to see the killer with a hypodermic needle full of blood, she scream, he runs away. Kolchak horns in on the police chief as he tries to conduct an interview in the street. They ask her what the killer looked like, and she says “He looked like a dead man.” Cue another shouting match with Vincenzo.
Back to the newspaper morgue. The researcher has found another six murders all the way back in 1931. Kolchak realizes there are 21 years between those murders, so they look up 1910, then 1889, the year of the fire. Yep, six strangulations each time–missing blood, dead flesh, the whole deal. Cue another shouting match with Vincenzo.
Since the police aren’t sharing, Kolchak convinces the paper to hire a sketch artist to draw the killer’s face, as described by the witness to murder 3. The drawing shows a man with a rotting face, his bones showing through. This time the paper prints it, causing the chief to denounce them in a second press conference. The publisher is pissed, too, and Vincenzo is taking a lot of heat. Kolchak reminds him that no one believed in the vampire, either. “Plus it’s a great story.”
Kolchak has become Cassandra. 25 minutes.
While out wandering the streets at night, Kolchak is stopped by cops in a car. (Just like in Vegas, they all wear those plastic helmets, even while driving. Was that the style then?) Suddenly they get a call–the killer has been spotted! The car screeches away and Kolchak runs after. The killer, syringe in hand, runs through the streets, dodging vehicles. Kolchak somehow manages to outrace the cop cars and get to the alley first. The killer, who we still only see as a dark hat and coat from behind, lifts Kolchak against the wall as though he’s going to squash him.
The cops arrive and we get the only Big Cop Fight of the episode. It’s kind of a lame one, too. Anyway, Kolchak takes a picture or two of the killer before he gets away (shrugging off bullets at the same time). They race after him (right past a huge “Richards Clinic” sign) into the street. He’s gone. Where’d he go? While everyone is looking around bewildered, the police chief breezes into the shot and snatches Kolchak’s camera.
Rather than sue the city to recover the film, Kolchak invites Louise to go on the Underground Tour with him. In every scene but this one, she’s been slammed for time, what with studying tough subjects and earning a living, but hey, why not do this touristy thing. Apparently.
We see Doc Maynards circa 1973, a cameo by the tour’s creator Bill Speidel (I have his history of early Seattle on my to-read shelf, and tour operators in their straw hats and red blazers leading people through the underground.
Kolchak lags behind the tour and drags Louise with him as they sneak away to explore a roped-off part of the underground. Instead of finding the super-strong living corpse, they find
Grandpa Munster Al Lewis playing an alcoholic tramp. He’s too sick to be the killer.
Cut to a shot of the Space Needle as Kolchak and his date discuss how the killer gets away after the murders. Where does he go? Kolchak gives her a rundown on the plot of the first movie, and they do what I will always think of as the “elevator joke”. Cut to the two of them on Red Square at the University of WA, as Louise directs him to yet another character actor who has a bit of exposition for him, this time Margaret (“And your little dog, too!”) Hamilton. She tells him about the Elixir of Life, and one of the ingredients is human blood (naturally.) Kolchak becomes convinced that the killer has created an Elixir, that the effects only last 21 years, then he begins to decay again. Cue another “I can’t print this!” shouting match.
Next, the killer strangles Gladys, aka Charisma Beauty, and we see it. Furious that no one will take his advice seriously, Kolchak barges into the chief’s office and they have a long, contentious exchange. Kolchak is more abrasive than ever, but it doesn’t compare with what he does in the next scene with Vincenzo, where he acts like a real shitheel.
Back to the newspaper archives where the researcher has found The Guy, a Civil War surgeon who claimed to have found the secret to immortality. There’s even a picture. More research brings out the ties between the surgeon and killings, and we get more shouting matches along with continual restatement of the stakes.
Louise, angry that her two co-workers have been killed, agrees to offer herself as bait, with Kolchak following close behind. They dodge the cops then get separated. Louise walks down an alley into danger, while Kolchak hides from the cops then chases after her. They’re lucky enough to get arrested, with the killer just a few steps away. The killer finds a sixth victim by breaking into a restaurant and, rawr!-ing like Frankenstein’s monster, attacks.
Everyone expects the killer to vanish for 21 more years. After overhearing two cops talking, Kolchak and Louise return to the Richards clinic and break in. Kolchak hopes to find a secret entrance to a sealed-off part of the underground, and he does. He gives Louise the same instructions he gave his buddy in the first movie–wait thirty minutes so he can get his exclusive and call the cops.
Let’s not talk too much about this “Underground” here, except to say that it’s five stories deep, has trash- and rubble-free streets, and has a little ambient light from random fires burning here and there. Don’t ask me where the dried leaves or the blowing mist comes from. Kolchak stumbles on Al Lewis’s corpse and then finally the killer’s house.
A victrola is playing old timey music as he enters. The living room has been decorated with dead tree branches and a fog machine, and the dining room table has been set with a nice meal, rats, and 90-year-old corpses at all the chairs. Kolchak dips his finger into a cup of coffee beside an empty chair and discovers it’s hot. Damn. The killer eats here.
Cue the killer’s entrance. Gone is the monster rawr-ing–he now speaks in a fancy old-fashioned dialect. “You profane my world, sir!” Kolchak explains that he wants to share the guy’s story with his readers and the surgeon turns to the corpses at the table and says: “His readers. You hear that?”
Yipes! Not only is he a killer, he’s crazy. Kolchak grovels and the killer decides not to kill him. Does he have time to tell his story? ::checks pocket watch:: Yep! The surgeon runs down pretty much everything we already know, but with his own emotional content attached. It’s a villain monolog! Not only that, it’s actually effective. The actor is overly-chummy one minute and burning with rage over Kolchak’s interruptions the next. He even shows off his medical equipment where he brews his elixir. He’s convinced he’ll find a way to make it permanent someday.
He also, in a misguided moment, points out the beaker with the sixth and last dose. “If I don’t take it, the process will reverse itself.” Checks watch. “But I will take it.”
Kolchak snatches something (I’ve seen the scene three times and I still can’t tell what he picks up) off a table and throws it, destroying the last dose. The killer gets that killer look, and he chases Our Hero, throwing him onto a table and choking him. But his strength is fading and he falls back, his face transformed with weird monster makeup. The cops (finally) arrive, the Killer asks “Why?” then jumps through a boarded-up window, falling to the sidewalk five stories below. Dead.
The next morning, Kolchak is in a great mood as he breezes into the office. Gosh, why is all his stuff boxed up on his desk? Because he’s been fired, of course. Worse, his story has been killed. He charges into Vincenzo’s office in a wild rage, and Vincenzo explains that of course they weren’t going to print his story of a 144-year-old killer making an elixir of life from murdered women’s blood, any more than they would run a vampire story in Las Vegas. More screaming and Kolchak storms out. As he does, Vincenzo gets a call.
Cut to Kolchak’s voice over as he drives out of town. Vincenzo tells him to shut up and turn off the recorder. Hey, he’s been fired, too, and they’re leaving town together. To New York, Kolchak announces. Louise Harper pops up in the back seat, angry at being run out of town because of him. It’s a supporting cast! Roll credits.
Commentary: Didn’t I say this was going to be shorter? Well, it is, but the movie itself was longer. THE NIGHT STALKER was made for a ninety-minute slot and this was made to fit two hours.
It’s also fussier. In the first movie, there were the bite marks, the bloodless bodies, and the tremendous strength of the killer. Everyone was thinking vampire–or at least “crazy guy who thinks he’s a vampire.”
With this one, there’s the strangling, the syringes, the missing blood, the murders going back so many years and the arguments over how well they match the current ones, the killer who looks like a corpse but then doesn’t. Sure, having a relatively-complicated villain gives Kolchak something to do as he tracks down the backstory, but it’s not as compelling as the conflicts of the first film.
Also, the direction was… troubled, let’s say. I made a point of pointing out the way the first victim went from frightened to casual in a blink. It didn’t make any sense and I almost suspected it came from editing two disparate scenes together. But you know, probably not. I’m sure that choice just made it easier to shoot the initial scare.
The director did this weird trick several times in the movie, where he’d show a landmark of the city–the Space Needle, say–and have the characters talking in voice over. Then, the camera would pan and show them in the scene. It was distracting and it kept pushing me out of the story.
And now, the story: The main through plot was fine. A crazy guy who looks like a corpse is strangling women in Pioneer Square to steal their blood. Can they figure out how to catch him?
The problem comes from a number of choices they made. One, there doesn’t seem to be any effect on the population of the city. Women still wander through the Square at night. Citizens aren’t looking nervously around as they did in the first movie. There’s no scene like the one with the Doberman.
Two, the ending. Even as a kid watching this show on my living room floor, I knew that secret underground city was fucking ridiculous. Never mind that the real Seattle rebuilt their city one block higher than the old one, not six. It didn’t even look real.
Three, the city authorities have been boiled down into one person: Police Chief Shubert. Sure, John Carradine plays the publisher of the paper where Kolchak works, but he’s a different kind of antagonist–mainly concerned with the paper. Shubert is a smart cop, and his antagonism toward Kolchak is something Kolchak earns. And how. This isn’t like the table of civil authorities in the first movie, where they strong arm, bully and threaten a reporter just doing his job. In this film, Kolchak acts like an ass, and Shubert’s hostility is justified. In fact, except for the camera snatching, everything he does is pretty decent. He could have thrown Kolchak in jail near the end (and was perfectly justified, too) but he didn’t. Not that Kolchak recognized the break he was getting.
And speaking of Kolchak… You know, I grew up on the brash, shouting Kolchak from the TV series. The show pitted him against every authority figure you can come up with, and he was never impressed by any of them. But the Kolchak from the first movie was an operator. He had friends, a network of people who brought him information. He knew how to play people to get what he wanted. He had smarts and skills!
Now, of course Kolchak doesn’t have a network in this film–he’s only just arrived in town–but that doesn’t excuse the tone deaf way he treats people. Some of the things he says in his shouting matches are deeply shitty.
Not only that, but he drags Louise with him into incredible danger. Yes, the movie makes clear that she goes eagerly, but she wouldn’t be risking her life if he didn’t instigate.
That said, there’s a lot to like about this movie, too. Yeah, the lead is often a jerk, but the movie knows he’s being a jerk and treats him that way; I don’t need every protagonist to be a paragon of virtue. If I can forget the character from the first movie, this one works just fine.
The alley-stalking scenes were beautifully lit and shot to really establish the scares. Nicely spooky.
The plot didn’t have the same escalating pace of the first movie, but few do. What this movie did was show a fascinating process of gathering the information needed to make sense of the killer. I know I said that this wasn’t as interesting as Kolchak vs. the city elders (and it’s not) but it’s still interesting in its own right.
And finally, there’s the actors. The movie is so full of terrific character actors that the scenes are always interesting. Even something as cliche as the villain monolog works like gangbusters if you have the right actor deliver the lines (and they do.)
So, I’d say this movie is a qualified success–definitely worth watching. In fact, I’m sure I’d think better of it if I hadn’t seen the first one.
There was supposed to be a third movie called THE NIGHT KILLER set in New York, in which the Strangler character turned up again, not nearly as dead as he was supposed to be. Instead, the studio scotched it and started the series. I’ll cover the first episode next.
This is the telemovie that started it all. When it aired in 1972, THE NIGHT STALKER received the highest ratings of any TV movie up to that point, surprising everyone involved. They knew they’d made a solid movie, but they’d underestimated the appeal of the vampire. The sequel (set in Seattle!) and the single-season TV show all built on that success. Sadly, behind-the-scenes conflict tore the show apart.
But! The first movie is tight, sharp, suspenseful and a helluva lot of fun, mainly because it’s about more than just the booga-booga. It’s also a mere hour and fourteen minutes.
Do I need to make a spoiler warning? Skip down to the part that says “Commentary” if you haven’t seen the movie before and want to watch it unspoiled. If you don’t care about spoilers, keep right on.
What happens: We open in an anonymous motel room with the fanciest technology of the day, a cassette tape being slid into a portable tape recorder! The hand presses play and we get the start of the voice-over narration we’ll hear for the rest of the movie. It’s a little purple, promises us we’ll never believe the story we’re about to hear, and nicely establishes the noirish tone. Enter Carl Kolchak, peeling a pull tab off a can of beer with his teeth and kicking back with his open-neck shirt and white shoes. He kindly mouths the word on the tape as we hear them so we know it’s his voice.
Cut to the first victim, a young woman on the Las Vegas strip. Her shift at the casino has ended and her ride hasn’t turned up, so she starts walking home, cleverly taking a short cut through an alley. A hand suddenly grabs her by the throat and drags her between buildings. After a brief struggle where her fashionable red shoes don’t touch the ground, she’s thrown into a pile of TV trash and her attacker leaps onto her. Cut to a trash collector discovering her body in a trash can.
The next scene shows three medical examiners bending over the camera as though it was a body. Larry Linville, soon to straight-jacket his career as Frank “Ferret Face” Burns on M*A*S*H, starts cutting into us with a scalpel as the title flashes on the screen. The murder victim has been drained of blood. The coroner tells the others to keep it a secret.
Next we see Carl Kolchak himself, driving his beater into Vegas as the narration informs us that he’s been called back from vacation. In the newspaper office he and his editor, Vincenzo, have the first of the many shouting matches they would have over the next three years. Carl is ordered to cover the murders. Go, Journalism! First stop, a friendly doctor willing who apparently can’t keep the coroner’s secret. Second stop, The Girlfriend, who happened to work with the victim. He comforts her, and she expresses her very 70′s-TV disbelief that the victim’s brown belt in karate didn’t do her any good in the attack. (“Ze goggles! Zay do nothing!”)
The next body turns up, and this time it’s another woman working a casino night shift, but she’s found in the middle of a sandy culvert, over twenty feet away from her purse and the “signs of a struggle” in the hard-scrabble desert. There are also no footprints in the sand nearby. What was she, thrown? (Yes, actually.) Carl, the sheriff, and the sheriff’s men in their funny plastic helmets go out to examine the body, ignoring the huge shadow the camera man and camera cast into the frame. She’s lost all of her blood, but there isn’t a trace of it at the scene.
Then there’s another murder: a young woman lies on the floor of a closet in her apartment while police examine the scene. The narration intones that she answered a knock on the door and was murdered, all without waking her roommate sleeping in the next room. Narration: “That was when everyone stopped talking.”
All within the first ten minutes.
Kolchak buys a beer for his good buddy in the FBI, Bernie, and presses him for information. He also pressures Bernie to start looking for similar crimes around the country. Basic stuff, but Kolchak is the only one ready to pursue that angle this early in the case (especially since he’s delegating all the work). The talkative doctor calls him to tell him about a robbery at a blood bank; the thief stole every and any blood type–and it’s time for one of the series’s signature scenes: the press conference.
I’ll talk more about press conferences later, but this one is a fine, prime example. On the left you have the sheriff, the D.A., the police chief, and Coroner Ferret Face. On the right you have a horde of journalistic extras and Kolchak. The coroner explains that the victims were all drained of blood, the wounds are consistent with a dog bite, and they found human saliva mixed with the victim’s blood.
Being bold (and abrasive) Kolchak asks the obvious blood-drinking question, prompting the coroner to use the “v” word, and that doesn’t make anyone happy. The coroner tries to explain that there’s a historical precedent for people who think they’re–the D.A. suddenly snaps back on his leash. We can’t have that kind of talk! “The public” would go into a panic!
Next, the natural sequel scene to the press conference. Setting the precedent for many public officials to come, the D.A. pulls Kolchak aside, tells him he’ll call Vincenzo to have another reporter assigned to this story and warns Kolchak that he’ll be run out of town if he doesn’t toe the line. Even better, he does it with his arm linked with Kolchak’s and a big friendly smile on his face.
At the newspaper, Vincenzo tears Kolchak a new one. He tells Kolchak to stop bothering the people in power and to wait for the police to tell them what they ought to know. It wasn’t until later in the series that he became a decent editor (as these things are measured on TV). He also accuses Kolchak (correctly, this time) as a down-on-his-luck former-big-city reporter looking for the big story that’ll carry him back to a major paper. Ambition? How unseemly.
Back to The Girlfriend so Kolchak can talk to someone about his personal arc.
Next we get victim number four. This time, a witness–an elderly woman–saw them “kissing.” In the future, I’ll assume all public displays of affection are vampire attacks, just in case. The witness gives the cops the description of the car. Kolchak visits one of his contacts, bribing her to contact him when they discover the owner of the vehicle. Then Bernie, his FBI buddy, asks if he wants to see a picture of the killer.
Cut to: a newspaper in a dispenser, with a police sketch of the killer under the headline “Fourth Slaying.” A hand reaches into the machine and takes a paper, and suddenly we realize we’re with the killer himself. Twenty-three minutes.
The viewer gets shots of the killer’s arm and his back as he walks through a crowded casino, but not his face. Tension builds as everyone seems to be checking him out, including one very beautiful young woman. Cut to a darkened parking lot. The vampire sits in his car watching a woman cross to her car. That’s when we get a look at his face: red eyes, crazy expression, wild hunger… yep. That’s an old school vampire right there. Except for the car.
He creeps up on her, all crazy-faced, and she yanks open her car’s back door. Out charges a Doberman. It races at the vampire and he kills it by grabbing it in some way. Oops. The dog defense has failed. Check and mate. She’s can’t run away because of the power of the vampire (or the script) and the scene goes dark.
In Vincenzo’s office, Kolchak tries to convince his boss that the woman who went missing the night before (Shelly Forbes) must be the vampire’s fifth victim, mainly because of the dog. Having all the courage of a three-term senator facing a primary challenge, Vincenzo is unwilling to commit.
Kolchak does a little investigating and he gets together again with The Girlfriend. At this point, everyone believes the killer is a crazy guy who thinks he’s a vampire, but only TGf is willing to entertain the idea that he’s a vampire for real. She drops a couple of folklore books in his lap and insists he study up, just in case. Smart woman. Love (and lust) prompt Kolchak to read enough to figure out how to get through act three.
Next, we have another blood robbery, but this time we see the vampire being picky about which bottles he takes. A nurse stumbles on him and we are treated to yet another Kolchak staple: The Big Fight. After bouncing a few orderlies off the
shaky set walls, the vampire throws a guy straight through an upper floor window.
As Kolchak arrives with his camera, the vampire charges out the front door into the street, OMAC-style. Kolchak snaps pictures while the vampire throws orderlies and then cops around. He flees in the chaos as the cops shoot at him.
“Things were rolling.”
Another press conference, and this time Bernie the FBI agent has the information Kolchak asked him to dig up in the first reel. They’ve ID’ed the killer as Janos Skorzeny, an eastern European millionaire who was born over 70 years before. The room erupts in disbelief, but Bernie testily shouts that he’s triple-checked everything, so shut up. Skorzeny has a long, ugly history of aliases, freaky experiments, and unexplained murders. Kolchak insists that the strange events of the other day can’t be explained away, and while he doesn’t explicitly Mulder the room by insisting the killer is a monster, he tells them they won’t catch the killer until they conduct the search as though he’s a vampire.
Guess how well that goes over. Kolchak gets into a shouting match with the D.A. and comes up second. No one is going to create public panic–or risk looking stupid–by treating the maniac as if he was a real vamp.
Kolchak delegates more of his investigation to another character actor, then sits down with TGf. He admits that this story is the craziest story ever, but he still can’t bring himself to talk about Skorzeny being the real deal.
Next, the second, definitive Big Fight. Kolchak’s police scanner tells him the cops have spotted the killer and his green station wagon (he’s a millionaire vampire and he can’t even afford a white panel van?) and Kolchak races to the scene.
A massive brawl ensues as the cops try to control the unarmed Skorzeny with their clubs and fists. Skorzeny vigorously kicks their asses and tries to flee. They draw their guns and blast away at him. Skorzeny falls, then looks back, ticked off. Oh, yeah. That’s the look.
Skorzeny gets up again. The cops start shooting again, but he jumps a wall and the cops wisely decide not to chase him. Kolchak? He’s finally ready to believe in vampires. That’s minute 43.
Cut to the next press conference. Everyone is in a fuss and the VIPs order all the press out of the room–all except for Kolchak, who’s sitting in the back of the room with his feet up and his hat over his eyes. He strolls to the front of the room and grandly announces that he knows exactly what to do about this killer. He smugly strikes a deal: His advice will show them how to them stop the killer and in return Kolchak gets an exclusive. The cops and D.A. grit their teeth and put up with him long enough to agree. Kolchak takes a cross, stake and mallet out of his bag. The city leaders, not genre film fans it seems, are not pleased, but what options do they have?
One of Kolchak’s character actors contacts him: he’s found Skorzeny’s house.
After making his buddy promise not to tell the cops about the house until after sunrise, Kolchak races across town and breaks into the house. Minute 50. The house is a decrepit wreck (the rich really do live different from you and me) and Kolchak starts creeping around, searching the place. These scenes are damn quiet, much of it with nothing more than the sounds of Kolchak’s fashionable white shoes on the dirty creaking floorboards, up until it’s replaced with quiet, effective percussive music. Nicely done.
Kolchak finds and snaps photos of the stolen bottles of blood in the fridge and the coffin in the bedroom. When he finally finds Shelly Forbes tied to a bed with a bottle of blood draining into her (now we know why Skorzeny was so picky during the second heist) he starts to rescue her (without snapping a pic, thankfully), but then Skorzeny’s car pulls up.
Kolchak puts things back where they were and ducks into a closet, but Skorzeny and his evil bowl cut are not fooled. Kolchak fends him off with the cross and tries to back out of the building, but the mess is so bad that he falls down the stair, dropping the cross.
Skorzeny is on him immediately, and they struggle. Well, Kolchak struggles. Skorzeny throws him across the room and bares his throat for the bite.
Bernie the FBI agent arrives just in time, but his attack (and the gunshots) have the expected effect, which is “none”. Kolchak and Bernie begin yanking down curtains to let the dawn light in and Skorzeny falls back onto the stairs, where Kolchak stakes him.
Just as the cops arrive.
Later that morning, Kolchak is happy and humming. He’s typing out his story, sure it’s going to be the biggest thing ever and he’s going to be offered a job in NY. He proposes to The Girlfriend in the way every early 70′s casino employee dreams of (“You’re a good cooker and kisser. Why not?”) and rushes off to dreams of glory.
Vincenzo is subdued, as though he’s just been told his dog had died. He takes Kolchak’s pages without enthusiasm, and actually compliments him. Oh, and the D.A. wants to see Kolchak downtown. Kolchak heads to the courthouse…
Where he discovers the Sheriff, D.A. and police chief waiting for him, murder warrant in hand. It seems that the local authorities don’t like citizens pounding stakes through people’s hearts, and this Skorzeny guy hadn’t even been charged with anything yet. Kolchak has to get out of town. His girlfriend has already been run off, and his luggage gets dumped on the floor behind him. Bernie is there, squirming, apologizing, but Kolchak drives out of town, knowing his big story has been killed and covered up.
And we return to the motel room framing scene, where the last of the narration plays out of the tape recorder. Kolchak laughs and throws the typed-up account of his story on the desk and walks away.
Commentary: Where to start? First, the rest of these writeups are not going to be this long or detailed. I put 2400 words into the first movie because it was such a solid story.
Let me start by talking about how different Carl Kolchak seems from the character he would become. First of all, he’s a bit of a snappy dresser here. Sure, it’s 70′s fashions, with those awful white loafers and knit ties, but he’s not shabby, like he becomes in the series. Even his porkpie hat still looks new and crisp, without the beating it would take during the series.
He’s also much smoother. Sure, he’s willing to ask questions when everyone else wishes he would shut up, and he’s smug and pushy sometimes, but there’s a lot less shouting. He also doesn’t tweak the noses of power as forcefully as we would later. It’s something I see often in TV shows: the characters start out as basically normal people but become charicatured over time.
The biggest change comes from Vincenzo, though. Kolchak’s editor would follow him from Vegas to Seattle to Chicago, but he would never be this go-along-to-get-along guy again. He would always clash with Kolchak over his methods and his crazy supernatural stories, but I don’t ever expect to see him side with public officials solely because they’re public officials.
The script was written by Richard Matheson from “an unpublished story by Jeff Rice.” Matheson won an Edgar for that, but Rice was supposed to have retained much of the control over the characters. The studio cut him out of the process and he sued. Guess how useful that was? He never had a Hollywood career and I’m sorry for it.
The movie is full of solid creative choices. The way it alternates between murders, investigation, helpless government officials and personal moments keep the pacing brisk and sharp without ever seeming forced. It’s also full of terrific character actors. Bernie is played by Ralph Meeker, and Sheriff Butcher is Claude Akins. The only downside there is that almost everyone is the cast is male except for The Girlfriend and the victims. This got better in the series, but it’s pretty pronounced here.
Barry Atwater played the vampire, Janos Skorzeny. He’s terrific in the role, even though it’s all movement and expression. He doesn’t get any dialog. He’s also not a romantic figure–he doesn’t make women swoon, he doesn’t sparkle, he doesn’t bemoan his fate. He’s a predator and he’s hungry.
Which makes him a monster, yeah, and I’ve written about my feelings about monsters before. But here it works, because Kolchak’s major antagonist isn’t the killer. The killer is the thing he’s chasing. Yeah, Skorzeny is dangerous, but he’s also absent for most of the movie. His main enemies here are part of the power structure of the city. They’re the people who can’t solve the problem, but refuse to consider any solution that might make them look foolish. They can’t tolerate dissent and they betray Kolchak at the end, running him out of town rather than accept that he did their job for them, and his story would embarrass them.
Which makes this a noir in the best sense. There’s no cliche guys in trench coats talking in metaphors, but there is a city under tremendous pressure, a protagonist with compromised motives, and vivid supporting cast of unique characters, and an overall sense that justice, in the end, can’t be had at any price the hero can afford.
Next up: THE NIGHT STRANGLER.