Dan Curtis had a knack for knowing how to please an audience.
As we’ve seen over the last few weeks, the made-for-television movie provided some chills and thrills for horror fans with varying legacies. Producer Dan Curtis excelled in the made-for-television movie, parlaying his success into new heights as the producer of ABC’s landmark mini-series, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. Arguably the two films that led to Curtis’ reputation in the telemovie were 1972’s The Night Stalker and 1973’s The Night Strangler. Both films blended elements of horror, thrillers, and comedy into enjoyable productions. Much has been said about The Night Stalker (and deservedly so), but The Night Strangler is an excellent production worthy of checking out.
Kolchack is back.
The Night Stalker was a surprise hit for Dan Curtis, the producer of the ABC soap opera Dark Shadows. Curtis was no stranger to the supernatural thanks to his time on Dark Shadows, but he took things in a different direction with The Night Stalker, blending horror and a bit of humor. Dan Curtis’ tale of reporter Carl Kolchak’s search for a vampire terrorizing Las Vegas proved more than a ratings hit, it became a phenomenon, with the movie scoring the highest rating for a TV movie at the time. The Night Stalker was such a hit that it probably could have been a successful film. Its success demanded a sequel so no one was surprised when ABC greenlit a sequel. In retrospect, how does the sequel compare to the original?
I recently watched both films back to back and they are excellent, standing the test of time both in entertainment, production values, and storytelling. Both films are powered by Darren McGavin’s powerful performance and an equally strong supporting cast. McGavin is likeable as the down-on-his-luck reporter looking for the sensational scoop that will send him back to the big leagues. In the first film, it’s in the potential story of a vampire. In the second, things are even more complicated.
The rapport between McGavin and Oakland (right) is as good as ever.
The Night Strangler begins with reporter Carl Kolchak living in Seattle, dealing with the fallout from his adventures in The Night Stalker. Still looking for his big break, Carl stumbles across a killer eerily reminiscent of the one from the first film. He finds himself in the same situation as the first film—pursuing a story that defies belief and threatens to get him out of what could be his last chance at being a reporter. While this plot is similar to the first, it’s no formulaic sequel. The Night Strangler begins with a familiar premise, but branches out into its own story, keeping the viewer guessing what or who is behind a string of macabre murders.
John Carradine shines
The film has a fantastic supporting cast, arguably better than the first. Simon Oakland returns as Tony Vincenzo, a newspaper editor burdened with Kolchak’s presence as a first-rate reporter and source of annoyance. Wally Cox (aka the voice of Underdog) plays a quirky researcher who sifts through volumes of information in an era before computers put everything at your disposal in front of a screen. Margaret Hamilton (best known from her role in The Wizard of Oz) plays an eccentric academic who has a brief, but funny appearance. The legendary John Carradine lends his presence to the production as Kolchak’s new boss, and the recently departed Richard Anderson has a small, but memorable performance that ties everything together.
A short but unforgettable appearance by Margaret Hamilton.
The film benefits from the same location shooting as The Night Stalker. Seattle’s unmistakable landscapes are captured well, both during the day and at nighttime. The film also has a great set piece in Pioneer Square Skid-Row District, the city’s famous (or in this case, infamous) underground region. Pioneer Square plays an integral role in the film, including its climax.
The success of The Night Strangler led to the commission of a Night Stalker television series. Unfortunately, the show did not make it to the air on the heels of The Night Strangler, losing some of its momentum. The show’s graveyard slot might have been figuratively appropriate, but it did nothing to bring in young viewers who were too busy on dates than staying home on a Friday night. CBS cancelled the series before the season had finished, but as X-Files fans know, the show played a part in inspiring Chris Carter to create his own take on someone pursuing the uncanny.
The Night Strangler is worth checking out and ranks among the best of the made-for-television movies that dealt with the supernatural. The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler were released as a DVD double-pack, but is sadly out of print, resulting in it being expensive to buy (however the TV series is available for under ten dollars). Hopefully someone will release this on Blu-Ray so fans can enjoy one of the best TV films ever made.
Marill, Alvin. Movies Made for Television: The Telefeature and the Mini-Series: 1964-1986. New York Zoetrope, 1987.
McKenna, Michael. The ABC Movie of the Week: Big Movies for the Small Screen. Scarecrow Press, 2013.
Reyes, Amanda. Are You In The House Alone?: A TV Movie Compendium 1964-1999. Headpress, 2017.