Monday, December 28, 2009

Wendigo Meets THE NIGHT STALKER (1972)

Made for TV though it is, John Llewellyn Moxey's film of Richard Matheson's script is a seminal Seventies film. It includes two key elements of the period: conspiracy in the form of the Las Vegas authorities' cover-up of vampirism in their midst, and vigilantism in the form of Carl Kolchak's defiance of the rule of law (not to mention the same authorities) in doing what's necessary to eliminate the vampiric menace. Before Jaws, The Night Stalker shows the government suppressing information crucial for public safety (at least in the hero's opinion) in part for the sake of preserving the tourist business. Before Death Wish, it has a hero willing to commit "murder" in the name of justice.

The Night Stalker is in the same small category of films as The Thin Man in which the title initially doesn't identify the hero but comes to be identified with him, so that Darren McGavin could eventually star in a series about Kolchak called The Night Stalker. The title notwithstanding, Moxey's film (the first of two that led up to the series, and once the highest-rated of all made-for-TV movies) is about Kolchak, who comes across as a slightly more benign version of Kirk Douglas's reporter from Ace in the Hole but is still a selfish, cynical, arguably alcoholic and slightly sleazy person, the sort who stands by snapping photos while a madman tosses cops about like rag dolls. He's a more credible, more skeptical character than the reflexively credulous, almost cartoon-like Kolchak of the weekly series, and it takes a realistic amount of time for him to start believing in what he ironically calls a "real live vampire."

But while Kolchak is the central character, my friend Wendigo considers The Night Stalker one of his favorite vampire films. That's because Janos Skorzeny is that rare vampire who is a completely unromanticized, purely evil monster. He's also a human-scale vampire with just enough strength to toss cops about like rag dolls, and not a creature of overdone makeup or transforming effects. He seems the sort you might find lurking just off the Strip in the Seventies. He's nobody's sexual fantasy nor anyone's fantasy of power. He could just as well have been the mere serial killer everyone initially takes him to be for story purposes.

Wendigo sees Skorzeny as the first really modern vampire in cinema. While I might claim that title for Count Yorga, Wendigo points out that Yorga is still above such mundane stuff as driving a car or haggling over prices that we see or hear about Skorzeny doing. Yorga is still a relatively Gothic figure, a master vampire living in a mansion. Skorzeny is almost a working-class vampire, content to take victims smash-and-grab style or to raid a hospital blood bank. He's also minimally supernatural. He can't transform into anything and it's unclear exactly how much he can mesmerize people. His sole advantage is his strength, apart from the longevity benefits that come from drinking blood, though he has the traditional (as of Nosferatu) vulnerability to sunlight. Wendigo thinks this actually brings Skorzeny closer to folklore vampires than his cinematic predecessors, but in a way that makes him a fresh presence in horror.

Kolchak is an often-disconcertingly passive observer of the mayhem around him, but takes a more aggressive part when his own life is at stake.

The odd thing for me about Skorzeny is the fact that he doesn't talk, even though we know he must be able to in order to negotiate for cars, houses, etc. Wendigo likes this because it further de-romanticizes the vampire by making him more sub-human or alien. This is one film in which you absolutely are not meant to identify with the vampire, and giving him nothing to say helps prevent that. While Yorga can sometimes be pretentious and plays a kind of cult guru in his second outing, Skorzeny is little more than an animal or a force of nature -- or as I might suggest, a stand in for all the apparently intractable criminality around us that should only be destroyed. The fact that we never learn how Skorzeny became a vampire also undercuts any romantic potential to the character; we have no cause to see him as a tragic creature, but only as a criminal who's preyed on people for at least thirty years.

Wendigo is definitely not hostile to romantic vampires; he likes Twilight, after all. But he likes the flexibility of the vampire motif, the fact that you can use it pretty much in any way imaginable, from one extreme to another. He has no preferred kind of vampire and won't say that one kind is right and another wrong. Instead, he's impressed by variety, and Skorzeny's minimalistic vampirism impresses him as much as many more fantastic or extravagant creatures. He also appreciates the way Night Stalker represents a change of pace for producer Dan Curtis, who pioneered the modern-day romantic vampire on Dark Shadows and would go on to do a very influential partially-romanticized Dracula with Jack Palance soon after.

Also very cool about The Night Stalker is the grungily-vivid footage of a now-vanished Las Vegas.

He isn't impressed by Skorzeny alone, of course. Along with Barry Atwater, our vampire, and star McGavin, The Night Stalker has a mighty cast of character actors, including veteran stalwarts like Ralph Meeker, Claude Akins, Simon Oakland, Charles McGraw and Elisha Cook Jr. They all bring idiosyncracy to their roles while remaining rooted in a real world. I thought Akins was a one-note blowhard here, but Wendigo defends his performance and his character as written because Matheson established his contempt for Kolchak as an "ambulance chaser." As a group (apart from Cook, a low-level gambler who helps Kolchak), they're all kind of bullheaded because they don't want to look like fools for believing in the supernatural. In the end, they prove stunningly ruthless in their suppression of the truth, and it's worth remembering that Vegas was still very much a mob town, at least in the popular imagination, at this time. The movie would have you think that they're actually having people killed, though that might leave you asking why they didn't whack Kolchak himself. Still, it anticipates much of Seventies cinema in its portrayal of a conspiracy triumphant regardless of the vampire's fate.

Like many TV movies from the Seventies, The Night Stalker differs from its cinematic counterparts only in lacking nudity, gore and cussing. Otherwise it's an energetic, admirably violent film that holds its own with cinematic vampire tales from the decade. For people who dislike today's romantic teeny vampires, Wendigo recommends this little gem as an antidote.


hobbyfan said...

One thing you're forgetting, Sammy. Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) is Kolchak's boss, and would be part of the Night Stalker series, as the only other regular character.

Come to think of it, don't you & Wendigo think the original Stalker series could've fared better if it wasn't set in Chicago (where Kolchak & Vincenzo ended up after the Night Strangler movie)?

dfordoom said...

They really should have quit after this one. The Night Stalker is a terrific little movie. The follow-up movie is reasonably good, and the TV series was OK at best. All the really good ideas they had got used up in the first TV movie. But it stands as a true classic, and Darren McGavin's finest moment.

John said...

This is a terrific little film, worthy of the big screen. Interesting enough in the late 1960's and 1970's there were quite a few Made for TV movies that were of superior quality, the most obvious example is Spielberg's "Duel." Other ecellent ones include "My Sweet Charlie", "Brian's Song" and "Born Innocent."

Anonymous said...

What makes this such a vividly memorable film for me is that, in addition to the folkloric quality of this vampire, The Night Stalker seems to be the first vampire movie done almost as a police procedural... how WOULD the legal, governmental, and journalistic authorities react in a modern, transient, mid-20th century small city if a these sorts of murders began to occur?