Sunday, September 26, 2010

Oh, the Horror: The Night Stalker

This morning I decided that the next horror movie I’d watch would be one of my favorites and one that helped mold me as a fan of the genre; The Night Stalker, starring Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak, an investigative reporter in Las Vegas who comes to realize that the killer that is eluding them is actually a vampire. I’ve seen this one a bunch of times and own it on DVD. But It’s been a couple of years since I’ve watched it, so I popped it in. (If you have not seen it and don’t want to read spoilers, turn back now.)

I am a huge Kolchak fan. I was first exposed to him when the TV series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, debuted when I was a kid. It was the show that inspired the X Files and my favorite show growing up. It all started with this 1972 made for TV movie.

There is so much to love about this movie. First of all, Darren McGavin’s portrayal of Kolchak is the foundation on which everything else is built. With his trademark straw hat, seersucker suit, quick wit and disregard for authority, the bumbling Kolchak was the opposite of the prototypical alpha-male you’d expect in the hero's role.

Another fun thing about this movie is the parade of stars from the era. The beautiful Carol Lynley, Kolchak’s only serious love interest in the character’s screen history, whom you probably remember from The Poseidon Adventure. Claude Akins, TV’s Sheriff Lobo and Larry Linville, Frank Burns from MASH. And of course, the other actor who completes the Kolchak picture, Simon Oakland, who plays Carl’s volatile boss, Tony Vincenzo.

Upon this viewing, a few things struck me. The villain of this movie is the vampire Janos Skorzeny, but like in JAWS or The Silence of the Lambs, the protagonist also has to wrestle against the establishment. In this case it’s the local police and government who will do anything to keep the truth from being revealed.

Let’s talk about Janos Skorzeny, the vampire. He’s played by Barry Atwater, and he does not say a word throughout the entire movie. Although, one witness does describe his unpleasant voice, so we know he can actually talk. When we do see Skorzeny, he is usually killing another victim, on the run, stealing blood from the hospital or tossing cops around like rag dolls. It’s a far cry from the gothic, brooding, romantic vampires that litter the genre, particularly now in the Twilight era. Skorzeny is one of the coolest vampires ever because he truly acts like a vile creature who must drink blood to live. He does not have chiseled good looks nor the power to hypnotize his victims. He brutally overpowers them and then tosses their husks aside when he is done. It’s a fascinating concept. I’d love to see a movie of how Skorzeny first became a vampire and how he managed to survive throughout the years. It is alluded to in the movie and also revealed in his modus operandi. He kills some victims but eventually captures one and keeps her bound and alive with blood transfusions. It’s not pretty, which an existence of drinking human blood certainly wouldn't be.

The best part of The Night Stalker is the climax of the movie, when Kolchak discovers the house where Skorzeny lives. He instructs his source to notify his FBI friend Bernie Jenks, but only after 30 minutes, so he can sneak in and get the scoop. When Kolchak enters the dark, creaky house, you get a feeling of dread similar to when Clarice Starling heads down into the basement after Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. The suspense builds as Kolchak explores the house, finding the vampire’s stockpile of blood in the fridge along with the various disguises he uses to do his dirty work in the dresser. Then, he discovers one on the victims, still alive and tied to a bed. She weak, pale and her neck is ravaged. Skorzeny is using her as a personal blood bank. But just as Kolchak begins to untie her, Skorzeny comes home. Kolchak hides in the closet, but it’s not long before he is discovered and is being stalked around the house by the fang baring fiend. Kolchak is able to keep Skorzeny at bay with a cross... a concept that has sadly been abandoned by many modern incarnations of vampires.

Rent the movie to see how it all turns out and then go pick up the TV series and check out one of the most pivotal, albeit short-lived, franchises in horror history.

Re-watching The Night Stalker was a welcome walk down memory lane and a reminder of why I love this stuff so much.

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