Thursday, April 24, 2008

Kolchak - like Jaws, but with monsters

Recently my boss lent me the two TV movies that resulted in the Kolchak: The Night Stalker series, The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler. And they’re pretty awesome.

Both were written by Richard Matheson, who I’m sure most people know is a hugely important sci-fi/horror responsible for such classic stories as I Am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, to name a few. Both are fairly similar in premise to the show: mysterious occurrences warrant investigation, evidence of supernatural influence is found but ignored by the authorities, Kolchak discovers the truth, but is unable to prove it. Despite being relatively formulaic, they are worth seeing.


The Night Stalker is set in Las Vegas, which is strange to see in 1972. Bodies are found around town drained of blood. A mysterious and creepy man is caught stealing blood from a hospital. Why would anyone want so much blood? They wouldn’t, probably, unless they were a vampire. This seems obvious to Kolchak, but of course nobody will listen to his outlandish suggestions. For most of the movie, The Night Stalker plays a lot like Jaws: despite the evidence suggesting that the mysteriously strong, bloodthirsty killer is a vampire, the various authorities continually ignore Kolchak’s pleas for action. Ultimately, it is he alone who finds the vampire’s house and brings with him a mallet and a wooden stake. Kolchak’s FBI friend shows up and after getting thrown around a bit, they work together to take him down. The old pull-down-the-curtain-to-reveal-sunlight trick is used, and after being weakened, Kolchak himself stakes the creature as the police rush in.

What’s great about The Night Stalker is that, while it shares many similarities to the episodes we saw in class, it treats its subject more seriously than them. There’s less emphasis on humor, for one thing, and Kolchak is far less willing to take crap from those who don’t believe him. Lots of yelling. It would be pretty awful if there were a real vampire killing people around town, and the movie does a good job of focusing on that aspect. Whereas many episodes of the show end with Kolchak simply losing his film, or not being believed, the end of The Night Stalker is a bit darker: the police do believe the man was a vampire, but tell Kolchak that they’ll charge him with murder if he doesn’t leave town and keep his mouth shut about it. They also force his dancer girlfriend out of town, and he never sees her again.

All in all, for anyone who liked what they saw of Kolchak, The Night Stalker is definitely worth seeing. It’s well written, entertaining, and suffers only from the appearance of the vampire himself; modern make-up techniques would have helped, I’m sure.

The Night Strangler finds Kolchak in Seattle, where his former boss at the Las Vegas paper shows up and gives him a job. Another series of murders begins: this time, the victims are all young women whose throats have been crushed and an exact amount of blood taken from their brains. Strangely, residue of rotting flesh is found on the necks of victims. Again, with little support from authorities, Kolchak comes to realize that the killer this time is a man who has been alive since the Civil War, having concocted an elixir that defies aging – as long as it is taken every 21 years and is made out of the freshly extracted blood of young women. Seeing that similar murders have occurred every 21 years since 1889, Kolchak finds himself unable to persuade anyone to believe him, even his editor who was there for the vampire in Las Vegas. Eventually Kolchak finds the man living in “Old Seattle”, a part of town buried by modern Seattle, and stops him by destroying the elixir. Again, Kolchak leaves town, this time accompanied by his editor and an undergraduate student/belly dancer.

The Night Strangler is more like the show: more jokes, less plausibility. While not as good as The Night Stalker, it is still worth seeing. Everybody in the cast, Darren McGavin in particular, give it all they’ve got, and it really helps what could easily seem silly.

So again, if you liked Kolchak, both of these movies come on one DVD and can probably be acquired on the cheap. Or illegally pirated on the free, whichever you prefer.

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