One year after the successful airing of the made-for-television movie The Night Stalker, producer Dan Curtis re-teamed up with legendary writer Richard Matheson for an eagerly awaited sequel, an excellent second outing that would result in ABC greenlighting a series based on the supernatural adventures of investigative reporter Carl Kolchak. The sequel, entitled The Night Strangler, would follow much of the same formula as the original movie, but with more of an emphasis on comedy than horror.
The Night Strangler opens much as its predecessor did, with reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) narrating over the murder of a beautiful young woman, but in this outing, the killer isn’t a creature of supernatural origins, such as a vampire, but instead that of a man of science, or to put it more accurately, a practitioner in the dark arts of alchemy. In this film, we find Kolchak haunting a Seattle press bar, where he tries to get fellow reporters to believe his story of a vampire in Las Vegas, and he runs into his old boss Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), who is now the editor of the Seattle Chronicle. Feeling bad for the way things went down in Vegas – Carl having to flee the city to avoid an arrest warrant for staking the suspect – Vincenzo and Kolchak fall quickly into their familiar relationship with Kolchak demanding his wild theories should see print, or “The Truth” as he’d put it, while Vincenzo does his best to avoid having a heart attack during each and every one of their arguments.
As the story unfolds, and the body count rises, Kolchak comes to the quick conclusion that he’s onto another big story, especially after the lonely archivist for the Seattle Chronicle Titus Berry (Wally Cox) points out that twenty-one years ago there was a string of very similar murders; six women, over a period of eighteen days, were found with their necks broken – bones crushed as if by supernatural strength – and blood removed through a small puncture at the base of their skulls. Most startling of all, the coroners reported that the victims all had traces of rotting flesh on their necks. Further research reveals that the cycle of murders dates back more than a century and that if the killer isn’t found and stopped before he gets his sixth victim, he will disappear for another twenty-one years.
This sequel does little to break new ground – “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” being a solid studio motto – and the overall success of this outing is due mostly to Richard Matheson’s’ immensely fun script. Did you find Kolchak driving his boss into near-apoplectic rages fun? Well, you’re in luck, this film easily doubles the angry banter from the previous entry, and to add more fuel to the fire, Kolchak has several heated arguments with Seattle police Capt. Schubert (Scott Brady), who after just one encounter with our favourite reporter would like to see Kolchak locked up behind bars forever. So once again, we find Kolchak butting heads with authority, and his wild theories and so-called facts stirring up trouble, but where The Night Stalker focused quite a bit of its running time on the cynicism of the times, The Night Strangler is more about witty banter than social commentary. In fact, this change in tone is the only thing that prevents the sequel from seeming like a complete rehash of the first film, because structurally they are very much alike.
• In both films, the killer stalks beautiful women, only in this film we’ve traded up from casino workers to exotic dancers.
• The authorities try and stop Kolchak’s reporting because it could hurt tourism if it were known that a monster was running around committing murder.
• Kolchak once again witnesses police officers being tossed around by the supernaturally strong killer.
• A female friend of one of the victims teams up with Kolchak to find the killer, this time it’s belly dancer Louise Harper (Jo Ann Pflug) instead of his prostitute girlfriend from The Night Stalker.
• Kolchak enters the villain’s lair without any kind of backup, though at least in The Night Stalker he brought a cross and stake, this time out he only has a crappy camera.
• With the villain exposed and dispatched, Kolchak once again finds defeat snatched from the jaws of victory as his article is quashed and he is fired…again.
Producer Dan Curtis decided not to share in the fun with the sequel, and so took his spot in the director’s chair this time out, and he did a more than a serviceable job with Matheson’s script, channelling Ben Hecht’s The Front Page for the scenes of rapid-fire dialogue – Darren McGavin and Simon Oakland both excelling at this – and Curtis’s love for the works of legendary Italian director Mario Bava is quite apparent as the cinematography is very reminiscent of Bava’s Bay of Blood; even the killer’s darkly-garbed visage looks like it stepped right out of the film Blood and Black Lace. The key plot element of an immortal killer – not a supernatural being, but a man with an elixir of life – wasn’t as easy a sell to the networks as a vampire was, but Matheson’s inspired idea to use the underground city that lies below Seattle’s Pioneer Square made the film’s rousing last act visually and emotionally riveting.
Historic Note: The Seattle Underground is a network of underground passageways and basements that were created when the city officials decided to elevate that portion of the town, which had been decimated in a fire, instead of just tearing it down. Though these basements and corridors still exist today, they are in no way as massive as they’re depicted in The Night Strangler, and certainly not as well-lit.
The villain of this piece is kept hidden for the bulk of the film’s 90-minute running time, simply a dark-clad figure lurking in the shadows, but when Kolchak eventually deduces that the killer is a 144-year-old Civil War doctor named Dr. Richard Malcolm (Richard Anderson) and confronts him in his underground lair – the beautifully redressed Bradbury Building – we find a rather loquacious, if not quite demented character. Where the vampire in The Night Stalker was only allowed to hiss and growl, the villain of The Night Strangler becomes quite verbose, as he extols his origins to Kolchak. Of course, he does plan on killing our hero once he finishes, but I guess the urge to tell anyone of your remarkable discovery is just too compelling. Richard Anderson gives a delightful performance as a mad scientist who may have lived a tad too long, and at one point he interrupts Kolchak to ask his dead family for their opinion.
As far as sequels go, The Night Strangler is certainly above average; the cast all give great performances – with some fantastic cameos, including John Carradine as the publisher of the Seattle Chronicle, Al Lewis as a homeless man who falls victim to the strangler, and Margaret Hamilton as an occult expert – and the cinematography is top-notch. As movie-of-the-week material goes, it stands head and shoulders above its contemporaries; thus, it is no surprise that ABC would decide to spin it off into a full series. Sadly, a falling-out between Dan Curtis and Darren McGavin would result in neither Curtis nor Richard Matheson being a part of the series. The character of Carl Kolchak will forever be one of the all-time greatest television creations, and if you’ve managed to somehow go through life without seeing either The Night Stalker or The Night Strangler, you need to rectify this as soon as possible.
Trivia Note: Both Darren McGavin and Richard Anderson played Steve Austin’s boss in The Six Million Dollar Man.
The Night Strangler (1973)
Though a tad formulaic, taking much of its structure from the first film, the comedic change in tone actually goes quite a ways towards making this The Night Strangler a worthy sequel, and Darren McGavin is as always a joy to watch as he plays with this iconic character.