The Night Stalker (1972 USA)

nightstalker(This review is dedicated to Jeff Rice, who came up with such a great book idea originally) There’s more than one kind of blood sucker in the neon-drenched city of Lost Wages. Produced in 18 days by director Dan Curtis on a low budget, The Night Stalker became a ratings champion, socking America’s TV watching audience to the jaw with a massive left hook. On January 11, 1972 it gained 54% of all US viewers. This was a record for that time.

Richard Matheson’s detailed yet economical teleplay grabs you immediately with a plot of rapidly growing terror. And when director John Llewellyn Moxey unleashes  his team of incredible stuntmen you may find your jaw dropping (watch for the melee at the hospital and the swimming pool sequence). But without question this is Darren McGavin’s movie and his relaxed, reactive performance infuses many of the scenes with a sustained and welcome humour. He is a fast-talking, rumpled news hound from the 1940s who finds himself in the middle of the swinging seventies.

He’s been wearing the same clothes for 20 years and this adds colour to his charismatic personality. Pity we don’t have actors like him around today. As the chillingly staged murders multiply and the disbelief of the jaded civil servants and one grizzled, bandy-legged journalist begins to crumble, the viewer is borne away into the nightmarish reality of the tale with genuine chilling fear rising out of the threadbare production. Once again, a whole lot less provides a whole lot more. Director John Llewellyn Moxey must also be praised for creating a spooky atmosphere for the film as well.

And of course what vampire story would be complete without an effective Nosferatu, and we get one in the form of Barry Atwater, who may not say a whole lot, but manages to be quite memorable. However I feel that he is a little weak in the presence department. The most powerful thing he has going for him, visually, is his height. One problem watching it now is it is so obvious that Atwater is not the athletic young man hurling cops left and right at the hospital or in the swimming pool. When the camera zooms in after the younger stunt man has done his heroics to reveal Atwater’s middle-aged face it does slightly spoil the effect.

But there’s something else I feel the film has going for it. When something strange is reported, something that defies all natural logic, the authorities in charge – be they police, government, military, etc will never admit to the fact that they can’t explain it. Rather, they will do everything in their power to down play the strange nature of the event by playing with words and burying the case as fast as they can (a fact that Kolchak learns the hard way). To sum it up, if you’re in the mood for a fun filled, spooky movie, you can’t go wrong with “The Night Stalker.” Different in tone from the TV series that followed, this 74 minute TV movie is a little harder – edged, darker, and pessimistic. A sequel and a trashy television series followed but never quite hit the viewer as hard as this first effort did.

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