Thursday, October 2, 2014

Television Movie Appraisal: The Night Stalker (1972)

"Judge for yourself its believability and then try to tell yourself, wherever you may be, it couldn't happen here."

The Night Stalker has been and probably will always be one of the best ideas to come out of the seventies. It essentially formed a genre out of its inception. Shows like The X-Files owe a direct lineage to The Night Stalker. This also means every conspiracy website that comes from that television show also owe Mr. Carl Kolchak, Richard Matheson, and  ABC a debt that can never be repaid. Carl Kolchak and his shenanigans and dry wit helped to define an entire genre, not only for me, but for the world at large. While this isn't the first time I've ever seen this made for television movie that introduces us to Darren McGavin's best and most lasting role to me, it is the first time I've tried to find the cracks in it as well, something that is very nearly impossible. Criticism is my game when I review and appraise and look at things. And when something horror based is so well-written and well put together, it makes my "job" here very easy and also incredibly enjoyable.

The movie is about Carl Kolchak, a reporter working is Las Vegas, going around the city and being very snarky, trying to report on a string of female murder victims all while trying to be the best damn reporter there ever was. It is also one of the most seventy things I've ever seen, from the hair, to the clothes, to Kolchak's hat, all the way to the way they talk and act towards other people. I love this movie for just being so much a product of its time and also being something that can last and be enjoyed by basically anybody. It works so well on every level, but that doesn't take its seventy's aesthetic away from it.

It's mostly a simple vampire story in the style of Dracula or 'Salem's Lot, but it offers so much more with the interesting and unique character of Kolchak, and the way the story plays out in regards (specifically) to him. The cinematography is quite good, even when police officers are just being thrown around by the vampire, Janos Skorzeny, it still looks good- even if you find yourself laughing at the police's inability to do much of anything against a supernatural threat besides being thrown aside like a seventies ragdoll.

In fact this movie has more than a little bit of humor in it to give it that personality it enjoys so much. The humor is both dry and well placed, giving it a reality that really becomes it. It is a fun movie as well as being incredibly well-paced for its size. Coming in at only about seventy-five minutes, it paces itself well and never wastes time even in the scenes that seem to have nothing directly to do with the investigation or the vampire. When Kolchak talks of or to his boss Vincenzo or his kind-of sort-of girlfriend, Gail, it gives the story a life that very few other horror movies seem to have. Carl Kolchak is a real person in a city and a world full of real people. This is just a slice of his life, and a weird slice at that.

Something about that idea places the movie in a realm of its own in terms of quality and world-building, a realm that few other horror movies can match, what with their adherence to being spooky without regard to the world that they're building. The Night Stalker also has its share of darker moments, but those are still underlined by humor or passion alike, with Kolchak always finding the thread of the vampire element and running with it as much as he can while using his wit to his advantage always.

When Skorzeny the vampire is shot multiple times and the police can't explain it and refuse to believe anything supernatural, Kolchak tries to explain (in the absolutely most sarcastic way possible), and only ends up getting hassled and harassed for his efforts to save the city of Las Vegas. And that's Kolchak's life in a nutshell. He's always using his wit, and it's always working against him and his efforts. It's almost as if he barely believe his own conclusions, and only acts them out because there is n other way. His trying to convince others of those beliefs seem almost cynical in light of that, which makes the whole movie a farce of effort and belief, which is something I can very much get behind.

It's a short movie, and the personality only gets better and better as it goes on. While never being exactly scary, something about the ending has always creeped me out and stuck with me. Not Kolchak killing the vampire, although that is suitably unsettling what with Skorzeny's howling and never speaking a word. But the thing that especially bothered me was the non-answer as to whether or not Skorzeny really was a vampire or if Kolchak just murdered a man with a stake through his heart because the man was acting the part of the vampire. It is left ambiguous, although we know, just like Kolchak knows, the real story. And that's not even the most unsettling moment of the film to me. I find the part where Kolchak is removed from Las Vegas, and his now fiancee Gail, is told to leave town as well, almost disturbing in its reality and ambiguity. Something about how everything ends up speaks of a very targeted conspiracy happening in regards to the case. And something about that conspiracy works better than the entirety of the vampire plot. And it's not that the vampire plot works poorly either. Like I said before, the ending keeps ramping up the effort, making the movie better and better as it goes on.

The line that always sticks with me is when Kolchak says in his last monologue:

"...but I- I'll keep trying even though I don't think I'll ever find Gail Foster again. And maybe it's just as well."

I find this well put together and very sad. His whole final monologue is full of moments like this. The idea that everyone involved left town, disappeared, aren't talking, or are dead creates a cover-up about the official story that works so well with the tone of the entire movie. This leads me to praising the writing, Richard Matheson's writing, which delivers on every inch. The dialogue is solid, the acting excellent, and the story superb. I have no real complaints. Even if the vampire story isn't terrifying me to my very core, the unsettling conspiracy at the end certainly leaves a lasting impression. And maybe that's all I ever really want from something in the horror genre: a lasting impression.

Anyway, I love this television movie. It is a real part of history in its own right and deserves to be watched by just about everybody. It is a high recommendation from me, maybe one of my highest. Check it out!

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