Here's what inevitably happens. I share a movie with a friend or a loved one. Something I think they'll really like but probably have not seen. They love it, and I tell them "That was one of my Dad's favorite movies."

So here are some of those movies, my memories and thoughts, and what made them my Dad's favorites.


Monday, June 8, 2009

THE NIGHT STALKER (1972)













My Dad loved originality - unexpected twists on established genres or familiar plotlines intrigued him.

In 1972, almost everything about “The Night Stalker,” a television movie produced for "The ABC Movie of the Week,” was original and surprising. It is a merger of genres and styles, a fresh mash-up of horror, police procedurals, and “Front Page” style newspaper dramas. It eschews or reinvents all the gothic trappings previously associated with vampire movies, inserting the vampire for the first time fully into the modern world of blood banks and dragnets and forensics and bureaucracies. All the resultant ironies are fully mined in the script by acclaimed novelist and prolific short story and television writer Richard Matheson, adapted from the unpublished short story by Jeff Rice. In one scene after another, intrepid reporter Carl Kolshak is confronted with a series on increasingly inexplicable events and confounding evidence, all leading slowly and inevitably to the conclusion that the serial killer stalking Las Vegas must in fact be a real-life vampire.

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Producer Dan Curtis had some experience reinventing the vampire genre. Years before Buffy and Angel, "Twilight,” or even Frank Langella’s “Dracula,” he had romanticized the vampire in his ground-breaking daytime series “Dark Shadows.” With “The Night Stalker” he does the opposite, reducing the vampire to a mysterious, depersonalized, silent, feral, largely off-screen presence. Matheson and Curtis would within a year revisit the genre in their TV version of “Dracula” starring Jack Palance, wherein they would invent a romantic backstory for the vampire that twenty years later would be the foundation of Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation.

In “The Night Stalker,” Curtis reteams with his ‘Dark Shadows” composer Robert Cobert, who provides a striking and original score, a jazzy and bassy mix of musical styles that nicely mirrors the eclectic story elements.

There are numerous scenes that grab the imagination both in terms of content and technique – the autopsy from the corpse’s point of view, the coroner’s inquest in which the bizarre details of the murders are delivered with matter-of-fact dispassion, and the “wild brawl” in the hospital following the vampire’s raid on the its blood bank, a tour-de-force from director John Llewellyn Moxey (“The Saint,” “Mannix,” “Mission Impossible”) and Stunt Coordinator Dick Ziker with un-credited work from legendary stunt man Hal Needham.

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But the movie truly belongs to Darren McGavin. His portrayal of irascible and resolute reporter Carl Kolshak brings humor and humanity to the proceedings, and drives the movie’s pace and tone.

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McGavin was a particular favorite of my Dad’s from the time he played Casey in the TV series “Crime Photographer” in the early 1950’s. While on their honeymoon in New York in 1951, my Mom and Dad rounded a street corner and literally ran into McGavin, who they described as friendly and charming. Thirty-four years later I worked with McGavin on “Raw Deal,” and found him to be just as my parents had described.


In fifteen years working on feature films, the only autograph I ever requested was from Darren McGavin, and that was for my parents.


McGavin starred in seven TV series and guest starred in many more. He had a distinguished film career, including playing the profane father in “A Christmas Story” and an un-credited but crucial role in “The Natural.” But he is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Carl Kolshak in “The Night Stalker,” its sequel “The Night Strangler,” and the subsequent series “Kolshak: The Night Stalker.” His Kolshak is a unique and original creation, Woodstein in a seer sucker suit and a porkpie hat, volatile, passionate, funny, abrasive, sarcastic and indignant, a man with a moral code of his own making. There has never been a character quite like Carl Kolshak.

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McGavin once told me that the hardest part of his career was the constant and inevitable nighttime shooting that this series required. Having just come from working on “Blue Velvet,” with seven straight weeks of night filming, I could certainly sympathize.

"The ABC Movie of the Week" was a television anthology series of made-for-TV movies airing on the ABC network in various permutations from 1969 to 1976. Adhering to a 90 minute running length, as opposed to the two hour slot standard of previous made-for-television movies, gave many of the films an enhanced pace and urgency. “The Night Stalker” certainly benefits from this. There were several notable entries to the series, including “Brian’s Song,” with James Caan and Billy Dee Williams, “Pursuit,” Michael Crichton’s directorial debut, the unforgetable “Trilogy of Terror” from Curtis and Matheson, and three more of my Dad’s favorites, “Duel,” from Matheson and director Steven Speilberg, “Something Evil,” also directed by Speilberg, and “Goodnight My Love,” written and directed by Peter Hyams and featuring the imaginative teaming of Richard Boone and Michael Dunn as private detectives in 1940’s Los Angeles. The program also spawned many successful series, such as "Starsky and Hutch," "Kung Fu," "The Six Million Dollar Man," and "Marcus Welby, M.D."



“The Night Stalker,” which manages to valiantly mask its television imposed budget restrictions, held the record as the highest rated television movie until “Roots” aired in 1977.


Buy The Night Stalker/The Night Strangler (Double Feature)
at Amazon.com
© 2009 Edward Bowen

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© 2009 Edward Bowen

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