The Night Stalker (1972)
There's a saying that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Let's hope so, because "what happened between May 16th and May 28th of this year" is a lot worse than waking up with a flat wallet and a hangover. Someone is killing young women in Las Vegas under increasingly strange circumstances. Reporter Carl Kolchak, who is covering the story, discovers that the victims have been drained of blood and that the Las Vegas authorities are unusually nervous and tight-mouthed. Kolchak is the sort of reporter who sees a stonewalling as a challenge and starts to dig. He suspects that the killer is some sort of a psychopath who thinks he's a vampire. Worse, Kolchak is starting to suspect that the killer might be a vampire.
A teleplay produced by ABC, The Night Stalker drew the highest ratings in history up to that time. It spawned a sequel, The Night Strangler, and a short-lived series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker. It was also spawned a minor boom in horror films on American television, served as the inspiration for The X-Files and had an impact on horror and suspense cinema and television that carries on until today.
It also introduced the remarkable character of Carl Kolchak. There have been plenty of reporter heros and anti-heroes, ghost busters, and even ghost busting reporters, but Kolchak is something different. Once a reporter on a major New York paper, Kolchak is his own worst enemy. Despite being intelligent, tenacious, resourceful, and charming when he wants to be, he has a problem with authority. He doesn't just dislike authority, he delights in deliberately biting it until it explodes in anger. Not surprisingly, Kolchak gets fired with remarkable regularity (he hasn't bought a new suit since leaving New York) and in The Night Stalker he's reduced to working for a Las Vegas daily. When Vegas is hit by a string of what looks like vampire murders, Kolchak sees it as his ticket back to New York and nothing is going to stand in his way. Except himself as he enrages the Vegas police and drives his editor Tony Vincenzo to distraction.
Based on an unpublished novel by Jeff Rice, The Night Stalker producer Dan Curtis and screenwriter Richard Matheson put a spin on the vampire legend that's refreshing an believable. The killer Janos Skorzeny isn't a suave Bela Lugosi, moody romantic, or exotic sex object. He's an out and out predator living among his food supply. Our glimpses of him are rare until the climax, but what we do see conveys a creature of immense power and raw appetite. Even when fighting off an entire squad of armed policemen, the only emotions he displays are open contempt and hatred for the lesser beings who dare to stand in his way. And to drive the point home, Skorzeny's lines consist entirely of hiss, growls, and animal screams.
No wonder when Kolchak finally confronts him, our hero is doesn't exactly come off as Dr Van Helsing as he literally runs away screaming as he tries to escape.
Darren McGavin wears Kolchak like a second skin as he brings the character to life and his comic touches make an otherwise harrowing story acceptable for prime time television audiences. Simon Oakland makes a perfect foil as Vincenzo and he and McGavin have a chemistry that they would refine in the sequel. Carol Lynley plays Kolchak's girlfriend and Watson, though she's peripheral to the action, and Claude Atkins comes across as a police chief who genuinely wants to punch Kolchak in the mouth if he gets the chance. Last, but not least, is Barry Atwater as Skorzeny, who makes walking through a room scary, though legend has it that he once walked through the casinos in full make up on a bet and nobody so much as glanced at him.
Maybe things do stay in Vegas.