Monday, 30 May 2011

Review: The Night Strangler

The Night Strangler (1973)

The art of horror lies in providing a suitably creepy atmosphere that draws the audience into a world touched by another, more terrible world.  As part of this, the setting is all important.  You need a graveyard covered in fog like a rotting shroud, a glowering medieval keep with a single light in a high window, or an oppressive village where every decaying facade masks a terrible secret.  Therefore, screenwriter Richard Matheson did the logical thing and set the 1973 sequel to the previous years hit teleplay The Night Stalker in the scariest spot of the decade:  Downton Seattle.

If you've ever been to Seattle in recent years, the city centre is a collection of bright, clean skyscrapers and gentrified old buildings with only a couple of streets suffering from the inevitable urban blight.  But in 1973 Seattle was about as scary a collection of dilapidated architecture, abandoned warehouses, general decay, and human squalor as any place you could find outside of the Eastern Bloc.  It was, and still is, notable as a city that rests on the remains of a previous city that burnt down in the Victorian era and was built on top of–a city that parts of are still there and can be visited like a New World version of the Catacombs.  If you needed any place in the United States were a Horror might lurk, then Seattle was it.

Enter Karl Kolchak, abrasive out-of-work reporter who still can't convince anyone that a vampire really did stalk Las Vegas the previous year.  Running into beleaguered former boss Tony Vincenzo, who is now editing a Seattle newspaper, Kolchak somehow manages to talk himself into a job.  His first assignment:  To cover a string of serial killings carried out by a strangler in the Pioneer Square district.  But these turn out to be something other than the work of a simple psychopath.  For one thing, there was a punture mark at the base of each victim's skull.  For another, they weren't just strangled, their necks were crushed.  Then he discovers that these murders are the latest in a pattern that goes back almost a hundred years.

Originally intended as the second in a trilogy of films with the last, and unproduced, one to be called The Night KillersThe Night Strangler makes a nice book end to The Night Stalker.  Seattle's atmosphere as a decaying '70s backwater makes a much better backdrop for Kolchak's activities and the sequel gives Matheson and actors Darren Mcgavin and Simon Oakland a chance to properly develop the formula as well as the characters of Kolchak and Vincenzo.  Here the chemistry between the two characters has a real chance to blossom as Kolchak and Vincezo argue in a way one usually associates with matrimony  Where in the The Night Stalker Vincenzo is merely annoyed by Kolchak's relentlessness and love of yanking authority's nose,  in this outing Vincenzo sees a repeat of what happened in Vegas and he becomes so angry that he literally ends up on the verge of hysteria.  Meanwhile, Kolchak manages to not only infuriate his boss, but also the local police, who Kolchak provokes to the point of actually arresting him.  That's not surprising because this Kolchak is often driven by something so close to monomania that he sometimes forgets that he's a reporter, which Vincenzo reminds him of at the top of his lungs.

The Night Strangler was inspired by Matheson's visit to the Seattle Underground (a portion of the buried city that's been excavated and is open for public tours).  This plays a pivotal part in the story and gives the climax a suitably eerie other-world quality.  Also, unlike in The Night Stalker, the villain, played by Richard Anderson, has not only lines, but extended scenes with Kolchak that reveal the killer to not only be something superhuman, but a deranged superman–which isn't a very pleasant prospect.

As McGavin pointed out in interviews, the Kolchak stories aren't proper horror films.  Being prime time television, the most they could manage was "playing with horror", but under producer Dan Curtis the performances of McGavin and Oakland combined with the script by Matheson that has the right leavening of comedy to horror makes for a lightly terrifying film that never descends into camp.

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