Kolchak Double Feature
Anchor Bay Edition
U.S.A. (Made for TV) / 1971, 1972
John L. Moxey / Dan Curtis
Darren McGavin, Simon Oakland
Richard Anderson, Barry Atwater
Carol Lynley, Jo Ann Pflug

Color / Not Rated

Format: DVD
Double Feature Disc / R0 - NTSC
Anchor Bay Entertainment
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
Night Stalker
Night Strangler
Every now and then an actor and the character he or she plays are such a perfect fit that one can't imagine anyone else in the role. Such is the case with Darren McGavin's portrayal of the intrepid, brash, somewhat seedy newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak in two landmark made-for-TV movies broadcast on ABC in 1971-72.
    At a time when horror was considered less than a mainstream genre (especially on TV), the first Kolchak telefilm was a huge, surprise hit for years it remained the all-time ratings champ for a made-for-television flick. Naturally this resulted in a sequel and eventually a short-lived weekly series. Though he disappeared from the boob tube over a quarter-century ago, Kolchak's legacy lives on: X-Files creator Chris Carter cited the character's investigative brushes with the weird and unexplained as an inspiration for his own show. Kolchak fans can rejoice that Anchor Bay has put the original telefilms,
The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, on a single DVD.
    The first (and best) of the Kolchak stories finds Carl working for a daily paper in 1970 Las Vegas. Fired from a succession of jobs with prominent A-list publications in New York, Boston, and Washington D.C., he's none too happy with his lot the veteran newshound is just spinning his wheels, praying for the one big story that could catapult him back to the majors. Chafing under his stern, dictatorial editor, Tony Vincenzo (late, great character actor Simon Oakland), crotchety Carl gets through the days with the help of booze and the company of his hooker girlfriend Gail (Carol Lynley). But things change in a big way when a bizarre string of murders suddenly strikes the gambling mecca, leaving the police and sheriff's office completely baffled. Young women begin to die at a nightly rate, overpowered by a super-strong attacker who apparently drains their bodies of blood. Both Carl and law enforcement officials quickly conclude that a deranged maniac is on loose, stalking the city under the delusion that he's a vampire. Somewhat callously Carl sees the murders as his journalistic ticket back to the Big Time. He throws himself at the story with great enthusiasm, incurring the wrath of Sheriff Butcher (TV mainstay Claude Akins), who regards Kolchak as somewhat lower than an earthworm on the evolutionary scale. Local politicians pressure Vincenzo to keep details of the vampire murders out of the paper, ostensibly in the name of public safety, placing further roadblocks in Carl's path.
    Kolchak's frustration mounts after he personally witnesses a battle between police officers and the killer, an incident that proves without question that the suspect doesn't just think he's a vampire, he is one an actual, honest-to-God undead blood-drinker. (The killer fights off 20 or more of the cops, taking numerous pointblank gunshots to the body without so much as a scratch, before escaping into the darkness.) In consequence, even with some dead policemen to explain, the Vegas authorities clamp down even harder on the news blackout. Carl, motivated more by proving he's right and scooping the big story than saving lives, conducts his own investigation to track down the vampire's lair.

    The Night Stalker clocks in at a very brisk 74 minutes sans commercials, from back in the days when a 90-minute TV program only had 16 minutes of ads. (Today there are almost 17 minutes of commercials in an hour-long show!) Its breakneck pace never detracts from the terrific acting or the smart, adult dialog penned by Richard Matheson, screenwriter of such gems as House of Usher and The Devil Rides Out. McGavin was simply born to play Kolchak a very likable yet far from angelic or virtuous character and he is ably supported by the TV and B-movie veterans that round out the cast. The scenes in which Carl has it out with editor Vincenzo are real highlights given how well McGavin and Oakland play off one another. (So well, in fact, that the Vincenzo character was brought back for Strangler and the weekly series.) While quite obvious that it's a stunt man in all the action scenes, Barry Atwater (whom some will recognize as Vulcan philosopher Surak from the classic Star Trek episode "The Savage Curtain"), nonetheless cuts a memorable figure as vampire Janos Skorzeny... even though he doesn't have a single line of dialog in the film. (Shades of Christopher Lee!)
    A 30-year old TV production, The Night Stalker is of course devoid of any heavy violence, nudity or gore. This will likely turn away much of the under-25 crowd as "boring". Their loss.
    The second Kolchak telefilm picks up with Carl down on his luck in Seattle, Washington. Unemployed (and unemployable), his fortunes immediately improve when he runs into his old boss Vincenzo, now city editor of the Daily Chronicle. In a rare fit of sympathy Tony gives him a job with the paper and his first assignment: the strangulation murder of a stripper in the Pioneer Square district. Naturally this isn't any ordinary killing, but the first in a string of bizarre homicides the police find themselves helpless to prevent. The victims' necks are crushed as if by superhuman strength, each bearing a hypodermic puncture wound at the base of the skull. Back in his (un)natural element, the irrepressible Kolchak steps on numerous toes and riles the Seattle authorities to eventually ferret out the murderer a 144-year old alchemist (Richard Anderson, Steve Austin's boss on The Six Million Dollar Man) who's collecting the slain women's blood to concoct a restorative "elixir of life". (And who happens, by the way, to resemble Darkman dressed like the killer in Blood and Black Lace.)
    Practically a remake of Stalker rather than a sequel, The Night Strangler again has McGavin in top form; it's always fun to watch an actor sink his teeth into a role he obviously loves. With 16 more minutes of running time the script (again by Matheson) is a bit more leisurely paced than the first movie's, certainly funnier. Director Dan (Dark Shadows) Curtis, who also produced, injects more atmosphere and suspense into the proceedings in lieu of "cops vs. creature" action scenes, which dominate the first film. An almost giallo-style stalking sequence is quite well done, especially considering this was made for television.
    The supporting cast is topnotch, notably Oakland and familiar B-movie faces Scott Brady (as Police Chief Shubert) and John Carradine (autocratic newspaper owner Mr. Crossbinder). '70s TV regular Jo Ann Pflug who appeared on just about every game show on American television during the decade is also quite good as the motormouth belly dancer who helps Carl track down the killer. Be warned, though: there is a tremendous amount of shouting in the film, as virtually every scene in which McGavin and Oakland appear together has them yelling at each other at the top of their lungs!

Anchor Bay's DVD release of the Kolchak telefilms comes with both movies on a single disc; one has to flip it over to play Strangler. Besides some brief liner notes there are no Bonus features at all, which is a pity. This would have been an unbeatable package were there an audio commentary with McGavin (even if only for one of the flicks). Still, the two best Kolchak tales for the price of a single-film disc is nothing to sneeze at. Aside from a bit of hiss during the final half hour of Strangler, sound and picture quality are okay; there's some grain and artifacting occasionally in evidence, but not so much that it prevents enjoyment of the films. 7/01/01
UPDATE This DVD was discontinued by Anchor Bay in 2002; MGM released a new, improved version in August 2004. Read the EC review of the MGM disc here.