Timeless Twin TV Titans of Terror: The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler

This piece is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Sharon Alary (1949-2022), my childhood curator of all things morbid, chilling, and spooky…

When I was five years old, I remember my mom taking me to the “bookmobile”, a trailer filled with books from the Saskatoon Public Library, which serviced our library-less neighborhood. She signed out a stack of books for me, children’s classics like Alligator Pie and The Secret World of Og, but also these impressive orange and black hardcover books about the classic Universal films Dracula and Frankenstein. I hadn’t seen those films, but I was intrigued by these ghoulish-looking fiends on the covers. When I started attending elementary school, I was delighted that the school library had multiple books in the series and I signed them out repeatedly. At the time, I didn’t know they were part of the beloved Monsters series of books published by Crestwood House, but I know now that many a Gen X child were enraptured by these very influential works. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula thrilled and yet terrified me in those black and white pictures, so much so that I thought he was going to bite me as I slept! Despite those fears, I learned to love all things vampire; I added the word nosferatu to my vocabulary before a lot of other boring, important words. One weekend, when we were visiting my grandma, my mom called me up from the basement to tell me there was a movie about to start. About a vampire. I raced upstairs breathlessly to tune into The Night Stalker, a TV movie about a goofy-looking newspaper reporter investigating women in Las Vegas being drained of their blood. I loved it, and along with Jaws and other films my mom introduced to me, it would cement my love for vampires and horror in general.

Years later, I realized we had watched a rerun of The Night Stalker, the first of two TV movies featuring veteran journalist, Carl Kolchak, as played by the inimitable character Darren McGavin. The Night Stalker was the highest-rated TV movie ever at the time it premiered in 1972; its success led to a sequel, The Night Strangler, which in turn led to a TV series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which lasted a mere twenty episodes during the 1974-1975 TV season when McGavin, tired of the monster-of-the-week formula, begged Universal out of his contract with two episodes remaining to be filmed. The two TV movies were produced by Dan Curtis, the creator of the cult daytime supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows. Curtis was prolific in producing and directing horror TV movies (and the superb 1976 feature film chiller, Burnt Offerings) in the 1970s, before opting out of the genre in the 1980s with two massive WWII mini-series, The Winds of War (1983) and War and Remembrance (1988-1989). Curtis hired acclaimed novelist and screenwriter Richard Matheson to script both The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler and the quality of those TV movies compared to the inconsistent quality of the TV series is very noticeable (neither Curtis nor Matheson took part in the TV series).

The TV movies highlight Kolchak’s futile struggle to report the truth of various murders to his readers, stymied by civic leaders and police brass who don’t want to admit to deaths caused by supernatural means. McGavin is the primary reason to watch these TV movies, as he imbues Kolchak with delightful doggedness and an anti-authoritarian streak, atypical for a character played by a fifty-year-old man in 1972, all while modeling an eccentric style of fashion: His preferred outfit is a well-worn seersucker suit, straw porkpie hat, and a camera and tape recorder slung over his shoulder. How this guy manages to attract the interest of much younger women in these movies is a mystery to me, but maybe it’s his 1965 Mustang? The poor guy goes to great lengths for his stories, often ending up in jail, as he obtains support for his supernatural-themed articles with facts, but few people believe him and his articles seldom go to print. If Kolchak’s single-minded pursuit of the truth sounds familiar, it should: The X-Files creator Chris Carter has said that Kolchak was an inspiration for his series, particularly in the creation of FBI agent Fox Mulder. (McGavin appeared several times on the series as a retired FBI agent.)

The Night Stalker

When multiple women in Las Vegas are found murdered and drained of blood, Carl Kolchak ruffles the local authorities by insinuating the murderer is a vampire. Even when the LVPD corner a man and shoot him repeatedly at point-blank range, he escapes unharmed. With the help of his friend in the local FBI office, Bernie (Ralph Meeker), he compiles enough information to find the undead suspect. Can Kolchak convince the authorities and end a vampire’s bloodlust?

Matheson adapts former journalist Jeff Rice’s unpublished novel, The Kolchak Tapes, keeping the book’s unique setting of Las Vegas for The Night Stalker. One would think a vampire would shy away from the dazzling lights and sounds of the Vegas strip, but where better to conceal oneself and feed on a healthy supply of locals and tourists? It’s an inspired touch and it proves to the viewer that this isn’t an old-fashioned vampire tale with crumbling castles and cobwebs in Transylvania. Contemporary viewers might find the film overly talky, but that was the style of ‘70s TV and besides, it’s great fun to see Kolchak spar verbally with his long-suffering boss, editor Tony Vincenzo (the fantastic Simon Oakland). Vincenzo knows Kolchak is “one Hell of a reporter,” but it’s Kolchak’s thumb-nosing at authority in the pursuit of a story that causes his pained mannerisms and disagreeable demeanor. When not aggravating Vincenzo, Kolchak gleefully irritates DA Tom Paine (Kent Smith) and Sheriff Warren A. Butcher (Claude Akins), even if it leads to his reputation being sullied in Las Vegas. Matheson intricately plots the clues Kolchak finds in his investigation that lead him to suspect the murderer is a creature of the night and it’s a pleasure watching him uncover the facts to support his outrageous claims.

The Night Stalker was directed by veteran TV director John Llewellyn Moxey, also known to have directed the British cult horror films The City of the Dead (1960) and Circus of Fear (1966). Moxey keeps the pace steady and assured, but even in the 1970s, it was difficult for a former film director to give a TV movie or episode a cinematic quality with the limited budget and short production schedule of TV. The Night Stalker’s flat visual look is indistinguishable from much of the TV movies and shows produced of that era, but Moxey is to be commended for eliciting splendid performances from the wealth of character actors, new and old. Carol Lynley as Gail Foster, Kolchak’s supportive but playful girlfriend, is marvelous even in the standard supportive role women played in the ‘70s productions, and she shows why she became a minor film star in the 1960s, keeping pace with McGavin’s sweaty, rapid delivery. Moxey orchestrates numerous cameos, featuring the likes of film noir veterans Elisha Cook, Jr. and Meeker, as well as a pre-Frank Burns Larry Linville as the no-nonsense medical examiner. The director wisely keeps the vampire in the dark and the viewer can barely make out distinguishing features, other than a pair of blood-red eyes and a pale complexion. Barry Atwater is particularly good as the silent vampire, Janos Skorzeny, a centuries-old vampire looking for blood in all the wrong places; the Transylvanian castle might be gone, but Eastern Europe is still well represented in this North American adult playground.

Moxey must also be applauded for filming night scenes at night, adding to the menace of a vampire lurking in the shadows. Too many TV shows and TV movies of the era shot day-for-night, ruining a narrative’s mood with unwanted sunlight (Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, a fun if inconsistent horror anthology series at the time of The Night Stalker, was guilty of day-for-night shots frequently, diminishing the effectiveness of some of its tales), so it’s refreshing to see Kolchak scurrying about in the actual dark. Moxey contrasts the nocturnal scenes with poolside scenes shot in the bright Las Vegas sun; filming on location in Las Vegas gives The Night Stalker a needed shot in the arm visually, not relying on the very tired and noticeable reliance of using outdoor studio backlots in Hollywood.

The Night Strangler

Now situated in Seattle, Carl Kolchak is hired by his old editor Vincenzo and pursues another mysterious, possibly immortal killer who kills during a cycle of 21 years, dating back to 1889! Once again, the police butt heads with Kolchak’s zeal for a story and pursuit of the truth. Will Kolchak be able to stop the killer in time?

The ratings success of The Night Stalker guaranteed a sequel and Curtis, Matheson, and McGavin create a follow-up that’s nearly as enjoyable as the original, if somewhat similar in a lot of aspects. Kolchak is still wearing his ugly seersucker suit and straw porkpie hat, but now he’s in another unconventional setting for a horror tale: The Pacific Northwest! Long before Nirvana, Mudhoney, Starbucks, and Frasier, there was the Seattle Space Needle, which insinuates itself several times in The Night Strangler. While a second-unit crew shot a lot of outdoor establishing shots of Seattle, most of the production was filmed on a studio backlot (sigh), though the viewer is still presented with plenty of genuine night scenes in backlot alleys and a recreation of Seattle’s 19th Century “underground city”, a historical and popular tourist attraction that’s central to the film’s denouement.

After producing The Night Stalker, Dan Curtis opted to produce and direct The Night Strangler himself, having previously directed House of Dark Shadows (1970) and Night of Dark Shadows (1971), the feature film spinoffs of his 1966-1971 soap opera creation. Like the previous film, Curtis can’t do much to alter TV visuals, but he does throw in some fun Dutch angles sporadically to give the film an off-kilter look to compensate for flat lighting. Curtis provides even more cameos here, often with tongue planted firmly in cheek with the likes of Margaret Hamilton (The Wizard of Oz’s notorious Wicked Witch of the West) playing a scholar who offers Kolchak insight into concoctions for immortality; Al Lewis, Grandpa on The Munsters (1964-1966), is a hobo who lives in the Seattle Underground; Wally Cox (Mr. Peepers) as the Seattle Chronicle’s researcher; and screen legend John Barrymore as the very hands-on publisher, Llewellyn Crossbinder. Jo Ann Pflug is Kolchak’s latest love interest, Louise, a psychology major who belly dances to pay the bills, while also agreeing to be Kolchak’s “bait” to catch the killer. Lastly, Simon Oakland returns as the milk-drinking (for his ulcer), beyond-stressed Vincenzo, a newspaper editor who will regret hiring Kolchak again for “old times’ sake”.

Matheson injects the same style of humor and rapid-fire dialogue, but it does feel a bit too familiar to the first TV movie. Kolchak reads the coroner’s report that blood has been taken from each victim, though not drained completely, and rotting flesh is found on their broken necks. Is it another vampire? Thankfully, Matheson opts to create a new type of menace, one who seeks immortality and the heavy price to be paid for it. Unfortunately, the new antagonist isn’t as distinctive as a centuries-old vampire in Las Vegas, as a former Civil War doctor seeking immortality isn’t as sexy. Richard Anderson plays the demented immortal, but he’s not as memorable as Barry Atwater’s silent performance in The Night Stalker; it’s probably no great surprise that Anderson would shortly enjoy a long stint playing a stiff spymaster in the very ‘70s sci-fi adventure series The Six Million Dollar Man and its spinoff, The Bionic Woman. There is still much to be enjoyed here in the interplay between McGavin and Oakland, and Pflug and McGavin have great chemistry (and matching terrible fashion sense), especially as Kolchak intrudes on Louise’s calm and studious life and ends up getting her kicked out of university!

Despite the efforts of the cast and crew, The Night Strangler performed noticeably worse in the ratings than the first TV movie, but it still won its timeslot. Matheson and William F. Nolan wrote a script for a third TV movie, The Night Killers, but it was ditched in favor of producing a weekly TV series with McGavin in the lead. Fans of both TV movies could watch Kolchak solve weekly supernatural shenanigans in Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which included the episode “The Vampire”, a sequel to The Night Stalker. Only McGavin (who also served as producer) and Oakland were brought back from the two telefilms, a nice bit of continuity that was sorely needed in some of the series’ dire episodes. I never got to see the TV show until the early ‘90s when I was visiting family in Saskatoon—the nearby Prince Albert CBC affiliate aired late-night reruns and I was delighted to watch an episode or two until Universal released the complete series on DVD in the early ‘00s. (Kino Lorber has released the series on Blu-ray and, as I write this, I’m eagerly awaiting its arrival in my mailbox.)

Darren McGavin, Richard Matheson, and Dan Curtis injected some much-needed vitality into the TV horror genre with The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler. Because of their efforts, an inordinate number of memorable small-screen chillers continued to scare viewers in the comfort of their own homes for the rest of the 1970s and into the 1980s. Without their sterling work, we might not have been scared by the likes of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Gargoyles, Trilogy of Terror, or even Tobe Hooper’s acclaimed adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. Despite broadcast limitations on blood and violence, the Kolchak telefilms relied on skillful writing, strong performances, and a likable everyman character like McGavin’s beleaguered investigative reporter. These twin tales of TV terror continue to live on fifty years later, examples of a bygone era when TV networks created slick telefilms to entertain audiences briefly for huge ratings. Today’s corporate greed and divided studio ownership (Disney owns the TV movies, Universal owns the series) prevents The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler from maintaining its small piece of public consciousness, as the telefilms are not streaming anywhere (the TV series is currently streaming on Peacock) and the Blu-rays, also released by Kino Lorber, are going out of print, as Disney refused to renew its license with Kino, despite the discs being tremendous sellers—buy them while you can! Carl Kolchak was the proto-Mulder for the Watergate era and he still delights me today. The Night Stalker was a formative part of my burgeoning interest in horror and though my mom might have regretted her influence decades later, I will be forever grateful to her for instilling in me a modicum of good taste for vintage horror TV movies. She gave me plenty of pragmatic adult skills and values, but she did introduce me to Carl Kolchak. Thanks, mom.


  • Jay Alary

    Jay lives in downtown Calgary, Alberta with his beloved partner, two cats, and far too many books and movies.