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KOLCHAK VS 'THE NIGHT STALKER' & 'THE NIGHT STRANGLER'

Reviews of NIGHT STALKER & STRANGLER Years: 1972-73
Darren McGavin's Kolchak is a throwback in an era that at this point is a throwback, causing a double-whammy of nostalgia in two Made-for-TV movies where a snoopy middle-aged reporter, dressed in 1940's Film Noir attire, or as described by one character, looking "part of the road company of THE FRONT PAGE," is more a detective or rather Gumshoe Private Dick than anything else...

Perhaps not a very hard stretch for McGavin who played Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer with more zest and charm than necessary, yet that jovial persona fits as Kolchak, specializing in Investigative Journalism by opening the right doors with a terrific personality, and when getting knocked down, not staying down... And to begin we'll learn about working with McGavin from one of the cast, MR. MAJESTYK character-actor Jordan Rhodes, who played Dr. O'Brien, someone who actually helps the beleaguered reporter along, or at least tries to...

Darren McGavin and our pal Jordan Rhodes
JORDAN RHODES: You may remember the little gesture my character... The Doctor... being a friend of Kolchak's, made about his belly while delivering the line, 'Taking pity on an aging reporter.' When I made this actors choice to poke his waistline, I was a little concerned about how he'd react. 

During the rehearsal, when I made this gesture pointing to his belly... Darren loved it... he even suggested I make more out of it, which I did. Needless to write, I enjoyed working with him and he was always very friendly toward me each time we met after that show...

And just a sidebar: producer Dan Curtis had wanted to make my character a recurring character on the show whenever Kolchak was working the Vegas beat. I can't recall the reasons that didn't work out... I was lucky in those days and working a lot, so I don't remember if it was scheduling or not. But for my money, Darren was a good guy and I enjoyed working with him.

Carol Lynley with Darren McGavin
Beginning with THE NIGHT STALKER which, produced not directed by DARK SHADOWS cult icon Dan Curtis, is far more breezy than dark and ominous, as the title implies (which could be about the antagonist stalking women, or the protagonist stalking his story, or both)...

And with that title it's surprising how much we see the Las Vegas location under bright daylight. That's when the bodies turn up and are discussed by the likes of a (surprisingly) helpful FBI Agent played by Ralph Meeker, who was the quintessential Film Noir cinematic Mike Hammer in KISS ME DEADLY before McGavin turned him into a lightweight P.I. that housewives could trust on television; Claude Akins as a cop trying to block Kolchak at every turn, along with his man in charge, and another Noir staple, Charles McGraw; Larry Linville as a doctor with information that might help matters; and Simon Oakland as a grouchy newspaper chief irritated at Kolchak for his "idealistic" push that the truth, no matter how shocking and disturbing, should be told to and for the people, especially when the powers that be, presided over by strict D.A. Kent Smith, needs to cover things up to avoid causing a citywide panic or to scare off tourists, a device which would be used in JAWS and any other "creature feature" where denial is an important factor.

Nigh Stalker Score: ***1/2
That's how most of this vehicle plays out: backroom meetings trumping deaths shown in eerie montage as "Women of the Night" are drained of blood, and those teeth marks don't look like that of an animal, but a human. Possibly... and this is a hard-sell to the bigwigs in charge: A Vampire, something Kolchak and Kolchak alone believes...

Darren McGavin and Kent Smith
It's too bad the mystery's hindered by the killer being revealed much too soon; by thirty minutes in, he's throwing things around in a spastic tantrum within a hospital office where blood's stored in a fridge. With superhuman strength and the looks of Bela Lugosi sans the long black cape, Barry Atwater's desperate vamp also takes a stroll, as viewed in his perspective, through a crowded casino, eyed by a shocked crowd – perhaps NIGHT STALKER should have taken place at the tail-end of October for to remain more enigmatic and suspenseful, although it's a nice and nifty programmer that, if anything, introduces Kolchak as a determined reporter making for an intrepid though unlikely hero having the guts to walk into dark houses and face what's perhaps the spookiest ghoul of them all...

Darren McGavin with Wally Cox in one of his last roles
And next up, as producer and director, Dan Curtis steps fully into the light in THE NIGHT STRANGLER; for that's what the much more mysterious and mostly unseen antagonist does to his victims on the outskirts of not Vegas this time, where Kolchak was forced to leave upon an 11th hour blackmail to keep the story covered up, but the gorgeous city of Seattle, Washington, where, somehow, Simon Oakland's even more cantankerous and noisy Tony Vincenzo winds up running another paper – conveniently giving a job to his best reporter and number one headache, who, at this point, is not only an expert on monstrosities based on what most think are of fictional origin but is working on a novel about his last venture, and has a setback as things start all over: but not like Sin City...

McGavin with Scott Brady
Instead, what's occurring also happened in 1951: a series of strangulations by what's described not as a vampire but something that doesn't look to be alive at all – described as The Living Dead  and never a "zombie," this lead gives Kolchak far more time to investigate instead of argue with stubborn chiefs despite the fact there are way too many scenes where he and Oakland shout back and forth, seeming more like an actor's workshop than anything necessary to move the story forward – one that keeps a nice steady pace and involves a series of potentially intriguing underground mazes the likes of THE THIRD MAN: Literally searching up and down, Kolchak has his work cut out, and instead of having a conversational ingenue, like Carol Lynley's heart of gold hooker was in STALKER, this time exotic dancer Jo Ann Pflug actually puts herself in jeopardy to aid her man; even though, once again, Kolchak has a girlfriend way too hot for him: But that's part of being the hero!

NIGHT STRANGLER Score: ***
Other cast members include John Carradine in a non-spooky yet still antagonist role; MUNSTERS Grampa, Al Lewis, perhaps paying latter-tribute to the first film's villain; Noir vet Scott Brady as a tough cop, taking the place of both Charles McGraw and Claude Akins; OZ witch Margaret Hamilton providing worthwhile information; and Wally Cox as a sort of newspaper librarian who finds all the info on what's going down, in Kolchak's estimation, all over again...

And while Richard Anderson turns in a nifty monologue-spouting finale, straight out of the Bond villain playbook, and the fact we get more of a nighttime vibe with more creative camera angles and a taut suspenseful mainline, the actors around McGavin often seem too cozy (and often downright hammy) in their roles, seeming more part of what we're experiencing, television, than being successfully tricked into believing it's an actual motion picture, like the original – and in that, STALKER has a slight edge on STRANGLER: sure, we knew too much too soon, but in that the audience, and Kolchak, had more to experience and actually deal with.
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