Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a weekly column in which Kieran Fisher and I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the ’70s. This time we take a look at a TV movie sequel to The Night Stalker called… The Night Strangler.
Sequels are something of a rarity across the 70s TV horror movie landscape, but while some are best left forgotten at least one truly stands out as a solid TV film in its own right. 1972’s The Night Stalker was a ratings hit for ABC, so they made the obvious next move and delivered a sequel one year later with a similar title, a sassier attitude, and the same brilliant lead actor in Darren McGavin. Take a seat, grab a drink, and let’s check out 1973’s The Night Strangler.
When: January 16th, 1973
It’s been a long, lonely year since Carl Kolchak (McGavin) helped identify and stop a vampire’s reign of terror in Las Vegas. The case cost him his job, his home, and the love of a good woman, but things are looking up in Seattle. He runs into his old boss, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), who’s taken a gig as the local newspaper editor, and Kolchak quickly talks Vincenzo into a hiring him on at the paper. His first story? The murder of a young woman — she was strangled, her neck crushed, and there’s a small needle prick on her scalp. Oh, and she’s missing a noticeable amount of blood.
Kolchak digs into the details and makes the rounds with police, witnesses, coroners, and clerks, and as more bodies are found he settles on a hypothesis — the killer is an undead doctor who returns to Seattle’s streets every twenty-one years in search of new victims. He has the receipts for his theory, but just as he discovered in Las Vegas, neither the paper nor the police are interested in hearing about supernatural perpetrators. So once again Kolchak goes head first into the story, into the line of fire, and into the den of evil.
The Night Strangler was initially meant as the second of three Kolchak TV movies, but its success convinced ABC that audiences were down enough with Carl’s nocturnal adventures to justify a TV series instead. Horror veteran Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows, 1966-1971; The Trilogy of Terror, 1975) stepped in as director replacing the equally legendary John Llewellyn Moxley (Home for the Holidays, 1972), and the great Richard Matheson (Duel, 1971; The Legend of Hell House, 1973) returned to write the script.
Most viewers tend to prefer The Night Stalker for various reasons, but the only one that actually holds water is the similarities between the movies. While the first feels fresh, the sequel can feel a little repetitive as Kolchak goes through all of the same steps in bringing down the supernatural threat. He hits road blocks trying to convince the authorities, the killer is targeting young women and taking their blood, Kolchak is threatened with arrest, and it all comes down to a face off between the intrepid reporter and the murderous, undead perp.
That’s a fair criticism, but I’d argue a lot of sequels share highly similar story bones with their predecessors, and the key here is in the details. Kolchak is a character who starts out this time as a beaten man, but there’s joy in seeing him bounce back at the slightest whiff of a story. There’s a bounce in his step, and he walks bulletproof through the newsroom riding the high of a scoop. McGavin’s performance once again nails the personality of a dogged newsman fueled only by the facts, and in addition to being an inspiration for reporters everywhere he’s also pretty damn hilarious.
Kolchak describes one woman by mentioning her “hips could move as fast as her mouth,” he’s constantly cracking wise at authority figures, and he’s relatively unflappable in the face of mortal danger. Sure, he’s no great fighter and is instead fairly clumsy when faced with a snarling madman, but the guy gets the job done all the same. McGavin’s investigative reporter feels like a man out of time, and that feeling is amplified during a sequence filmed in Los Angeles’ architectural triumph that is the Bradbury Building (made famous in films like Blade Runner (1982) and shows like The Outer Limits (1963). He’s a man on a mission, and nothing — not monsters, not bureaucracy, not a damn thing — is going to stand in his way. You gotta love it.
The Night Strangler may feel overly familiar if watched soon after its predecessor, but it remains a thrilling, fun, and entertaining TV movie. (Sure its killer was kind of ripped off for Jeepers Creepers (2001), but you can hardly hold that against Curtis, Matheson, McGavin, and friends.) Instead, treat this is an extended episode of a short-lived TV series featuring the always brilliant McGavin once again knocking it out of the park as a journalist standing up for the truth, the people, and the byline.