Tag Archives: classic

Retview #16 – The Howling (1981)

Title: The Howling

Year of Release: 1981

Director: Joe Dante

Length: 89 minutes

Starring: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Slim Pickens, John Carradine, Elisabeth Brooks

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I’ve already covered several werewolf movies in this series (An American Werewolf in London, Dog Soldiers). However, previous entries tend to verge on horror/comedy. I don’t know why, but someone way back in movie history must have decided there was something knee-slappingly funny about people transforming into humungous wolf-like creatures and ripping innocent bystanders into bloody pieces. Not so the Howling. Despite a script dripping with satire (“You were raised in LA, the wildest thing you ever heard was Wolfman Jack.”) adapted from Gary Brandner’s novel by screenwriter John Sayles, who had previously worked with director Joe Dante on tongue-in-cheek classic Piranha, there are precious few chuckles here. Except right at the very end, which we’ll get to in good time. Even now, almost four decades after it was first released, The Howling is still a brutal, terrifying, and deeply disturbing journey into the dark heart of the lycanthrope legend which has long been considered a metaphor for the beast lurking inside all of us, something which is hinted at several times throughout the movie. If you’ve never seen it, that’s something you need to rectify post haste.

Karen White (Scream Queen Dee Wallace, star of horror staples Cujo, the original Hills Have Eyes and Critters, but probably best known for her role in E.T.) is a television news anchor in LA who is being stalked by a serial killer. In conjunction with the police and TV crews, she takes part in a sting operation, agreeing to meet the murderer in a sleazy porno cinema. In the ensuing kerfuffle, the serial killer is shot dead by cops, but Karen is left severely traumatized by it all and suffering from amnesia. Her therapist (Macnee, that bloke off the Avengers) suggests she and her husband (Stone) should spend some time at an exclusive retreat in the countryside to aid her recovery, something they are only too happy to do. Big mistake. The Colony, as they call it, is full of colourful characters, one of them being a nymphomaniac called Marsha (Brooks) who tried to bed Karen’s husband. When he rejects her advances, she follows him into the woods one night and scratches his arm, thereby ‘turning’ him. They later do it next to a bonfire (snigger) in one of those scenes that you probably rewound way too much as a horny teenager, before getting creeped out by the fact that by the end you are essentially watching a couple of Furries getting some. Anyway, Karen soon begins to suspect that something sketchy is going on not just with her husband, but at the retreat as a whole, and calls in a little help from her friends. That’s when things get interesting, if they weren’t interesting enough before.

There’s no getting around it, by today’s standards The Howling does seem awfully dated in parts. But the script is extremely well-written, the cast is a who’s who of the era’s acting talent and, though Rick Baker deservedly won an Oscar for his creature effects on An American Werewolf in London a year later, Rob Bottin’s work here is just as impressive. You can achieve quite a lot with tiny inflatable air bags under latex skin. He lets the side down somewhat in the final scene where Karen morphs into something resembling a cross between a Spaniel and a Golden Retriever live on air, but we’ll let that one slide. I prefer to think that particular scene (a late addition tagged on to the end while Wallace was filming Cujo) is meant as one of those tongue-in-cheek moments. An earlier section where the werewolf attacks Karen’s friend at a secluded cabin in the woods is utterly terrifying, as is the part where our heroine comes face to face with the monster for the first time and watches transfixed as he changes in front of her. The suspense is maintained throughout, and the action rarely lets up. There’s also a fair bit of sex and nudity which led to some reviewers, somewhat unfairly, dubbing it erotic horror. Dante (who also directed Gremlins, Innerspace and Burying the Ex, amongst others) fits all the pieces together nicely, and shows neat little touches like having Little Red Riding Hood playing in the background.

Unsurprisingly, due to its success, the Howling spawned a sequel (Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf) in 1985. What is surprising, however, is that despite the sequel being a total flop it then led to a bunch more, none of which were very good. The most recent was the eighth installment released in 2011. Word is that a ninth is in pre-production, a remake of the first, which you would think would round things off nicely. Just as long as they don’t decide to remake the other seven.

Trivia Corner:

Dee Wallace and Christopher Stone were married in RL, having met on an episode of CHiPs before filming started on The Howling. They were together until his death from a werewolf bite (not really. It was a heart attack) in 1995.

 

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RetView #15 – The Fly (1958)

Title: The Fly

Year of Release: 1958

Director: Kurt Neumann

Length: 93 mins

Starring: Al Hedison, Vincent Price, Patricia Owens

“The more I know, the more sure I am I know so little. The eternal paradox.”

Andre Delambre

The fly 1958

Before the famed David Cronenberg effort in 1986, came the 1958 original. I’d never seven seen it until relatively recently. I was thinking about covering the remake for this series, but I have a feeling there might be enough 80’s flicks here as it is, and the series might benefit from an entry dating from the late-fifties. You know, for context and stuff. So, here we are.

The premise: Canadian scientist Andre Delambre (Hedison) is found dead with his head and arm crushed in a hydraulic press. His brother (Price) comes on the scene to try to make sense of what has happened. Was a freak accident? Suicide? Gulp. Murder? The scientist’s wife (Owens) readily accepts liability, but says she’d rather not say why she did such a terrible thing. Which is not only unhelpful, but pretty odd. She then takes to her bed, and starts acting weirdly. It’s especially disconcerting when the housekeeper swats an insect and she freaks the fuck out. Apparently, she is becoming obsessed with a particular white-headed fly which buzzes around the house. From that point, the film shifts from a murder mystery to flat-out sci-fi horror.

Through a series of flashbacks it is revealed that her dead husband was engaged in a ground-breaking series of experiments concerning the transportation of organic matter in an invention called the disintegrator/integrator. The basic idea is to eventually be able to send things through time and space instantaneously, thereby doing away with costly and time-consuming modes of conventional travel. He has great fun successfully transporting inanimate objects like ashtrays, then progresses to Dandelo the family cat. That doesn’t go quite so well, as Dandelo fails to reappear but can nevertheless be heard meowing somewhere in the ether. Oops. Despite the missing moggie, curiosity soon gets the better of Delambre. He constructs a pair of man-sized teleportation chambers and proceeds to try to transport himself. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to him, when he tries the experiment he is sharing the chamber with a house fly which has snuck in, resulting in their atoms becoming merged. Yes, Delambre is now part fly, and the fly is now part Delambre. Hence the scientist with the missing head and arm, and the fly with the white head. Geddit?

Ignoring the obvious plot hole, whereby Delambre somehow ended up with the head of a fly but with his old brain in it, and the flipside of that eventuality where the fly ended up with Delambre’s head, but with a fly’s brain, yet could still scream “Help me!” when threatened by a spider, something picked up on by critic Carlos Clarens (who noted that the film, “Collapses under the weight of many questions”) The Fly can still be considered a landmark in cinema. Of particular interest is the sub-text, which warns against the march of progress and the often terrible price of success. Remember, this was the late 50’s, and the decade had already brought television, transistor radios and passenger jets. UFO flaps were common. It was a time of such technological and scientific innovation, all heavily influenced by fractious Cold War politics and the continuous threat of nuclear war, that anything must have seemed possible. All this would have made The Fly terrifyingly plausible. Furthermore, it might be camp and funny now, but by 1950’s standards, the famous “Help me!” scene near the end must have been utterly horrifying. And speaking of campy goodness, do yourself a favour and check out the original trailer.

Producer/drector Kurt Neumann, who also worked on Kronos and She Devil (both 1957) died of ‘natural causes’ at the age of 50, shortly after attending the premier of The Fly, not knowing he’d just made the biggest hit of his career. Without him, film went on to become one of the Box Office successes of the year, raking in $3 million from a budget variously quoted as being $325,000 – $495,000. Much of this expense was due to it being produced in colour, another innovation which was just coming into its own. The film went on to spawn two sequels, Return of the Fly (1959) and Curse of the Fly (1966). Sadly, neither were able to replicate either the success or the cultural impact of the original and sank without trace.

Trivia Corner

The Fly was based on a short story by French/British writer George Langelaan, an interesting character who had been a spy in World War II and was allegedly a close friend of ‘The Great Beast’ Aleister Crowley. The original version of the short story appeared in the June 1957 edition of Playboy.

Go here for the previous entry in the RetView series.


RetView #13 – Witchfinder General

Title: Witchfinder General

Year of Release: 1968

Director: Michael Reeves

Length: 86 mins

Starring: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Rupert Davies, Hilary Dwyer, Robert Russell

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Though its historical accuracy has been questioned, this unflinching document of one of Britain’s darkest and most brutal periods, filmed largely on location in the sweeping countryside of East Anglia, is loosely based on the activities of one Matthew Hopkins. He was a lawyer who, during the English Civil War (1642–51) when society degenerated into general lawlessness, took on the role of ‘Witchfinder General,’ and rampaged across country torturing and terrorizing innocent (probably) people he believed to be cohorts of the devil. Historical evidence suggests that he and his associates were responsible for the deaths of up to 300 men and women. They got rich charging local magistrates for the ‘work’ they carried out.

One of his favoured methods of determining whether or not his intended victim was a witch or not  was the ‘swimming test’ or ducking stool, whereby he tied people to chairs and threw them into a lake or a river. It was believed that true witches who had renounced their baptism would be rejected by the water and therefore float. If they did, they were promptly executed. Obviously, with their arms and legs bound, it was far more likely they sank to the bottom where they drowned so either way, it would end badly. He would also search for ‘Devil’s Marks’ on the bodies of the accused, which could take the form of a scar, mole, or any other kind of blemish. If no mark could be found, he would make his own with a blade. As you can probably imagine, he was despised and feared in roughly equal measures.

Here, Vincent Price does a great job of portraying the self-appointed witchfinder general. His cruelty knows no bounds and at times, he seems to exude evil at will. He and his assistant Stearne ride into the village of Brandestone and round up a gaggle of suspects, including the local priest (Rupert Davies) who is quickly executed. When her soldier lover Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy, best known for assuming the lead role in Return of the Saint in 1978) comes home from battle, he finds the priest’s niece Sara (Hilary Dwyer) has been raped by one of Hopkins’ entourage, swears revenge, and goes off in search of retribution. In the interests of self-preservation, Hopkins and his assistant then devise a trap to capture Richard and frame him for practicing witchcraft, and the climax sees both he and Sara being tortured in a castle dungeon. In a fittingly gruesome finale, Richard breaks free of his bonds, stomps on Stearne’s face then sets about Hopkins with an axe. Hopkins is only saved from dismemberment when Ogilvy’s soldier mates finally show up to save the day and shoot him dead, but by then it’s too late as dear Sara has been driven insane.

One of the major talking points around the film’s release was the fractious relationship between Price, then a veteran of some 70-plus films (not the 84 he reportedly claimed at the time, though we’ll forgive him this minor indiscretion), and the novice director Michael Reeves who’s first choice for the role (Donald Pleasance) had apparently been stonewalled by the studio. Legend has it that on the last day of filming, Price turned up on set thoroughly pissed, as per the English sense of the word. As a final act of revenge, Reeves instructed Ian Ogilvy to “Really lay into him” with the stage axe used in Price’s violent death scene. The blows you see in the movie were not faked, but Price allegedly got wind of the director’s dastardly plan and wisely padded out his costume with foam to guard himself from injury. As a suitably chilling postscript, less than a year later, a 25-year old Reeves would be dead, the apparent victim of an accidental drug overdose.

Though it pales in comparison to today’s standards, Witchfinder General drew considerable criticism for the scale and ferocity of the violence on show, with Dilys Powell of The Sunday Times famously summing it up as, “17th Century hanging, burning, raping, screaming, and Vincent Price as England’s prize torture overseer. Peculiarly nauseating.” However, helped in part to Reeve’s untimely death, the film went on to achieve cult status with few sparking so much discussion and in 2005 was named the 15th Greatest Horror Film of all Time by industry bible Total Film. In the half a century since it’s release it has become not just an undisputed horror classic but an invaluable, if heavily dramatized, historical account of one of the darkest periods of British history.

Trivia Corner:

Witchfinder General was re-titled The Conqueror Worm for its American release in a shameless attempt to link it with the earlier series of Vincent Price films based on the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. This was despite the film having nothing to do with Poe, and only included brief voiceovers of the poem in question which were added later to justify the name change. Word has it that extra nude scenes were filmed especially for the German release.

 


RetView #10 – Eyes Without a Face

Title: Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage)

Year of Release: 1960

Director: Georges Franju

Length: 90 mins (uncut version)

Starring: Pierre Brasseur, Edith Scob, Alida Valli, Juliette Mayniel

Eyes without a face

Eyes Without a Face can legitimately lay claim to being one of the first gore films ever produced. In theory, at least. During production, a lot of effort was made to satisfy the strict standards of the various European censorship committees yet despite all the restraints, it still caused quite a stir in both the snotty establishment and the cinema-going public. Initial critical reaction to such an avant garde, experimental work was mixed, to say the least. Some praised the film’s bravery and innovation, while others were simply too disgusted by some particularly grisly scenes, along with the core subject matter, to delve any further and walked off in a huff.

However, as the years passed, the film gained more and more plaudits, and these days is often cited by modern filmmakers as one of the most significant movies ever made. Its influence doesn’t stop there. In 1983, almost a quarter of a century after the film was made, English punk singer Billy Idol recorded the song Eyes Without a Face in homage to the cinematic classic. When released as a single the following year, it proved to be one of his biggest ever hits. By the way, you’ll need subtitles for this one, unless you can speak fluent French.

You know you aren’t dealing with your average piece of European cinema the moment the manic funfair music kicks in over the opening credits. Nothing slow and brooding here, which is completely at odds with the slightly disturbing visuals where we see a woman driving a dead body around in a car then dumping it in a river. Even though the corpse is disguised in a raincoat and hat, you get the sense something isn’t quite right about it. Apart from it being a corpse, obviously. And so it proves when the body apparently turns out to be the recently disappeared daughter of the renowned Doctor Genessier (Pierre Brasseur), whose face had been hideously disfigured in a car crash. So severe were her injuries that only her eyes were left intact, hence the film’s title. The doctor identifies the body and has it interred in the family crypt with that of his wife, who’d died four years previously. So far, so creepy.

The ick factor increases when the doctor and his assistant Louise (the woman who had disposed of the body) return home where the real daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), is hidden. The body in the river was that of a test subject who had died after the doctor surgically removed her face in an effort to graft it onto his daughter. Problem is, her flesh keeps rejecting the new tissue, causing her shiny new features to literally rot away. Doctor Genessier promises he will eventually succeed, and until then urges his daughter to wear a mask. A precaution necessary because although all the mirrors have been removed from the house, Christiane still catches sight of her ruined face in shiny reflective surfaces from time to time and it never fails to freak her out.

True to his word, Doctor Genessier does indeed keep trying to restore his daughter’s face. He and Louise, who feels indebted to him for fixing her own face (one can only assume there were a lot of face accidents in post-World War II France) lure a young Swiss woman called Edna (Juliette Mayniel) to their lair, chloroform the shit out of her, then set about carving her face off and grafting it onto Christiane. This is the part that riled the censors so much, and for a film almost sixty years old, it’s pretty graphic stuff. Edna later escapes and when she discovers what they’ve done to her, throws herself out of a window, leaving the doctor and his assistant with another unsavoury mess to clean up. Meanwhile, an understandably traumatized Christiane keeps calling her fiancé, who thinks she’s dead, and a friend of Edna’s reports her disappearance to the police who see a pattern emerging. Soon, the net begins to close and as matters come to a head (or a face?) it becomes clear that Doctor Genessier isn’t the only one who can come up with dastardly plots.

Based on the novel of the same name by Jean Redon This was director Georges Franju’s (1912 – 87) first legitimate feature film. Until then he had primarily been a documentary film maker, the Nazi occupation of Paris and Industrialization featuring heavily in his subject matter. Perhaps his most controversial work was Blood of the Beasts, an unflinching look inside a French slaughterhouse. Eyes Without a Face works on many levels. Scratch beneath the surface (sic) and far from being a simple horror flick, you’ll find it rife with symbolism, offering a systematic study on the effects of guilt, remorse, unconditional love, isolation, and the misguided importance society places on superficial beauty. Unique, divisive, harrowing, and utterly brilliant.

Trivia Corner:

During its screening at the 1960 Edinburgh Film Festival, seven audience members reportedly fainted prompting director Franju to remark, “Now I know why Scotsmen wear skirts.”


RetView #8 – Demons

Title: Demons (aka Demoni)

Year of Release: 1985

Director: Lamberto Bava

Length: 88 mins

Starring: Urbano Barberini, Natasha Hovey

demons

This film is 1985 to the bone. You can tell the moment the awful tinkly synth pop soundtrack kicks in over the opening credits. You don’t even need the long, lingering shots of shoulder padded, pink-haired punks riding the Berlin subway but you get that anyway, just in case you were in any doubt. Cheryl, a pretty college student (Hovey), disembarks the train, and is pursued down the platform by a mysterious masked man. Not really what you want. But when Strange Dude catches up with her, instead of assaulting her he gives her free tickets to a film showing that evening at a local cinema. Crisis avoided. You would think. Cheryl then meets her friend Cathy, persuades her to cut class, and off they go to the cinema together. Little do they know they are setting themselves up for a whole lot of freakish, bloodthirsty fun and games.

In one of those cool film-within-a-film sequences, the film they are watching is revealed to be a gross-out horror about a group of teens who go in search of the tomb of Nostradamus and end up turning into demons and butchering each other. As we find out the teenagers fate, the cinema is revealed to contain a cast of colourful characters including two guys who hit on Cheryl and her friend (one of them being George, played by Barberini, who turns out to be the star of the show), an elderly couple, a blind man, and a pimp with some prostitutes. One of the prostitutes tries on a mask in the cinema lobby and scratches her face, mirroring what happens in the movie they are all watching. A short while later she breaks into full-on demon mode and bursts through the cinema screen sparking a stampede for the exit as the cinema-goers begin to realise that somewhere along the way, the movie has morphed into reality.

*shudder*

To make matters worse, when they try to flee the cinema they find the exits blocked, meaning that the punters are all trapped inside with the demon, which goes around ripping off faces, slashing throats, and infecting them with the demon-virus.

That would perhaps explain why the tickets were free.

Those infected with the demon-virus also turn into bloodthirsty thugs, and pretty soon George and Cheryl find themselves locked in a mortal battle for survival as all hell breaks loose around them. A perfect first date this isn’t. As the demons run amok, the face melting, scalping, and flesh-chewing is relentless, subsiding only long enough to cut to a bunch of muscle-vested Latino punks at irregular intervals who are driving around Berlin off their tits on coke (which they hilariously snort out of a Coke can) and listening to Go West. Really. At one point they drop their stash and then have to painstakingly pick it all up again. Luckily enough, some of it falls over the girl of the gang’s exposed breasts. She even gets some inside her knickers, apparently. Bizarre. Predictably enough, the horny, drug-addled punks eventually come to a suitably sticky end. Keep your eye open for the reappearance of the masked man from the subway station, tying things up nicely. But the final shock is kept for the last few frames. I bet you didn’t see that one coming. And that’s AFTER a massive helicopter crashes through the roof.

Overlooking the Go West abomination, elsewhere Demons benefits from a thumping metal-oriented soundtrack featuring choice cuts from Motley Crue, Saxon, Billy Idol and Accept. It is a rare English/Italian production, spawned no less than seven sequels (though few have any relation to the original, sharing the same name only as a tediously transparent marketing strategy) and is widely regarded as horror writer/producer extraordinaire Dario Argento’s tour de force. However, 30-plus years on, the sad truth is it hasn’t aged very well. The writing still holds up, just, and the cinematography should be applauded. There are also some inventive and gore-tastic kills, as you would expect from one of the masters of horror. Let’s not forget this is the guy who will always be remembered for THAT scene in Zombi 2 where he has a woman’s eyeball slowly impaled on a thick wooden splinter. Ouch. But by the mid-way point of Demons the camp, OTT acting gets a bit tiresome and it is further let down by some truly awful special effects. Given that the budget was a measly $1.8 million (compared to the $28 million shelled out on Rocky IV, which came out the same year) that’s understandable I guess. It would be interesting to see what a large American studio with some hefty backing would be able to do with this. If any movie deserves a remake, it’s Demons.

Trivia Corner:

Between leaving his job at a newspaper and making his name in the horror biz, Argento worked with Sergio Leone as a scriptwriter on the classic spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West (1969).


RetView #7 – Severance

Title: Severance

Year of Release: 2006

Director: Christopher Smith

Length: 95 mins

Starring: Danny Dyer, Laura Harris, Tim McInnerny, Toby Stephens

To non-British readers this might be one of the more obscure entries in the ongoing RetView series, but its inclusion is entirely justified. Severance mixes humour, bravado, and some of the most brutal body horror this side of the Saw franchise to great effect, making it one of the stand-out Brit Horror films of the past two decades. It’s actually a British/German/Hungarian collaboration, but is quintessentially mainly due to the casting. Danny Dyer, perhaps best known for roles in Human Traffic, the Football Factory, The Business and, er, Eastenders, is a bit like Marmite. You either love him or hate him. Me, I think he’s a fackin’ legend. By his own admission, he’s banged out more than a few stinkers in his time. But as he says, he has to get paid somehow. He isn’t perfect, and has suffered from typecasting in the past, but he’s a criminally underrated actor. Severance, while probably being the best of his horror films, isn’t the only one. He also starred in Devil’s Playground, Basement, Dead Cert and Doghouse, none of which were quite as well received as this often-overlooked little gem.

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The plot revolves around a group of office staff from a weapon manufacturing company who are sent to Hungary on a team building exercise. As you would find in any office, there is an eclectic and varied cast of characters, all living up to certain long-held stereotypes. True to form, Danny Dyer plays everyman Steve, in a kind of reprisal of his role in Human Traffic (1999) who sees the weekend getaway as the perfect opportunity to get off his tits. He’s munching magic mushrooms and puffing on a spliff in the coach toilet before they even arrive (“Have I pissed meself?”). A spanner is thrown into the works when they find their route blocked and their driver fucks off with the bus, leaving the team meandering through a remote bear-infested forest. When they finally find the lodge they are supposed to be staying at, which offers very little in the way of home comforts, they discover it may or may not have been a lunatic asylum for war criminals and the ‘welcome pie’ has a human tooth in it. Then follows a wince-inducing scene with Gordon (Andy Nyman) and a bear trap, which is made all the more harrowing by the use of an actual amputee as a stunt double, and just when they think things can’t get any worse, the hapless office team start falling one-by-one to a progressively brutal spate of vicious attacks. But who is doing the attacking? And why? Surely those stories can’t be true…

If it hadn’t been for the presence of Dyer who positively excels, Tim McInnerny (perhaps best loved for his roles in Blackadder) would have stolen the show as insufferable jobsworth manager Richard. Shades of David Brent in The Office here (“I can’t spell ‘success’ without ‘u’). In fact, Severance is a kind of mash-up between that and Hostel. The humour is as black as you can imagine, and the gore comes by the bucket load. The ingenious tagline ‘Another bloody office outing’ sums things up pretty well. Suffice to say, not many of the office workers show up for work the following Monday.

Written and directed by Christopher Smith (Creep, Triangle, Black Death) and filmed largely on location in Hungary, Severance was met with generally favourable reviews across the board. Except high-brow whingers the Guardian where Peter Bradshaw gave it only two stars, bemoaning “the basic implausibility of the setup, (and) that weird, niggling wrongness for which there are not enough compensatory laugh-lines.” Ho-hum. This treatment could be partly attributed to the divisive nature of Dyer himself who has never been the broadsheet’s favourite son. The fact that we never find out what the killer’s motivations were also became a point of contention. Never-the-less, in 2012 Total Film named Severance the 36th best independent horror film of all time, and stands as one of the best British comedy survival horror films you are ever likely to see.

Trivia Corner:

Media interest in Severance was revived in 2008 when one of the kill scenes was (allegedly) recreated in the real-life murder of 17-year old student Simon Everitt, who was tied to a tree and forced to drink petrol before being set on fire. Lovely.

 


RetView #5 – The Night Stalker

Title: The Night Stalker

Year of Release: 1972

Director: John Llewellyn Moxey

Length: 74 mins

Starring: Darren McGavin, Simon Oakland, Carol Lynley

Note: This article concerns the original 1972 TV movie, not the unrelated 2016 release of the same name, or the 2002 movie Nightstalker, both of which focus on the activities of serial killer Richard Ramirez.

night-stalker-1972-movie-poster-review-darren-mcgavin-tv-movie

It’s probably fair to say that despite coming out before I was born, this made-for-TV movie, and the popular series that followed it, had more of an effect on me personally and professionally than anything else committed to celluloid. I didn’t even realise how much until relatively recently. How? Because the film married my twin obsessions with writing and the paranormal, ensuring that to my young and impressionable mind, that the two things would forever be entwined.

Shortly after I first saw it as a kid, I remember telling my parents I wanted be a journalist when I grew up. They facilitated this childhood ambition by going out and buying me a ‘reporters kit’ comprising of a notebook and pen and a magnifying glass. Obviously, I immediately went out looking for monsters, ghosts, and other supernatural entities, hoping to look at them in fine detail through the magnifying glass and write about them in the notebook, because I wanted to be just like Carl Kolchak.

Damn it, I still do.

For the uninitiated, Carl Kolchak (brilliantly portrayed by the sadly departed Darren McGavin) is a jaded Las Vegas newspaper hack under unrelenting pressure from his shouty editor Vincenzo (Oakland) to turn over a constant stream of newsworthy articles. Luckily for him, though less-so for the victims, he uncovers a spate of gruesome murders and a wide-ranging cover-up. The general feeling is that Kolchak is particularly anxious to solve this particular case out of concern for his dancer girlfriend Gail (Lynley). An investigation reveals that the murders go back centuries, and the victims invariably suffer extreme blood loss. There is a suspect by the name of Janos Skorzeny who Kolchak believes is an ageless vampire, but can he convince the authorities and his difficult editor?

Ultimately, he doesn’t need to convince anyone because during a late-night showdown Kolchak manages to destroy the suspected vampire, thereby saving the city. But his actions come at a terrible cost. He is told to leave Las Vegas immediately or face a trumped-up murder charge, and is given the devastating news that Gail has already left. The lovelorn reporter then blows his savings placing ads in the personal sections of newspapers up and down the country in an attempt to find her. He never does, and the movie ends as it begins, with Kolchak lying on a bed in a sleazy hotel room listening to a playback of his account of the crimes which he has narrated into a Dictaphone. I guess matters of the heart were a lot harder to resolve before Facebook and What’s App.

The story ark was continued in a sequel, The Night Strangler (1973), where Kolchak finds himself in Seattle and is hired once again by Vincenzo to report on another series of bizarre murders. The second movie immediately preceded the 20-episode TV series, which became a fore-runner for such shows as the X Files, Supernatural, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There was also a short-lived, and frankly pretty terrible remake which lasted for ten episodes in 2005.

When it first aired on ABC over 45 years ago, The Night Stalker set the viewing record for TV movies, winning a 33.2 rating (the percentage of all TV homes). I might be wrong, but I don’t think that figure has ever been surpassed, and in the age of Netflix and streaming, it’s unlikely to ever happen. The screenplay for The Night Stalker was written by sci-fi legend Richard Matheson (the man behind I am Legend, the Incredible Shrinking Man, A Stir of Echoes and many more), and adapted from an as-then unpublished novel called the Kolchak Papers by Jeff Rice. Matheson and Rice collaborated on the sequel The Night Strangler but Rice, who often felt marginalized, then faded into obscurity, dying in 2015 at the age of 71.

Trivia Corner:

Producer Chris Carter is such a fan of Kolchak that he cast Darren McGavin in the X Files. The original plan was to have him play Kolchak thirty years on, but McGavin elected not to and the role was re-written to make him Arthur Dale, ‘Father of the X Files.’

 


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