The Night Strangler


Finally I can talk about the sequel to The Night Stalker.

As I mentioned in the previous post, the first movie was a hit. It had the highest rating of any TV movie up until that time. A sequel was inevitable.

And it was just as inevitable that it would be good, but inferior to the first. Richard Matheson won an Edgar Award for the script of the first movie and he’s back again for the sequel. However, this time around producer Dan Curtis took over the directing job from John Llewellyn Moxey, and he doesn’t have the chops to pull this one off. Still, it’s a Kolchak story, and it’s pretty damn good.

As I mentioned in the previous writeup, the first two films are available from Netflix as a double feature. You can also buy them online through third party sellers, since the DVD is OOP. If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to be spoiled, skip to the “Commentary” section.

Also, this writeup will be shorter than the first one.

What happens: The movie starts off the way every out of towner starts a film set in Seattle–a long shot of a ferry crossing Elliott Bay. Then we cut to a young woman (described in the voice-over as “a belly-dancer named ‘Marissa'”–you can hear the air quotes in Darren McGavin’s voice) leaving the club where she worked. Compared to the bright, crowded opening night scene of the Vegas Strip that opened the first movie, this is dark and lonely-looking. She takes a short cut through an alley but sees a stalker moving in the shadows and bolts for the street.

A cab screeches to a halt just as she runs into the driver’s door. She pleads for a ride and says a man is following her but the cabby apparently hates money and human safety, because he drives off without her. “Marissa” can’t see anything in the alley and apparently decides that there’s nothing to be afraid of after all. She casually strolls to the bus stop on St. James Street (?) and lights up a cigarette while waiting for the 3 am bus. The shadowy figure grabs her and we cut away.

Vincenzo, the editor from the first movie, breezes into a press club bar. He hears Kolchak’s voice grating from another part of the bar, haranguing a poor extra about good journalism and trying to get the guy to read his book of clippings about the vampire from the first film. So much for “You will never hear this story.” Vincenzo isn’t happy to see him, but Kolchak talks his way into a job.

Kolchak gets the “Marissa” murder. He tries to run down the angles–at the police station, the bar where she danced, the whole thing–and comes up with nothing. He visits the two other dancers at the club–first, “Charisma Beauty” (aka Gladys), a blonde airhead in a stereotypical lesbian relationship (which of course the film makes fun of) and then “Scheherazade” (aka Louise) who is only dancing so she can (you guessed it) pay for college. Louise Harper quickly becomes The Girl, although there’s never a moment of romantic spark between her and Kolchak.

That night a waitress is killed. The next morning during a press conference (one of only two in the movie!) the M.E. tells the press that a small amount of blood had been taken from the victim’s body. How they could tell is anyone’s guess, but never mind. Kolchak makes a nuisance of himself, and that’s the ten minute mark.

Dissatisfied with the report, Kolchak sneaks a bottle of scotch into the morgue to bribe an attendant. They do a joke about drinking out of a dirty morgue beaker and cut to a scene at Vincenzo’s office, for the first shouting match. It seems that the attendant liked the booze enough to admit that the women were not just strangled, their neck bones were crushed as though the killer was tremendously strong. Also, they found rotted flesh on the victim’s necks, “as if they’d been strangled by a dead man.” 11 minutes.

Kolchak goes back to the club to talk to the second belly dancer, Louise. She’s struggling with her studies, but what does Our Hero care about that? He takes her out to get some kind of sandwich from a food cart (which were apparently allowed in the distant past of our city) and sees an Underground Tour go by. This prompts Charisma to drop exposition about the underground city: After the fire in 1889, the city was rebuilt on higher ground, and there are older streets below the modern ones. That’ll be on the test later.

Next he visits the “morgue” at the newspaper, where all the old issues are kept. The researcher there (Wally Cox, in one of his last roles) tells him there were six strangulations very similar to these in the ’52. Many of the details are the same, including the missing blood, the crushed necks, and an eye witness who said the killer had the “rotted features of a corpse.” Cue another “I can’t print this!” shouting match with Vincenzo in his office.

Next we show another woman walking alone at night in Pioneer Square, except this time she’s a witness. We get to see the killer with a hypodermic needle full of blood, she scream, he runs away. Kolchak horns in on the police chief as he tries to conduct an interview in the street. They ask her what the killer looked like, and she says “He looked like a dead man.” Cue another shouting match with Vincenzo.

Back to the newspaper morgue. The researcher has found another six murders all the way back in 1931. Kolchak realizes there are 21 years between those murders, so they look up 1910, then 1889, the year of the fire. Yep, six strangulations each time–missing blood, dead flesh, the whole deal. Cue another shouting match with Vincenzo.

Since the police aren’t sharing, Kolchak convinces the paper to hire a sketch artist to draw the killer’s face, as described by the witness to murder 3. The drawing shows a man with a rotting face, his bones showing through. This time the paper prints it, causing the chief to denounce them in a second press conference. The publisher is pissed, too, and Vincenzo is taking a lot of heat. Kolchak reminds him that no one believed in the vampire, either. “Plus it’s a great story.”

Kolchak has become Cassandra. 25 minutes.

While out wandering the streets at night, Kolchak is stopped by cops in a car. (Just like in Vegas, they all wear those plastic helmets, even while driving. Was that the style then?) Suddenly they get a call–the killer has been spotted! The car screeches away and Kolchak runs after. The killer, syringe in hand, runs through the streets, dodging vehicles. Kolchak somehow manages to outrace the cop cars and get to the alley first. The killer, who we still only see as a dark hat and coat from behind, lifts Kolchak against the wall as though he’s going to squash him.

The cops arrive and we get the only Big Cop Fight of the episode. It’s kind of a lame one, too. Anyway, Kolchak takes a picture or two of the killer before he gets away (shrugging off bullets at the same time). They race after him (right past a huge “Richards Clinic” sign) into the street. He’s gone. Where’d he go? While everyone is looking around bewildered, the police chief breezes into the shot and snatches Kolchak’s camera.

Rather than sue the city to recover the film, Kolchak invites Louise to go on the Underground Tour with him. In every scene but this one, she’s been slammed for time, what with studying tough subjects and earning a living, but hey, why not do this touristy thing. Apparently.

We see Doc Maynards circa 1973, a cameo by the tour’s creator Bill Speidel (I have his history of early Seattle on my to-read shelf, and tour operators in their straw hats and red blazers leading people through the underground.

Kolchak lags behind the tour and drags Louise with him as they sneak away to explore a roped-off part of the underground. Instead of finding the super-strong living corpse, they find Grandpa Munster Al Lewis playing an alcoholic tramp. He’s too sick to be the killer.

Cut to a shot of the Space Needle as Kolchak and his date discuss how the killer gets away after the murders. Where does he go? Kolchak gives her a rundown on the plot of the first movie, and they do what I will always think of as the “elevator joke”. Cut to the two of them on Red Square at the University of WA, as Louise directs him to yet another character actor who has a bit of exposition for him, this time Margaret (“And your little dog, too!”) Hamilton. She tells him about the Elixir of Life, and one of the ingredients is human blood (naturally.) Kolchak becomes convinced that the killer has created an Elixir, that the effects only last 21 years, then he begins to decay again. Cue another “I can’t print this!” shouting match.

Next, the killer strangles Gladys, aka Charisma Beauty, and we see it. Furious that no one will take his advice seriously, Kolchak barges into the chief’s office and they have a long, contentious exchange. Kolchak is more abrasive than ever, but it doesn’t compare with what he does in the next scene with Vincenzo, where he acts like a real shitheel.

Back to the newspaper archives where the researcher has found The Guy, a Civil War surgeon who claimed to have found the secret to immortality. There’s even a picture. More research brings out the ties between the surgeon and killings, and we get more shouting matches along with continual restatement of the stakes.

Louise, angry that her two co-workers have been killed, agrees to offer herself as bait, with Kolchak following close behind. They dodge the cops then get separated. Louise walks down an alley into danger, while Kolchak hides from the cops then chases after her. They’re lucky enough to get arrested, with the killer just a few steps away. The killer finds a sixth victim by breaking into a restaurant and, rawr!-ing like Frankenstein’s monster, attacks.

Everyone expects the killer to vanish for 21 more years. After overhearing two cops talking, Kolchak and Louise return to the Richards clinic and break in. Kolchak hopes to find a secret entrance to a sealed-off part of the underground, and he does. He gives Louise the same instructions he gave his buddy in the first movie–wait thirty minutes so he can get his exclusive and call the cops.

Let’s not talk too much about this “Underground” here, except to say that it’s five stories deep, has trash- and rubble-free streets, and has a little ambient light from random fires burning here and there. Don’t ask me where the dried leaves or the blowing mist comes from. Kolchak stumbles on Al Lewis’s corpse and then finally the killer’s house.

A victrola is playing old timey music as he enters. The living room has been decorated with dead tree branches and a fog machine, and the dining room table has been set with a nice meal, rats, and 90-year-old corpses at all the chairs. Kolchak dips his finger into a cup of coffee beside an empty chair and discovers it’s hot. Damn. The killer eats here.

Cue the killer’s entrance. Gone is the monster rawr-ing–he now speaks in a fancy old-fashioned dialect. “You profane my world, sir!” Kolchak explains that he wants to share the guy’s story with his readers and the surgeon turns to the corpses at the table and says: “His readers. You hear that?”

Yipes! Not only is he a killer, he’s crazy. Kolchak grovels and the killer decides not to kill him. Does he have time to tell his story? ::checks pocket watch:: Yep! The surgeon runs down pretty much everything we already know, but with his own emotional content attached. It’s a villain monolog! Not only that, it’s actually effective. The actor is overly-chummy one minute and burning with rage over Kolchak’s interruptions the next. He even shows off his medical equipment where he brews his elixir. He’s convinced he’ll find a way to make it permanent someday.

He also, in a misguided moment, points out the beaker with the sixth and last dose. “If I don’t take it, the process will reverse itself.” Checks watch. “But I will take it.”

Kolchak snatches something (I’ve seen the scene three times and I still can’t tell what he picks up) off a table and throws it, destroying the last dose. The killer gets that killer look, and he chases Our Hero, throwing him onto a table and choking him. But his strength is fading and he falls back, his face transformed with weird monster makeup. The cops (finally) arrive, the Killer asks “Why?” then jumps through a boarded-up window, falling to the sidewalk five stories below. Dead.

The next morning, Kolchak is in a great mood as he breezes into the office. Gosh, why is all his stuff boxed up on his desk? Because he’s been fired, of course. Worse, his story has been killed. He charges into Vincenzo’s office in a wild rage, and Vincenzo explains that of course they weren’t going to print his story of a 144-year-old killer making an elixir of life from murdered women’s blood, any more than they would run a vampire story in Las Vegas. More screaming and Kolchak storms out. As he does, Vincenzo gets a call.

Cut to Kolchak’s voice over as he drives out of town. Vincenzo tells him to shut up and turn off the recorder. Hey, he’s been fired, too, and they’re leaving town together. To New York, Kolchak announces. Louise Harper pops up in the back seat, angry at being run out of town because of him. It’s a supporting cast! Roll credits.


Commentary: Didn’t I say this was going to be shorter? Well, it is, but the movie itself was longer. THE NIGHT STALKER was made for a ninety-minute slot and this was made to fit two hours.

It’s also fussier. In the first movie, there were the bite marks, the bloodless bodies, and the tremendous strength of the killer. Everyone was thinking vampire–or at least “crazy guy who thinks he’s a vampire.”

With this one, there’s the strangling, the syringes, the missing blood, the murders going back so many years and the arguments over how well they match the current ones, the killer who looks like a corpse but then doesn’t. Sure, having a relatively-complicated villain gives Kolchak something to do as he tracks down the backstory, but it’s not as compelling as the conflicts of the first film.

Also, the direction was… troubled, let’s say. I made a point of pointing out the way the first victim went from frightened to casual in a blink. It didn’t make any sense and I almost suspected it came from editing two disparate scenes together. But you know, probably not. I’m sure that choice just made it easier to shoot the initial scare.

The director did this weird trick several times in the movie, where he’d show a landmark of the city–the Space Needle, say–and have the characters talking in voice over. Then, the camera would pan and show them in the scene. It was distracting and it kept pushing me out of the story.

And now, the story: The main through plot was fine. A crazy guy who looks like a corpse is strangling women in Pioneer Square to steal their blood. Can they figure out how to catch him?

The problem comes from a number of choices they made. One, there doesn’t seem to be any effect on the population of the city. Women still wander through the Square at night. Citizens aren’t looking nervously around as they did in the first movie. There’s no scene like the one with the Doberman.

Two, the ending. Even as a kid watching this show on my living room floor, I knew that secret underground city was fucking ridiculous. Never mind that the real Seattle rebuilt their city one block higher than the old one, not six. It didn’t even look real.

Three, the city authorities have been boiled down into one person: Police Chief Shubert. Sure, John Carradine plays the publisher of the paper where Kolchak works, but he’s a different kind of antagonist–mainly concerned with the paper. Shubert is a smart cop, and his antagonism toward Kolchak is something Kolchak earns. And how. This isn’t like the table of civil authorities in the first movie, where they strong arm, bully and threaten a reporter just doing his job. In this film, Kolchak acts like an ass, and Shubert’s hostility is justified. In fact, except for the camera snatching, everything he does is pretty decent. He could have thrown Kolchak in jail near the end (and was perfectly justified, too) but he didn’t. Not that Kolchak recognized the break he was getting.

And speaking of Kolchak… You know, I grew up on the brash, shouting Kolchak from the TV series. The show pitted him against every authority figure you can come up with, and he was never impressed by any of them. But the Kolchak from the first movie was an operator. He had friends, a network of people who brought him information. He knew how to play people to get what he wanted. He had smarts and skills!

Now, of course Kolchak doesn’t have a network in this film–he’s only just arrived in town–but that doesn’t excuse the tone deaf way he treats people. Some of the things he says in his shouting matches are deeply shitty.

Not only that, but he drags Louise with him into incredible danger. Yes, the movie makes clear that she goes eagerly, but she wouldn’t be risking her life if he didn’t instigate.

That said, there’s a lot to like about this movie, too. Yeah, the lead is often a jerk, but the movie knows he’s being a jerk and treats him that way; I don’t need every protagonist to be a paragon of virtue. If I can forget the character from the first movie, this one works just fine.

The alley-stalking scenes were beautifully lit and shot to really establish the scares. Nicely spooky.

The plot didn’t have the same escalating pace of the first movie, but few do. What this movie did was show a fascinating process of gathering the information needed to make sense of the killer. I know I said that this wasn’t as interesting as Kolchak vs. the city elders (and it’s not) but it’s still interesting in its own right.

And finally, there’s the actors. The movie is so full of terrific character actors that the scenes are always interesting. Even something as cliche as the villain monolog works like gangbusters if you have the right actor deliver the lines (and they do.)

So, I’d say this movie is a qualified success–definitely worth watching. In fact, I’m sure I’d think better of it if I hadn’t seen the first one.

There was supposed to be a third movie called THE NIGHT KILLER set in New York, in which the Strangler character turned up again, not nearly as dead as he was supposed to be. Instead, the studio scotched it and started the series. I’ll cover the first episode next.

2 thoughts on “The Night Strangler

  1. A fun analysis of THE NIGHT STRANGLER, and one with a local angle that I was unable to provide in my forthcoming book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN. You point out some legitimate weaknesses in the film while celebrating its many virtues. A small correction: THE NIGHT KILLERS (plural) was actually set in Hawaii, and concerned aliens replacing local government figures with android duplicates. Interested parties can read the teleplay, co-written with William F. Nolan, in RICHARD MATHESON’S KOLCHAK SCRIPTS, edited by the inestimable Mark Dawidziak.

  2. Thanks, Matthew. I based my assertion about the never-made third movie on the interview with Dan Curtis, which is one of the DVD extras.

    Your book sounds interesting. :)

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