Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

Mimsy Review: The Night Stalker

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, March 22, 2000

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Carl Kolchak’s original movie, doubled with the pilot for the television series, “The Night Strangler”.

DirectorJohn Llewellyn Moxey
WritersRichard Matheson, Jeff Rice
Movie Rating5
Transfer Quality7
Overall Rating6
  • Television Format

Long before Mulder and Sculley investigated the unknown for the FBI, the fourth estate had things pretty well under control in the person of Carl Kolchak, reporter, Daily News. “The Night Stalker” aired in 1972 and “set ratings records when it first aired” on ABC. Which probably means it had great pre-air advertising, or do ratings only include people who watch all the way through?

With the Night Stalker so popular, a sequel was a given, and the sequel aired in 1973 with a reprise by both Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak, and Simon Oakland as his long-suffering editor. “The Night Strangler” was the pilot for the television series in 1974, which had a two-year run. I have incredibly fond memories of the “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” series. It was disturbing, fun, and intelligent, a show I looked forward to every week. While I had never seen either of the movies, when I found out they were on DVD I had to have them.

Both movies hold up quite well today, and I hope to see at least the initial episodes of the television series, if not the entire run, brought to DVD as well. It would be wonderful if this could be done while Darren McGavin is still around to give us a commentary on one or two of his favorite episodes.

The basic story is that Carl Kolchak is a down-on-his-luck reporter. Once an award-winning journalist, he’s too driven to maintain good friendships with anyone except the contacts he needs to get information for his stories. But things may be looking up as he discovers a cover-up involving dead young girls and a strange murderer.

“The Night Strangler” follows the same story but this time he’s really down on his luck, and he’s even more desperate for a great story.

The DVD is really nice. Instead of extras (which would have been useful), they provide both movies. The first movie runs 74 minutes, and on the other side, the second movie runs 90 minutes. (Presumably they were an hour and a half, and two hours, on television.)

The picture and sound are both adequate, in fact, quite good from a television master from the early seventies, I suspect. There are problems, especially with the second movie (“The Night Strangler”) which has Kolchak acting especially stupid. Just because he now knows that there are ‘strange things out there’, doesn’t mean that he can expect his newspaper to write about a hundred year-old superhuman corpse. The facts were compelling enough without him putting that spin on it. Also, the second relies heavily on the old notion of the villain explaining his own demise, and then heavily telegraphing the ending.

This movie was probably one of the first to try making dark, moody pieces specifically for television. Television technology had only barely begun to penetrate enough households for this to work. They still needed bright lights shining into an underground tunnel in the middle of the night to let us see what was going on, however. I probably shouldn’t harp on this too much, however: I’m watching it on a 27-inch color television, hardly a big deal nowadays, but the audience for whom it was filmed had much smaller, often black and white televisions. Remember the A-Ha song, “The Sun Always Shines on TV”? It did back then, because a significant number of viewers wouldn’t have been able to see anything if the sun wasn’t shining. This makes it difficult to film a really good moody supernatural piece for television, and the Night Stalker series did a marvelous job of it.

There are a number of familiar faces in here. Larry Linville plays a doctor in the first movie. it’s a bit disconcerting for those of us who picture him as a doctor—for the 4077th MASH! But he didn’t become the ever-obnoxious Frank Burns until a few months later. Claude Akins has been around forever, of course, but his comedy-sherriff roles in “B.J. and the Bear” and “Sheriff Lobo” didn’t come for a number of years later. Richard Anderson had yet to become the likable Machiavellian of “The Six Million Dollar Man” (taking over a role started by Darren McGavin, the Night Stalker himself). On the other hand, this was one of Margaret Hamilton’s last roles, a long time from the Wicked Witch of the West.

There are certainly plot holes running through both of these movies, but the overall idea, and the presentation, is well done. You might want to rent it first if you haven’t seen it already, but it’s definitely worth a look.

April 25, 2014: Kolchak: The Night Stalker (TV Series)

Some people think that Woodward and Bernstein define the modern journalist. I’m inclined to believe it was Carl Kolchak.

In 1974 I was ten years old, and I got into a fight with my brother over a television show. On school nights, our parents didn’t let us watch TV until after we’d taken a bath, and we both wanted to get into and out of the bathroom in time for Kolchak: The Night Stalker. I fought dirty, and I would have won, if it weren’t for our meddling parents!

I watch it now and it’s practically a period piece. Chicago, 1974. The Sun-Times building. The wide open spaces of Lakeshore Drive. The neon signs for diners and arcades and other seedy establishments frequented by hard-boiled reporters.

Carl Kolchak is the quintessential modern journalist. He sorts through conspiracy and dark motives to bring the truth to a world that doesn’t want it. He believes anything and in his world he is right. And it isn’t just that Kolchak believes every conspiracy that comes his way and ends up being proven right. He pulls half-baked solutions out of his ass, just by reading one or two books and talking to hucksters in drag. Got a spirit taking over a conductor’s body? No problem, says Kolchak. Just show the spirit its own body and command it to return. You’re a journalist. Evil will listen to you and obey.

In at least two episodes, it is literally the light of the press that holds the monsters at bay—the light of the press taking the form of Carl Kolchak’s Rollei 16S Submini camera flash scaring off, in one case, aliens, and in another, delaying a primal throwback.

In Firefall, his voiceover says, “Unfortunately, a reporter is paid to find out things whether he wants to know about ’em or not.” But we know: he wants to find out about them. He wants to believe!

In The Energy Eater, for example, an architectural expert recommends taking concrete samples to look for substandard building materials in a new Chicago building that is shaking and cracking in the basement. If the materials are good, the expert recommends looking for a geothermal fault. Kolchak immediately jumps to the conclusion that there is something supernatural at work, and keeps interviewing stranger and stranger people until a womanizing American Indian shaman tells him about an old Chicago legend in the tribe. He speaks this truth to power (power? Get it?) and the powers that be believe him and act on it. They lie to the public, of course. Power always does. But the journalist knows the truth!

Recommendation: Rent

DirectorJohn Llewellyn Moxey
WritersRichard Matheson, Jeff Rice
ActorsDarren McGavin, Simon Oakland, Carol Lynley, Jo Ann Pflug, Richard Anderson
Spoken languageEnglish
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If you enjoyed The Night Stalker…

For more about hard-boiled, you might also be interested in Casablanca, Shaft, The Seven Samurai, The Usual Suspects, Tokyo Drifter, Bordersnakes, and The Blowtop.