Many of you just watched the late Darren McGavin as Ralphie’s father in the umpteenth rerun of 1983’s “A Christmas Story,” but we’re approaching the 50th anniversary of another iconic McGavin role.
On Jan. 11, 1972, ABC aired “The Night Stalker” – which entered the American psyche as the highest-rated made-for-TV movie up until that time.
Granted, the film was aided by being nestled between “The Mod Squad” and “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and competing against a “crowd-pleasing” NBC documentary about Northern Ireland factions (apparently NBC’s documentary about post-nasal drip wasn’t completed in time); but it was a milestone, nonetheless.
It was impossible for discriminating viewers to say no to the movie. The screenplay was by Richard Matheson (famed as author of “I Am Legend” and the screenwriter of 16 “Twilight Zone” episodes as well as Steven Spielberg’s directorial film debut “Duel”) and the producer was Dan Curtis, the creator of the gothic soap opera “Dark Shadows” (which etched the image of Rev. Trask being sealed alive inside a wall into the memories of a generation).
In those days before social media and “watch it whenever” streaming, “The Night Stalker” was the sort of shared experience that dominated office water cooler conversations and school playground chatter on Jan. 12.
McGavin portrayed Carl Kolchak, a down-on-his-luck investigative journalist digging into serial killings that plagued Las Vegas – serial killings that seemed more and more the work of a vampire. The wisecracking Kolchak got on the wrong side of the Powers That Be because news of a bloodsucker in town could dampen the tourist trade. (That’s the same reason the buffet for the annual Extended Warranty Association convention is always sequestered in a secret room.)
Although “The Night Stalker” broke ratings records, spawned follow-up TV-movie “The Night Strangler,” generated the 1974-75 series “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” inspired Fox’s “The X-Files” and garnered a cult following, nitpickers like to nitpick.
Some whine about the shoestring budget, even though director John Llewellyn Moxey did a masterful job of building suspense within his financial constraints. Shoestring budgets were the reality, and network executives tried to economize even more. (“Are you sure you need the little plastic thingies on the end of the shoestrings? You’re killing me!”)
Yes, viewers spoiled by modern special effects might be underwhelmed by the simplicity of the film. But those people would even find fault with heaven. (“There’s no CGI? Forget that! Give me a ticket to the other place.”)
Filmgoers addicted to today’s standards of gore might bemoan the restrained nature of the movie, but the Network Standards and Practices people had spent 20-plus years protecting viewers from disturbing elements. (“Quick! More parents with dead spouses! More people smoking cancer sticks! But no karate chops!”)
Some fume that vampire Janos Skorzeny wasn’t given a more nuanced, sympathetic treatment. They wouldn’t be satisfied unless Kolchak took along a social worker to coax the vampire into experiencing a “Wow! I could’a had a V8!” moment.
Like every year, 2022 will be a buyer’s market for columnists wishing to write about cultural anniversaries; but I couldn’t in good conscience pass up this occasion.
Not when “The Night Stalker” left such an indelible mark.
My trip to Las Vegas in the mid-90s is still a blur, but I was supposedly screaming, “Don’t show me the room with the high stakes – show me the one with the wooden stakes!”
Danny Tyree welcomes email responses at firstname.lastname@example.org and visits to his Facebook fan page “Tyree’s Tyrades.”