The Best Horror Movie of 1972: The Night Stalker

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The Best Horror Movie of 1972: <i>The Night Stalker</i>

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

This is another one of those years that is rife with thrillers bordering on the edge of horror, but in the case of films such as Deliverance or Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, we’re ultimately inclined to keep them out of the official “horror” genre. As for the rest of the year, many of the themes of the early 1970s continue to gather strength, including graphic violence, wanton sexuality and an increasingly exploitative mindset. There is certainly a feeling in the air that the genre is exploring a side of cinema that many viewers would have preferred to see kept out of the public eye entirely, which manifests in a moral blowback of sorts against horror movies.

In Italy, director Lucio Fulci, who already has two decades of directing experience under his belt at this time, begins to move in the direction of horror with the influential giallo film Don’t Torture a Duckling. Containing a rather scathing portrayal of the Catholic church that calls to mind last year’s The Devils (although nowhere near so depraved), Don’t Torture a Duckling follows a detective searching for a serial killer of children, and displays some of the touches that would become Fulci’s hallmarks in a series of supernatural horror films in the 1980s, especially his creative use of gore and strange death scenes. Along with Mario Bava and Dario Argento, Fulci would become one of the three biggest icons in Italian horror cinema.

All throughout Europe, the horror gravy train is moving at full speed. Amicus Productions in the U.K. has a particularly notable year in 1972, releasing not one but two of its signature horror anthologies, Asylum and the EC Comics-inspired Tales From the Crypt. The latter is a fun footnote in horror history for the fact that it may have been the first depiction of a killer Santa Claus, who appears in its best-known segment, “...And All Through the House,” far predating the considerable ruckus and outrage that would be stirred up by the likes of 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night. Not to be outdone, Hammer also releases Vampire Circus, a heavily eroticized panoply of breasts and fangs that feels sadly like an older studio trying to keep up with changing appetites. Confirming that impression, meanwhile, is Hammer’s Dracula A.D. 1972, which bizarrely tries to transplant the Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee vampire dynamic to the modern day, with tonally jumbled results. This more or less marks the end of the golden era of Hammer Horror, although there are still a few offerings to come.

This year is also home to the first in Spanish director Amando de Ossorio’s “Blind Dead” series, Tombs of the Blind Dead, which would set the tone for the deluge of post-Romero Italian and Spanish zombie cinema that would be coming down the pipe in a few years, as well as Wes Craven’s notorious rape-and-revenge feature The Last House on the Left.

1972 Honorable Mentions: Don’t Torture a Duckling, Tales From the Crypt, What Have You Done to Solange?, Asylum, Images, Vampire Circus, The Last House on the Left, Tombs of the Blind Dead, Dracula A.D. 1972, Horror Express

The Film: The Night Stalker

Director: John Llewellyn Moxey

Those who are aware of the legend of Kolchak: The Night Stalker tend to fall into one of two camps: Either they were regular network TV watchers in the early 1970s, or they were deeply passionate about The X-Files in the 1990s and 2000s. Fans of Chris Carter’s seminal sci-fi/horror investigation series know that the series was deeply indebted to the legacy of one Carl Kolchak, and actor Darren McGavin even made appearances on The X-Files as a character named Arthur Dale, referred to as “the father” of the X-Files program. But fans of The Night Stalker knew it was really a tribute to Kolchak, the hard-nosed newspaperman/investigator of the supernatural.

The Night Stalker is the rare TV movie inclusion into this project; a surprisingly effective, though tonally unusual and fast-moving horror story about a Las Vegas wire service reporter who stumbles onto a rash of killings that appear to be vampiric in nature. It’s an amalgam of disparate genre influences, playing in large portions like a police procedural drama, but peppered with Kolchak’s own colorful, film noir-style narration, like he’s a cross between Sam Spade and Rod Serling. The reporter’s relationship with his editor, meanwhile, is straight out of police shows and films of the era, with Kolchak as the “loose cannon” rogue cop and editor Vincenzo as the antacid-chewing, red-faced obstacle who says things like “I expect you to report, not come back with fairytales!”

As Kolchak, Darren McGavin—an actor primarily known to most modern audiences as “The Old Man” from A Christmas Story—is a delightfully sardonic presence. He’s a truly oddball character, a hard-drinking goofball who has the enthusiasm of a child when sticking it to the local authority figures, but also isn’t afraid to descend into the suspected lair of a vampiric serial killer with zero backup. He somehow manages to maintain a wide network of informants and friends who seem to like him against their own wills, while being petulant enough that he delights in correcting someone’s grammar while they’re in the middle of berating him. He is, suffice to say, the last character you’d expect to see pitted against a vampire, which gives The Night Stalker an aura that runs actively counter to contemporary vampire films from the likes of Hammer.

The vampire, too, has been updated here for the modern world in a way that is much more organic and realistic than the silliness of Dracula A.D. 1972. This vampire, one “Janos Skorzeny,” projects more of the vibe of desperate drug addict than an all-powerful creature of the night, putting himself in serious risk to attain blood on a nightly basis. He engages in car chases of all things with police, and lives in a messy hovel, which looks for all intents and purposes like an unkempt drug den. He’s powerful, shrugging off bullets and throwing men through fourth-story windows, but is simultaneously a pathetic figure who is unable to adapt to a world that is quickly leaving him behind.

Although the majority of the film concerns itself with the investigation and the pleasantly prickly performance of McGavin as Kolchak, The Night Stalker does have some genuine moments of fright as well. There are a few solid jump-scares sprinkled throughout, and things finally do get legitimately spooky in the film’s final third, as Kolchak creeps around the vampire’s lair, taking photos for his investigation. The suspense of these sequences is nicely drawn out, leading to a final confrontation that echoes the one between Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in 1958’s Horror of Dracula. The classics, as they say, never truly go out of style.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.