How Dan Curtis Transformed Horror Movies on TV
Welcome to Bay Of The Living Dead, a regular column about the horror genre.
Throughout the 1970s Dan Curtis (1927-2006) was the master of TV horror. His career in the genre began in the mid-1960s, when his bizarre daytime soap opera Dark Shadows became an unexpected pop culture phenomenon, at its peak pulling in twenty million viewers each afternoon. Dark Shadows told the tale of Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid), a 175 year old vampire who started out as a villain, eventually becoming the show’s hero. Barnabas battled with werewolves, witches, ghosts and a variety of other supernatural creatures, turning Frid, a cultured gentleman in his mid-40s, into an unlikely sex symbol.
Dark Shadows’ five year network run ended in 1971, leaving producer/creator Curtis to pursue a career in primetime television. The Night Stalker (1972) assured his continued success. The film has just been rereleased on DVD and Blu Ray by Kino Lorber, purveyors of classic film.
The Night Stalker was, at the time it first aired on ABC TV, the highest rated TV movie of its time. A brilliant Darren McGavin stars as Carl Kolchak, an eccentric, ballsy yet brilliant investigative reporter who begins to suspect that a rash of murders of young women in Las Vegas are the work of a vampire. He’s right. With the police trying to thwart him at every turn and his editor Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) not believing him, Kolchak goes after his man.
The tension builds slowly as the body count adds up, leading up to a scary climax in the creepy house of Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater), the living/dead man who has no problem fighting off a dozen gun wielding police officers single handedly. Without fear, Kolchak walks into the house brandishing a cross and is met by his fang bearing foe. Janos makes for a terrifying visage and displays superhuman strength. Can Kolchak defeat him?
The success of The Night Stalker led to a sequel the following year, which has also been brought to disc by Kino Lorber. In The Night Strangler (1973) Kolchak and a world weary Vincenzo are now in Seattle, where another series of bizarre murders are taking place. As before, the victims are losing a lot of blood. They’re also being strangled. When the bodies are found there are bits of rotted flesh on their throats. Kolchak soon discovers that there’s been a similar series of murders in Seattle every 21 years, dating back to 1889. Once again on the killer’s trail, Kolchak eventually finds his guy, a 100 year old doctor who’s using the blood of young women as part of an elixir of life that will keep him eternally young.
The Night Strangler benefits from another wonderful performance by McGavin, who plays Kolchak as a giddy, fun loving guy who loves his work and who isn’t afraid to march into the lion’s den in order to get his story.
There are a number of fun cameos in The Night Strangler. 1940s-50s horror movie icon John Carradine appears as Crossbinder, Kolchak’s no-nonsense publisher. Wally Cox, a sitcom star from the 1950s who was then a regular panelist on the popular game show Hollywood Squares, appears as the nerdy keeper of the newspaper records. Al Lewis (Grandpa Munster) gets a few laughs as a jovial drunk. And Margaret Hamilton, the legendary Wicked Witch from The Wizard Of Oz, is seen briefly as a stern professor, an expert on the supernatural.
Curtis, who only produced The Night Stalker, serves as both producer and director on the second film. His direction is strong and assured, balancing equal amounts of humor and horror, which makes for a fun and suspenseful viewing experience.
Curtis, again serving as producer/director, returned with a bang in 1975 when Trilogy Of Terror premiered on ABC TV. Karen Black, then a huge movie star, was sensational in this anthology horror film in which she plays four roles. In Julie, Black plays a prim and proper college professor who has a nasty habit: she seduces her students, killing them when she gets bored. In one fabulously disturbing scene, her victim gasps “you drugged me!”
“No, dear,” Julie says sweetly. “I’ve killed you.”
Black plays both roles in “Millicent and Therese”, a disturbing story about two sisters, one a repressed virgin and the other a partying sexpot. When Therese, the “bad” girl, gets out of control, Millicent, the “good” girl, fears for her safety and resorts to witchcraft and voodoo in order to bump her evil sibling off. The story has a wonderful twist ending which comes as a complete surprise.
The third story, Amelia, is a spectacular one woman show as Black, trapped in her high rise apartment, is attacked and terrorized by a Zuni fetish doll which she accidentally brings to life. The fast paced story is scary as hell as the doll chases Amelia from room to room, determined to kill her. Can Amelia save herself? As with the second story, Amelia has a fabulously disturbing ending.
The discs for The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler include interviews with Dan Curtis and Robert Cobert, composer for both films. The Night Stalker also includes an interview with John Llewellyn Moxey, that film’s director. Both discs feature audio commentaries from film historian Tim Lucas.
The Trilogy Of Terror disc includes a 2006 interview with the now deceased Karen Black, a short documentary on writer Richard Matheson, and an audio commentary from Black and William F. Nolan, who wrote the scripts for two of the tales based on original stories by Matheson.