The Night Killers, screenplay by Richard Matheson and William F. Nolan.
I’ve moved three times in five years, and possess only a tiny fraction of the books I had ten years ago. One that made it through the shrivening is Richard Matheson’s Kolchak Scripts, published in 2003, edited and introduced by TV critic and Kolchak mavin Mark Dawidziak.
Imagine my surprise upon first opening the book to discover that Matheson and Nolan had scripted a third Kolchak TV movie for ABC in 1973-74, following on the heels of the tremendously successful The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973)! The screenplay came close to getting filmed, but the project was canceled at the last minute. The reasons offered range from enmity between director Dan Curtis and Kolchak star Darren McGavin to irrelevance when the TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker was greenlighted instead.
For those who do not remember the movies and series right away, Carl Kolchak is a reporter who by chance frequently finds himself following leads that suggest a supernatural element in a news story. He doggedly follows a principle that “the truth is out there,” and goes where the evidence leads him. An honest man, he naturally finds little aid or comfort in the authorities, who haven’t the imagination to follow him, or have a vested interest in avoiding public panic. Kolchak stories, therefore, follow a inevitable course of conflict with both monsters and authorities before Carl reveals the truth compellingly to all, the authorities then destroy all of the evidence, and (in the movies, at any rate) Kolchak gets fired.
The Night Killers perpetuates and cherishes what we have come to expect as Kolchak trademarks: quarrels with boss Tony Vincenzo, disbelieving authorities, Llewellen Crossbinder (from The Night Strangler) as newspaper owner, a helpful newspaper morgue staffer, and a willing girl accomplice for Kolchak. The scene this time is Hawaii; the basic plot that of an attempted takeover of the state government by outside forces.
Details and discussion. Spoilers.
Aliens (from outer space) have landed in a UFO on Oahu. They are surreptitiously ambushing important public figures and replacing them with almost indistinguishible androids. Meanwhile, as the conspiracy with the androids nears completion, Tony Vincenzo, now a relaxed and mellow man from his time in the islands, calls Carl Kolchak in snowy New York City. Llewellen Crossbinder, the publisher who had sacked Carl in The Night Strangler and killed his story, nevertheless respects his abilities and has hired him again, with a strict warning to behave (figure 1). Carl’s first story is to write a puff piece commemorating the recently-deceased Lieutenant Governor, who died in an explosion in the emergency room after being in a freak auto accident.
When Carl tries to discover something about the accident, he finds that all of the people in the emergency room when the Lieutenant Governor was being treated were either killed outright by “an exploding oxygen cylinder” or turned up mysteriously dead later. Likewise everyone else Carl tries to contact for information. As always, the police chief hates Carl, and won’t have any of what he’s selling, even though Carl comes up with an unmistakeable pattern of murders.
Investigation finally brings Carl to an atomic plant, where he discovers that robotic androids are being produced to be substituted for the people who pull the strings in Hawaii. The androids are atomic powered and when damaged go critical and explode—hence the emergency room explosion where the (as it turns out) Lieutenant Governor’s double was being treated. The climax of the story comes when Hawaii’s top officials chase Carl out of the plant with murderous intent.
As in The Night Strangler, Carl has had his girl accomplice send for the police just in time. The android bigwigs order the police to arrest Kolchak—that will be the end of him, because he has already seen an android being manufactured with his features on it. Kolchak grabs a submachine gun from one of his captors and sprays the nabobs with bullets—they explode in front of everyone, proving his case.
The screenwriters have not only maintained Kolchak trademarks from the first two movies; they have also hewn fairly closely to the formula developed in The Night Strangler. Obvious patterns are the reuse of the Crossbinder character and the employment of newspaper morgue attendant Hiram Liffy who caughs up vital leads for Kolchak in deus-ex-machina fashion. Liffy recalls one of the best characters in The Night Strangler, Mr. Berry (John Berry in the novelization by Jeff Rice), who was played perfectly by Wally Cox. Both scripts exploit the power of the dead past found in the morgue to conjure up mystery and add depth to the investigative procedure (figure 2):
Berry: “Research. That’s where all the joy lies. And fascination. Let the others scurry about foraging for tidbits of contemporary gossip. (pointing at books of clippings) This is where the meat is found.”
Mr. Berry was right. The third Kolchak script may be dead (and all parties are agreed that the 1974 Night Killers plot of android replacements has since become an unfilmable cliché), but Dawidziak’s digging and pushing has at last brought this lost gem to light, and anyone who looks back with fondness on Kolchak should try to get a copy of this book. The two scripts that were filmed provide valuable clarity about their stories, even though we have the filmed versions and novelizations of both.
Dawidziak, Mark. 1997. The Night Stalker Companion. A 25th Anniversary Tribute.
———-, editor. 2003. Richard Matheson’s Kolchak Scripts.
Rice, Jeff. 1973. The Night Stalker (novelization).
———-. 1974. The Night Strangler (novelization).
I rely on a fair use justification for using stills from The Night Strangler to illustrate this critical discussion.