Beware the pursuit of the superhuman; it leads to an indiscriminate contempt for the human.
—George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman, Act III.
With this apt quote, Jeff Rice began his 1974 novelization of Richard Matheson’s 1972 screenplay The Night Strangler. The latter followed the successful recipe of Matheson’s 1972 The Night Stalker, which had been based on characters created in Rice’s unsold screenplay The Kolchak Papers. ABC had struck it big with The Night Stalker, which was the highest-rated TV movie up to that time, and another outing of the brave, intelligent and endearingly in-your-face reporter Carl Kolchak was probably inevitable.
The Night Strangler once again blurred the boundaries of the horrible and the mundane, this time with a series of brutal killings in Seattle. Women have had their necks crushed and (as Kolchak discovers later) small amounts of their cerebrospinal fluid have been removed by syringe. Traces of decaying flesh were found on their bodies.
By chance, one of Kolchak’s colleagues, an archivist, discovers in the newspaper morgue that this series of murders was paralleled by a similar series 20 years before–and another 21 years before that . . . and another 21 years before that (figure 3). One constant is that witnesses claim the killer looked like a decaying corpse, or had cheekbones protruding through his flesh (figure 4). The facts seem somehow to point to one and the same “person” being guilty.
The archivist finds more information suggesting that a certain Dr. Richard Malcolm, a former Union officer in the Civil War (figure 5) and builder of Seattle’s Westside Mercy Hospital, may be involved–but he disappeared in the great Seattle fire of 1889, when his family died of smoke inhalation (and the year of the first reported murders of women). But in 1910 a Dr. Malcolm Richards built a new hospital over the ruins of the old; 1910 had another series of murders. He disappeared in 1931, amidst another set of murders.
At this point, the movie and the book each become intensely interesting in their own way, surpassing even The Night Stalker. More than the movie, the book (pages 85-90) develops the theme that the killer is an alchemist of the old school, with the suggestion being that the Seattle killer is an alchemist named Eirenaeus Philalethes who wrote in 1641, “Glory to be God, alone.” Kolchak “profiles” the alchemist, finding that these “were men of little patience, often greedy and occasionally evidencing messianic tendencies which almost invariably seemed to go hand in hand with delusions of grandeur and the right to take human life indiscriminately.” Recently disguised under the name Malcolm Richards in Seattle, he perfected an elixir of life which removes traces of ageing and retards further ageing for 21-year cycles. When a cycle comes to an end, he starts to age very rapidly—hence the cadavrous perp and the murders, to get the elusive necessary component from womens’ brains.
But the second theme that is developed is the one that made me a lifelong devotee of Kolchak. The alchemist murderer naturally adopted his false personas to disguise his unnatural longevity; he has made a good living by using his extraordinary medical skills as a doctor and benefactor of society. The clinic built by Malcom Richards is not far from Pioneer Square, one of the oldest parts of Seattle, and this building spans two worlds. One is the world of light above, where benefactor and society meet.
Matheson (and Rice) cleverly incorporated (and exaggerrated) a true fact about Seattle to add a nightmarish gothic component. Because of water-control problems, the city of Seattle–those parts of it with the most severe problems, anyway–was simply raised a level in the aftermath of the terrible 1889 fire. What had been the ground floor now became a basement, and streets were built overhead at second story level. It has been possible to tour this so-called Seattle Underground of covered streets and abandoned basements since 1964 when a man named Bill Speidel made a business of offering tours. It is a bit cramped and tarted up for tourists, but it is in fact something of a time capsule.
Kolchak’s killer has access to this underground world through the basement of his clinic, but in book and movie it becomes a true lost world. The National Trust Guide to Seattle (34) says that the movie’s underground was “exaggerrated ad absurdum,” but this is not true: or at any rate, it calls for no more suspension of disbelief than the idea of a centuries-old alchemist with an elixir of life! Here is Kolchak’s voice-over in the movie (the voice is Darren McGavin’s, of course; figure 6):
It was like another world down there, a world of yesterday. Sidewalks and storefronts just as they’d been left after the fire of 1889. Windows built to admit the light, admitting only darkness, now. Ground floors of office buildings, now the unused cellars of those buildings. The tomb of old Seattle . . . .
Rice expands Kolchak’s narrative, effectively describing the movie’s set in the book (page 135: see figure 7):
Slowly I descended the stairs, pausing at each landing to make a quick survey of the doors. Some of the rooms had office furniture, great blocky wooden desks scorched in spots; some had examining tables. Most were gutted. The fire had taken a capricious tour of the building, touching some places and ignoring others.
Fog had somehow seeped into the building and lay like a smokey white carpet along what hed been the foyer and admitting area. The front of the building had collapsed in spots and I could just see out of one hole in the wall.
Outside, yet another fantastic sight. Far more impressive than anything I’d seen on the Underground Tour. Bill Speidel’s eyes would have bulged to see it: an entire Victorian street, gaslit, with cobblestones–the works. Of course it only ran for a block or so, and then the inevitable dead end against the foundations of Seattle’s post-conflagration streets.
At one end of the “ground-floor” court were two ornate, very tall double doors. I could swear I heard music coming from the room beyond.
In the gothic nightmare world under Seattle Kolchak finds–or is discovered by–the killer, who lives in an environment frozen in time, replete with tanned cadavers of his family (and family dog: figure 8).
Book and movie portray the killer as one of those superman types (Nietsche’s, not Clark Kent) with utter contempt for people while trying to save humanity by defeating death. The alchemist-killer cannot resist telling his story to Kolchak (figure 9), who thereby manages to survive the encounter long enough to destroy the final dose of the elixir.
The killer begins to age rapidly, and flings himself out a window (down several stories) to avoid capture by the police. His final enraged remark to Kolchak before jumping (151): “When the world starts to chew itself up alive, and spits out its own guts . . . be it on your conscience, Mr. Kolchak!” (In the movie he just looks at Kolchak and asks “Why?”: figure 10).
I wrote a version of the essay above in the early 2000s. Since then, the 2005 series The Night Stalker with Stuart Townsend as Kolchak came and went. The ninth episode, “Timeless”, is an homage to The Night Strangler, with an LA-based female fiend (Mira Furlan) who strikes every thirty-five years as the antagonist. Delightfully, the role of newspaper morgue archivist Titus Berry is brought back, even repeating some of Berry’s dialogue from the 1973 screenplay.
Again since I wrote the above, thanks to Mark Dawidziak (Kolchak Scripts, 121), I learned that “the atmospheric Bradbury Building, with its vintage elevator, was used as the part of the Seattle underground near Dr. Malcolm’s home and underground clinic.” This is true, and those who know the building will recognize it in figure 6. The Bradbury Building, which is actually at 304 S. Broadway in Los Angeles, is more famous for its use as J.F. Sebastian’s house in Blade Runner. It was built in 1893.
Crowley, Walt. National Trust Guide. Seattle. 1998. Pages 32-34 on the fire, building up, and underground Seattle.
Dawidziak, Mark. The Night Stalker Companion. A 25th Anniversary Tribute. 1997. Pages 73-89.
———-. Richard Matheson’s Kolchak Scripts. 2003.
Gebhard, D. and Winter, R. Los Angeles. An Architectural Guide. 1994. (Bradbury Building on 234-235.)
Gerani, Gary, and Schulman, Paul. Fantastic Television. A Pictorial History of Sci-Fi, the Unusual, and the Fantastic. 1977. Pages 134-141. The Kolchak voiceover is taken from this volume, p. 136.
Rice, Jeff. The Night Stalker. 1973.
———-. The Night Strangler. 1974. (Quotations from this book are in parentheses in the text above.)
As in my other review and discussion essays, I rely on a fair use justification for the use of stills from the movie.