Having A Movie Moment with Jon Longhi: The Genius of Dan Curtis

Posted by The Bay Area Crew, January 15, 2019 07:00pm | Post a Comment

By Jon Longhi

Welcome to this month’s Having A Movie Moment With Jon Longhi, where I review recent Blu-ray Trilogy of Terrorreleases. This month I review three movies created by the brilliant Dan Curtis.

Dan Curtis was one of the most successful director/producers in the history of television. History will always remember him as the creator of the long running TV show Dark Shadows but that was just one of many major achievements. He also produced and/or directed some of the biggest movies in the history of television. Three of these films just got deluxe Blu-ray releases. One of his two biggest films was Trilogy Of Terror, (Kino Lorber Studio Classics). This is a fun little horror flick but no one could have predicted that it would be one of the most watched TV movies of all time. It held the record until Roots was televised later that decade. The movie tells three horror stories that are connected by the main star of the film, the magnificent Karen Black. She pretty much makes this movie. She is the main character in all three vignettes and chews up the scenery so mightily that everyone else in the picture is little more than a bit player. In the first segment she plays a mousy professor exploited by a blackmailer, in the second she's a pair of polar opposite sisters, but it's her role in the third segment, "Amelia," that history will remember her for. "Amelia" is one of the best little horror movies ever made and it scared the viewing public to a degree that few could understand in this jaded day and age. Karen Black's portrayal of the vulnerable, psychologically fragile Amelia makes the horror she suffers even more visceral. The story is fairly simple and all takes place in one tiny apartment. Amelia finds a Zuni fetish doll in a second hand store and buys it as a gift for her anthropologist boyfriend. The doll comes with a curse and, when she gets back to her apartment, Amelia unwittingly brings it to life. What ensues is one of the scariest things I've ever seen on television. This segment really holds up even after all these years. It's tense, harrowing, and genuinely scary. Being attacked by a doll could easily have been laughable, but in Curtis's skilled hands the story becomes utterly terrifying. This was one of the most memorable movies of the seventies and it left an indelible mark on everyone who saw it.

Even Karen Black can't deny the impact of the film. "I’m proud of Day Of The Locust, I’m proud of The Great Gatsby, I’m proud of Five Easy Pieces, and many people mention these movies to me, but if I were to take a statistical survey of the movie people mention to me more in the past thirty years than any other film it would be this one," she comments in one of the documentaries. "I've done signings before but there was this one time I did a signing for Trilogy Of Terror and the line was across the room and out the door." Kino Lorber did their usual excellent job on this release. The picture looks flawless and there's some great bonus documentary features where people like Curtis and Karen Black talk about the history and influence of the film.

The other TV movie that made Curtis a household name was The Night Stalker (Kino Lorber). When thisThe Night Stalker was shown in 1972 it became the most watched movie in television history. It held that record until Trilogy Of Terror came out a few years later. There are good reasons for this. The Night Stalker is quite simply one of the best television movies ever made. It is easily one of the best vampire films ever made and would fit comfortably in the top five. The whole production just fires on all cylinders. Richard Matheson's script is a flawless piece of horror writing that makes this G-rated TV movie far scarier than any R-rated film that floods its viewers in gore. Matheson's sense of suspense is pitch perfect and leaves you on the edge of your seat. His crackerjack dialogue is fun, fast, and reminds me of the writing in the 1931 film The Front Page. The story unfolds like a police procedural documented by a veteran reporter. A vampire has taken up residence in Las Vegas and as the bodies begin to pile up. The local politicians and police try to deal with the situation in exactly the kind of corrupt way you would expect local authorities to deal with the unnatural -- they either try to cover it up or are just plain in denial about what's going on. That leaves it to erstwhile local reporter Carl Kolchak to save the day. He's always one step ahead of the police when it comes to digging up clues and is the only local with a mind open enough to accept the fact that their killer may be a supernatural felon. Kolchak is played by Darren McGavin in what is arguably the best role of his career. McGavin does more than just act, he actually inhabits the role and BECOMES Carl Kolchak. It's one of the best portrayals of a journalist in the history of television and is right up there with James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano and William Shatner's Captain Kirk when it comes to iconic television characters. Curtis knew this would be the case and McGavin is the only person he considered for the role. McGavin's acting alone was enough to make this a great picture but he's just one course in a sumptuous feast. You also get Matheson's script, great production and music, and a cast of supporting actors who are a who's who of the era. Stars like Carol Lynley, Simon Oakland, and Elisha Cook Jr. seem to almost be in a battle to see who can chew up the most scenery. Claude Akins is especially good as the corrupt local sheriff. You even get to see Larry Linville playing a surgeon before he became a household name playing Major Frank Burns on Mash. This movie has it all and is one hell of an entertaining ride.

Kino Lorber's Blu-ray of the film looks immaculate and is fleshed out with some nice bonus features. They also released the sequel to The Night Stalker, The Night Strangler, as part of this series of Curtis reissues. The film is almost as good as the original, and adds more humor to the mix and further develops the relationship between Kolchak and his head editor/boss. I haven't had a chance to buy/see/screen the new Blu-ray of The Night Strangler yet but will probably review it in a future column. Both movies were so successful that Kolchak returned in the Kolchak: The Night Stalker TV series. Even though it only lasted one season, Kolchak: The Night Stalker was one of the best horror/sci-fi shows ever created. Heavyweights like Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale worked on the show, and David Chase, who went on to create The Sopranos, got his start on The Night Stalker. The show maintained the high production and writing standards of the original movies and was a huge influence on other later shows like The X-files. Needless to say, I recommend buying all three of these Curtis releases. These Blu-rays came out at the tail end of 2018 and all three of these films could have made it onto my Best of 2018 list.

Relevant Tags

Claude Akins (1), Elisha Cook Jr. (1), Simon Oakland (1), Carol Lynley (1), Darren Mcgavin (1), Richard Matheson (3), Karen Black (6), Dark Shadows (1), Dan Curtis (2), Cult Films (22), Cult Film (27), Jon Longhi (27), Larry Linville (2), Tv (35), Film (186), Horror (215), Vampires (10), Dolls (2)