TV Terror Guide 9-13-19: Kolchak the Night Stalker (The Ripper)
Kolchak: The Night Stalker may be the television series that's responsible for the phrase often used to describe shows dealing with supernatural creatures: "Monster of the Week." It's been a long time since I watched its one season from beginning to end, so I don't remember exactly, but a look at the episode list definitely indicates a formula to the show, and the first episode, The Ripper, seems to establish that formula:
There's a different threat each week
Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) is on an assignment when he's distracted by a series of murders
He suspects the murders are being committed by a supernatural force of some kind
He quickly develops a far-fetched theory that no one believes, including his boss, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland)
He devises a plan to put an end to the threat himself
Each hour-long episode... well, 51-minute episode... includes wonderfully hilarious narration and any number of memorable quotes by Kolchak and ends with a "postscript," or ironic recap, of what happened following Kolchak's adventure. These postscripts often include the police charges filed against Kolchak because of his unorthodox activities, as well as his explanation of how nothing official happened due to the unbelievability of it all.
This is the format I'm going to use to evaluate the 20 episodes of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. I'll be sure to note any deviances from the formula. Let's get started this week with the premiere episode...
Air Date: Sept. 13, 1974
Written by: Rudolph Borchert
Directed by: Allen Baron
Monster of the Week: Jack the Ripper
Kolchak is supposed to be responding to Dear Emily letters with “homespun, grass roots answers.”
Kolchak suspects the supernatural when he witnesses police chasing a man along the rooftops and the man jumps from a four-story building, lands on his feet, commences fighting with the police, and escapes. “Later, no one could agree on what they saw.”
Kolchak’s theory is that because there’s a pattern to the murders that matches the modus operandi of the original Jack the Ripper in London, and the killer writes the same poetry, the killer must therefore be Jack the Ripper. During the original murder spree, and in a series of Ripper Murders through the Ages, five women were killed. Currently, the “Chicago Ripper has two left.”
He stops the threat by luring the Ripper into a pond and electrocuting him with a trap of his own design.
A dancer in Milwaukee had just done her last number; I mean, really her last number.
For once be a cop instead of an ostrich!
Postscript: Nothing but old clothes were found in the pond. Everything gone, including any evidence and Kolchak’s story. “How could you explain it? Who could explain it? Who would believe it?” Kolchak rips the sheet of paper from his typewriter and disposes of it.
Great episode for a debut! If the concept had not already been proven with two popular TV movies (The Night Stalker, 1972, and The Night Strangler, 1973), I bet this episode used as a pilot would have sold the series. It provides an excellent sampling of the qualities that made The Night Stalker so beloved, even to this day. That is to say, in The Ripper, Darren McGavin provides an excellent sampling of the character's qualities that made The Night Stalker so darned entertaining.
McGavin is Kolchak and it's hard to imagine the show without him. (A reboot was attempted in 2005, but there were issues other than its comparably bland star, Stuart Townsend, that made it a failure.) He fully embodies the disheveled reporter wearing a light seersucker suit and straw porkpie hat, carrying his camera and tape recorder. He's a fast-talking con man, impersonating others when necessary for him to gain access to get to the bottom of a story. He's infuriatingly annoying to the police and public officials.
As The Ripper begins, Kolchak is again working for Tony Vincenzo, but this time at the Independent News Service (INS.) There's no explanation for why they live in Chicago when, at the end of The Night Strangler, they were headed toward New York City. Ah, the untold stories... In this episode, we meet recurring characters such as Kolchak's co-worker, Ron Updyke (Jack Grinnage), whom he calls, "Uptight," and disposable guest characters such as a colleague from a rival news service, Jane Plumm (Beatrice Cohen), with whom he trades information.
Besides the humor that is the heart of the show, The Ripper also demonstrates how scary the series can be. For nearly the entire third act, there's no dialogue as Kolchak investigates the Chicago Ripper's lair. It's dark and creepy and there are jump scares. The suspense becomes palpable, finally exploding when Kolchak can no longer tolerate hiding from the monster as he gets closer to discovering his location. We'll see how future episodes sustain the effect. Keep in mind that interest waned and the series was cancelled after one season.
This weeks notable television guest appearances (September 13-19, 2019):
Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Nancy Kulp (16th), Henry Silva (197th), Hugh Marlowe (18th), Virginia Gregg, Norman Lloyd, Barbara Baxley (19th), Royal Dano, Inger Stevens (20th)
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: Michael Ansara (14th)
The Invaders: Shirley Knight (14th)
Land of the Giants: Nehemiah Persoff (15th)
The Outer Limits: Richard Jaeckel (17th), Simon Oakland (18th), Ruth Roman (19th), Warren Oates (20th)
Planet of the Apes: Roscoe Lee Browne (15th)
Thriller: Alejandro Rey, Boris Karloff, Sidney Blackmer (16th)
The Twilight Zone: William Windom, Leonard Nimoy (15th), Robert Redford (16th),
Wonder Woman: James Hong, Lew Ayres (14th)