Kolchak, The Night Stalker: Ep 1 The Ripper


So! Now we move to the first of the actual TV episodes. The rumor is that Darren McGavin enjoyed working in TV movies and only agreed to tie himself to a television show with the promise that he would also be executive producer. Then, on the first day of shooting, he found another executive producer on the set.

According to the story I heard, he felt betrayed and acted as the executive producer anyway. Essentially, the set had two bosses. Things became so contentious that at the end of the first season McGavin begged for the show to be cancelled.

Still, this was the first episode, aired 9/13/74. I wasn’t allowed to watch it, but I did end up seeing it later in syndication. Currently, all episodes of the TV show are available on streaming on Netflix. If you want to switch over to watch it (it’s about 50 minutes long) do so now, because I’m about to post some spoilers.

Really short plot synopsis: Jack the Ripper is loose in modern-day (circa 1974) Chicago, and only Kolchak recognizes him for the super-human killer that he is. Too bad for Our Hero that another reporter has been assigned to the story and he’s been relegated to a week of answering “Dear Emily” letters. Not that Kolchak would let that get in his way. Written by Rudolph Borchert, Directed by Allen Beron.

What happens in detail: We start off with the show’s intro–the cheerful whistling that suddenly turns ominous–then into the episode itself. Start with a long shot of the El, then Kolchak riding inside as his voice over does its usual thing–there were a series of crimes, the truth was never told, blah blah blah.

Then it jumps to a strip club. Hey, a topless dancer on stage, her naughty bits carefully off screen! Nothing says “Give us a ten pm slot” quite the same way. Kolchak does the usual portentous description of her, “Michelle Schiff, dancer, whatever, had just done her last number. I mean really her last number.”

She bounces off to the dressing room, puts on a robe (so she can turn to face the camera again) and sits at her dresser. Pan to a pair of fancy black shoes peeking out of the corner. Fancy Shoes draws a sword cane and attacks. The dancer/whatever screams, but who can hear in a strip club? As he slips out of the dressing room, the camera lingers over the cane in his hand It has a Satan face on it–Satan was big in the ’70’s–which must be really tough on his hand when he walks around. He’s also wearing a black cape with a red satin lining.

Um, yeah. Meet our villain, The Ripper. Throughout most of the episode, the camera treats his face the way it treated the “dancer/whatever’s” boobs–carefully offscreen

The body is discovered before he can get away, and all the guys in the tiny club jump at him, but he throws them around like they were stunt men jumping off trampolines.

Cut right away to a second murder, this time of a woman leaving a night class. This one is brawl-free, but we still get some Kolchak VO.

Then it’s time to reintroduce Our Hero. Gone are the fancy white loafers; now he wears tennis shoes. The square-cut yellow knit tie is still there, but he’s wearing a Seersucker suit now, and while his hat isn’t as battered as it will become by the end of the show, it’s showing the wear of being a prop in two TV movies.

How small the offices look in his new employer: There are teletype machines, Vincenzo’s office, and three desks (with Kolchak’s foregrounded, ‘natch). Enter Vincenzo, still Kolchak’s long-suffering editor, as he chews Our Hero out for implying that he was a police commissioner so he could commandeer a car and pursue the suspects of a bank robbery (for the story, ‘natch). That Kolchak! You never know what he’ll do! As punishment, Vincenzo assigns him to answer the letters to the advice column while “Dear Emily” is on vacation.

Kolchak reads through a couple of the letters, all of which seem to have been written by crackpots. Oh, hell no. He runs out to his car and turns on the police scanner.

Murder number 3. This time it’s a “masseuse” dressed like a call girl. And this time, the cops spot the Ripper and Kolchak hears about it on the scanner.

He races to the scene, so intent on getting the story that he jumps the sidewalk and gets there before the cops. Gunfire draws his attention to a chase along the edge of the rooftop–the police are chasing The Ripper along the roof, shooting the hell out of him, to no effect. Suddenly, The Ripper jumps four stories down to the sidewalk, landing on his feet like he was stepping off a bus.

Big Cop Brawl! There’s a lot of gun fire and police officers flying through the air (but no helmets). Kolchak is right in the thick of it, taking pictures. The Ripper clears the deck and escapes, jumping right over Kolchak. Our Hero looks all around at the beaten officers as though he hadn’t already seen the same thing in two previous movies.

Back at the office, Vincenzo complains about the advice Dear Emily (aka Kolchak) has been giving, but Kolchak is already typing up the Ripper story. They shout! Vincenzo tells Kolchak that he’s already given the assignment to Updyke, the show’s Felix Unger-like comic relief. Enter Updyke, looking shell-shocked. How horrible that poor woman’s corpse was! (or so he was told–he didn’t have the guts to look at the body himself). Updyke is in no way ready to handle this sort of assignment, but Vincenzo won’t budge.

Kolchak skips out on the rest of the letters and crashes the press conference. He tries to press the fact that The Ripper had superhuman strength, but the commissioner brushes him off. It comes out that the police have a letter written by the killer–one of the reporters received it and turned it over. While the other reporters hound the commissioner, Kolchak grabs the other reporter’s elbow and drags her away from the crowd.

Over lunch, the other reporter lets spill that the letter she received was identical to the letters the original Jack the Ripper sent. She does a whole spiel about strings of murders over the years, always five women killed, and the murderers went to their deaths with courage (except that one guy in New York back on ought-something).

Speak of the devil(‘s head cane), we cut to a sleazy massage parlor. In walks The Ripper with his cape and cane. The dull “masseuse” looks at him as though he’s just another Tuesday creep, and leads him behind a curtain. Murder! Another woman grabs a foam rubber monkey wrench and charges in to the rescue.

Cut to the cops pushing around inside the murder scene. Updyke flashes his credentials and is allowed inside. He’s so happy to be let in, and gosh, isn’t that a woman in a cheap sexy outfit? Updyke copies a poem off the mirror and, turning away, stumbles over the women’s bodies. He turns pale and flees.

Kolchak tries to flash his credentials and is turned away because his company already has a man inside. Turned away, he sees a couple standing in the street beside the crumpled hood of their car. The man explains that he was going 30 mph when he struck a man. Then the man got up and walked away. Kolchak looks down at the smashed in fender of the car and, forgetting all about the two previous movies and the Big Cop Brawl from Act One, shrugs it off.

Back at the office, Kolchak and Vincenzo have a humorous scene to lighten the tone, as Kolchak pretends the Ripper research he’s doing is a favor for Updyke, and that all the Miss Emily letters have been answered. He rushes off. Vincenzo, smelling a rat, finds dozens of unanswered letters hidden in Kolchak’s desk. Ba-dum tish!

Kolchak meets with the other reporter. Not only is she convinced The Ripper is going to take a couple of days off (per his last letter), she has been meeting with anyone who writes in claiming to be the killer–on their terms. Kolchak thinks that’s insanely dangerous (especially since the original Ripper promised to take some time off but instead struck at the same place the next night) but does she listen?

Kolchak returns to the massage parlor where the previous murders took place. He lets a hot blonde lead him into a room and tries to explain, without spooking her, that he wants to wait for the Ripper. She misunderstands (deliberately?) and slaps the cuffs on him. She’s a cop and he’s under arrest.

He’s led away just as The Ripper shows up. Big Cop Fight #2, as the car taking Kolchak away is drawn back to the emergency. His hands still cuffed, Kolchak covers the BCF. The Ripper shrugs off cops (in helmets this time) and bullets, but when he tries to jump an electrified fence, he’s zapped and captured.

Of course, so is Kolchak. Vincenzo bails him out, and Kolchak rails at the commissioner about the killer. He’s superhuman! You’ll never be able to capture him! The commissioner snaps back with “Your Superman is upstairs on the maximum security floor!” SNAP!

Cut to a maximum security door being ripped out of the wall. Okay, unsnap! Out walks The Ripper past all the other prisoners. They gape at him, astonished by both the wrecked door and that the cops let The Ripper wear his cape in the cell.

Kolchak realizes why The Ripper freaked out in NY that one time (he was afraid of the electric chair) and tries to convince the commissioner to… you know. “If you don’t stop him now, he’s going to go on forever!” Of course it doesn’t work. Meanwhile, the other reporter has gone missing. Kolchak is worried about her and suddenly remembers one of the crazy Miss Emily letters. He races back to the office and dumps the letter bag on the floor, looking for the return address. Ah ha! Kolchak charges out of the office with the letter in his hand.

He visits the old lady who wrote it. She’s played by the wonderful Ruth McDevitt who would later be cast as Miss Emily herself. She points out the house that The Ripper lives in–her telescope is trained right on it and she even has the dates and times of his coming and going. Well, the times sure match up with The Ripper’s movements. Maybe they’re onto something.

Kolchak heads over to the creepy house, skulking around and throwing rocks at it. No one comes to investigate, so it must be empty. He crashes through a floor board on the porch and creeps around to the back. Hmm. A busted fuse box. Cut to a building repair shop, which is apparently open all hours, where Kolchak is loading a box of supplies into his trunk. Back at the killer’s house, He unravels a long, thick electrical cord and jams the end down into the fuse box.

He breaks into the house and creeps around in the darkness. Apparently, supernatural killers never tidy up. Kolchak sneaks to the top of the house and finds a tea kettle whistling away, along with a bunch of sword canes and shoes, poking out of the curtain. After a moment of fake suspense that The Ripper might be hiding behind the curtain in his own house, Kolchak starts taking pictures.

The Ripper returns, noticing the hole in his floorboards. Someone’s been eating his porridge. He walks inside and goes upstairs. Kolchak ducks into a closet with a red cloth in place of a door. The Ripper carefully takes off his cape, hanging it up, and Kolchak, terrified that the killer is reaching right past his own face, completely freaks out and falls out of the closet. He looks up at The Ripper, giving us the first real look at his face. How does the killer keep his beard so well groomed in such a messy house?

Big chase scene as Kolchak tries to get away. The Ripper pauses to get his sword cane, for some reason, giving the reporter a quick lead. Kolchak stumbles over a couch and falls, and the other reporter rolls out on top of him. He scrambles up, jumps through the window and sprints across the yard. The Ripper is right behind. Kolchak splashes through a mini-pond, then grabs the black cable from under a bush and plunges it into the water–just as The Ripper jumps in.

Electrocution! The Ripper burns up and sinks into the water. The fuse box bursts into flame and burns the house down. Cut to the office late at night, as Kolchak hustles to his desk and starts typing. The Ripper was never found in the pond, only his clothes, and the cops have charges Our Hero with arson and a number of other crimes (all of which will vanish by the start of the next episode). The only thing that survived the fire was a shoe that had been discontinued seventy years before. “Seventy years. Who would believe it?” He laughs, crumbles up the paper and throws it away. Roll credits.

Commentary: There is a good bit wrong in this episode, but first I want to focus on what’s right. Very very right.

First is the pacing. The opening V.O. and establishing shot of the city end quickly, cutting straight to the first and second murders. The first BCF comes very early, and it’s a good one as these things go.

Second: the performances. McGavin is still at the top of his game here, but his portrayal of Kolchak is settling into a nice middle-ground between the characterizations of the first two movies–this isn’t the smooth, connected operator of the first film, but it’s not the shrill, frantic asshole of the second. He’s relentless and fearless in the face of authority, but he’s not an asshole.

And the supporting characters are all nicely handled, too. Modern crime shows tend to have the same, subdued, realistic character types, but this cast (both regular and guest starring) are vivid.

Third: the direction. Gone are the pointless shouting matches of the second film. Each scene is laid out nicely, with some characters sitting, some standing, some foregrounded and some backgrounded to show their conflicts and relationships. It’s really effective. Especially nice is a moment that comes very early in the episode, in the first argument between Vincenzo and Kolchak. As they’re talking, the El rumbles by just outside the office window, and both men fall silent waiting for it to pass. It shows how low-rent their new jobs are, and how far they’ve fallen together.

Fourth: the scares. It’s actually somewhat scary! For a nearly 40-year old TV movie, I mean. It’s not the scariest episode they would make–and it doesn’t match up to the first film, which is an unfair comparison–but it’s still damn effective.

But what about the stuff it gets wrong? And oh, does it get things wrong.

First, the voice over. Richard Matheson, I really wish you’d signed on the for TV show. While McGavin still reads the lines with his usual gusto, the lines themselves can make you roll your eyes. For instance, while introducing the second victim, the voice over wraps up with: “She wanted to be a success. She should have settled for being alive.”

Which doesn’t make any damn sense. Matheson, a nation of genre fans cries out for you (36 years later)!

Second, the costume for The Ripper is, let’s face it, cheesy. The black cape with the red lining, the sword cane with the devil’s face… Come on. That’s dorky. The episode rises above it, but still.

Third, the last and largest problem, the fat girl.

See, the “other reporter” I’ve been referring to above is a woman. I haven’t used her name because all the other (male) characters are referred to by their last names, but everyone in the episode called her “Jane.” I’m not going to do that thing where all the guys use their last names but the women get their first. And what was Jane’s last name? “Plumm” They named her after food.

Kolchak does a voice over about her just before they have their first scene together: “Jane Plumm was fat. She talks a lot about water retention and big bones, but I have to believe that the six or eight meals a day with snacks in between to keep up her strength has a lot to do with it.”

Here is a screen cap of what you see while Kolchak is delivering those lines.

This is fat

Seriously. I remember being very confused when I saw this as a kid because I couldn’t understand what fat person he was talking about. That’s Beatrice Colen, by the way, a character actor who made a career out of playing non-threatening girls next door. Despite the indignity of the role, she does a terrific job here.

On the plus side, they build her up immediately after; Kolchak talks about what a good reporter she is and how they have mutual respect, and her next line shows she has no respect for Kolchak at all. Unfortunately, they sit down at the restaurant table and she orders his massive meal–triple decker tongue sandwich with fries, a root beer float, and more more more. It’s comic relief, but it’s not particularly comic and there’s no relief in it.

Dear casting director: If the script calls for a fat person, you should cast an actual fat person, not just a normal-looking woman with chubby cheeks.

Dear writer: Fuck you.

This is the first time one of the shows monsters actually targets a prostitute. In the movies, the women were always waitresses, black jack dealers, belly dancers or whatever. It feels like a cheap and easy choice to make, but this is Jack the Ripper, after all.

As villains go, The Ripper was actually sorta bland. Why is he killing all these people again? In the first movie, the killings made sense–the vampire was hungry. In the second movie, there was a whole tortured explanation that had to be teased out. Here, the only explanation seems to be “Because he’s Jack the Ripper.” It’s a missed opportunity, but I didn’t mind because he is, like most of the villains, a monster. Any screen time he gets where he’s not menacing people is wasted, imo. The elements that should have made him distinctive (iow, his clothes) don’t really hold up well.

Now, I’ve complained quite a bit about this episode, and I’ve pointed a lot of things that were problematic about it. That doesn’t mean I don’t love it, though. I do love this show. The ways it screws up are serious and not to be dismissed lightly, but the ways it succeeds are powerful and exciting. The blocking, the pacing, the performances are all fantastic, and Kolchak himself is a perfect example of a great genre protagonist. He charges out and does things. Everyone’s always in conflict with everyone else, and the conflicts are sometimes subtle and interesting.

Next up is “The Zombie” with a black voodoo woman and black gangsters in plaid suits. I’m sure that won’t be problematic at all.

2 thoughts on “Kolchak, The Night Stalker: Ep 1 The Ripper

  1. Tommy Stedham

    Love the review, and the episode! You made some good points and some criticisms that I hadn’t considered.

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