Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin, now and for always) is riding on an El train through Chicago and talking into his little pocket tape-recorder. Although his lip movements don’t match the narrative voice-over, this is what he says to get our story started on the right note:
“If by chance you happened to be in the Windy City between May 28 and June 2 of this year, you would have had very good reason to be terrified. During this period, Chicago was being stalked by a horror so frightening, so fascinating, that it ranks with the great mysteries of all times. It’s been the fictional subject of novels, plays, films, and even an opera. Now, here are the true facts…”
The first episodes of the television series Kolchak: The Night Stalker aired in September of 1974, a little less than 2 years after The Night Strangler.
Dan Curtis and Richard Matheson were no longer involved in Kolchak‘s production, but the template for the episodes that followed was already established by the two hugely successful made-for-TV movies created by these two: world weary and wise-cracking reporter Carl Kolchak will continue to have brushes with the occult in the course of his regular newspaper work, and end up doing battle with supernatural creatures both traditional and bizarre. His boss, editor Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) will object strenuously to just about everything Carl does, as will the local police or other authorities involved in investigating the matter.
The worst I can say about this first episode is that it adheres too closely to the template established by the two movies: A number of attractive young women are murdered by a man with supernatural powers. Only, it’s not a vampire, nor a mad doctor looking for the elixir of eternal life. This time, it’s Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper.
The idea that the famous-but-never-identified prototype serial killer was somehow immortal had already put forward in a short story with the above title by Robert Bloch, and also converted into an alien entity that jumps from body to body in an original Star Trek episode.
After Kolchak’s opening narration, we are shown two murders–not in Chicago, but in nearby Milwaukee. First, a topless dancer (shot from the back so that her toplessness is implied without actually showing the viewer anything that wouldn’t be allowed on 1970s network television) is killed when she enters her dressing room. Then a physical therapist is attacked in the street as she leaves her work.
All we see of the murderer is that he carries a fancy devil-headed sword-cane and that he wear an old-fashioned suit and high-topped shoes, and a red silk-lined opera cape. If we glimpse his face at all, it’s shadowed or otherwise obscured.
These first two murders, by the way, are never referred to again in the course of the episode. When Carl counts up the Ripper’s murders later on, he mentions only the deaths that occur in Chicago. Since the number of victims becomes important, I suspect that these two murder scenes were filmed and tacked on to the show at the last minute to give the opening more of a kick.
It’s after the first Chicago murder–a massage parlor employee carrying home a giant stuffed panda, which gets slaughtered along with her–that we join Carl and Tony at their new place of employment. After being ejected from Las Vegas and Seattle, they now work for INS, the Independent News Service; it’s part of a national wire service rather than a local paper. The El tracks run right outside the office’s windows and the two men have to shout even louder than usual to be heard over the passing trains as they argue in Tony’s office over Carl’s latest excesses in pursuit of a story.
As punishment, Carl is assigned to take over the advice column written by Miss Emily while she’s away on vacation. The reporter given the murder assignment is soon-to-be-series-regular Ron Updike (Jack Grinnage; Carl calls him “Uptight”), but Ron is sickened by the gore and senseless waste of human life, like a normal person. Carl ends up investigating this and the subsequent killings, and annoying the police, anyway, ignoring the letters piling up from his new job.
Carl has a reporter friend, Jane Plumm, who works for a tabloid. She’s received a letter from the supposed Ripper, which has been given to the police since it contains unreleased information about one of the murders that the actual murderer would know.
(1970s cultural point of interest: Carl bluntly calls Jane “fat” and much is made of her eating habits, but I don’t think she can weigh more than ~140 pounds. Chubby perhaps, but not obese. Standards for what counted as “fat” were much lower in those days.)
It’s Jane who puts Carl onto the idea of there being only one Ripper. She observes that this particular kind of serial murder has occurred regularly all over the world–5 victims, all women prostitutes or “semi-pros”. Jane’s theory is that this is a “contagion psychosis” that leads different people to commit the same kind of murders but, since he’s seen the same kind of thing before, Carl believes it’s just one guy carrying on since the late Victorian era.
“That would make him older than your suit,” says Jane, “and that’s saying something.”
She receives other letters from the supposed Ripper after that first one and interviews Ripper suspects. Even though she carries a gun in her purse, it won’t protect her from the murderer she eventually meets in person. I’m always sorry about that; I liked her. I love the way her face lights up when Carl suggests she use “Cannibalism!” as the theme for her own articles about the Ripper murders.
Next murder. The red-lined cape and devil-head cane are shown walking up to the entrance to a massage parlor. Inside, a bored-sounding woman in an I Dream of Jeannie costume recites the “massage” services available to the unseen client while she eyes his cane with suspicion. She tells a co-worker that the guy she’s about to work on looks creepy but, like Jane, this precaution doesn’t save her; the other woman hears her scream and opens the door to find her dead. The Ripper flees into the street.
Although the Ripper appears to be practically immortal and is shown in the course of the episode to be nearly indestructible, the story never provides a reason for how he got that way. Unlike Dr. Malcolm in The Night Strangler, his serial killings aren’t connected to his ongoing longevity. He never speaks. As far as we know, he just kills because he likes it.
The closest we get to an explanation is in a poem he sends to Jane Plumm, which suggests some kind of rejuvenation:
“Jack is resting
To finish up
on Wednesday morn.”
She says that the original Ripper sent the same poem to the press, but I don’t recall this in my Ripperology reading. Nor do I recall Carl’s response, that the Chicago Ripper will strike again in the same place, since the original Ripper did. The real Ripper didn’t do this. All five of the murders attributed to him in 1888 occurred in London’s Whitechapel district, some within a few streets of each other, but no two in the same location. But Carl’s idea pans out here; he enters the massage parlor where the last murder occurred as a putative customer and, once they’re alone in a room, tells the “masseuse” that he’d like to hide and watch for something to happen. Since she’s actually an undercover police officer, she promptly arrests him.
(1970s cultural point of interest, part 2: As uniformed policemen drag him out the room, Carl protests, “I’m straight!” In the context, I take him to mean that he’s not kinky–i.e., not a voyeur.)
Unfortunately for the policewoman, after the other officers have taken Carl out into the street, the next person to enter the room is the actual Ripper. She fires a shot or two at him, but they don’t slow him down and he kills her before the cops who hear her shots and screams can get back inside. The Ripper escapes again.
The police have been doing their best to catch him all this time, but the Ripper’s been showing off his superhuman abilities since they first tried to pursue him. After the first Chicago murder, he jumped off the top of a 4-story building, tossed around a dozen police who were trying to pin him down, and smashed up a couple of their cars. In fleeing from the second murder, he ran straight into another car and left a big dent in the fender but continued to run away unharmed (“Nobody’d believe it,” the car’s driver tells Carl).
After this last murder, it looks like they’re going to lose him again–until the Ripper puts his hands on an electrified fence. That takes the fight out of him and he is quickly subdued and locked up in a maximum security cell.
Carl tries to explain his “it’s all the same Ripper through the last 80 years and you can’t kill him or keep him locked up” theory to Tony, who’s come to bail him out. The eye-rolling Chief of Police responds that they have locked the Ripper up and he can’t possibly break out of maximum security.
But the Chief is wrong. During this conversation, a heavy iron door in the maximum security corridor of the police station slowly pushes outward, cracking the concrete wall on either side. At last, it falls away and the Ripper strolls out past the amazed eyes of the other prisoners.
A young policeman comes down to tell the Chief, “The Ripper just broke out of maximum security.” The chase is on again.
It’s here that the subplot about Miss Emily’s column finally pays off. Early on, Carl read a letter from what he assumed was a nutty old lady about her neighbor with X-Ray eyes. When he learns that Jane Plumm agreed to meet the Ripper in that same neighborhood, he makes the connection and ransacks the previously disregarded sacks of letters that have accumulated, searching for that one.
An amusing bit of future casting, the old lady is played by Ruth McDevitt, who will appear in later episodes as Miss Emily–the woman whose advice column Carl was supposed to take over while she was away. Here, she wiles away her time spying on her neighbors with a telescope and makes careful notes of their comings and goings, which she shows to Carl once he overcomes her suspicions and she lets him into her apartment. The times for the X-Ray Eyes neighbor’s comings and goings would be helpful as evidence if the man were ever recaptured, but when Carl hears that the man is in his house now with a woman who fits Jane Plumm’s description, Carl heads next door.
There follows a scene similar to the one in The Night Stalker movie where Kolchak explores what appears to be a spooky, empty old Victorian house–except that there’s a tea kettle just coming to a boil on a hot plate; it appears that the Ripper likes a cup of tea after a brutal murder. Carl is too late to rescue Jane. He tumbles over her body lying covered on a sofa.
Carl hides in a closet when the Ripper returns, but can’t stand it when the murderer reaches into the closet right past his nose. He has to scream. (Here, we get a good look at the Ripper’s face for the first time, and it’s nothing remarkable. It’s not even an actor I recognize.)
With his own life now in immediate danger as he runs from a well-practiced killer who’s next to impossible to destroy, can Carl Kolchak remember the one useful piece of information he’s picked up about the Ripper’s vulnerability to electric shocks and give it practical application?
Unfortunately, the electrical shorts cause the Ripper’s house to burn down, destroying all the evidence apart from one shoe, which was made in London around the turn of the last century.
Unlike the endings of the TV movies, Carl doesn’t lose his job nor is he ejected from the city this time. INS and Chicago are stuck with him and his monster-chasing adventures for some months to come.
Back at his office at the end of the episode, however, Kolchak decides not to try and publish his story about Jack the Ripper; he repeats the words of the car driver who struck the Ripper: “Nobody’d believe it.”