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From May 25 to June 2nd 1974, Chicago is terrorized by a brutal murderer of women. A stripper and masseuse are among the victims.
Idiosyncratic INS reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) itches to investigate the ripper-style homicides, but has been tasked by his boss, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) with a different assignment. Kolchak has been ordered to fill in for the vacationing Miss Emily, and answer her “Dear Emily” letters.
Worse, a journalistic competitor, Jane Plum (Beatrice Colen) is reporting on the ripper crimes.
Kolchak disobeys Tony’s orders and begins to investigate the shadowy killer who seems to evade police (and bullet-fire) with ease.
He soon realizes that over seventy women have been killed in the last 80 years, all over the world.
They have all been murdered in the exact fashion of the Chicago deaths. Even more disturbingly, they trace their origin to Jack the Ripper, in London.
Oddly enough, Kolchak is able to determine the Ripper’s hide-out from a Dear Emily letter he remembers reading...
The first regular hour-long episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974 – 1975) is a bit of a disappointment, in part due to the nature of its titular monster.
The Ripper is a shadowy figure with a cane and cape, who leaps across city roofs like a superhero, evades bullets easily, and isn’t seen to vet any bloody handiwork. I understand that TV of the 1970’s could not show extreme -- or even moderate -- violence, but this monster comes across, at least visually, as toothless. Energetic, for certain, but toothless. He’s a running, fighting, indestructible force, but not at all scary. He throws police men and innocent bystanders around, but is never seen to stab or cut, or or gut anyone.
Still, in some way, “The Ripper” is an important influence in TV history, not for re-telling yet another variation of the Jack the Ripper tale, but for anticipating the idea of a killer who lives for decades, and reappears in modern times after a long absence. This facet of the killer forecasts the Tooms monster-of-the-week on The X-Files (1993-2002), though both “Squeeze” and “Tooms” are, frankly, superior to “The Ripper” both in terms of writing and execution.
In terms of a Jack the Ripper story, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, in 1974 ,was a late comer to the party. Boris Karloff’s Thriller in 1961 (“Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper,”), The Sixth Sense in 1972 (“With Affection, Jack the Ripper”) and even Star Trek in 1967 (“Wolf in the Fold”) had already featured the murderer, and some supernatural or paranormal element.
Where “The Ripper” shines is in the arena where the series always proves remarkable, frankly: in diagramming the sleaze of the 1970’s urban government and bureaucracy.
For lack of a better term, one might conclude that Kolchak is reckoning with “The Swamp” as he hunts his monsters, though resolutely unable to drain it.
Instead, Kolchak must, well, negotiate the swamp. Watching him do so, week after week, is one of the continual joys of this forty-four year-old series. In “The Ripper,” Kolchak attends a police press conference where he is stonewalled with euphemisms and lies that obfuscate the truth. Sarah Huckabee Sanders would be proud at the way that Captain Warren (Ken Lynch) manages to stand in front of a podium, and provide non-answers to every single question that the public has the right to know the answers about. He denies facts, and spins lies with the best of them. But Kolchak's skills for pushing and prodding, for needling, are incomparable.
Many weeks on the series, we will see Kolchak bribe civil servants, flatter obsequious gatekeepers, and grapple with politicians and policemen who want to keep him -- and the people -- in the dark. The quality that makes Kolchak (and indeed, many journalists) so admirable is the fact that he knows what his job is.
It's reporting the truth, so people will be informed.
His duty is to follow the facts, wherever they lead.
The spin-artists, liars, and mouthpieces for entrenched power, have forgotten that it is their job to serve the public, not their masters. “The Ripper” diagrams this aspect of Kolchak’s character, and professional life brilliantly. He speaks truth to Power. And the Powers that be hate him for it.
I also enjoy how the series makes Kolchak a reluctant hero, when it comes to battling monsters not of human nature. Here, he scares himself while in the Ripper’s house, and shrieks with terror. Kolchak is a hero, but not a traditional one. He is brave, but also very fallible, and human. When he faces monsters, it is usually with a keen sense of not just responsibility, but terror. There's no joy or satisfaction hunting monsters in the dark. The satisfaction comes from discovering (and at least attempting to...) report the truth about them.
Next week, a look at perhaps the greatest episode of the series: “The Zombie.”