Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Kolchak: The Night Stalker / Episode 1: The Ripper

For whatever reason, I have few memories from childhood. However, I do remember sitting in my PJs in our basement in 1974, at the age of 10, waiting breathlessly for the premiere of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. The program promised a weekly batch of monsters when such things were much harder to come by. (Only three networks, not much genre programming, no cable, no home video…)

To my delight, the show was also set in Chicago. Admittedly, it probably wasn’t filmed there, but they did shoot insert shots of Carl Kolchak tooling his sporty yellow Mustang around the city, past recognizable landmarks. Moreover, they made a real effort to use actual areas of the city (the “Loop,” etc.) and street names in the stories.

Reporter Carl Kolchak, after losing jobs in both Las Vegas and Seattle after attempting to report on supernatural events that the authorities wanted to hush up, has ended up working for the small INS (Independent News Service) Chicago branch office. Undoubtedly he has a job due to the guilt of his longtime and long-suffering editor, Tony Vincenzo. This despite the fact that Vincenzo too had lost jobs due to Carl’s crusades.

Vincenzo and Kolchak had one of the great TV relationships. Kolchak was an old-school, even by the standards of the ‘70s, street reporter. Much of the episodes were spent watching him track down information and interviewing often comical witnesses to bizarre events. Kolchak was all about the shoe leather, cynical about yet perpetually outraged by corruption in all its many forms, and although not an outwardly brave man (at least in that bluff TV character way), insanely motivated to follow the truth of wherever his current story led him, no matter what the cost.

Vincenzo was more of a go-along, get-along type. After all, when Carl was whipping up a crap storm with the authorities, it was his job to sooth all the ruffled feathers again. Kolchak’s antics seemingly kept Tony on the verge of a heart attack. In the end, though, as compromised as Vincenzo was from the journalistic ethic (in the large, mythic sense), he couldn’t quite shake his feeling of obligation to it. As much grief as Kolchak caused him, Vincenzo kept him employed, even with Carl’s perpetual defiance and even at the risk of his own jobs—and Tony’s station in the journalistic firmament had fallen as much as Carl’s had—because Kolchak was a living representation of everything that he didn’t have the drive to stay true to. Plus, when all was said and done, they were friends.

In any case, Darren McGavin as Kolchak and Simon Oakland as Vincenzo has proved some of the canniest casting in TV history. They are both simply terrific and utterly believable in their roles, and will never be forgotten because of them.

The first episode was "The Ripper", and it seemed designed to emulate as much as possible the immensely successful Kolchak TV movies, The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler. As in the former, a supernaturally powerful character is seen shrugging off masses of bullets and tossing around entire squads of policemen like dolls. Meanwhile, the backstory of the killer was extremely similar to that of The Night Strangler. Both were survivors of the 19th Century who stayed perpetually young by cyclically arising to slay a set number of attractive young women.

These recurrent periods of murderous activity (again used as a plot device in several X-Files episodes, like "Tooms") made sense from a plotting standpoint. The police, always focused on the immediate issue of catching a presumably normal killer, would never think to check for similar patterns of slayings going back a hundred years or more. As a reporter, however, Kolchak’s search for background information on the bigger story would make it more plausible for him to stumble over such facts.

Here the killer really is the original Jack the Ripper, who pops up in some major city every once in a while and slays five women so as to sustain his supernatural existence. He does prove to have a weakness, obviously, and the way Carl figures it out by piecing together data from old news stories is pretty slick.

The show handily sets the tone for the series to come. There’s a lot of comedy, but all of it rooted in character, and while the violence tended to be committed off-stage, the show was willing to kill off extremely likeable characters. Tony and Carl’s relationship is already firing on all cylinders, but we also are here introduced to Carl’s prissy, unctuous coworker, Ron “Uptight” Updyke. Carl’s more lovable officemate, the elderly advice columnist Miss Emily, is much mentioned but so far absent from the screen.

The Ripper remains a more than decent encapsulation of what the show was about, and thus ably serves as an introduction to the series. Already, though, we see the beginnings of the stress caused by the inevitable repetition of certain plot elements. These would not only eventually injure the regular viewer’s ability to suspend disbelief, but ultimately so disenchanted actor McGavin that he himself, according to his account, actually pulled the plug on the series.

One of the charms of the show for viewers of a certain age (like myself) is the raft of familiar character actors each show featured in guest roles. Here we only get a couple. Beatrice Colen plays Kolchak’s fellow reporter Jane Plumm. The name might not be familiar, but she played Lynda Carter’s best friend and Navy coworker Etta Candy in the ‘70s Wonder Woman television series.

Far weirder is veteran character actress Ruth McDevitt playing an elderly interview subject of Kolchak's, one who had written a letter to the absent Miss Emily which provided a clue to the killer's whereabouts. Ms. McDevitt had a long career in movies and TV guest spots playing daffy but lovable old ladies, and she would graduate from her cameo appearance here as a Miss Emily correspondent to playing Ms. Emily herself for the rest of the series!

A foxy blonde undercover policewoman (staking out a massage parlor in hopes of catching Jack) was played by exploitation actress Roberta Collins, who starred in a number of Roger Corman women-in-prison movies and other such fare. Most notably, she played Matilda the Hun in Paul Bartel's Death Race 2000.

As for the DVD presentation, this episode is no-doubt one of the most problematic, image-wise. In an effort to keep the Ripper a mysterious figure, much of the narrative is filmed at night and with minimal lighting. Moreover, the show was presumably filmed during the early, primitive days of videotape (as opposed to older shows, which were often shot on film, and thus counterintuitively look better on home video). Therefore the image can often get fairly grainy. This does serve, on the other hand, to make it seem more ‘real.’

Still, I don’t have much of an eye. For myself, the image quality was easily good enough, although obviously it would have been nice if the DVD producers had gone to the trouble to remaster the video elements. As noted, though, later, better-lit episodes no doubt look better. I’d give the image quality a B, and that by the heightened standards of DVD. The shows naturally look better on disc than they did on tape.

Unlike in reruns, too, the shows here are full-length. Shows back in those days use to feature far little commercial interruption, and each show is, with the show’s terrific title credit sequence, 52 minutes, a good six or seven minutes longer than ‘hour’ long network shows are today.

There are no extras on the disc, another sad aspect, but again something one can live with.


At 2:06 PM, Blogger BeckoningChasm said...

Ron “Uptight” Updyke

I still remember an exchange involving this guy. Some albino gorillas (as I recall) were murdering people; as usual, Updyke insisted there was nothing supernatural about it. To prove his point, he read a news dispatch about the wreck of a circus train where some animals escaped, including "two gorillas, a lion, and a piecost."

"What's a piecost?" the editor guy asked.

"About 79 cents," Updyke said, barely able to hide his giggling.

Surprising what resonantes decades later....

At 2:28 PM, Blogger baby copernicus said...

You know, that remake of Kolchak might've worked if they used a proven thespian like, say, French Stewart.

At 2:28 PM, Blogger baby copernicus said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 8:30 PM, Blogger BeckoningChasm said...

I went to my local Best Buy to see if they had the set in stock. The guy told me they sold out so fast "it wasn't even funny." So I'm glad to see that this show not only still resonates with me, but with enough people that the set's making some money.

I hope some of that money goes to Darren McGavin, the original producers, and perhaps the piecost.

At 11:32 PM, Blogger hbrennan said...

Hey Ken,

It's funny thinking of you sitting there in your pj's waiting to see this fantastic series. While you were doing that, I was sitting upstairs, alone in a small room, in a senior citizens center in the Bronx watching it on their TV. I was a freshman in college and I was working as a pool player\dance music DJ (mostly old Italian tunes) for the NYC Dept of Parks (I was a part-time employee during the evenings). I was good at my job, but I made it a point to schedule my break to watch this show! It's amazing where we find ourselves, sometimes.

At 6:44 AM, Blogger baby copernicus said...

Actually, Ken has this cute little two-piece he wears while watching Kolchak.

At 7:14 AM, Blogger BeckoningChasm said...

And a hat. He has a special Night Stalker hat, too.

At 7:41 AM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

Sadly, I can no longer fit into my seersucker suit.

One bit in The Ripper that was funny is Kolchak being asked by a woman what he did for a living, because of his "funny" shoes. That's because he wore white tennies rather than regular shoes. Of course, now nearly everyone wears tennis shoes nearly all the time, and if Carl's wardrobe were to be considered strange, it would be more for the suit, tie and hat.

Oh, Carl explained he wore the tennis shoes because "I run a lot." On this show, no doubt!

At 9:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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