Episode 12: “Mr. R.I.N.G.” (1975) Directed by Gene Levitt; Written by Jeffrey Grant Rice, L. Ford Neale and John Huff; Starring: Darren McGavin, Simon Oakland, Julie Adams and Corinne Camacho; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Rating: **** (***** for the series)
“…For at least a few days, I was away, in the hands of men with no faces and no names. They broke me down, broke my story down, telling me it hadn’t happened the way I claimed. At least I think that’s what they did, between injections. Memories fade fast enough without chemical help, but if I don’t tell the story now, I don’t think I ever will...” – Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin)
Thanks to Terence Towles Canote from A Shroud of Thoughts for hosting the 9th Annual Favorite TV Show Blogathon. Today’s post represents a landmark of sorts for this blog, which, to date, has focused exclusively on movies. Considering how Kolchak: The Night Stalker has influenced the small and big screens alike, it only seems appropriate to start with this landmark series.
Over the course of a single, 20-episode season, Kolchak: The Nightstalker pitted its eponymous hero against supernatural forces, extraterrestrials, cryptids, and all manner of the strange and unexplained. This genre-defying mixture of mystery, comedy, science fiction and horror has made it difficult to pigeonhole the show into one easy classification. As portrayed by the inimitable Darren McGavin, intrepid Chicago-based reporter Carl Kolchak stops at nothing to get to the truth, much to the chagrin of his excitable, long-suffering editor Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland),** and exasperated law enforcement officials. With his rumpled light blue seersucker suit and trademark straw hat, Kolchak seems the unlikeliest of protagonists, but he's tenacious as a tick on a hound, and doesn’t care how many law enforcement officials’ feathers he rankles, or how many toes he steps on in the process of getting the scoop.
* Fun Fact: Judging from the show’s middling review in Variety (September 18, 1974), Kolchak: The Night Stalker wasn’t considered anything particularly noteworthy, criticized for its two-dimensional characters and forced attempts at humor. The reviewer paid Kolchak a backhanded compliment, stating that the show had the “potential to survive, most likely as a marginal hit.” (Bok)
** How Vincenzo never suffered a stroke due to Kolchak’s antics, is one of the show’s enduring mysteries.
“Mr. Ring” (which debuted on January 10th, 1975) starts off on a noirish note, with Kolchak sitting in his darkened office, presumably in the wee hours of the morning, dictating into a tape recorder. In typical film noir fashion, Kolchak attempts to recall the events of the past several days, through a mental fog. The story jumps to a flashback, as he receives yet another dressing down by Vincenzo. Kolchak is not too pleased to be relegated to writing an obituary about Avery Walker, a brilliant scientist, but we know there’s much more to the story than a simple death. Before long, he learns that he’s accidentally stumbled onto a top-secret project.
Kolchak’s first stop in his investigation is with the scientist’s alcoholic widow, Mrs. Walker (played by guest star Julie Adams, of Creature from the Black Lagoon fame), who seems less than heartbroken by her estranged husband’s sudden death. Although his meeting with Mrs. Walker provides few answers, it raises some tantalizing questions, including a mysterious project known as R.I.N.G. The trail leads to Dr. Walker’s colleague (and possible mistress) at the shadowy Tyrell Institute,* Dr. Leslie Dwyer (Corinne Camacho), but as he gets closer to the truth, his interviewees become more evasive. Suddenly, he finds himself under the intense scrutiny of several individuals, seen and unseen, who lean on Vincenzo to kill the story before it’s ever written.
* Could the Tyrell Institute be the direct predecessor of Blade Runner’s Tyrell Corporation? While it could just be a coincidence, both organizations were involved with creating artificial people.
(MILD SPOILERS AHEAD) In typical Kolchak style, the persistent reporter badgers Dr. Dwyer into revealing R.I.N.G. is an acronym (Robomatic Internalized Nerve Ganglia), describing a highly advanced android project. Ousted from Tyrell due to a difference in opinion with military priorities, Dwyer reveals that R.I.N.G.’s intellectual development was incomplete (“Ethically/emotionally, he’s still a child.”). In the interest of informing the public, he endeavors to find R.I.N.G. before the police and military have time to cover up its existence. While it’s obvious there’s a human face beneath the makeup, R.I.N.G. seems suitably intimidating, with its expressionless face, comprised of circuits and a mass of blinking lights. When R.I.N.G. fashions a crude face out of mortician’s wax, it only succeeds in making its appearance more unsettling. In addition to recalling 1973’s Westworld, the unstoppable android seems to anticipate Halloween’s similarly expressionless Michael Myers.
Also in typical Kolchak fashion, what should have been the scoop of the decade is buried amidst a web of obfuscation and deceit. As we’ve come to learn with each episode, he might be down but never out, left to fight the good fight for another day. Paranoia, is a completely sane reaction in an insane world. Reflecting the early ‘70s disillusionment with the Vietnamese war, distrust of government and local law-enforcement officials is de rigueur. Kolchak’s sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong is simply a part of the checks and balances that we would expect from a just world. Unfortunately, none of Kolchak’s colleagues or antagonists share his idealism. “Mr. R.I.N.G.” is a solid entry in the series. While perhaps not one of the better-known episodes, it stands with the best of them, balancing the lighthearted moments with the dark, reminding us that the truth, for many of us, remains tantalizingly out of reach.