This isn’t one of my favorite episodes; I usually skip over it on the DVD. But I’ll bet that Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files, likes it more than I do. He’s always attributed the inspiration for his own show to his teenaged watching of the Kolchak series, and you can certainly see some inspiring points in this particular episode.
Carl Kolchak sits at his desk in the INS offices, speaking into his pocket tape recorder:
I wanted people to know, to be prepared–if you can be prepared for something like this…
As usual, Carl’s story of bizarre happenings in the Chicago area begins with a murder–not a woman or a man this time, but a cheetah at the Lincoln Park Zoo. The big cat is attacked by some unseen menace in its cage one night (and I wonder what they were really doing to the poor thing to make it look so agitated).
When his editor Tony Vincenzo tells Carl about the cheetah being “missing” the next morning, he says that this is old news. He’s confused it with a “missing” panther from the day before. When Tony corrects him, Carl recalls that a panda died at the same zoo last week, and this pattern interests him enough to pursue the story.
On his way to the zoo, he hears something even more interesting on his police radio about a break-in in progress at an electronics store and decides that the zoo can wait.
He arrives at the store while the police are surrounding it. Police Captain Quill (James Gregory) says that the store’s alarm had been triggered and the thief or thieves are still inside.
Just then, a cinderblock wall bursts outward with no sound of explosion, revealing a storage room containing stacks of lead ingots. Before the amazed eyes of Carl Kolchak, Captain Quill, and various police officers, the lead ingots disappear–2 whole tons.
Question: Why is an electronics store storing 2 tons of lead?
A car full of men in grey suits are on the scene immediately after this mysterious event and have a quiet word with Quill.
Another question: Why were the cheetah and panther described as “missing”? Script discrepancy or the zoo’s official story? If it’s the latter, then the zoo’s vet (Mary Wickes) didn’t get the memo. She has no hesitation in telling Carl that the animals aren’t missing; they died of heart attacks, just like the panda.
Inside the cheetah’s cage with its bars bent outward, Carl finds a strange, evil-smelling, black lump of what appears to be asphalt. He asks the vet if she can analyze it, and also recalls that while driving to the zoo, he heard a man on the radio complaining about something like tar or asphalt being dumped on his lawn.
By the time Carl traces the man (Dick van Patten), a truck supposedly from the city council has already come and gone and taken most of the black gunk away. Carl picks up a little lump they left behind. Dick tells him that this isn’t the only weird thing that’s happened in the neighborhood lately: the electronic innards of his neighbor’s stereo were stolen while the neighbor was listening to music on his headphones. Another neighbors’ cats have been killed.
Carl takes this second black lump back to the vet, who tells him that it’s the same stuff in both cases–a mixture of digestive hydrochloric acid, acetone, and bone marrow. She adds that the three dead animals had all the marrow sucked out of their bones.
Carl: “You mean something ate it and threw it up?”
That night, there are two more human victims, a guard at an electronics company and a young mathematician whose hobby is trying to contact aliens. His last broadcast message: “I will now address you in Mathematico, the universal language. Auughhh!”
The mathematician’s body won’t be discovered for awhile, but the guard’s death results in a press conference at the electronics company. Seventeen watches, worn by the police, company staff, and reporters all present, stop at the same time. From the answers Captain Quill gives, especially his denials when Carl asks about the disappearing lead ingots and the sudden rash of electronics thefts all over Chicago, it’s obvious that some sort of cover-up is in progress.
Carl’s pointed questions draw the attention of those mysterious Men in Grey. A couple of them show up at the INS offices and confiscate the photos Carl has taken of the lead ingots, Dick van Patten’s lawn, and at the zoo. Monique, whom Carl put into a cab to Brooklyn near the end of the last episode, is back at her job and was developing the film for him. She says she had no choice but to give the photos up and, besides, they weren’t very good anyway. “They looked fake. I seen better in magazines.”
Is this starting to sound proto-X-File-ish? Carl is ready to attribute these weird events to aliens. He consults a local UFO organization; the people attending a meeting there are kooks, but they do mention the mathematician, who had reported an unverified UFO sighting a few days ago. It’s Carl who finds his body, plus his radio equipment (with what looks like a mini-radio-telescope dish), and listens to that last broadcast recording quoted above.
A dead guard sits flopped in the last row of seats, and a second guard phones the police. Even as he speaks, some unseen entity is at the planetarium’s control panel, operating the star-projector.
Carl, Captain Quill, and various police officers are there to witness this (the Men in Grey are in their car outside). From what they can see, the instruments appear to be working by themselves.
Something comes rushing toward Carl and he snaps his camera frantically. Since this is his show, he doesn’t get the marrow sucked out of his bones. The entity retreats. Carl thinks it was driven away by his camera’s flash; he tells Quill this, and Quill tells the Men in Grey, although the bright lights outside the planetarium are ineffective when whatever is inside comes out.
On the drive home, the ball-compass in Carl’s car begins to spin wildly, then it explodes. He stops the car, gets out, and wanders a short distance into the woods–where he finds the cutest little flying saucer parked in a clearing. It reminds me of the one Kro-bar and Lattis returned to Earth in in The Lost Skeleton Returns Again.
He rouses something, however, and is pursued for the second time by some unseen entity while he snaps his camera madly in hopes of driving it off. Eventually, the alien does go back to its ship; the hatch opens and closes again.
The spaceship doesn’t take off. It simply disappears while Carl looks on in amazement.
We return to Carl Kolchak back at his desk, speaking into his tape recorder as he concludes his narrative with this explanation of everything he’s seen:
A traveler has a breakdown, stops to fix it, gets a bite to eat, and goes on his way. It’s happened to all of us. But this traveler happened to be light-years off his course, instead of miles.
He adds that the Men in Grey haven’t contacted him yet. If they learn about the last set of photos he took, they probably will sooner or later.
Well, as I said, it’s not my favorite Kolchak story. Several plot elements strike me as confused. I’m not sure if the writer meant for them to seem part of the mysterious happenings, or if they’re just sloppy inconsistencies: The dead zoo animals described as “missing,” the lead ingots at the electronics store, the hint or two that the electronics company is somehow involved in what’s going on.
The invisible alien is definitely low-budget, but we’ll see in subsequent episodes that the show isn’t afraid to display cheap-looking monsters, so a little green (or grey) man to match the cute little saucer at the end wouldn’t have hurt.
On the plus side, there’s a good collection of character actors in the guest roles. It also has an interesting title. The other early episode titles tend to be terse and prosaic: The Ripper, The Zombie, and coming up next, The Vampire.