Investigation Discovery’s Mystery Files is yet another program in the great tradition of shows such as In Search Of, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and Sun Classics documentaries like The Man Who Saw Tomorrow and Chariots of the Gods—programs that TV Guide once categorized as “Speculation.” One thing they all have in common is that you often know as much about the subject after watching them as you did before. But they do give you much to “speculate” about, and that’s clearly the entire point of the exercise.
Mystery Files is much like the rest of Investigation Discovery’s programming. Mixing rudimentary history with sensational theories from questionable sources, much of the content is dramatized in lurid reenactments for the viewing pleasure of the paperback true-crime and weird-history audience. Over the course of several weeks, the show investigates the “truth” of a wide range of subjects from Cleopatra’s sexual wiles to whether Robin Hood actually existed.
The premiere episode is probably the best of the lot, but that’s because its subject is one of the great mysteries of all time: Jack the Ripper. The field of “Ripperology” is littered with so many outlandish suspects and theories—Royal Conspiracy, a Black Magik occult ritual, Freemasons, and an obsessed actor in a theatrical version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—that the one proposed in the Amazon Women on the Moon sketch “Bullshit or Not?” (that Jack the Ripper may have been the Loch Ness Monster) almost sounds reasonable. Following the usual speculative format, we are first presented with the known facts of the case: five women butchered in the poverty stricken area known as Whitechapel, and an elusive killer that the police cannot identify, whose killing spree ends almost as suddenly as it began. Who could’ve committed these crimes without detection? What was the motivation for such violent and sexual mutilations? These are some of the questions that have remained unanswered for over a century and Mystery Files certainly can’t answer them for you.
In fact, outside of a slight bias in suggesting that the canonical final murder of Mary Kelly was not the work of the Ripper, the episode refuses to take any side in the argument and instead merely presents an anthology of popular theories. Was it the butcher known as Leather Apron, or the morgue assistant? Perhaps an insane midwife? But you do get what you came for anyway: lots of spooky images of a foggy London circa 1888 presented exactly as you’ve always imagined it and a shadowy killer emerging from dark alleys to butcher the ladies in surprisingly violent, bloody, and yet economically repetitive dramatizations.
While the episode examining the truth behind the legend of Billy the Kid is almost as effective, the Cleopatra and Robin Hood mysteries lack the lurid thrill of investigating a violent gunslinger or maniacal serial killer. The show is at its best when it understands its tabloid purpose. All we end up learning is that Robin Hood may have existed, that Cleopatra may have used her womanly assets, and that the Ripper may have lived near the locations of his crimes. Clearly we’re not here to learn anything new or definitive on a program that’s merely 30 minutes long minus commercials.
Like all of its generic forebears, Mystery Files is all about raising questions that excite that corner of the human imagination attracted to enigma. This it does reasonably well though in a very dry, absurdly serious manner. What the show really lacks is an effective host. The speculative genre is best served by employing an Orson Welles, Rod Serling, Leonard Nimoy, Henry Silva, or Robert Stack to guide us through the mystery. Those often mischievous and yet authoritative figures helped their respective programs suspend disbelief for at least a few minutes while examining the “Bullshit or Not?” of King Tut’s curse or the existence of the Yeti. In any case, I eagerly await the inevitable investigations into Rasputin and the architects of Stonehenge.