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Maulin' the Jack: The Jack the Ripper Story Bastardized

  "Was Jack the Ripper the Loch Ness Monster?" a segment of the sketch comedy movie Amazon Women on the Moon enquired in 1987, which showed how far the tale of the Victorian serial killer murders of 1888 London had come after decades of being treated as a punchline at worst, the jumping off point for atmospheric examinations of the milieu that gave rise to such atrocities all those years before. As no solution has ever entirely satisfied the facts, and none of the self-appointed experts (mentioning no Patricia Cornwells) can agree on who the killer was, the mystery persists: was he one man working alone? Was there more than one murderer (after all, these slayings were not unique in the London of the day)? Was the establishment involved in a cover-up to protect one of their own? Was Jack the Ripper a woman? Or a space alien? What are you talking about?!

The enigmatic figure had shown up in films and television, as well as the written word, even computer games, ever since the silent days when in Pandora's Box, Louise Brooks as the free-spirited Lulu met her match at the climax, putting her party girl exuberance in its place, and there were variations on that ever since - also in Germany Waxworks used the persona for horror means; meanwhile in Britain Alfred Hitchcock's first truly identifiable thriller was The Lodger, in which Ivor Novello (he of the song awards) was suspected of being the culprit. Other versions arrived in the forties with a remake of The Lodger starring Laird Cregar, and in the fifties as Jack Palance was Man in the Attic, though an actual Jack-focused film took its time to arrive with 1959's Jack the Ripper, a cheap period thriller which was memorable for the demise of the villain, squashed in full colour after the rest had been in black and white.

Sherlock Holmes in the form of John Neville took on Jack in A Study in Terror, a neat idea better in theory than conception, and not the only instance of that as in the seventies Murder By Decree used the same idea but took Christopher Plummer's Sherlock and had him investigate a conspiracy: it was the decade of Watergate, after all, but this was not much more appealing than the lower budgeted sixties effort. But perhaps the defining story of this style that really set filmmakers wondering what they could do with the fictionalised Ripper was a short piece from 1943 by Robert Bloch entitled Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper, where the killer was a sorcerer staying eternally young thanks to his victims; Bloch was fascinated by the historical yarn, and used it again in his Star Trek episode A Wolf in the Fold where William Shatner's Captain Kirk must have all his wits about him to conquer the menace after Scotty is accused of multiple slaughters of women.

Star Trek was not the only television series in the sixties to devise a plot around the Ripper, The Avengers did it too, and Bloch's Yours Truly was adapted for the Thriller anthology show starring Boris Karloff, but it is the Enterprise's possession by Jack which tends to stick in the memory, thanks to it being absolutely ridiculous. Scotty, we are told, was thrown against a bulkhead in an accident caused by a woman, giving him concussion, so Kirk and Bones take him to a planet of hedonists where he can hang out in what's basically a strip club (tame TV incarnation, so belly dancing) to realise that women are actually nice and not worth getting angry about. Alas, three murders later, Scotty looks doomed, but then in a courtroom drama Mr Spock works out that he is being set up by a space alien, which then takes over the ship and necessitates the crew getting high to counter the terror the creature feeds on. This really was broadcast.

Thus setting off a few years of movies and TV where the Ripper murders were played with to create entertainment, despite not being in the remotest bit entertaining in real life. Inevitably Britain's Hammer belatedly (in terms of when they got around to it) took up the Ripper crimes with a couple of fairly memorable entries, first in 1971 when Angharad Rees was his daughter in Hands of the Ripper, and the genes were obviously not benevolent when she started off her own spree, but perhaps more interesting was the Brian Clemens-devised Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde the year after where Ralph Bates downed the potion and turned into a looky-likey Martine Beswicke, who is rather more murderous than he anticipated. In truth, the Ripper connection was somewhat bolted on there, almost an afterthought to blame Hyde for the infamous incidents, but it did display a certain ingenuity in nastiness.

Often, for the reliable poser: "Are we any better than the Victorians? Hmm? Really?" the Ripper crimes would be updated to the present day, so we could have some serial killer "inspired" by the history of the case and start afresh with a new set of victims. This offered filmmakers the chance to depict a bunch of actresses in a state of distress seeing as how, as far as we know, Jack didn't kill any men, and as they were in modern times they could be regarded as being punished for loose morals that the bad guy was hypocritically doling out their fates for. All the better when the conservative creators of these would actually be nudging the audience and asking if we were not better to return to those Victorian values, though on the evidence of something like Jacinto Molina's 7 Murders for Scotland Yard, the irony passed them by for the most part.

In that Spanish work, the Ripper murders have started anew in 1972 London, and your man Molina, aka Paul Naschy, is the prime suspect, being an extra piss artist - sorry, an ex-trapeze artist who was injured and thus scrapes by looking for work he cannot get and drinking away his sorrows in various dives (or just the one). Seeing as how he had tackled a selection of fictional evildoers, why not a real life one? That seemed to be the thinking until you twigged our leading man was a big red herring, lurching around British locations until he could get back to the studio for more chit chat about the identity of the maniac who was utterly obvious from about ten minutes in. This was sometimes termed a Spanish giallo, yet what it more resembled was an Edgar Wallace krimi from Germany thanks to the setting, a subgenre not unkown to have exploited the Ripper itself, but what it undoubtedly was turned out to be a combination of tedious and tasteless.

The culprit in that movie did attempt to go one better than his inspiration by sending, not a piece of liver, but a victim's head in a hatbox which showed some ambition if no sense, but that was mere amateurism compared with what notorious schlock director Jess Franco conjured up in 1976. His Jack the Ripper was not so much about THE Jack the Ripper as A Jack the Ripper, given that while this took place in Victorian Whitechapel, the rest demonstrated a complete lack of research - or total ignorance that had no interest in being educated - about the case. None of the names involved in the real events were used, not for the prostitutes who were butchered nor any of the lawmen involved, indeed what you had was a German actor playing the lead detective who combined with the English dub that made him sound as if he was reading out a traffic report may be the most boring policeman hero ever associated with this sort of film.

Not helping was the glacial pace where he methodically went through the witness testimony (assisted by a bizarrely camp copper who seemed on the verge of comic relief) before his ballet dancer girlfriend (Charlie Chaplin's daughter Josephine) allows him (spoiler) to crack the case. Wait, what? That's right, the killer is caught in this one, and he's our old friend, that reprobate Klaus Kinski, using the very Franco name of Doctor Orloff and swooping down on fallen women from the streets, then doing unspeakable things to them such as cutting bits off their bodies for the apparent reason that he had troubles with his mother at an early age. One thing Franco did contribute that was often lacking in Ripper fiction was that sense of disgust: the facts were genuinely revolting, and they were often soft-pedalled in favour of ramping up the atmosphere, but not here, with this you were in no doubt there was no fun to be had with imagining the crimes of Jack whatsoever.

Nicholas Meyer took that view as well when making 1979's Time After Time; he had already won acclaim for his Sherlock Holmes meets Sigmund Freud movie The Seven Per Cent Solution a few years earlier, and by coincidence there was also Murder By Decree out within the same period. His lead character even referred to himself as Holmes in the context of the story, which was both a clever plot point and a good joke, but that summed up the smart nature of Meyer's science fiction horror where he took the idea of a time travelling Ripper and ran with it. This opened five years after the murders have finished, but as we see, they haven't really, Jack is still operating and cutting down the prostitutes, and not only that but he's one of the friends of writer H.G. Wells, who has invented the time machine of his first major literary success. When the police arrive at a dinner party, Jack makes a swift exit in the machine.

As you can see, the plotting was utterly preposterous, but something about the disarming sincerity of the tone made the suspension of disbelief easy to cope with, resulting in easily the finest reimagining of the Ripper yarn in films. A lot of that was down to superb casting of the three leads: none were first choices, but such was the artistic success you cannot imagine anyone else doing half as well with it (especially in light of the television show that arrived in 2017 with the same premise). Malcolm McDowell was our Wells, or Herbert as he calls himself, committed to the idea that a utopia is possible in the twentieth century and he is the man to introduce those ideas to the world that will bring it about, hence his dismay when he arrives in 1979 and as Jack observes, society has only grown more violent and decadent. Meyer's dialogue when the two compare notes in San Francisco is absolutely terrific, but then it was a top show all round.

The third lead was Mary Steenburgen, playing the bank employee who is charmed by Herbert and rendering this one of the sweetest romances in science fiction, helped by the fact that she and McDowell were genuinely falling in love while making the film. Her character Amy is a modern woman, thus is entranced with someone so old-fashioned (the real Wells was not quite as friendly), and his dedication to non-violence was refreshing as the eighties, decade of the action movie's coming of age, dawned - notably when he does get a gun, it's a dreadful mistake. The Ripper meanwhile was played by David Warner, in one of his most excellent performances and probably the best embodiment of the historical killer, no matter the outlandish context, he has a philosophy of violence that makes him dangerous, but in the final sequence he is revealed as also pathetic. Out of all these productions, Time After Time was undoubtedly the greatest, deserving its cult favourite status.

By the eighties, Ripper theories were coming thick and fast, but one television miniseries pinned the blame on a real life person rather than a made-up character, based by director David Wickes on the writings of Stephen Knight, which Alan Moore was devising a comic book about over the course of many years. The miniseries was simply called Jack the Ripper and starred Michael Caine as the actual investigator Frederick Abberline who was in charge of the case, and according to this did a lot of shouting instead of actually delving into the facts, which may explain how Jack got away scot free. It did, however, offer a selection of suspects, none of them historically convincing, particularly the man both that and Moore's From Hell collar, an elderly gent who by that time had suffered a stroke. The 2001 Johnny Depp adaptation of the comic was probably better, though it too was mired in dodgy accents and a general air of going for melodrama when the reality was melodramatic enough.

From Hell arrived in 2001, but meanwhile, in 1989 there was Edge of Sanity, a horror that took the premise of Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde, only the twist here was that Hyde... was a man! Oh. But he was also Jack the Ripper! Oh. And Anthony Perkins adopted the role! Well, that's a bit more interesting, and it was right to observe he certainly committed to it with a sweaty, intense performance as the mild-mannered Henry Jekyll is a surgeon in Victorian London who thanks to a cheeky monkey in his lab spilling acid on some mysterious powder, inhales the fumes and transforms into a murderer who sets aside all propriety and throws himself into the jaws of evil. His Hyde was renamed Jack here, to tie in with the historical references, but that was about as far as it went for accuracy, as this particular Jack basically slashed prostitutes who he stalked through the cobbled London streets, but added a sexual thrill to his dreadful behaviour.

You could thank the producer Harry Alan Towers for that, hiring a porn director and dressing up his usual raiding of the public domain properties with a dose of sleaze. Not even marriage to that nice Glynis Barber can alter Jekyll's direction into the underworld, as he basically invented crack cocaine, because this was an eighties movie and that drug was hitting the headlines, so you would see the influence of the era this was made was stronger than anything from the eighteen-eighties which by all rights it should have been. This was notable when the victims were adorned (when not undressed) in costumes that could best be described as Madonna cast-offs, which completely broke any spell this lay claim to of faithfulness to the attacks, and in effect emphasised the idea that there was something inherently exciting, even racy, about a serial killer who slaughtered desperate women. Maybe it was the passage of a century, but this was a bit off.

Ripper productions continued to be made, from low budget works to appearances in bigger budget movies, as Jackie Chan encountered the villain in 2003's sequel Shanghai Knights and a popular television series from 2012 Ripper Street dealt with the aftermath of the crimes, but the dubious spirit of Jack had popped up everywhere from seventies sex comedies (What the Swedish Butler Saw) to horror anthologies by stealth (1988's Waxwork, which featured David Warner not in the Jack role) to L.A. thrillers (the same year's Jack's Back saw James Spader battle a Ripper pupil) to obscure nineties Britflicks (Jane Horrocks imagined conversations with him in Deadly Advice). It got weird too, as Peter O'Toole envisaged himself as an English Lord who becomes Jack's reincarnation with predictable results in The Ruling Class from 1972. But spare a thought for those seventies kids who were truly terrified of Spike Milligan's serial for sketch variety show The Two Ronnies: The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town was no laughing matter. All in all, was this any way to treat a sensational set of appalling murders? That's entertainment!
Author: Graeme Clark

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006