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Posts Tagged ‘Jack the Ripper’

Virtually the first thing you see in Peter Sasdy’s 1971 movie Hands of the Ripper is a Whitechapel street sign, and virtually the first thing you hear is a hearty cry of ‘It’s the Ripper!’ In our day of very possibly over-decompressed storytelling, it is frankly a relief to encounter a film which gets straight to the point with quite such briskness – although the briefness of the film’s running time may also be a factor. Yes, we are back in Victorian London, and Jack the Ripper is fleeing from a mob of angry Londoners. We know it is he, for he is wearing the top hat and cape which has become a kind of visual shorthand for representations of this person – and we should always remember we are discussing a person, not a fictional character – in films.

Well, he may be on the run, but the Ripper still has time to pop in to see his significant other and the child they have apparently produced together: a charming little moppet named Anna who appears to be just about to enter the toddler stage. However, our man has not been keeping his nearest and dearest entirely in the loop when it comes to his leisure activities, and the lady of the house is shocked to discover that Jack the Ripper is, in fact, Jack the Ripper. So, by the flickering light of an open fire, he murders her too, pausing only to kiss his child a tender farewell before vanishing into legend. Cue credits.

(This is by no means a film lacking in merits, but an iron grip on historicity is not one of them, and we may as well get this out of the way. Like many films of this type, Hands of the Ripper takes a kind of impressionistic, cafeteria approach to the Victorian era in general and the Ripper murders in particular. A good fifteen years, at least, elapse during the credits, which – given the Ripper murders occurred in late 1888 – would place most of the film as happening in the early 1900s, possibly in 1903 or 1904.  The one element of the film which chimes with this is a piece of suffragette graffiti demanding votes for women: the rest of it has that generic, late-Victorian aesthetic to it familiar from any number of Sherlock Holmes adaptations, and it also seems to be implied that Queen Victoria is still reigning (Her Majesty carked it in 1901). On top of all this is the fact that someone who gets killed midway through this film is called Long Liz, which is surely a reference to a real-life victim of the historical Ripper who had the same nickname. I mention all this not because I think it makes Hands of the Ripper a bad film, but because it surely says something about popular attitudes toward and conceptions of this period of history.)

Years pass, and we find the seventeen-year-old Anna (Angharad Rees) working as the accomplice of fake medium Granny Golding (‘guest star’ Dora Bryan). She is not terribly good at fake spirit voices, but the evening is moderately successful until Golding basically pimps her out to an MP who was at the séance. Ignoring the fact she simply doesn’t want to sleep with him, the MP gives her a piece of glittering jewellery, kisses her, and then attempts to force his attentions on her. Even as Golding has a change of heart and tries to back out of the transaction, something odd happens to Anna, and Granny ends up skewered on a poker driven through a solid wooden door.

As chance would have it, also present at the séance was Doctor John Pritchard (Eric Porter, a fairly big star at the time following the success of the BBC’s The Forsyte Saga), an ambitious and somewhat arrogant psychiatrist. Pritchard is fully aware that Anna very likely killed Golding, but he also believes this is a priceless opportunity to study the psychopathology of murder. Which is just about fair enough, I suppose. Does it justify lying to the police and taking the killer into your own home? I would say not. There is also the curious detail that Pritchard installs Anna in his late wife’s bedroom and instructs her to start wearing his wife’s old clothes. You do not, I suspect, need to be Freud to conclude that, on his part at least, there may be something going on here beyond basic clinical research.

Oh well. You can probably guess much of what happens next: it transpires that Anna’s troubled childhood has left her with an irresistible urge to kill, but only after she sees the reflection of flickering lights and is then kissed. Pritchard eventually figures this out, but not before his new ward has carved a bit of a swathe through the domestic servants, the local prostitutes, and even the royal household. Can Pritchard do anything to free Anna from her condition? Or is she destined to always be the instrument of her father’s homicidal compulsions?

The thing I always say about Ripper movies is that here we are in danger of trivialising the real crimes of a brutal, misogynistic serial murderer, usually for quite dubious motives. Maybe it’s because the film is so clearly detached from reality, with the Ripper himself very much a minor character, that Hands of the Ripper feels less problematic in this regard. Or maybe there is another reason (we shall return to this). In general, though, this is rather good stuff, both as a post-1970 Hammer horror movie and a Hammer Ripper film: the very same year, Hammer also released Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, a queasy black joke of a movie, clearly made on a punitively low budget. It’s pushing a point to say that that Hands of the Ripper is lavish (the photographic blow-ups representing the interior of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral are positively primitive), but it has expansive location filming and is well-populated by extras. The story is reasonably interesting, too.

This is still ultimately a rather preposterous melodrama constructed around a series of set-piece killings, and you do have to cut the plotting some slack: as a viewer, you are required to accept that, after fifteen or sixteen wholly innocuous years, Anna finds herself in a succession of situations where her ‘kill reflex’ is triggered half a dozen times in the space of a few days. There’s also the fact that this is another of those films where the male lead is essentially a kind of idiot savant – brilliant, and wholly dedicated to his work, but also with a seemingly boundless capacity for making insanely bad decisions. Such is Dr Pritchard’s devotion to psychiatry that he cheerfully perjures himself, blackmails an MP, and takes someone he suspects of a savage murder into his home. I would say that was quite enough to be going on with, but he also seems determined to keep covering up for Anna as she kills again and again: at one point he appears to contemplate dismembering the corpse of his murdered maid and disposing of the bits. As mentioned, the film seems to imply a certain interest beyond the purely scientific, but come on, Doc, she’s not that cute. This shrink really needs a shrink of his own.

The film seems to take it for granted that the first response of most of the men who meet Anna is to try and get her into bed; it has a salaciously non-judgemental attitude to the London streetwalkers in the supporting cast, too. Obviously this is a film of its time, but there are signs of a definite subtext about how women have their lives screwed up by men. Anna is almost as much a victim of her father as any of the women he killed, and has very little agency – she’s either being escorted about, or pimped out, or being compelled to kill. The same is true for most of the other women in the film. I would hardly call Hands of the Ripper a feminist horror movie, but it’s not as offensively exploitative or chauvinistic as many others I could mention.

I would say, however, that there is a sense in which this is a film which seems to be toying with a slightly more psychological style of horror than was usually Hammer’s wont. The actual psychology in the movie is basically schlock, but the film sticks with it for most of the duration. In the end, though, it seems to opt for a rather less naturalistic rationale – although this is one which has been foreshadowed earlier in the movie, in scenes with a medium and a clairvoyant, and by the superhuman strength Anna exhibits when the red mist is upon her. She is not just conditioned to kill like her father, it really does seem Anna is literally possessed by the spirit of Jack the Ripper. The voice of the Ripper which Anna occasionally hears seems to be an objective phenomenon, capable of being overheard by another character. It takes us back into the realm of supernatural horror which was Hammer’s comfort zone, but the film is none the worse for that.

Perhaps because it is perceived as being the work of Hammer B-team members (although personally I feel that Peter Sasdy made some of the studio’s most interesting films from around this time), Hands of the Ripper has never really enjoyed the same profile as other films starring the big names and belonging to major series. This is a shame, because while this is obviously a film with a few issues, it is also very solidly assembled, with some strong performances and memorable moments. Maybe not a truly great Hammer horror, but certainly one of the more interesting movies with the theme of the Ripper murders.

 

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Is there a more richly mythologised period of recent history than the Victorian era? This is the period of time which gave us the Wild West, immortalised in hundreds of movies and novels, but closer to home (for us in the UK) is the concept of Britain as an imperial nation, and the source of hundreds of characters from fiction both literary and pulpy. Indeed, our conception of Victorian Britain is surely largely defined by its presentation in novels and films, with the boundaries between real life and fiction becoming oddly mutable as a result.

Certainly there’s no shortage of more recent metafiction in which these Victorian icons meet, in varying combinations – the champion probably remains Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula, in which Dr Jekyll and Dr Moreau share their notes and Griffin, Moriarty, and Bill Sykes are part of the same criminal syndicate, while Hammer’s remarkable Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde sees the – er- conflicted researcher encountering Burke and Hare the grave-robbers (who have inexplicably relocated from Edinburgh to the East End).

What both these works have in common is that they tie in to the real world, by virtue of including another character who – in a strange way – straddles the boundary between fiction and reality. Anno Dracula and Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde both present ‘solutions’ to the mystery of Jack the Ripper. This isn’t necessarily surprising, as the Ripper murders are one of the great mysteries of recent times, and TV shows from Kolchak to Babylon 5 have all had a go at ‘solving’ it. Most of these attempts are not intended seriously – but one of the mash-ups was, at least partly, and it remains an interesting film in other ways too.

murderbydecree

Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree was released in 1979 and is set in London at the time of Ripper murders. The police appear to be baffled by the spree of savage killings, which makes it all the more peculiar that they have not followed standard practice in such situations and retained the services of London’s greatest investigator, Sherlock Holmes (here portrayed by Christopher Plummer).

However, a group of Whitechapel businessmen, conscious of the effect the ongoing panic is having on trade in the East End, approach Holmes with an eye to hiring him themselves. With the faithful Doctor Watson (James Mason) at his side, Holmes sets out on the trail of the Ripper, little realising it will lead him to the highest echelons of the British establishment…

Well, if you’ve seen From Hell, you will already know the solution to the Ripper crimes which Murder by Decree endorses: in fact, if you extract all the Sherlockian material from this movie, you do end up with something not too different to From Hell in many ways. The theory in question is certainly an interesting one (and arguably makes more sense than blaming a famous artist who was out of the country when some of the murders were committed, as one celebrated author has done). As a means of communicating this theory in a digestible and engaging way, Murder by Decree is clearly successful. But what about its merits as a film?

Certainly, the production values are quite impressive, although some of the modelwork and matte paintings used to create Victorian London give the place a fairytale quality which may not, strictly speaking, serve the story all that well. The tone of the thing is interesting: for much of its length it plays like a late-period Hammer horror, not short on Kensington Gore, with the Ripper’s coach emerging from a wall of fog in slow-motion like something from a genuine nightmare. The climax plays like a more conventional action movie, with Holmes and the Ripper engaging in personal combat, but even after this comes a lengthy (and rather talky) scene in which Holmes explains how he figured out what’s been going on to the cabal at the heart of the conspiracy.

That he’s managed to do so at all is quite impressive, partly because, in many ways, the plot of Murder by Decree is all over the place – the genuine facts of the Ripper killings are touched upon, but also added to the brew are Anarchist politics, Freemasonry, social comment and even a dash of the paranormal, courtesy of the inclusion of a psychic who identifies the Ripper’s address. It’s also a bit of a feat considering that, prior to this in the movie, the Great Detective has made none of the brilliant deductions he is most famous for, his methods seeming to rely on a mastery of forensic science, his own personal charm, and simply being in the right place at the right time.

Christopher Plummer is a fine and often-underrated actor, but his problem here is that he’s playing a Sherlock Holmes who doesn’t bear much resemblance to the character Conan Doyle was writing about. The trappings are all there – the pipe, the violin, the chemistry set – and he’s never out of his ulster, but this is just superficial. The character seems to be more drawn from the Basil Rathbone version – he’s a jovial, energetic leading man, indulgent of Mason’s crusty, mournful Watson (I hate to say it, but Mason is too old, both as a Watson to Plummer – the actors are twenty years apart in age – and as Watson in general, given the good doctor would have been 40 at the absolute oldest in 1888). This is very much Holmes’ story, as Watson doesn’t get a great deal to do.

You might argue that there are taste issues to consider here, considering we’re talking about a film which takes a much-loved literary hero and mixes him up with the activities of a very real, horribly brutal and misogynistic serial killer – you wouldn’t show Inspector Morse catching Fred West, for instance. Certainly the murders here are much fouler than anything in Conan Doyle. But the film earns itself some credit for not buying into the picture-postcard view of Victorian London common to so many Holmes adaptations. The prostitutes of Whitechapel lead a convincingly horrible and wretched existence, and – provided you buy into the central thesis of the movie – the sympathies of all involved are clearly with the London underclass rather than the establishment.

The first time I saw this movie, I thought a sequence in which the plight of one of the girls moves Holmes first to tears and then to a violent rage did not ring true to the character. And it doesn’t – to Conan Doyle’s Holmes, at least. But in the context of this film, it does make sense. Using Holmes to express a sense of moral outrage at the corruption and hypocrisy of the British establishment is a novel direction to take him in, but in terms of this film, at least, it does work. This, if nothing else, elevates Murder by Decree above the level of simply being nasty exploitation.

Murder by Decree was hailed by the New York Daily Times’ critic as the best Sherlock Holmes movie ever made. I would certainly argue with that, on the grounds that in many ways this is a very inauthentic presentation of the character. But, if we think of it instead simply as a movie featuring Sherlock Holmes, then I’m inclined to cut it a good deal more slack – it has interesting ideas, decent production values, a very strong cast (David Hemmings, Frank Finlay, John Gielgud, Genevieve Bujold, and so on), and its heart is in the right place. (Which is more than can be said for the Ripper’s victims.) One of the classier Holmes movies, and possibly the classiest Ripper movie of the lot.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 14th 2002:

When I was but a lad, it seemed there was a new Jack the Ripper themed film out every couple of years. Something seems to have changed in the intervening time as the last noteworthy Ripper movie I can think of was Time After Time, released over twenty years ago. Last, that is, if you don’t count From Hell, based on a graphic novel by Northampton’s resident genius, Alan Moore.

From Hell is marginally more historically accurate than some past stabs at this subject – which is to say that there are no appearances by HG Wells, Sherlock Holmes or Dr Jekyll. Set in London in 1888, it concerns a group of Whitechapel prostitutes (led by Heather Graham, but including amongst their number several well-known faces from British TV, even – I think – Nicole from those car adverts) whose already squalid lifestyle gets even worse as someone starts murdering them one by one and then horrifically mutilating the bodies. Scotland Yard put Inspector Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp) on the case. As well as a peeler, Abberline is a clairvoyant (this is less help than you’d expect), and a smackhead (this is a lot more help than you’d expect!). His investigations lead him to uncover a dark secret at the heart of the British establishment…

For all the intimations that this is to be a radical and original new take on the Ripper mythos, there’s really not very much new here at all. It’s the traditional take on the story, as a predatory toff terrorises vulnerable young harlots from the underclass. The ‘solution’ proposed by the script is over a quarter of a century old and has already been used as the basis of one pretty good film (1979’s Murder By Decree). But the story is told fairly solidly for the most part, with reliable supporting performances from the likes of Ian Richardson, David Schofield, Paul Rhys, and especially Robbie Coltrane and Ian Holm.

Most of the interesting material in From Hell is visual: it’s aesthetically lustrous, palpably brooding, with Victorian London designed and shot like something out of a painting by Hieronymous Bosch. Depp’s opium-provoked visions are convincingly hallucinatory and the film is always worth looking at. The Hughes even retain the almost self-parodic image of the Ripper as clad in a top hat and cape, and have a lot of fun deploying this icon as a silhouette, etc.

But ultimately, I was disappointed by From Hell. As a horror film it’s not very scary – and, caveat emptor, not very violent or gory either. Most of the really nasty stuff is implied, although there’s an impressive but gratuitous cameo by the Elephant Man in all his twisted glory. This lack of explicitness didn’t bother me at all, certainly nowhere near as much as the performances of the two leads. Depp is fine but for his Cockney accent – it’s not Mary Poppins time, thankfully, but it’s still much too EastEnders for a middle-class police detective. Heather Graham isn’t too bad as the ho with a heart of gold but it’s a stock character from start to finish and she’s obviously the only whore in Whitechapel with her own hairdresser and skin-care specialist. The romance between the two doesn’t ring true at all.

However, this in turn is eclipsed by a truly awful conclusion: an unconvincing plot-twist has been tacked on in an attempt to provide a bittersweet happy ending. To me it seemed patronising and quite possibly insulting to the genuine victims of the real Ripper murderer. Although, if we’re going to start down that route, perhaps we should question the whole process of mythologising a brutal and misogynistic serial killer for the sake of entertainment. From Hell is aware of the iconic status of Jack the Ripper as one of the fountainheads of modern horror – both real and fantastical – but chooses not to explore this idea in any real detail. A shame: because while From Hell is a moderately satisfying horror mystery – especially, I’d imagine, if you’re not too familiar with the subject matter – it’s not nearly as insightful or original as it thinks it is. Back to the drawing board, guys.

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