There are plenty of reasons why the infamous serial killer “Jack the Ripper” has never, ever left the public consciousness. The primary one being that the gruesome murders took place in the 1880’s, just as printed newspapers were becoming readily and cheaply available to all the masses. The deaths highlighted the radical social problems that existed in London during the latter part of the 19th Century, as well as providing the lurid publications of the time enough excuses to provide all the gory details. The Whitechapel murders were therefore arguably the first example of “click-bait”. Because of the extensive coverage, all of the information that swirled around the police investigation (both real and fake) have tantalised amateur detectives right up to the present day. The fact that the killer was never caught, cements the mystery culprit’s reputation in the annals of bloody history.
Even now Jack’s name is saturating the media once again. A current documentary series on the History Channel called “American Ripper” sees the distant relative of US murderer H.H. Holmes, seeking to prove this his ancestor was also the Jack (which seems mostly based on the fact that he wasn’t paying his bills during the murders…). The news outlets have reported that an expert has apparently authenticated the diaries that identify businessman James Maybrick as Saucy Jack. Is any of this true and can any of it be undeniably verified? Unlikely, but only time will tell…
So to tie in with the upcoming release of Victorian gothic murder mystery “The Limehouse Golem”, which stars Bill Nighy (“Underworld”, “Shaun of the Dead”) and Olivia Cooke (“Bates Motel”, “Ouija”, “The Quiet Ones”), we’re looking at some of Jack’s most memorable sojourns to the big screen which certainly seem to have inspired this new atmospheric vision of the Big Smoke.
A word of warning: We’ll be revealing the identity of the killer in each entry so … *Spoiler Alert*.
Otherwise, put on your top-hat and cloak, pack your medical bag, head out into the fog, and we’ll begin….
(Directed by the Hughes Brothers)
Released in 2001
This is probably the production with the biggest budget on the list, and arguably one of the starriest casts. The story is based on the critically acclaimed graphic novel of the same name by legendary writer Alan Moore. Directed by Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes (“Menace II Society”, “The Book of Eli”), it plays fast and loose with the historical details around the Whitechapel Murders, using many “real-life” characters in the narrative but portraying them with slightly disappointing genre tropes.
Set in 1888 (unsurprisingly) the plot centres on London Inspector Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp, with his accent just circling around the Jack Sparrow plughole), who is an opium addict and uses psychic visions to help solve crimes. Thrown at the Whitechapel murders, he gradually uncovers a murderous agenda belying the apparent randomness of the hideous crimes. As further prostitutes fall foul of the Ripper’s blade, he unexpectedly falls in love with Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) and fights to save the seemingly doomed young woman.
Whilst the Hughes Brothers capture the realistic depravity of some of the London scenes and the social issues (NB: There’s a marvellous time-lapse sequence involving one of the victims), it’s not an altogether successful outing for Jack. What worked on the printed page doesn’t always work on film, and some fictionalised elements like Abberline’s visions and drug addiction just clash badly with the real-life scenarios portrayed on screen. The “royal conspiracy” sub-plot had been done to death by film and TV by this point as well, as was the cloaked figure of the Ripper himself.
However, it does look very good with some vibrant cinematography and has a sensitive and quite effective ending involving the fates of Abberline and Kelly. It also boasts a couple of superb performances from Ian Holm and Robbie Coltrane (who plays Abberline’s caring partner Sergeant Godley). Not classic but still bloody and atmospheric in parts.
Whodunnit? - In a version of an often-used conspiracy theory involving the royalty (which crops up many times in Ripper articles… and this list) it was Sir William Gull (Holm), a physician to the royal family that has been slaughtering the victims. It’s a convoluted attempt by Freemasons to cover up a forbidden royal marriage and illegitimate daughter. Gull is never named publicly in the story, but is lobotomised by his fellow masons to cover up his bloody trail, as he goes too far and ultimately loses his sanity.
MURDER BY DECREE
(Directed by Bob Clark) – Released in 1979
This wonderfully enjoyable movie was a fine attempt to formulate the heavyweight match of Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper. It certainly wasn’t the first attempt (See “A Study in Terror” and others), but it’s certainly one of the best (and a personal favourite of this writer for the record). A British-Canadian production, it was directed by Bob Clark, who is often remembered for “Porky’s” but more correctly saluted by genre fans for making the iconic slasher “Black Christmas” from 1974. It also has a brilliant cast of classic British actors including Christopher Plummer, James Mason, and John Gielgud. The movie is noteworthy for being one of the first films to “fine-tune” the most popular conspiracy theories now associated with Jack, with the plot partially based on the book “ Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution” by Stephen Knight, who proposed that the killings were part of a Masonic plot to protect the monarchy (as was “From Hell”).
In 1888 Holmes (a never better Plummer) is enjoying the fruits of his reputation with his partner Dr John Watson (a wonderfully crusty Mason). But Holmes is dissuaded from investigating the Whitechapel murders by the Commissioner of Scotland Yard. However the detective soon finds himself drawn to the mystery and even converses with the psychic Robert Lees (Donald Sutherland). Eventually he discovers the web of secrets that surrounds asylum-dwelling servant girl Annie Crook (Genevieve Bujold), whose sorry tale has doomed her friends, as they’re picked off by Jack the Ripper. The plot is eventually revealed to have originated from the highest minds in government in a misguided attempt to prevent anarchy in the UK. (NB: Hence the film’s title).
The film has dated in certain respects (the miniature London skyline is particularly laughable in this age of CG and sophisticated green-screen), but it’s an incredibly effective film in so many ways and surprisingly emotional (given that we’re talking about true-crime and a fictional detective). Plummer is a great Holmes and a remarkably different portrayal to the usual coldly efficient and emotionless stereotype. Here, he is effortlessly charming and caring with characters like Annie Crook, but palpably aggressive with those who cross him. The 13-minute denouement where he passionately dissects the whole case and angrily burns the Prime Minister and his minions is just marvellous (if a little schmaltzy at points).
The whole thing hangs together remarkably well, even today after similar films have been released. All the elements like Masonry lore, anarchists, and the Whitechapel murders are woven together in a solid and convincing way. Even the murder scenes (whilst not graphic) feel nasty and doom-laden, with slo-mo cabs and foggy streets. The moment where Holmes confronts the killers in mid-slaughter feels unspeakably nasty for some reason, and it hangs over the characters heads for the remaining scenes. A classy film that’s recommended if you haven’t seen it, whether you’re a Holmes addict or a Ripperologist.
Whodunnit? - Sir Thomas Spivy (a royal physician) and William Slade (a London cabbie). These are thinly disguised analogues of real-life suspects William Gull (yes, him again) and John Netley. In this story both were Freemasons acting on subtle commands from their lodge to slice up anyone who knew the secret of Annie Crook’s marriage to the Duke of Clarence, and the birth of their illegitimate daughter. Spivy goes mad after butchering his last victim and Slade dies after becoming entangled in a cargo net whilst fighting Holmes. It’s all covered up by the government of course and Holmes is unusually despondent…
JACK THE RIPPER
(Directed by David Wickes) – Released in 1988
Bit of a cheat this one. Although it’s been marketed and edited as a film in some territories, it was actually a 2-episode mini-series that was made for broadcast over two nights on British TV. Financed by the now-defunct Thames Television it was directed by David Wickes, who was a well-known maker of classic British action series like “The Sweeney” and “The Professionals”. He also went on to make TV movies of “Frankenstein” and “Jekyll & Hyde” after this. Starring some well-known UK character actors like Michael Caine, Jane Seymour, and Susan George, it was the subject of a massive publicity campaign at the time, reporting to reveal the “true and accurate solution to the mystery”. This was well before Wikipedia obviously…
Like other “real-life” dramatizations of the murders it focuses on Inspector Frederick Abberline (Caine), who’s portrayed as being a bit of an old soak again here and past his prime (what do screenwriters have against this guy?). Bolstered into life by the frenzy of the Whitechapel murders, the inspector rattles through the usual list of (genuine and historical) red herrings, which oddly includes US stage actor Richard Mansfield (played by Armand Assante), who’s picked on because he’s quite good at playing Mr Hyde in a London play(?) As usual, Abberline is portrayed as the maverick copper, tiptoeing through a minefield of subterfuge until the identity of Jack is finally revealed…
As Brit TV dramas go, it’s okay. Caine is a good and reliable Abberline and very watchable. Some of the elements involving Multiple Personality Disorder are a bit unwieldy, as is the strange emphasis on actor Mansfield, who’s just there to throw police off the scent of the real culprit. But it makes a rod for its televisual back, with the constant teasing publicity about an end to the mystery. Following the final episode and its revelation, this “disclaimer” was presented to the audience; “In the strange case of Jack the Ripper, there was no trial and no signed confession. In 1888, neither fingerprinting nor blood-typing was in use and no conclusive forensic, documentary or eye-witness testimony was available. Thus, positive proof of the Ripper’s identity is not available. We have come to our conclusions after careful study and painstaking deduction. Other researchers, criminologists and writers may take a different view. We believe our conclusions to be true”.
It all overshadowed the telling of the story and the fictionalised elements, particularly when the ta-dah moment was pretty underwhelming and based on the same source material as “Murder by Decree”. As it stands it’s a fairly entertaining piece of hokum, but as it was nowhere near the definitive answer to the grand mystery it’s mostly forgotten by Ripperologist these days…
Whodunnit? – After all the publicity, hoo-hah, false endings (filmed to throw the press and actors off the scent) …. Well, it’s bloody William Gull again isn’t it. Yes, the royal doctor gets J’accused once again (along with genuinely suspected cabby John Netley in tow once more). Only this time it’s got nothing to do with the monarchy or Freemasons. Gull is just absolutely barking mad, suffers from suspected schizophrenia and wanted to “study” his own murderous actions for medical purposes … or just for the Lols. As per usual, it’s hushed up by government and swept under the carpet. Having seen the whole thing done before and repeated in print, viewers weren’t exactly that impressed or convinced…
(Directed by Alfred Hitchcock) – Released in 1927
There are actually four movies called “The Lodger”, all based off the same 1913 horror novel by Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes. Each one bounces off the same central concept; namely that a house-owner becomes convinced that a shifty stranger lodging at their home may or may not be a Ripper-like serial killer that’s stalking the streets. For the sake of clarity, we’re picking on the 20’s silent version called “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” because… well, it’s Alfred Hitchcock isn’t it? One of Hitch’s earliest films (only his third in fact), it’s also notable for starring composer Ivor Novello as the titular character, and there’s some interesting behind-the-scenes facts surrounding the film.
The plot concerns Jonathan Drew (Novello) turning up at Daisy Bunting’s (June Tripp) house and renting a room. Secretive and anti-social, he objects to the portraits of blonde women in the house. Meanwhile Daisy’s boyfriend is a cop and hunting a Ripper copycat called “The Avenger” (NB: Wonder what Nick Fury and Tony Stark would say about that?), who kills blonde women on Tuesday evenings. As a close relationship forms between Drew and Daisy, the boyfriend eyes him with suspicion, especially as he disappears on Tuesdays and has newspaper clippings on the Avenger. After many suspicious twists and turns, the truth will eventually out…
It’s easy to snort at the exaggerated mannerisms and title cards of the silent era, but this film contains heavy hints of Hitch’s future. The opening credits vaguely whiffs of a future “Psycho”, and the first shot is of an open-mouthed screaming girl. And despite the studio’s concern at casting Novello, he actually comes across very well as the ambiguous lodger. Furtive and prone to outbursts of violence and anti-social tropes, his first entrance as a scarfed stranger stepping in from the fog makes an impression. Wringing his hands and clad in a sweeping cloak, it brings the Ripper instantly to mind. It’s a shame his guilt/innocence is confirmed by the denouement.
It’s certainly no “Nosferatu”, and the Ripper elements are surprisingly light in detail. But as a reference point in the evolution of Hitchcock (and the depiction of Jack) it’s certainly interesting and very evocative for its time.
Whodunnit? – Not Drew. It’s basically some random nameless dude that gets captured off-screen! The twist here being that the first victim of the Avenger was Drew’s sister and he’s obsessed with hunting him down, hence his secretive excursions and actions. It’s an intentional way for Hitchcock to highlight needless blame and suspicion (which would become a repeated theme for him); along with ramping up the tension (the tease is that Daisy is falling for a killer). However, the original intention by Hitchcock was to leave the guilt of Drew ambiguous, until the studio got cold feet about showing Novello as a villain and forbade it…
(Directed by Rowdy Herrington) – Released in 1988
You can guess who “Jack” is here, right? The link is really tenuous, and another one of several attempts to transplant the Ripper mythology into the modern era. It was the directorial debut for Rowdy Herrington, who would follow this up with Peter Griffin’s all-time favourite film “Roadhouse” (*narrows eyes and turns to camera* … “Roadhouse!”). It stars James Spader just as he was emerging from his brat-pack period and becoming a versatile character actor in stuff like “Sex, Lies, and Videotape”. Anyway, back to the 80’s …
It’s set in Los Angeles during August 1988, exactly 100 years after the Ripper's original reign of terror in Whitechapel. Several LA prostitutes are murdered and mutilated and young doctor John Wesford (Spader) is suspected of the killings and copying the Whitechapel murders. But surprisingly he’s killed at the midway mark and the cops pat themselves on their collective backs thinking the case is resolved. But even more surprisingly John had a twin brother (yes, that old chestnut) so Spader turns up again as Rick Wesford, determined to track down the real Jack-Copycat. Of course, the cops immediately suspect that it’s the new Spader that did the killings and the plot teases that possibility as well. But then there’s the really shifty character who’s actually named “Jack”…
During 1988 and thereabouts, several pieces of fiction and media cashed in on the centennial anniversary of the Whitechapel murders, and this film is seemingly partially inspired by Robert Bloch’s story “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper," (which proposed that Jack was an immortal being using the arcane to survive). But more than anything it’s a couldn’t-be-more-80’s-if-it-tried thriller. The gimmick of twin brothers is ultimately just that (a gimmick) and allows for some hints of the supernatural and some half-assed visions/flashbacks. There’s constant soft-rock music on the soundtrack and typically sun-dappled/neon-drenched views of LA.
Basically the film is just another run-of-the-mill slasher with some unorthodox touches like the “Psycho”-type demise of a leading character. Surprisingly though, the connection with the Ripper seems like an afterthought and there’s really not much to link him to the modern-day murders. Not a bad one for fans of 80’s thrillers or Spader completists, but not one for those looking at more Jack mythology.
Whodunnit? - No, it’s not one of the Wesford brothers, or the obvious suspect called Jack (who does attempt cold-blooded murder in the nasty mid-way plot twist). It turns out to be Dr Sidney Tannerson, John’s cranky hospital boss who has a real downer on prostitutes and do-gooders. Rick susses out his identity and rushes to prevent the death of his latest victim (and his love interest). There’s no real explanation for his killing spree and to be honest, he could just be another slasher villain rather than a Ripper-driven nutter.
A STUDY IN TERROR
(Directed by James Hill) – Released in 1965
We said there was more than one Holmes vs. Ripper film, and here’s another one. This one is an altogether lighter affair (if the subject matter can ever be considered light) with an early Hammer-like feel to it, although it’s from a different studio. The film was directed by James Hill, who went straight from this piece of gothic Victoriana to the lovable lions of the classic animal movie “Born Free”! Classical British actors John Neville and Donald Houston play Holmes and Watson, and are joined by a host of other well-known UK faces such as Anthony Quayle and Frank Finlay, both of whom would coincidentally appear in “Murder by Decree” 14 years later. In fact, Finlay even plays the same character of Inspector Lestrade!
As it stands, the plot is as you would expect from the set-up. Watson reads about the Whitechapel murders from the newspaper and Holmes is attracted to the case due to the police being stymied. Soon he works through the list of red herrings encountering; disfigured women, morally corrupt aristocrats, strains of family madness, umpteen clues and more dead prostitutes until he deduces the identity of Jack.
“Scarlet” is actually a very enjoyable romp. Very attractive with good-looking sets and vibrant technicolour, it embraces the tropes of Holmes and Jack with foggy streets and “Gaw Blimey Guvnor” accents. It actually got some criticism for messing up the order of the original murders, and it was badly promoted at the time with an unintentionally hilarious and misguided poster that lampoons the “Batman” series. (NB: “Here comes the original Caped Crusader. Biff! Pow! Aieee!” Seriously, that’s on the promos! Google it!).
But if you accept it purely as a lightweight detective film and not a serious examination of Jack, it’s perfectly entertaining. Neville is a dashing and effective Holmes, and Houston plays Watson straight from the source material. There’s no enlightening information or serious guesswork about Jack, it’s all just fiction. Neither is there a conspiracy. He’s just a mentally deranged toff with a sharp knife. Makes a change from royal medics anyway…
Whodunnit? - No convoluted conspiracy theories or Freemasons here. After sorting through the dozens of red herrings, it turns out to be young Lord Carfax suffering from family insanity and a hatred for ladies-of-the-night. He suffers an ignoble end, but it’s all shushed up of course due to him being an aristocrat.
HANDS OF THE RIPPER
(Directed by Peter Sasdy) – Released in 1971
With the rich element of real-life gothic horror that exudes from the tales of Saucy Jack, it’s no wonder that Hammer film studios had a couple of goes at putting the character on the silver screen. They attributed the Whitechapel murders to a famous literary figure in the offbeat “Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde”, which was strangely released in the same year that this film was made. ’71 must have been a good year for Rippers. But “Hands” takes an altogether different route. It’s actually the daughter of Jack the Ripper who’s the focus here, and it leads to a typically rollicking good dose of Hammer horror.
At the start of the film, young Anna (Angharad Rees) witnesses the brutal slaying of her mother at the hands of her father, who just happens to be Jack the Ripper. Apparently associating the act of violence with the flames in the fire, she becomes driven to gory acts of violence when flickering lights are present or she is sexually aroused. Rescued from prostitution by the kindly Dr Pritchard (Eric Porter), he tries to protect her even when she starts to slice up half his household. But she goes too far and it leads to a terrifically intense denouement in St Paul’s Cathedral.
A lovely slice of Hammer ham this one. One of the better later films from the studio before their slow freefall away from 70’s horror. There’s a really sympathetic performance from Porter (who’s much better than he needs to be) and Rees makes for an interesting focus. It’s not really about the Ripper as such. It’s more like a re-tread of “Cat People” or a similar tale to do with repressed sexuality or inherited madness. Peter Sasdy, who directed “Countess Dracula” and “Taste the Blood of Dracula”, shoots with the same full-blooded vigour and period touches that those films had.
It’s quite bloody in places as well, with lots of gory aftermath scenes and a sequence where a character gets hat-pins to the eye that is wince-worthy even today (and caused censorship problems back then). The ambiguity around Anna’s condition is nicely handled as well. So if you’re looking for quintessential Hammer and an effective tale of gothy gore, then this is perfect. But you might be disappointed by the lack of an actual Jack…
Whodunnit? – Bit of an odd one this. The Ripper is revealed at the prologue, but it’s just an incidental detail. He’s never named and he’s no-one of note (the actual actor isn’t even credited). He’s just there to introduce the character of Anna. As for the murders in the rest of the film, well it’s never in any doubt that it’s Anna. The only mystery is to whether she’s mad or driven by the spirit of her father.