Jack the Ripper. The very name conjures up clichéd images of fog-shrouded streets, grisly murder and chirpy, voluptuous Cockney street girls spilling out of East End dens of inequity to meet their grim fate as the cloaked and top-hatted ‘Saucy Jack’ searched in vain for the elusive Mary Kelly.
In fact, so ingrained is the myth of the Ripper in our collective consciousness that it’s sometimes difficult to remember that this was a very real murderer, who appeared out of the blue in 1888 and, over a few months as summer gave way to autumn, killed five prostitutes, taunting the police with letters and body parts, before vanished as abruptly as he appeared.
The mystery of the Ripper is what keeps the mythology alive – the fact that he was never caught, and that even now, the British government refuse to release the files pertaining to the case (making ludicrous excuses about protecting the families of informers, as if the underworld holds a century long grudge against people who tried to help catch the world’s most notorious sex killer) ensures that all manner of theorising can take place as to the nature of the Ripper’s identity (or identities).
What’s more, the short burst nature of the crimes, their seemingly ritualistic brutality and the mysterious, sometimes ambiguous messages that the Ripper left or sent (“The Juwes Are The Men That Will Not be Blamed For Nothing” message left on a wall, the “Dear Boss”, “Saucy Jacky” and “From Hell” letters and postcards) – as well as the Victorian trappings that lend themselves to gothic melodrama – all lend themselves to myth making and speculation.
Over the years, numerous books have claimed to have ‘solved’ the murders, none of them convincing – there was even the dubious ‘dairy’ that purported to have proven the Ripper’s identity, but which inevitably turned out to be fraudulent. It’s a sign of how much the Ripper still grabs our attention that any fresh claim about the murders will still make headlines today [In fact, after this article was posted, crime writer Patricia Cornwell announced that she can prove that the Ripper was Camden artist Walter Sickert].
It’s very un-PC and immediately condemned if anyone tries to make a film or TV show about a true life murder in Britain these days. The only acceptable thing is to make a thoroughly serious police procedural docu-drama – a classic recent example being the Fred West film Appropriate Adult – that concentrates on the trial or the investigation and studiously avoids the crimes. Jack the Ripper has long been an exception to that rule.
It’s easy to say that this is because of the age of the case, but of course, Ripper films first began turning up within living memory of the case – Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, based on the book by Marie Belloc Lowndes was released in 1927.
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog is the first British Ripper film, although it shied away from actually using the name and ultimately proves to be a case of mistaken identity, as a couple begin to suspect that their new tenant (Ivor Novello) is the murderer known as The Avenger. In the end, he turns out to be a vigilante investigating the case. The film would be remade several times, with the ending tweaked each time. In 1932, Novello revisited the role, but this time the killer – The Bosnian Murderer – turned out to be his twin brother.
In 1944, all ambiguity was cast aside, and the lodger, played by arch villain Laird Cregar, was finally outed as being Jack the Ripper. This version was repeated in 1953 – retitled Man in the Attic – with Jack Palance (Craze) as the murderer. The Lodger’s story was sufficiently universal for a 2009 version to use the premise while dispensing with The Ripper and much of the story, relocating the action to Los Angeles. It’s not a film many people have seen.
The Lodger was imitated in Room to Let, a 1948 radio play Margery Allingham that was subsequently filmed by Hammer a year later. In this story, Valentine Dyall is the Ripper, taking a room after escaping from a lunatic asylum. This is the first of three Ripper films from Hammer. In 1971, they made Hands of the Ripper, in which the killer’s daughter is turned into a murderer after seeing her mother die at her father’s hand, while Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde throws several Victorian horror characters, graverobbers including Burke and Hare, into the mix. In this film, the Ripper turns out to be Dr Jekyll, murdering women in order to secure their glands for his experiments.
Both films are rather better than you might imagine based on the description, shot with Hammer’s usual style but also having strong performances and intelligent screenplays. The idea of Dr Jekyll being behind the Ripper killings was later revived in Gerard Kikoine’s astonishingly deranged and slightly kinky, Ken Russellesque 1989 film Edge of Sanity, with Anthony Perkins on top form as Jack Hyde. If you haven’t seen this film because of poor reviews, stop reading now and rectify that immediately!
Appearing a couple of years after the original Lodger film, Pandora’s Box is a German film in which the promiscuous Lulu (played by iconic actress Louise Brooks) meets a sticky end at the hands of Jack. The Ripper’s appearance here is simply as an incidental character, the film instead following its heroine’s moral decline. The two characters would meet again in Walerian Borowczyk’s Lulu, made in 1980.
In 1959, Hammer screenwriter Jimmy ‘the Nasty’ Sangster stepped away from the company to write Jack the Ripper for producers Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker, for whom he’d previously written Sadean Blood of the Vampire. Like that film, this was a Hammer-influenced gothic tale, though shot in black and white – aside from a single, gory moment at the climax! In this version, British police inspector O’Neill (Eddie Byrne) is joined by New York detective Sam Lowry (Lee Patterson) to catch the Ripper in an obvious attempt to make the movie more appealing to US audiences.
As you can imagine, the film barely bothered to stick to the facts of the case, but it’s entertainingly trashy nevertheless. In common with a number of British films of the time, additional ‘Continental’ scenes were shot for foreign markets, featuring topless showgirls. This version can apparently now be found online…
Sherlock Holmes first met Jack the Ripper in 1965, in A Study in Terror. The combination of the world’s most famous (fictional) detective and the world’s most infamous (real) murderer was an obvious one, and the film is entertaining enough fluff. It loosely follows the facts of the case, with Holmes, played by John Nevill, investigating the murders, an investigation that leads him from the back streets of Whitechapel to the aristocracy. But in common with many Ripper films, it glossed over the horror of the killings while sexing up the victims – middle-aged, toothless prostitutes are played by the likes of busty Carry On queen Barbara Windsor.
Frank Finlay plays Inspector LeStrade, and quite coincidentally would repeat the role in the second Holmes / Ripper movie Murder By Decree. A high spot in the filmographies of both characters, this moody piece sees a starry cast (Christopher Plummer, James Mason, Donald Sutherland) caught up in the killings, which soon turn out to be less than random. In fact, they are part of a Masonic plot to cover up the misdeeds of the Duke of Clarence, son of Queen Victoria.
This conspiracy leads to the very heart of government, and thanks to the quality of the film, the performances (Plummer is especially good as an emotive, passionate Holmes) and Bob Clark’s direction (he made the film between his horror movies Dead of Night and Black Christmas before wholly commercial movies like Porkys), you are swept along in the story.
The Royal connection and conspiracy of high powers had initially been ‘revealed’ by Stephen Knight, who originally used the theory in a 1973 BBC TV series, where modern day Scotland Yard detectives re-examine the case and uncover the truth. Monarchists and skeptics have widely dismissed Knight’s theory, but it’s as valid as any other given what we know (and would certainly account for why the Ripper files remain locked away!). In any case, it makes for great drama, and it’s no surprise that the theory has been dusted off subsequently.
The 1988 two-part TV movie Jack the Ripper, which teamed Michael Caine and former Professional Lewis Collins as unlikely detectives, worked on a similar theory and 2001’s From Hell – adapted and simplified from Alan Moore’s exhaustive graphic novel – sees Johnny Depp as the absinthe-drinking Inspector Abberline, who uncovers the royal connection while trying to save Mary Kelly (who, in the grand tradition of Ripper films, is played by the rather too attractive Heather Graham). The 1997 film The Ripper dispensed entirely with the middle-men and had Prince Eddy himself as the killer.
This royal connection was mocked by comedy duo The Two Ronnies in their much-loved Ripper spoof The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town, which showed how far Jack the Ripper has become part of folklore – we could even make family-friendly comedy shows about the murders now.
Of course, most Ripper films were less serious of intent and less concerned with pesky things like historical accuracy than these movies. While there are those who suggest that Jack the Ripper probably killed more than the five women attributed to him – Ripper style murders continued to happen, but for whatever reason any connection was dismissed – many of the films dealing with the character generally ignore the known facts and simply make up their own story, with new protagonists and victims.
Jess Franco’s 1976 Jack the Ripper contribution for German producer Erwin C. Dietrich is a slow, lurid and gory effort in which a mad doctor (an intense Klaus Kinski) slices the breasts off one of his unfortunate victims, while in José Luis Madrid’s Jack el Destripador de Londres (aka Seven Murders for Scotland Yard), made in 1971, the Ripper has reached 39 (!) victims – perhaps explaining why it’s set in modern day Soho. Spanish horror star Paul Naschy plays the main (but innocent) suspect.
Madrid’s film is one of several that seeks to relocate the Ripper into modern times (well, period sets and costumes cost money…). Some of these films feature copycats, while others have the Ripper reincarnated. 1988’s Jack’s Back, TV movie Terror at London Bridge – with David Hasselhoff – and early shot-on-video film The Ripper (1985) all have Jack’s spirit returning to possess others and carry on his work. None of these films are remotely good. Ripper Man and Bad Karma are more recent, no more impressive examples. Then we have the copycats – Jill the Ripper (2000) and The Ripper (2001) add little to the mythology.
Of the modern day Ripper films, only Time After Time is worthwhile. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, this is a fun fantasy romp rather than a slasher film, with H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) following Jack the Ripper (David Warner) to 1979 San Francisco after the latter steals Wells’ time machine to escape the police and carry on his work in the future. This is a rather charming romantic comedy, with the Ripper’s activities kept at arm’s length.
Of course, there are numerous other Ripper-inspired films, if only in title. Given that the Ripper name was still current enough in the 1970s to be given to real-life serial killer Peter Sutcliffe — the Yorkshire Ripper — it’s unsurprising that it would be used in many a slasher film – Blade of the Ripper, The New York Ripper, The Ripper of Notre Dame, Night Ripper (aka The Monster of Florence) and the Japanese Assault! Jack the Ripper for instance. Neither is it surprising that the Ripper would be used as a template for unconnected murderers in many a horror and thriller film – after all, he was in many was the first modern serial killer and everyone since has simply been following in his footsteps.
The character of the Ripper would also pop up in a weird selection of films that were otherwise unconnected to the case, or to horror / thriller cinema. In The Ruling Class (1972), Peter O’Toole imagines himself to be Jack the Ripper at one point; Deadly Advice (1994) sees Jane Horrocks as a female serial killer taking advice from her ‘illustrious’ predecessors, Jack amongst them; Amazon Women of the Moon sees the Ripper exposed as The Loch Ness Monster in the segment “Bullshit – Or Not?”.
And the character has turned up – in one form or another – in TV shows as varied as Boris Karloff-fronted horror anthology The Veil, The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Fantasy Island, Cimarron Strip, Babylon 5, The Outer Limits and Smallville.
More recently, British TV has delved into the Ripper world. Whitechapel sees a copycat repeating the Ripper killings on the same dates as the original murders, while the current BBC hit Ripper Street is set a year after the murders, with the police investigating crimes that they initially believe to be the work of the Ripper but come to realise are unrelated.
In the tradition of Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde and the work of Alan Moore, Ripper Street is mixing up all manner of Victoriana in its stories, including Elephant Man Joseph Merrick. Meanwhile, British-American series Dracula, launched in October 2013, posits that the Ripper killings were in fact the work of a vampire, with a shadowy group constructing the letters and other clues as a way of throwing the police off the scent.
So it seems that our fascination with Jack the Ripper isn’t going to end soon. Short of the release of the Ripper files and the unlikely unquestioned confirmation of just who he (or she) was, this is likely to remain a mystery that will continue to inspire filmmakers, writers and artists, all of whom can use the story to explore their own beliefs, fears and obsessions.
Now, if only Black the Ripper actually existed…
David Flint, Horrorpedia