Jack the Ripper/Der Dirnenmörder von London (1976/1979) -***½
The creators of horror films and fiction have almost certainly gotten more mileage out of Jack the Ripper than they have from any other real-world serial killer, and with good reason. For one thing, the crimes themselves were truly hideous, and there were an awful lot of them. A splatterpunk author or grindhouse director can make his Ripper tale as nauseatingly violent as he pleases, and still be able to claim with a straight face that he’d toned things down in comparison to what really happened. Also, because Jack preyed especially on prostitutes, the Ripper murders offer a tailor-made excuse to leaven the violence with as much sex as you think you can get away with. The case history will support any interpretation from a prim, Sherlock Holmes-ish mystery with a few tastefully saucy flashes of stocking to something along the lines of Fantom Kiler by gaslight. Then there’s the setting in which the Ripper committed his crimes. The Victorian timeframe dovetails with the longstanding link between the horror genre and all things antique, while the London locale virtually obligates one to make maximum use of that city’s notoriously foggy nights. Finally, because Jack the Ripper was never caught, the field of speculation regarding his identity and motives is virtually wide open. You want to make the Ripper a surgeon? A butcher? A deranged Peer of the Realm? Go right ahead— hell, why not make him a fear-eating energy creature from another solar system, for all the historical record has to say on the subject!
It is in light of that latter point that Jesus Franco’s Jack the Ripper becomes so utterly astonishing. You see, in his hands, the most notorious unsolved murder case of the past century and a half becomes, of all things, an almost plot-point-by-plot-point remake of the director’s earlier The Awful Dr. Orlof. (In fact, I’ve found some indication that European prints of Jack the Ripper go so far as to name the murderer “Dr. Dennis Orloff” in the closing credits.) What’s more, despite having a more or less totally free hand to invent the story surrounding the infamous murders, Franco has somehow managed to contradict the one solid, incontrovertible fact of the real-life Ripper saga— that the killer was never brought to justice. In a move that will make even the most forgiving and uncritical of viewers shake their heads and sigh, “Yeah… That’s Franco, alright…” he unaccountably ends the movie with the Ripper’s capture!
Franco doesn’t bother concealing the killer’s identity from the audience for more than a few seconds, either. Prostitute Sally Brown (Nea: A New Woman’s Francine Custer) leaves the Pike’s Hole music hall in Whitechapel on the arm of a well-dressed drunk, but she sends him packing the moment she hears what he wants from her— evidently butt-fucking isn’t on the menu, at any price. Refusing an offer from a coachman to give her a ride home, Sally sets off for her flat at the far end of the neighborhood on foot. She really should have taken the first man’s money, closed her eyes, and thought of England; though the first stranger she meets on the walk home is a harmless blind beggar (Hans Gaugler), the second is Jack the Ripper (Klaus Kinski, from Circus of Fear and Creature). The handling of this first murder is strange indeed, for Franco makes a point initially of keeping Kinski’s face hidden in the shadows, and yet drops all pretense of concealment as soon as the victim’s struggles have stopped. As the Ripper lugs the dead girl’s body back to his base of operations on what seems to be the other side of town, the camera looks him full in the face nearly the entire time. In any event, at the end of the Ripper’s journey lies a dilapidated mansion, evidently squatted by a madwoman named Frieda (Nikola Weisse). The movie never will get around to explaining what, why, or how, but it seems that there’s some sort of bond between the two crazies, as Frieda’s first question to the killer upon his arrival is, “Did you bring me another doll?” Whatever her true place in the Ripper’s life, Frieda’s concrete role in his killing spree is simple enough— she dumps the bagged and weighted bodies in the Thames once the Ripper (this version follows the ever-popular crazed surgeon premise) is finished dissecting them. Or perhaps “dismantling” would be the better term, considering what a thorough job he does of cutting them to pieces.
Like Dr. Orlof before him, this killer chirurgeon maintains two separate residences in the hope of covering his tracks. Though he does his nights’ work in the jury-rigged operating theater at Frieda’s place, he lives on the upper floors of the large but somewhat shabby house owned by one Mrs. Baxter (Fraulein Without a Uniform’s Olga Gebhard). I figure the Baxter woman for a comparatively young widow, but the movie never goes into detail. In any case, she’s in love with her reclusive, hardworking tenant, and she’s determined to drag him— kicking and screaming, if need be— into a normal social life, with friends and lovers and parties and the whole nine yards. Naturally, she has herself earmarked for filling the “lover” slot. But if our buddy Jack was sufficiently comfortable with women to conduct a healthy romance, do you really think he’d feel compelled to spend his evenings murdering prostitutes? No. Of course not. And as usual, it’s all Mommy’s fault. The Ripper’s mother, you see, was a hooker herself, and a child abuser to boot (although whether she was a beater or a molester isn’t quite clear in the American-release version of Jack the Ripper). It is Jack’s pent-up resentment over both the way his mother treated him and the social stigma under which her improper occupation placed him that accounts for him now moonlighting as a serial killer.
Needless to say, Scotland Yard is not taking the murders in Whitechapel lying down. Inspector Anthony Selby (Andreas Mannkopff, from Lonely Wives and The Swingin’ Stewardesses) is on the case with his remarkably swishy assistant, Sergeant Rupert (Peter Nüsch), but neither cop has had much in the way of success as of yet. For example, Selby has two witnesses to the murder of Sally Brown, but one of them is the blind beggar and the other is a flighty and easily offended old biddy named Higgins (Ursula von Wiese), who has nothing to report but a vague sense of the killer’s height and build. Perversely, it is the blind man who may turn out to be the better witness, for he is able to tell Selby about the curious combination of scents which the killer gave off— most notably, medicinal alcohol and a rare herb used in curative preparations in India.
Selby soon has yet another death to investigate. The Ripper allows himself to be picked up by a whore named Jeannie (Esther Studer, of Women in Cell Block 9 and Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun), whom he slaughters just moments after she gets him alone in one of the bedrooms at the brothel out of which she works. Then a drunken layabout called Charlie (Herbert Fux, from Mark of the Devil and Lady Frankenstein), who supports himself partly by fishing in the Thames, brings Selby a woman’s hand which he pulled out of the river on one of his hooks. At his wits’ end and with public opinion turning increasingly against him, Selby turns to the unorthodox, and hires a sketch artist to come in and take direction from all of the witnesses who have yet come forward. It rapidly becomes apparent that the witnesses from Pike’s Hole are describing a different man from those who crossed their Ripper suspect’s path either immediately before or immediately after one of the murders, and concentrating on the latter group’s reports yields a passable portrait of Klaus Kinski. Selby shows the sketch around the police station, naturally, but at some point he also presents it to his ballerina girlfriend, Cynthia (Josephine Chaplin, from Ligeia and The Canterbury Tales). This is significant, because Cynthia will later bump into the Ripper on the street and recognize him from the drawing. The fact that Cynthia is a dead ringer for the Ripper’s mother as a young woman, meanwhile, is probably more significant still. After the killer strikes yet again, slaying an Austrian immigrant showgirl named Marika (Lina Romay, of Greta the Mad Butcher and White Cannibal Queen), Cynthia gets it into her head to trap the Ripper herself by hanging out at Pike’s Hole disguised as a hooker. Obviously she does this without first informing her boyfriend, and her foolhardy scheme comes very close to getting her killed.
Like I said, it’s The Awful Dr. Orlof all over again. We’ve got a killer doctor based in a pair of what may as well be castles linked by a waterway. We’ve got a cop with a ballerina for a girlfriend, who is working under increasing public and official pressure to finally fucking do something about bringing the murderer to justice. We’ve got a freeloading fisherman who comes forward with an important clue. We’ve got an overlong scene with a sketch artist, wherein it comes out that the witnesses’ reports have been so confusing because they’ve really been describing two different men. We’ve got a suicidally daring attempt by the ballerina to snare the killer using herself as the bait. Hell, the killer even associates with a woman who may or may not be deriving some sort of benefit from his crimes. All we’re missing here is Howard Vernon and a hulking, blind sidekick (the blind guy in Jack the Ripper is on the wrong side to count as a stand-in for Morpho Launer), and I’m tempted to speculate that the only reason for Vernon’s absence is that he wasn’t willing be filmed humping a “dead” girl in a public park, and Klaus Kinski was. Really, the biggest point of distinction between The Awful Dr. Orlof and Jack the Ripper is that this movie looks and feels a hell of a lot more like the work of Jesus Franco. Unlike its model, Jack the Ripper is hilariously awful in almost every respect (Kinski himself reputedly once dismissed it as “another piece of shit”), and it joyfully revels in the sleaze, nudity, and bloodshed that was mostly absent from the earlier film. Amazingly tasteless from beginning to end, it is among its creator’s most entertaining works from his 1970’s heyday.