Beyond the Slimy Wall: The Ripper
By Stephanie Star Smith
May 24, 2005
We here at BOP are an eclectic group, and our tastes in movies run from the serious cinephiles to the foreign-film aficionados to niche film lovers. Thus was born the idea for this weekly column, devoted to horror films of all shapes and sizes, but concentrating on those B- and C-grade films that mainstream reviewers disdain, but are the bread-and-butter of every spook movie lover's viewing. So come with me as we venture beyond the slimy wall, uncovering the treasures - and burying the time-wasting bombs - that await those who dare to love the scare.
Why is it that films about one of the most famous unsolved serial killings of the past two centuries-and-change are so boring? And I don't just mean this one - which I am about to eviscerate as thoroughly as Red Jack did his victims - and the execrable From Hell, but even A Study in Terror, which pitted Sherlock Holmes against Old Leather Apron - something Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wisely never attempted - was completely lacking in excitement. And you have to go some to make the Master Detective boring, so that's really a dubious accomplishment.
And though I will give The Ripper credit for playing fair with its audience by not planting clues to lead viewers one direction only to change it at the last minute - in fact, it presents moviegoers with its choice for Jack the Ripper on a silver platter - it still plays a bit fast and loose with history. Not only that, but it confuses itself between historical continuity and its own altered take on events. Never a good sign when a movie can't follow the facts it has set out for itself.
OK; consider yourselves warned of spoilers. Not that you should ever seek this out and actually waste 90 minutes-and-change that you could better spend...oh, I don't know; watching paint dry perhaps? But in case you'd rather forego my strong warning against this time-waster, you have been forewarned.
The Ripper does get down to business right away. In fact, its opening credits not only give a capsule view of the night life in the Whitechapel district of London in the late 19th century, but it also presents us with that silver platter of its Ripper's identity, and all in the first five minutes. Of course, the film doesn't identify him at this very moment with a chyron or anything; it simply shows a man in evening dress leaving an alley in Whitechapel, with a stream of blood flowing behind him. Not terribly subtle, but at least the filmmakers didn't monkey around with their clues.
Or at least, not to the Ripper's identity.
For you see, The Ripper loses track of its alternate history fairly quickly; or rather, the scripter apparently doesn't count very well, as you'll soon see. Morning in Whitechapel brings us another tableau of the life of the poor and downtrodden, leading to the discovery of Red Jack's activities from the previous evening. We then switch to Scotland Yard and our main detective, Inspector Jim Hansen, played by Patrick Bergin with his usual low-key near-lack-of-personality. As Hansen makes clear in the expository dialogue with his sergeant, Tommy Bell, he's a man who wants to better himself in life, and in fact has a patron in their boss, Sir Charles Warren (played by the always-reliable Michael York). Small historical note, as The Ripper quickly loses its grip on the fact that it is based on historical events: of the four people we've seen/heard mentioned to this point, only two are real people, Warren being the actual head of the Metropolitan Police, AKA Scotland Yard, during Jack the Ripper's killing spree.
Hansen's rather tedious lesson on the many ways a man can tie his tie and the importance of expensive footwear is (thankfully) interrupted by a Bobby announcing that another murder's happened in Whitechapel and Sir Charles wants Hansen to investigate personally. Now, by the Bobby saying "another murder", the audience naturally believes that Hansen has been called to the scene of Leather Apron's second murder, Annie Chapman, even though no name is ever given on screen. There's absolutely no indication that the scripter intended the viewer to think otherwise; in fact, it seems on the face of it that the film is highlighting the fact that this is Red Jack's second outing, what with the importance given to this killing by Sir Charles Warren wanting his protege to take the case. Why am I harping on this seemingly tiny detail? Stay tuned, gentle readers, and you will soon see.
Hansen trots on down with Sergeant Tommy and gives a cursory look at the murder scene, then scampers off to meet Sir Charles at what Hansen obviously sees as the first step on his social ladder, namely Sir Charles' club. The other members look down upon the working-class lad for the most part, Sir Charles' patronage notwithstanding, but Hansen does make an impression on the club's most distinguished member, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, Queen Victoria's grandson and third in line to the British throne.
Oh, yeah; he also happens to be the filmmakers' pick as Most Likely to Be Jack the Ripper, as the more observant amongst the audience will recognize him as the toff from the opening credits. Not to worry if that first appearance seemed too brief, however, for the filmmakers are out to make certain that even the dimmest of bulbs gets that a member of the Royal Family is this movie's Ripper by hitting the audience over the head with their theory as many times as they can over the next 96 minutes. In fact, just as soon as the first episode of How the Other Half, Including Our Other Main Character, Lives plays out in anvilicious contrast to the Upper-Crust Club, we'll get to watch Eddy, as he was known to his friends, whup the audience upside the head some more by penning one of the infamous letters attributed to the Whitechapel Murderer.
There will be even more explain-it-to-the-audience-as-if-they're-six-year-olds scenes of the Duke of Clarence plying Red Jack's trade, but before we see those, we first must introduce our ersatz heroine, a poor wench named Florry, played with abundant dullness by Gabrielle Anwar. Our Florry is a working girl, but in the literal sense; she puts in an honest 400 hours a day at the local flour mill for tuppence so that she can one day buy passage aboard one of the ships that depart Liverpool daily for the Land of Milk & Honey, also known as America, where nobody cares about what class you were born into, as long as you make enough money to buy that forgetfulness. Of course, this wouldn't be a movie plotted for a slow six-year-old if there weren't numerous scenes bludgeoning us over the head about how good and noble Florry is because she doesn't sell herself - literally - to achieve Her Dream. The better to make the audience see her as a worthy soul, I guess. Of course, then the movie goes on to contradict itself, because the old saw has it one can be judged by the company one keeps, and Florry's BFF is Mary Kelly, the Ripper's last victim.
Yes, the anvils are just a drizzle now, but soon they will be a torrent, so enjoy the relatively calm weather while you can.
Now that we've established Prince Eddy is the Ripper, Jim Hansen is a social climber whose patron is the head of Scotland Yard, and Florry is a girl in low circumstances who dreams of Better Things, it's time to get to the good bits, temporarily at least. Red Jack has some more murders to commit, and we have a plot contrivance - I mean, development - to endure, after which the film runs off the rails not only in terms of history, but its own established timeline.
Ripper Candidate Prince Albert Victor heads on down to Whitechapel to have a bit of lethal fun with the streetwalkers. Having found a willing candidate, Eddy takes her to an alley and does his thing, and we don't mean sex. Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for this flick, Florry just happens to wander by and see what he's about; wisely raising the alarm of fire instead of rape or murder - apparently urban indifference in the poorer quarters where the ragged people go has been with us for two centuries at least - and chases away Red Jack before he's gotten to the gory bit. She also manages to see his face, and it's a good thing, too; otherwise, this film may never have come to an end. As the police and other denizens of Whitechapel mill about making with the walla, the Duke of Clarence has found fresh meat elsewhere, and this time gets to butcher this second unfortunate lass to his normal standards.
And this begins our problems. The movie started, as far as anyone can tell from what made it to the screen, with the discovery of the Ripper's second victim, Annie Chapman. This is reinforced by the fact that we've just witnessed Red Jack's double-header of Elizabeth Stride and Catharine Eddowes. And once Inspector Social-Climber comes to investigate the murders the next morning, his attention is drawn to the mysterious chalk message "The Juwes are the men That Will not be blamed for nothing", which was found on the brick wall near Eddowes' body. So according to all available evidence from the film, Leather Apron has killed four women. Yet when Hansen questions Florry, he continually refers to three murders and three dead prostitutes. Since this starts after the Stride death that Florry witnessed, at first it seems that Hansen just doesn't know about Eddowes yet. But he continues reminding Florry about the three deaths when he tries to get her cooperation the next afternoon, well after Eddowes has been discovered. Now since our next prostitute death in the film is Florry's BFF, Mary Kelly, there's a murder that's gone missing in this flick. And sadly, that isn't the film's only problem.
After determining that (A) Florry saw the Ripper, but doesn't realize he's Prince Albert Victor; (B) that the Ripper smelled of apricots; and (C) being questioned by the police has cost Florry her legal job, what with there being so many women in Whitechapel looking for a job that doesn't involve selling themselves that being absent a day is essentially quitting, Hansen sends Florry on her way with a police guard, and starts investigating the case in earnest. Which is not only deadly dull and boring, but chock-full of factual inaccuracies about the case and anachronistic methods. And the anvil fall increases to downpour proportions along the way.
So let's start with the inaccuracies. During Hansen's visit to the Eddowes' murder site, we clearly see the infamous chalk scrawl about "the Juwes" above her body; Hansen even has a Bobby photograph it. Trouble is, there was never any such photograph; the Metropolitan scuffers, mindful that the rampant anti-Semitism already raging in England could easily be fanned by seeing such an apparent indictment, had the message washed off the wall long before daylight came.
Then there's several methods of investigation that Hansen uses. The police photographer on-scene isn't completely a stretch; the City of London police, which were separate from Scotland Yard at the time and whose jurisdiction was over the square mile in the heart of London known as the City of London, did employ crime scene photography. However, they were only involved in the Eddowes murder, since that did take place in their jurisdiction. They also took crime-scene photos of Mary Kelly's murder, even though that was outside their jurisdiction; by this time, the two forces were cooperating in an attempt to apprehend the Whitechapel Murderer. Yet our friend Hansen, who is Scotland Yard, is seen using photographic evidence of the crime scene. We also see him attempting to recreate blood-spatter patterns, and talking to the Scotland Yard doctor about both physical and psychological profiles of the killer. Now I'll grant that A Study in Scarlet appeared in the Beeton's Christmas Annual in 1887, but Holmes had hardly become the hit he would after Conan Doyle's short stories started appearing in The Strand several years later, so it's rather a stretch to think Hansen had read of the Master Detective's methods and was trying to employ them.
Anyway, back to what passes for a story in this. In addition to his groundbreaking forensics investigation - which apparently took another couple of decades for Scotland Yard to adopt - and continuing his social climbing, Hansen proves what a spectacular fellow he is by taking over Florry's bodyguard duties himself. In the process, he manages to get himself captured by the locals who believe he is the Ripper, whilst Prince Albert Victor is butchering Mary Kelly. So now we have Red Jack's final murder, and still only four dead prostitutes. Wonder whether it was Annie Chapman or Polly Nichols that went missing. We also have tender moments in Florry's flat between the copper and the lower-class girl, all of which is building up to a ridiculous romance and Hansen deciding to stick with "his own" rather than continue to court the social-climbing female with whom he's been paired.
Meanwhile, Prince Jack the Ripper provides us with the only truly horrifying scene in the entire film. Unlike his historical counterpart, this Eddy is quite the sportsman, not to mention charming and intelligent, which are other virtues his historical counterpart lacked. We see the Duke of Clarence riding steeplechase; he loses his seat as he goes over a jump and ends up in the dirt. Now let me make it very plain here that this is absolutely no fault of the horse; he never balks, and he clears the jump easily. It's Eddy's own clumsiness that causes him to fall off. Prince Red Jack waves off any assistance from his many attendants, and upon returning to the stables, tells the groom he'll rub down his horse himself. The film then spends several minutes focused on Eddy in the stall, putting a nice, glossy oil on his mount, apparently preparing to rub him down before he stables the horse for the night. When Albert Victor leaves the stall, the natural assumption is he's gone to get a curry brush or perhaps some rubdown towels; instead, we are treated to a very nonchalant Eddy calmly lighting a match...and then throwing it into the stall, presumably directly on the horse. As Prince Leather Apron casually walks out of the stables, we see flames shooting out of the stall and hear the poor horse screaming in pain and fear. If the filmmakers thought to somehow make Eddy seem more terrifying or insane by this wanton act of cruelty, they failed miserably. If they wanted to up the tension, they didn't succeed there, either. Or maybe they thought to draw parallels with modern-day serial killers and the discovery that most, if not all, started out with animal cruelty. They don't really accomplish that, either. In fact, the only thing they did was turn the stomach of anyone who has even an ounce of compassion for others. It's an egregious and despicable attempt by the filmmakers to inject terror into the film artificially, and helps the movie not one whit.
Back to the so-called plot, after discovering that smelling of apricots means the killer is being treated with arsenic for advanced syphilis - reportedly a very painful treatment - and realizing that Florry's description perfectly matches the Duke of Clarence, Hansen first goes on an unsuccessful fishing expedition for information from the Court Physician, Dr William Gull. At least this film doesn't posit Gull as a suspect, even though the Gull here is far more capable than the Gull depicted in that piece of excrement known as From Hell. Then ever the crack detective, Hansen tips his hand by going to see Prince Albert Victor and letting him know he's under suspicion for being Jack the Ripper. Further proof that Hansen couldn't possibly have read A Study in Scarlet; Holmes would never have been that stupid. Hansen does, however, manage to convince Sir Charles Warren that the Duke of Clarence is indeed their man, and they set an elaborate trap using Florry as bait. Eddy hears of an eyewitness and where she lives, dutifully goes to be caught red-handed, and then after killing a Metropolitan scuffer, leads Hansen a merry chase back to some palace or other - don't know if it was Buckingham or whatever palace Prince Albert Edward gave his eldest, and nobody bothers to tell us - where Eddy is finally caught and taken off to an insane asylum. Hansen is congratulated by Sir Charles and told he is "one of [them] after all", and given hush money, which he promptly takes to Florry and joins her on her voyage to America, where the streets are paved with gold and the rivers run with money. Or something. And a nice little coda of a placard informs us that Prince Albert Victor went into seclusion about the same time the Ripper ended his reign of terror in Whitechapel, and died in 1892 at the age of 28, purportedly from some "long-term illness". The end.
Now, here's the thing with films based on historical events. I don't have a problem if they're not 100% accurate. I don't even have a problem with adding characters that never existed, nor with creating evidence, including eyewitnesses, that wasn't ever collected. As long as the film keeps its internal logic, I'll generally buy into its premise. But when the film is boring on top of being not terribly historically accurate, and when it doesn't hang together even within its own set boundaries, then we've got a problem. Because then the left brain wakes up, disbelief ceases to be suspended, and every little thing that's out of place or anachronistic becomes that much more glaring. Like the fact that Jack the Ripper murdered four prostitutes in this film rather than five. Or that anyone in Victorian England would not have recognized the heir to the heir to the throne on sight. Or that Prince Albert Victor died of influenza, and not advanced syphilis. Or that there was never any evidence indicating a cover-up by the Royal Family, even though conspiracy theorists love this part, as their entire lives revolve around the fact that you can't prove a negative.
In fact, serious Ripperologists - yes, there is such a thing - long ago tossed out Prince Albert Victor as a possible suspect based on such bizarre things as, you know, actual evidence showing he could not have committed several of the murders. As if facts were important to the makers of this tripe. The whole Royal Family conspiracy theory has gone down the same drain, again due to that bothersome lack of evidence of guilt but plenty of evidence of innocence thing. Still, the conspiracy theorists will point to the fact that Red Jack was never caught, despite operating in one of the most populous cities in Europe, concluding that this could only have happened due to interference from On High, and I don't mean Heaven. Personally, I think Star Trek's theory on why the Whitechapel Murderer escaped detection is at least as believable as the Royal Conspiracy, and a helluva lot more interesting to boot. Moreover, the whole idea that any secret this big could be kept quiet for 117 years goes completely against everything we know about human nature; if there'd been a cover-up, someone would have spilled the proverbial beans by now.
But the film's biggest problem is it's deadly dull, tedious and irrepressibly drab and awful. The two lead actors are little better than audioanimatronic figures, this film's Red Jack hasn't a whole lot more screen presence, and except for the lady with whom Hansen is matched and the always-delightful Michael York, there's not a blasted thing of interest that happens. And no, I refuse to count the horse-torching scene as interesting; sickening, yes, but interesting? It was a cheap trick to extract some kind of reaction from the audience, which the filmmakers obviously realized they couldn't do through their script alone.
You can do much, much better for your viewing time than this crapfest. Sadly, however, it is beginning to seem as if a worthwhile Jack the Ripper film is beyond cinematic reach.
I see by the shadows falling from my bust of Pallas that our time is up. Until next time, then, when we will once again venture Beyond the Slimy Wall.