ERIC McNAUGHTON looks at the cinematic history of the notorious Whitechapel serial killer, Jack the Ripper
In the early hours of Friday, 31st August 1888, the body of Mary Ann Nichols was found in Bucks Row in London’s Whitechapel district. She had been horribly mutilated and was the first victim of the serial killer who was to become infamous as Jack the Ripper. 124 years on we are no nearer to learning his or her identity, despite literally hundreds of theories. Such is our fascination, there have been numerous attempts to tell the story on film.
One of the earliest was Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lodger – A Story of the London Fog” (1927). It was based on the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes although the ending was changed when matinee idol Ivor Novello was cast as the title character. The film was subsequently remade in 1932, 1944, 1953 (as “The Man in the Attic”) & 2009. Very similar was “Room to Let” (1949) starring Valentine Dyall (the Man in Black) and made by Hammer Films who would subsequently give us two more Ripper-themed films in “Hands of the Ripper” and “Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde” (both 1971).
Although Hammer never made a Ripper film per se, their favourite scriptwriter Jimmy Sangster did write the screenplay for 1959’s “Jack the Ripper”, a pretty decent effort. Six years later came the wonderful “A Study in Terror” which pitted the fictional Sherlock Holmes against the Ripper. Along similar lines was Bob Clarke’s brilliant “Murder By Decree” (1979) with an all star cast headed by Christopher Plummer and James Mason. The latter film was based on the book “Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution” by the late Stephen Knight which put forward a Royal connection and Masonic involvement. The same theory would be used again in both a TV production starring Michael Caine (1988) and in Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel “From Hell” which was made into a film in 2001 with Johnny Depp.
Perhaps the nastiest Ripper film was Jess Franco’s “Jack the Ripper” (1976) starring Klaus Kinski. A more enjoyable film was “Time After Time” (1979) in which Malcolm McDowell’s H.G. Wells chases David Warners Ripper through time to modern day San Francisco. And let’s not forget “Terror at London Bridge” (1985) a made for TV movie with David Hasslehoff!! Honourable mention also to the excellent TV series “Whitechapel” (2009) in which a modern day killer murders his victims on the same dates and in the same manner as the original.
Finally mention must be made of those films which are not about the Ripper, but feature him in some small way. One of the first was Paul Leni’s “Waxworks” (1924), an early example of a compendium film, where in the final segment the Ripper (played by Dr Caligari himself, Werner Krausse) pursue the heroe through a fairground and waxworks. G.W. Pabst’s masterpiece “Pandora’s Box” also features the Ripper in the final scenes where Lulu, played by Louise Brooks, has her fatal encounter with him. From the sublime to the ridiculous, “The Ruling Class” (1972) features a completely bonkers performance from Peter O’Toole as an aristocrat who believes himself to be the Ripper for part of the film.
And finally, what Ripper overview would be complete without “Amazon Women on the Moon” (1987) where it is revealed that Jack the Ripper was in fact … the Loch Ness monster!
One thing is for sure, the public’s enduring obsession with the Ripper and the 5 women he slaughtered during that Autumn of terror in 1888 means we haven’t seen the last of him on the big screen.
ERIC McNAUGHTON fell in love with horror films when he got Dennis Gifford’s “Pictorial History of Horror Movies” for his 10th birthday. In the mid 90s he produced “We Belong Dead”, a zine for all lovers of the classic age of horror, which ran for 8 issues. After travelling and working around the world he settled in Paris 10 years ago and works as a tour guide and runs the We Belong Dead group on Facebook. Plans are afoot for a move back to England and a relaunch of the WBD magazine later this year.