Archive for Jack the Ripper

Ripping Yarns

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2017 by dcairns

MAN IN THE ATTIC is something I meant to see years ago, as part of research for a Jack the Ripper project I was writing with Fiona. But no copy was to hand, and anyway, we’d found that all JTR films are historical travesties, usually disrespectful to the victims and usually with nothing to say on the many interesting subjects that naturally fall into the story.

MITA turns out not to be as offensive as most movies on this theme (part of the impetus for the script was Fiona’s horror at the 1998 “celebrations” or the centenary of the Autumn of Terror). And one moment, the reading of George Bernard Shaw’s letter to The Times about the case, actually shows a little erudition. But this is a dull remake of THE LODGER, only recently made with Laird Cregar far more memorable in the role than Jack Palance here.

I’ve had a bit of a down on director Hugo Fregonese, despite loving his Val Lewton western APACHE DRUMS. The script of that one is so spooky that old Hugo’s prosaic direction really irks me. The Apaches are described in supernatural terms by a dying Clarence Muse, setting us up for real terror — and then our director blithely plonks his first redskin into shot like a milkman or janitor. In fact, I’ve seen janitors given far more dramatic presentation.

Hugo displays the same flat-footed lack of flare here in what should be a stand-out scene — the lodger’s first arrival. Hitchcock, you will recall, presented an eerily still Ivor Novello, his face swathed in a scarf, with one pallid hand at his chest, looking like a wax sculpture. John Brahm pulled out all the stops with a gliding camera, dry ice, and a looming Cregar. Hugo gives us a plain shot/reverse shot of Palance and the landlady-to-be, not even bothering to hold back the first view of our Ripper’s scary face (Palance is not too bad, but never memorable).

The film’s atmospherics only come into play with the night scenes of the back lot, using a bunch of standing sets — effective London streets rubbing stony shoulders with what look to be the battlements of a castle and a medieval Scottish village (I think I recognize it from Laurel & Hardy’s BONNIE SCOTLAND).

Hammer’s more nakedly exploitative HANDS OF THE RIPPER is a good deal better, oddly enough. The plot is silly, and the portrayal of the Ripper as hideously disfigured by burns makes little sense and is there for no reason other to provide an added grisly image. This movie is offensive to burned people, among others. But it benefits from serious, committed work from Angharad Rees as the Ripper’s daughter, and especially Eric Porter as the shrink who tries to cure her. For much of its runtime it’s basically a Victorian MARNIE, only with multiple gory murders.

Director Peter Sasdy applies a lot of vulgar panache (I’m beginning to think I prefer the messier Hammer directors to the staid Terence Fishers and Freddie Francises) and gets to use more standing sets, this time Alexander Trauner’s forced perspective Baker Street and environs from THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. Even the gratuitous Hammer nudity kind of works here — Porter loitering on the threshold while his patient bathes is decidedly un-Victorian, but it exposes his unacknowledged sexual interest in his attractive charge, which is presumably what causes him to embark on a course of treatment that ultimately proves fatal — to a number of people. It’s also really terrific that Porter, being a Victorian doctor, looks strikingly like the popular fantasy image of the Ripper himself.

When it’s clearly stated that our young heroine is not, in fact, traumatized by repressed memories from infancy, but POSSESSED BY THE GHOST OF A SERIAL KILLER, it’s kind of too late for us to scoff — we’re all set for the climax at St. Paul’s Whispering Gallery, probably the most poetic, beautiful, tense and unusual conclusion to any Hammer horror film. It even gets away with the typical Hammer hasty credits roll — no coda, no summary, no reaction from the characters left alive and grieving. It’s OK, I don’t like my films to hang around after their business is concluded, like tiresome guests or ’90s Spielberg films. But when something like THE REPTILE abruptly announces it’s leaving right after its titular lizard-girl has caught a chill and died, it feels like the filmmakers are saying “This film explores the universal theme of There was a Bad Thing but we killed it.” Sort of lacking in the layered approach.

Maybe HOTR succeeds better because — spoiler alert — it kills its “hero” as well as its “villain.” Since Porter is a strange mixture of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing (tackling the unholy) and Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein (meddling with the unholy), he has to die, but we feel a bit sad about it. And maybe the muddle of the film’s central idea leaves intriguing space for imagination — after all, the movie establishes that our Jill the Ripper does what she does because her late father takes control — but it never remotely shows any interest in why HE does what HE does. The film’s rather horrified view of its prostitutes kind of suggests that we’re meant to think his violence is, at some fundamental level, a reaction we all understand and share.

Fascinatingly, nobody seems to know who this actor is. So the unknown murderer is played by an authentic unknown.

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I don’t know who Jack the Ripper was –

Posted in Comics, FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , on September 15, 2014 by dcairns

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– despite the recent news stories announcing that his DNA has been identified.

Read a little closer and that story sounds extremely unlikely. A “shawl” (in reality a piece of material 8ft by 2ft, seemingly designed as a table runner) has been claimed, via a runs-in-the-family bit of lore, to have been taken from a murder scene, some guy buys it, he decides he thinks he knows who the Ripper was, he tests for that guy’s DNA using a direct matrilineal descendent, and to his joy, one imagines, his tame DNA expert makes a positive match. Turns out the shawl has bloodstains traceable to a victim (or at any rate her matrilineal descendent) and sperm cells traceable to the suspect (or his m.d.)

The trouble with all this, apart from its stupefying convenience, is that we have a complete record of the victim’s possessions, and the shawl wasn’t there. Also, the story of how the shawl came to be in the keeping of the policeman’s family is highly improbable. And we have a list of the policemen’s postings in London, and he wasn’t at the crime scene. What good is finding DNA from both suspect and victim on an object that has no relationship to their story?

Of course The Daily Mail loves this story because they can print that JTR was “a Polish lunatic.” In fact, Aaron Kosminski, the named suspect, isn’t the least plausible figure put forward for the role — I mean, he wasn’t royalty, or gay, or an eminent surgeon, or a famous painter, or any of the other things that might attract a writer to claiming his for the killer but in fact make him highly unlikely to be the guy. Kosminski was locked up for being hopelessly mad a couple of years after the killings, so there’s nothing that REALLY explains why the murders stopped, but he lived in the area, as the killer undoubtedly did, and he was apparently schizophrenic, as some serial killers of this kind apparently have been. As a Jew, he does seem a less likely fit for leaving antisemitic graffiti near one of his crime scenes, but anything’s possible.

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Of course, the really interesting thing about JACK THE RIPPER is that he was never caught and cannot be positively identified. But the scholarly books laying out the often-distorted facts of the case probably don’t sell as well as the ludicrous theory books, and so the script Fiona & I wrote, JACK AND THE DAUGHTERS OF JOY, might present difficulties since we don’t say precisely who the killer is. It seems people are attracted to the unsolved case most when somebody offers a solution. It’s weird to me when I see the 1976 JACK THE RIPPER by Jess Franco or the 1959 one from Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker, in which the Ripper is safely apprehended by the authorities (in the 50s version, not so much apprehended as flattened by a nearly anachronistic elevator) which not only didn’t happen, but is practically the one thing everybody knows didn’t happen. (Also, note the hilariously prominent modern window frame in my top image.)

Historically, the movies are all ridiculous. Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s comic From Hell is compelling, despite being based on a ludicrous conspiracy theory, but the movie made from it dispensed with historical accuracy immediately — the casting wrecked it before you even saw it. The worst aspect is detective Johnny Depp taking opium and having psychic visions (because that’s what opium does), none of which tell him who the killer is and so all of which are a complete waste of screen time.

The real case is so horrible that no movie intended as mere entertainment can get into the reality, and even a trace of it, whether the movie be A STUDY IN TERROR or DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE can sour the fun. The actual events, with homeless alcoholics as victims, grotesque mutilation of corpses, no picturesque gaslit fog, and a lot of confused and misguided bumbling by the authorities, is not really the stuff of an enjoyable detective or horror story. It’s several degrees darker than SE7EN.

Of course, Fiona and I cracked all those problems, but we would say that, wouldn’t we?

Crooked

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on June 7, 2014 by dcairns

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Production design sketches from WAXWORKS (1924) by Paul Leni. Scanned from the same book I got the ALGOL ones from. I have forgotten the name of the book but it had the worl “Architecture” in the title. I guess “Panoptikum” is a German variation on “Panopticon” — meaning a room designed to offer a clear total view from every position. Panoptica were popular as theatres and prisons in the Victorian era — Glasgow has a Panopticon, the theatre where Stan Laurel made his stage debut.

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Gaslight! From the Jack the Ripper episode. Here the Ripper, played by Werner “Caligari” Krauss in the film with spooky, soundless tread. I know it’s a silent film and everybody has a soundless tread, but Krauss’s is more soundless than the rest, calling to mind Victorian theories that Jack wore those new-fangled rubber-soled shoes to silently stalk his prey. Perhaps it’s because he’s a transparent double exposure. But here he looks like a muppet.

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More of the same. Gas lamps seem ideally suited to the acute scissoring angles of expressionist design.

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I kind of wish the movie were livelier — you can tell Leni was a production designer first, because he’s not so interested in narrative momentum, except as a pretext for moving on to the next set when he’s finished glorying in the present one. But the designs are so wondrous — particularly the Haroun Al-Raschid section with Emil Jannings — that one forgets about plot and just floats into the trippy environments, feeling rather like a double exposure oneself.

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