As frightening as fictional serial killers can be, they are no match for the real-life bad guys. Movies have been made about the most famous of mass murderers, including both exploitation films like Ted Bundy and big Hollywood productions such as Zodiac. Back in 1959, the earliest of the household name serial killers also got the first movie of the bunch when Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman unleashed Jack the Ripper.
Set in 1888, Jack the Ripper is the tale of a bloodthirsty killer who stalks the streets of London, murdering prostitutes and evading police. An American detective named Sam Lowry (Lee Patterson from “Surfside 6”) is visiting his friend, Scotland Yard Inspector O’Neill (The Mummy’s Eddie Byrne), who asks for his help with the case. The men work the case with a pair of doctors, Sir David Rogers (Ewen Solon from “Doctor Who”) and Dr. Tranter (John Le Mesurier from “Dad’s Army”), who are in charge of performing autopsies on the victim’s remains. Noting that the victims have all been ladies of the night, Lowry and O’Neill concentrate their investigation on a brothel, yet suspect the culprit has formal medical training due to the surgical precision of the cuts and disembowelments. With the working women beginning to panic and the impatient mobs of citizens starting to riot, the police realize that they have to stop The Ripper, not only to save the girls but to keep order in the streets.
Jack the Ripper was produced and directed by Baker and Berman (the men behind “The Saint,” as well as horror classics such as The Crawling Eye and Blood of the Vampire) with a screenplay written by the inimitable Jimmy Sangster (who, in addition to doing lots of work with Baker and Berman, was also one of Hammer Horror’s top writers). The film purports to be a faithful retelling of the events of Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror but, because the real-life Ripper was never caught and details about him are scarce, the picture comes off as a much more sensationalized account of the murders. Nevertheless, Jack the Ripper is the perfect combination of murder mystery and a horror movie with just the right amount of lovely ladies.
Jack the Ripper seems to be equal parts Sherlock Holmes and Universal Horror. Half of the movie is dedicated to Lowry and O’Neill’s pursuit of the killer, showing their investigation of the crime scenes and their observation of the victim’s post-mortem examinations. The other half is used to show the killer at work, shadowing and ultimately striking at his prey. The good guy/bad guy motif coupled with all of the they-just-missed-him moments that occur so frequently build some great suspense that all leads to a stunning conclusion that, if nothing else, is reason enough to watch the movie Jack the Ripper.
Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman not only produced and directed Jack the Ripper but did all of their own cinematography as well. The look of the film is classic British Noir Thriller not unlike the Hammer Horror Pictures that were and are still so influential. There is a certain light and dark juxtaposition at work in Jack the Ripper, with the police doing much of their work in the harsh bright lights of examination rooms and offices while the Ripper haunts the darkness and shadows of night, slipping in and out of the fog on the London streets. Jack the Ripper is very well shot, put together in a way that is not overtly terrifying but still letting the viewer know that anything can happen at any time.
An interesting item of note about Jack the Ripper is that there are two versions of the film; the original UK version had a lush, orchestral score by Stanley Black (Maniac) and was edited with large chunks of the murder scene excised while the US version featured a jazzy soundtrack by Pete Rugolo (“The Fugitive”) and Jimmy McHugh (composer of dozens of jazz standards), and had much of the gore and nudity restored. The American release even had a special surprise at the climax; the blood in the scene turns Technicolor red, a sharp contrast to the black and white imagery of the rest of the film. American audiences seemed to be more prepared for murder and mayhem than their European counterparts, even a full year before Psycho was released.
Imaginary killers may be scary, but flesh and blood murderers are worse, especially ones who never got caught. Although it takes a few liberties with the history and states a few theories that were never proven as fact, Jack the Ripper is one fun ride through the bloody streets of the past.