Features

A History of Jack the Ripper On Film

A man walks the rain-soaked bricks of 1880s London; a top hat lengthens his shadow as a cape skims the murk and filth of Whitechapel. In his hand a scalpel wielded with malice against an assumed five women, in his history a secret never unlocked….

Jack the Ripper still stalks the streets of London. More than a century after the slayings and we are still engrossed with what happened. Though there have been unsolved murders and disappearances across the world, many are enthralled by what happened so many  years ago. So much so people have paid money to walk his path, read countless amounts of books, and this has naturally migrated into cinema.

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The latest release by Juan Carlos Medina, The Limehouse Golem, may not be directly about Jack the Ripper (in fact, it revolves around a titular fictional killer a decade before the attacks ever took place,) but it definitely aims for those dark hearts obsessed with the infamy.

However, filmmakers have tackled Saucy Jacky before, venturing back from Hell to flesh the bloody legend out with celluloid.

First Ventures

Though a wax reincarnation of the notorious killer would appear in German expressionist film Waxworks (1924,)  it would be Alfred Hitchcock (of course,) who’d first immortalise Jack the Ripper tale on the big screen with his violent and silent film The Lodger: A Story of London Fog  in 1926. Based on a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, the film follows singer Daisy who soon suspects that an attractive man living in her complex is the infamous killer himself. Though in this version there is no direct reference to Jack the Ripper, the actual perpetrator named The Avenger, the heavily implications solidify it as one of the first movie incarnations of the murderer, introducing cinemagoers to Hitchcock’s sexually charged thrillers and claustrophobic style of filmmaking.

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Hitchcock’s work and Lownde’s book were later remade in 1944 by John Brahms in a more chilling and straight depiction of Jack the Ripper. Still following the story from the point of view of a 19th Century singer, and still with a lodger embroiled at the centre the killings. Laird Cregar was celebrated for his work here and the filmed was met with acclaim. Man in the Attic (1953) would follow this similar story arc but wouldn’t necessarily revolve around the Jack the Ripper mythology.

Elementary Filmmaking

When it comes to Jack the Ripper on the big screen, most memorable works have the same feature: Detective work. With so much secrecy revolving around the identity, the natural (or only remaining he he,) solution would be to have him spar against a great mind such as Sherlock Holmes. In fact, Holmes would battle the killer in several books that would later turn into novels. A Study in Terror, saw James Hill direct John Neville in a highly praised film. Also starring a young Judi Dench, this film would first look at the link between royalty and the deaths.

Murder by Decree
(1979) saw  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s popular character try desperately to hunt Jack. With Christopher Plummer as the lead role, the story toyed with the idea that it was, indeed, a twisted mind close to royalty. Sir William Gull would become the main suspect, and a Masonic scheme to kill the five women to protect Prince Albert and his secret marriage.

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Based on a book by Stephen Knight called Jack The Ripper: The Final Solution, Bob Clark’s work at marrying a fictional detective icon with that of an unsolvable crime has been praise, particularly with Plummer’s unforgettable performance.

Knight’s theory was recreated in Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell, which was immortalised on screen (much to the chagrin of Moore,) back in 2001 with a film of the same name. With Johnny Depp, Ian Holm, and Heather Graham (and the worst cockney accent of all time,) the film was a trashy look at the William Gull theory that followed the drug-addled psychic behaviour of  Detective Inspector Frank Abberline (Depp.) Directed by The Hughes Brothers, with modern audiences, it is perhaps the most famous cinematic telling of the Leather Apron.

Foreign films such as the Italian-Spanish work Jack el destripador de Londres (1971) and German film Der Dirnenmörder von London (1976) would also follow this layout. In 1999, Australian film Love Lies Bleeding with Faye Dunaway would looks at a young female journalist who tackles the mystery which may be closer to home.

Unusual Depictions

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Naturally,  with so much familiarity on a singular man who  stalks the streets of London like a shadow, there would be fiction writers wanting to explore a supernatural or science fiction nature to the murderer. Known most famously for A Night to Remember, Roy Ward Baker would tackle mainly Robert Louis Stevenson’s dual beast in Dr Jeykll and Sister Hide.  As inferred by the title, in this British Hammer Horror exploitation film, Jekyll turns into a sinister and beautiful woman and must procure female hormones in order to sustain this sadistic personality. This would, in 2004, be a familiar theme in animated sequel Van Helsing: The London Assignment, where the supernatural hunter, voiced by Hugh Jackson, would come face to face with both the scientist and the From Hell murderer.

Nicholas Meyer would introduce science fiction into the Jack the Ripper lore, depicting the story of Karl Alexander’s unfinished novel Time After Time (1979). Starring Malcolm McDowell as the author H.G. Wells, it revolves around the writer jetting off to San Francisco in 1979 after David Werner’s John Leslie Stevenson uses Wells’ Time Machine. Stevenson, having been revealed as Jack the Ripper, starts slaying again, savouring the sex crazed world of modern times. Though seemingly ridiculous, the film has a fun yet brutal story to it that is made altogether enticing by Werner’s performance.

Hands of the Ripper in 1971 would be one of the first to suggest that Jack the Ripper had family. Following the life of his infant daughter who watched one of his murders, it focuses on her inhibited by his spirit and committing ghastly murders herself. Yet again produced by Hammer Horror, and directed by Peter Sasdy, this film polarised critics upon release.

Reincarnation

One of my favourite screen versions of Jack the Ripper resides in the lauded play adaptation The Ruling Class (1979.) Starring Peter O’Toole, Peter Medak’s work would follow a paranoid schizophrenic who believes he is Jesus Christ and his preaching of love and peace run him afoul of his family. Soon they reconditioning him into believing he is Jack the Ripper, a man who hates suggestive talk sex. Peter O’Toole is so terrific in this dual role but chilling as the believed murder, leading to the most ridiculously yet haunting rendition of Dem Bones. The film highlights that the upper classes think him more normal when he is preaching his murderous inclinations and the haunting final monologue will chill you.  The film would later be re-made into a play starring James McAvoy.

Jack’s Back in (1988) and Edge of Sanity in (1989) would have similar storylines where a psychiatric patient or mentally ill person would believe themselves to be the killer. With the former starring James Spader and the latter starring Anthony Perkins, adept villainous actors who were let down by hammy scripts and dialogues.

Bad Karma (2002) starring Patsy Kensit twists further on this ploy by making her beautifully loony character believe that she is the reincarnated soul mate of the 19th century serial killer, who may be on the inside of

Now

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There have been countless amounts of Ripper portrayals on both the big screen and the small. From all over the globe and as recently as 2016, we’ve enjoyed films of the murderer. Over here, most famous versions include Whitechapel (2009) which follows a copy-cat killer, and Ripper Street (2013,) which follows the area after the murders had stopped.

Despite barely a mention in the film, The Limehouse Golem plays into Jack the Ripper and it echoes throughout time. Though as entertaining romp as it may be, (and it’s out today!) we have to ask: what purpose do we keep portraying Jack the Ripper on the big screen? Do we do it to be entertained, and if so, is that exploitative? After all, these were real people who died at the hands of a callous man.

Yet the years of London have turned horror into theatre, having us captivated by the never-solved mystery that are the murders. We relish in the thrill, and are obsessed with the image of a man in a top hat and cape, wielding his scalpel with malice….

….hiding an identity never unlocked.


The Limehouse Golem is out now 
Read our review! 

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