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Jack the Ripper (1976)

Der Dirnenmörder von London

Close your eyes and whisper his name...

Directed by:

Jess Franco

Rating: 6/10

Running Time: 88 minutes

UK Certificate: 18

On DVD

Country: Germany, Switzerland

A period psychodrama set in Victorian London, but filmed almost entirely in Zurich, and by a Spanish director – on paper, ‘Jack the Ripper’ sounds as schizophrenic as its protagonist. Yet Jesús Franco Manero, better known as Jess Franco, is no ordinary director – tarred, along with his fellow countryman Luis Buñuel, by the Catholic church of the 1970s as the ‘most dangerous filmmaker’, this B-grade guerilla has to date made just over 180 features films, mostly focussed on his obsessions with sadism, horror and aberrant sexuality – and he shows little sign of retiring despite now being in his seventies. Franco works through projects with the same manic drive as his Jack the Ripper works through victims, barely waiting till he has applied the final cut to one before he moves onto the next, restrained sometimes by budget, but never by taste.

By day, Dr Dennis Orloff (Klaus Kinski) tends selflessly to his impoverished patients, but by night he has a different use for his surgical instruments, murdering and mutilating prostitutes on the streets of London in an attempt to exorcise the ghost of his own abusive mother, who was herself a prostitute. Inspector Selby (Andreas Mannkopf) of Scotland Yard is making some progress in his investigation, aided by a blind ‘eyewitness’ (Hans Gaugler) with a keen nose, a fisherman (Herbert Fux) with a very unusual catch, and the innovative use of an artist’s composite sketch – but Jack the Ripper proves elusive, and it seems that only Selby’s ex-lover Cynthia (Josephine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie Chaplin) can lure him out.

Franco’s foray into the gory true-crime mystery of Jack the Ripper takes in other Victoriana as well. The dual nature of Orloff evokes Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the absurdly convoluted deductions of the blind beggar are pure Sherlock Holmes, while the ease with which most of the characters cross social divides is like something from a sentimental Dickensian drama. Here the strict social hierarchies of nineteenth century London are both literally and metaphorically shrouded in darkness and fog, as gentlemen mix it with whores, a high society ballerina disguises herself as a woman of low virtue, Lord Salisbury is mistaken for a murderous thug, and a respectable doctor carves up working folk to remove the stain of his own low birth. If you can look past all the cheesey gore effects and meretricious nudity, what is really falling under Franco’s dissecting knife is no less than the repression, madness and two-facedness inherent in the British class system.

‘Jack the Ripper’ is a film with a split personality. The episodes involving the police investigation are marked by often risible dialogue and a leaden pace – but the scenes in which Orloff appears are simply mesmerising, thanks to the haunted intensity of Kinski, who elevates the Ripper to a tragic monster inspiring as much pity as terror – a performance as magnetic as Anthony Perkins’ in Psycho or Joe Spinell’s in ‘Maniac’. Playing with a larger budget than usual, Franco and his cinematographer Peter Baumgartner have transformed their Zurich locations into a claustrophobic expressionist nightmare of moonlit lanes, long shadows and glinting knives.

The result is a film which, while too patchy to equal Franco at his best, looks exquisite (especially in this superbly re-mastered print) and remains resolutely strange to the end. When the blind man says of the Ripper, “he suffers from the particular kind of madness that borders on genius”, he might just as well be speaking of Franco himself.

It's Got: A haunting performance by Klaus Kinski that holds the whole film together; an eyewitness describing Kinskis character as "a short, dubious guy, a midget"; Franco regular (and now wife) Lina Romay as a bawdy songstress-cum-prostitute; a woman named Frieda (Nikola Weisse) whose willingness to help the Ripper remains a mystery; expressionist cinematography full of wonderful chiaroscuro shadings; and, like The Birds and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a notable absence of credits after the final scene.

It Needs: Fewer scenes of the police investigation, and more scenes with Orloff.

DVD Extras choice of English or German audio (with English subtitles); full audio commentary from producer Erwin C. Dietrich (German, subtitled) - as a commentary on the film, it is banal, but as an insight into the kind of thick-skinned, money-obsessed mentality which allowed Dietrich happily to produce so many profitable exploitation films for so many years while underpaying his cast and crew, it is priceless - and there are, amidst all the gratuitous plugs for the Jess Franco Collection (which, naturally, Dietrich is distributing), some creepy anecdotes about Klaus Kinski "who treated his female partners not always gentleman-like"; a 21-minute behind-the-scenes documentary (German, subtitled) comprising mostly an interview with Dietrich, and adding little to the commentary; a 17-minute German documentary on the absolutely stunning restoration and digital remastering of the Franco Collection (focussing on Jack the Ripper); extensive production stills (colour/b&w/scene pi cs); bios of Kinski, Franco and Dietrich; Jack the Ripper anno 1888 - 3 pages of highly superficial historical context. DVD Extras Rating: 6/10

Alternatives:

Crawlspace, From Hell, Maniac, Santa Sangre

Summary

Stunningly remastered, if hardly Franco's best, but it is not every day you get to see a mad genius directing a mad genius playing a mad genius.

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