Saucy Jack has long been meat for the horror mill; my first experience with him was Time after Time (1979), where he time traveled to the future and found he was just another serial killer. But in 1888 he was the first, logging around five prostitutes in the Whitechapel area of London; big numbers for the day and the fact that the case was never solved has turned the Ripper’s exploits into its own cottage industry. As for Jack’s indelible horror image, that starts proper with Jack the Ripper (1959), an effective and grisly independent British shocker brought back to life in a cracking new Blu-ray release from Severin Films.
Released in the U.K. in May of ’58 by Regal Films International, Jack the Ripper was picked up by producer Joseph E. Levine (Magic) and distributed by Paramount stateside in early ’59; some alterations were made for the U.S. release, including a brassy new score and voice over intro teasing the audience to guess who Jack is. Gussied up or not, the film did not fly with American audiences, and it faded away into obscurity – until now, with this comprehensive re-evaluation by Severin.
We open on a cobblestone street as a lady of the evening is stopped by a caped stranger who asks of her, “Are you Mary Clarke?” When she replies in the negative, he pulls out a scalpel and does that voodoo that only he do so well. The police are soon right on it; Inspector O’Neill (Eddie Byrne – Island of Terror) brings along visiting American detective Sam Lowry (Lee Patterson – Surfside 6), and their investigation leads them to a local women’s hospital, as the killer seems to possess some surgical knowledge. Could it be the kindly elder surgeon (John Le Mesurier – Dad’s Army)? Or perhaps Sir David Rogers (Ewen Solon – The Hound of the Baskervilles), the head of the hospital? Let’s not forget the disfigured, hunchbacked lab assistant Louis Benz (Endre Muller – Ghost Squad). Are any of these people Jack the Ripper, and can O’Neill and Lowry stop the madman before he kills again?
What we have here is a bit of revisionist history; well, every Ripper tale is – many theories to go around, none proven – but Jack the Ripper went the extra mile before anyone else and not only unveiled their Jack, but gave him a motive, and caught him too. (Well, without spoiling the macabre ending, I’ll just say he shan’t murder again.) Not only that, but it is this iteration that gave us the iconic aesthetic: the cape, the top hat, the gloves so closely associated with Jack from then on out. This is your waxwork Ripper writ large and permanent.
Credit to directors Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman (The Hellfire Club) and Hammer’s legendary screenwriter Jimmy Sangster (The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula) for keeping the story simple and clear: part police procedural, part horror, all pure. Most Ripper stories going forward built upon this proto-giallo premise, but the Black & White cinematography (done by the directors) at once plants the film in the 19th century and gives it an immediacy, especially during the slayings.
There’s a stark ferocity to the killings; even though they aren’t graphic, the dutch angles add a sense of unease and dread that would become synonymous with the sociopath. (Or is he one? Who the hell knows?) What Jack the Ripper lacks in finesse, it makes up in sheer, kinetic power.
Severin Films once furnishes the viewer with as complete of a package as one could ask for, including:
In addition to both versions of the film, there are scenes filmed for the Continental copy, including some inserts of nudity for the more liberal French audiences, as well as some deeper “cuts” to the murders. Fascinating footage to be sure, but the best features are the interview with Meikle, who goes deep into the history of Jack on film, and The Real Jack the Ripper featurette, which looks at the many theories on the identity of the notorious British boogeyman. The audio commentary is quite informative, if a little dry in the inimitable British manner. As is stated before each version, the original film elements have been lost, and Severin has done a commendable job in restoring them as best they can. They’re not perfect, but they shall decay no more.
Jack the Ripper demands an audience for not only Ripper scholars, but casual fans who’ve crossed his cinematic path throughout the years; that Severin has miraculously brought him back to life sixty years after he walked the fog bound streets is a bloody miracle.
Movie Score: 4/5, Disc Score: 4.5/5