Jack The Ripper Review
The prospect of Klaus Kinski, one of the most distinctive actors of his generation, playing Jack The Ripper, one of the most distinctive serial killers in history, is undoubtedly an exciting one. By 1976, the year in which Jess Franco directed Jack The Ripper, Kinski had moved from standout supporting roles in films such as For A Few Dollars More to standout leads – notably in Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God - with ease and without obvious compromise. The case of the Ripper, on the other hand, being unsolved encourages creativity from filmmakers outside the well-known facts. Consider Murder By Decree or Time After Time which pitted the killer against, respectively, Sherlock Holmes and H.G.Wells.
Yet, Jack The Ripper proves to be an almost complete failure and the problems mostly materialise from the opening credit: “Klaus Kinski is Jack The Ripper”. By revealing the identity in the initial moments, as well as showing him at work (so to speak), the most obvious suspense technique is rendered worthless and so the film must concentrate on other areas. Certainly, the possibilities are numerous. It could become a character study, allowing the viewer to understand the psyche of the killer. Alternatively, being the 1970s, it could adopt the Columbo approach and pit the Ripper against someone with the capabilities to track him down – the approach successfully adopted by both Time After Time and Murder By Decree. On the other hand, the director Jess Franco could do what he normally does and produce an exploitation quickie. After all, knowing who the killer is makes it easier to dwell on the gruesome details and the Whitechapel Murders certainly provided plenty of those.
The great mistake is that, to varying degrees, the film tries to be all of these. It doesn’t so much fall between three stools as land awkwardly on them. Any attempt at a character study is fatally hindered by the most basic of psychological justifications; Jack is visited by the ghost of his mother, a former prostitute, which supposedly explains all his murderous impulses. Moreover, Kinski is given little to do beyond kill and run away, precluding any possibility of the viewer forging a connection with the character, however tenuous. Even those familiar with the real life case, and therefore in possession of a greater insight, will come away feeling sorely disappointed as there is little fidelity to either the broader historical context or the details of the case. London, for example, is still used as the setting but is deprived of menace by the artificiality (not to mention cleanliness) of the studio sets. Even the obligatory scenes of pursuit down fog-shrouded alleyways come across as strangely sanitised. Perhaps more damaging is the fact that London’s streets aren’t even used for the murders, rather a wood or the Ripper’s house, and he is even seen disposing of body parts in a lake. Of course this prompts the question of why the filmmakers decided to call the film Jack The Ripper in the first place. The only answer must be that they thought this might be the only way to attract an audience.
It’s a shame therefore that Kinski didn’t see this as an opportunity to take liberties with his role. Certainly, some of his idiosyncrasies would have provided a much needed third dimension to his characterisation; as it stands, Jack The Ripper offers that very rare thing – a bland Klaus Kinski performance. And with the lead doing very little, Andreas Mannkopff as the policeman on the case is given nothing to play off. Instead, he seems there for allegedly comic relief as his investigations lead him to questioning a group of prostitutes and a prudish old woman rather than confronting his adversary.
Even as exploitation, the film is a failure. Despite a nasty abscess removal and an even nastier, not to mention lengthy, death/rape scene, the pretensions to something deeper – whether or not they succeed – constantly get in the way. As such, these scenes, whilst striking, sit uncomfortably amongst the whole. An all-out visceral attack may have been rewarding, and perhaps more honest, but as it stands there are two or three films trying to get out, each half-hearted and the end result is utterly muddled. Franco fans will be disappointed by the attempts to move beyond mere exploitation whilst those looking for another telling of the Jack The Ripper story may be repelled by the exploitation. Anyone who wants both will have to endure an uneven compromise between the two.
As part of Anchor Bay’s Jess Franco Collection, the major selling point is the restoration work that the film has undergone. Both sound and picture are presented here in a form superior to that present at the film’s first screening. Taken from the original negative, every scratch and dirt particle has been removed and the result is a remarkable looking print. The original 1.85:1 ratio is adhered to and it is presented anamorphically. Likewise, the original German soundtrack can be found in perfect condition in its original mono form. An English dub is also available but only the most accepting viewer will be able to last its duration.
Equally impressive is the number of extras present for what is, after all, a release of limited interest. However, a deeper look reveals problems. The commentary track by producer Erwin C. Dietrich is in German and, on this disc at least. is missing subtitles, often for minutes at a time and occasionally mid-sentence. The problem is frustrating because Dietrich is a fascinating speaker and part of the pleasure is listening to his bizarrely inflated claims. In his eyes, Franco shaped 60s and 70s cinema and prefigured the Dogme 95 movement.
These claims are reiterated by Dietrich on the two featurettes. The first is mostly an interview with the producer and covers his working relationship with Franco, as well as Jack The Ripper more specifically. The second discusses the entire restoration process undertaken on the film in order to produce this disc. Fascinating stuff but not much more than a plug for the Jess Franco Collection. As with the commentary, the featurettes are in the German language although the subtitles are mostly fine ,if grammatically incorrect.
No subtitles are present for the German theatrical trailer , though this has been restored to the same level of quality as the main feature. Other extras are fairly routine; a gallery of production stills, both colour and monochrome; very brief notes on the real Ripper; slightly longer but inadequate biographies for Franco, Kinski and Dietrich; and yet another plug for the Jess Franco Collection.