When I went to London for Frightfest in 2010, I knew the extent of my sightseeing would mainly be limited to the path between my hotel and the Empire Cinema, since the festival ran nearly all day and I'd want to be writing reviews when it wasn't (or drinking at the pub that was more or less on the path between my hotel and the theater). So I stayed in London an extra day after the festival was over, seeing Big Ben (Parliament), Buckingham Palace, and other tourist stops. And at night, after seeing Andy Nyman's (terrific) Ghost Stories with some friends, I went to a Jack the Ripper attraction. I originally wanted to do a tour of the murder sites, but it was too late after the play, so I opted for this consolation prize, a mix of typical haunted maze and a 3D movie. It was fine as these things go, and some lovely woman grabbed my arm in the dark when she got scared, so that's always fun, but during the 3D movie I started thinking - if the case was solved, we'd be missing out on a lot of entertainment.
Like the Zodiac (and, to a lesser extent, the Phantom Killer, dramatized in The Town That Dreaded Sundown), Jack the Ripper is a fascinating story because it has no conclusion; no one was ever convicted of the five murders attributed to the same killer (hell, most of the ones that were proven NOT to be him after initial suspicion went unsolved as well). Even the moniker "Jack the Ripper" is part of the widespread fiction that surrounds him - it was given in a letter to the police that was later proven to be a hoax, and the police usually referred to him as "The Whitechapel Murderer", which is in no way as alluring. The murders most likely stopped when the killer either left town, was arrested/imprisoned for some other crime, or died (naturally or by force), but that hasn't stopped people from trying to solve his identity. In the past year and a half alone there have been two major books on the killings, each naming a different suspect as Jack's true identity, and they just join the roughly one hundred others that have sprung up in the past 130 years.
Needless to say, everyone involved with the case, and even their children (and grandchildren?) are dead at this point, so solving it definitively with only historical documents - some proven to be hoaxes - to go on will be pretty difficult. It reminds me of the Seinfeld joke: "Maybe comets killed the dinosaurs, maybe they tripped and fell. What's the difference? We'll never know. We couldn't solve the Kennedy Assassination, and we had films of that. Good luck with the Stegosaurus." I'm pretty sure that if it ever were to be solved, it would have by now - and if I am somehow wrong, it will kill the appeal of a lot of fictional work that has been made about Jack. You don't see a lot of alternative fiction stories with Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer, because there isn't any mystery about their identities, there's nothing to solve or theorize. But Jack? I could have probably filled a whole month's worth of HMAD entries with movies on the case, both direct (From Hell) and totally batshit (Terror at London Bridge, which had Jack time travel to Lake Havasu during the 1980s and continue his reign of terror).
Strangely, the one that inspired this article is Jack's Back, which really only uses the murders as a springboard for its largely unrelated story about a man trying to solve his brother's murder. When the film opens, a modern day, Los Angeles-based Jack the Ripper has just killed the fourth in his planned series of five killings, each timed for the 100th anniversary of one of the real Jack's murders. And fifteen minutes later, a young doctor finds the fifth victim and chases down the man he believes to be the murderer, only to get killed and framed for the murders (with his death staged as a suicide). At this point we switch focus to the man's twin brother (both played by James Spader), who comes to LA and tries to prove that his sibling wasn't the killer. If not for the fact that the killer (or at least, the guy he/we thinks is the killer - it's a 27-year-old movie, so I assume it's OK to at least "spoil" that it's not that easy) is named Jack, you might forget the connection exists at all. Funnily enough, despite the paper-thin connection, this movie (and the CBS mini-series with Michael Caine) served as my introduction to the Ripper as a young kid, and like anyone who enjoys a good true crime story, it would continue to interest me over the years.
And to this day, I rarely look at anything about it that is grounded in any sort of reality. I saw From Hell when it came out, but didn't care enough for it to ever get around to reading the graphic novel (I know, I know... I'll try to fix that someday), nor have I seen any of the other "straight" tellings of the story - I'm not even sure if I finished that CBS series when I was a kid. There's a certain appeal to wondering if a movie starring Heather Graham as the world's prettiest prostitute actually hits the nail on the head and pegs the actual culprit, but again - we'll never know for sure, so there's a disconnect in how satisfied you can be with the reveal it and other films have offered. The multiple endings to the same story ends up being distracting; one movie can peg William Withey Gull as the murderer, and then you're instantly suspicious of him in another story that works overtime to suggest Aaron Kosminski is the real killer. Sure, if you can forget that it's a real life story you might be able to get sucked in enough for the unmasking to provide that same sort of "A-ha!" moment you'd get from a full blown fictional whodunit, but that's a tall order.
I also find it somewhat distasteful for a filmmaker to suggest some likely innocent person is a reprehensible monster and spend lots of money on a movie that "proves" it, so I think that's why I gravitate more toward ones that are clearly in the realm of nonsense, or, like Jack's Back, are set in the modern day and use the mythology sparingly. Jack's Back (which just finally hit DVD/Blu-ray for the first time in the US, courtesy of Scream Factory) doesn't go about "solving" the murders or anything (again, after 20 minutes or so the Ripper isn't mentioned), but if the real killer's identity was known I don't think it would still be on the public's mind a hundred years later, and thus writer/director Rowdy Herrington wouldn't feel compelled to use it as the springboard (and marketing hook) for his story. But even though it's front-loaded, it fits into the "sub-genre" I seem to most enjoy when it comes to Ripper-driven films. One of my favorites is Hammer's Hands of the Ripper, in which Jack's daughter (!), an infant when he killed her mother as his final victim, becomes possessed by his spirit as a young woman and starts killing people whenever a light is flashed in her eyes (this is explained in the film). It's actually one of my favorite Hammer films, period; a near-perfect blend of the classic Hammer aesthetic (vivid colors, lovely women, the period setting) and their more graphic and faster-paced '70s fare. Plus, like Jack's Back, the Ripper story takes a backseat to an original, but on the other hand it's never completely abandoned, either. The Ripper's shadow looms over the whole thing even though the focus is on an entirely fictional tale, whereas in Jack's Back if you miss the first 20 minutes or so you might not even realize there's a connection. There's a 2001 slasher called Ripper that also does the "modern day recreation" angle, but spreads it out throughout the film and hilariously establishes that our group of typical slasher protagonists all have the same initials as Jack's original victims. I like to imagine the killer looking all over for a group that would fit his needs. Like what if he found a group where only four of the teens had matching initials? Would he figure it was close enough, or keep searching?
Then there's Edge of Sanity, which doesn't fully work as a film but earns several points for one of the most insane (not meant to be believed) theories yet, which is that Jack was actually Mr. Hyde, the alter ego of Dr. Jekyll. Anthony Perkins plays both roles; a version of Dr. Jekyll who is experimenting with cocaine, and his alter ego Hyde, who has a tendency to go out and murder prostitutes during the times where he in control. Oddly enough, even though this is probably one of the sillier concepts, it's played totally straight and sticks to the facts about Jack for the most part. Like the real maniac, Jekyll/Hyde gets away in the end, with the murders remaining unsolved. Either they are trying to suggest there is some truth to their outlandish theory, or they respect the lore too much to give their movie a traditional climax. Unfortunately, without any other real characters of note (and Perkins hardly playing a sympathetic person - even Jekyll is kind of scummy), there's a disconnect with the film's narrative that it can't quite resolve. It's worth a look for sure, and Perkins is pretty terrific (no surprise there), but the blend between fact and fiction is ultimately unsuccessful.
And I'd like to go back to Terror at London Bridge for a bit here, because I swear it sounds like a fever dream and I want someone to back up that it exists. In this 1985 TV movie, David Hasselhoff is a cop who is on the trail of Jack the Ripper in modern-day Arizona. How does Jack end up there, you might ask? Well, because when they moved the London Bridge to Lake Havasu in 1971 (this actually happened, by the way), one stone was misplaced. When it's finally reunited with the rest of the stones in 1985, Jack's soul is set free and he starts killing women again. But instead of just going for broke and killing everyone he sees, or just freaking out and wandering the streets, he recreates his original spree, right down to the dates (yep, he waits around in between). Clu Gulager plays the obligatory angry police captain, and yet despite that and all of the rest I've described, the movie is rather boring. I mean, if a movie has a concept THIS batshit insane, it should be a lot of fun, right? But no, it's pretty dull even by TV movie standards, and is only to be watched by completists.
Jack's colorful exploits aren't limited to movies. In addition to the dozens of non-fiction books on the subject (many of which "definitively prove" a different person was Jack), there are plenty of fictional takes, some of which were turned into films as well (such as Time After Time). Jack shows up in comic books a lot too; From Hell is obviously the most famous, but Alan Moore wasn't done with him yet - he used him in the 3rd volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as well, and there was one (not from Moore) called Blood of the Innocent where Jack squared off against Dracula. There have been two BBC series focused on the case, a modern-set one called Whitechapel that focuses on a copycat, and another (still going) one named Ripper Street that takes place in the aftermath of the canonical five murders. He's also found his way into a few video games, including one where he faces off against Sherlock Holmes (there was also supposed to be a game where the player would control Jack, but it was thankfully canceled). Then there are songs, plays, trading cards... if you wanted to collect Ripper-related memorabilia, you'd need a pretty large budget.
Long story short, the inability of the Whitechapel police to definitively pin the murders on anyone has resulted in a pretty sizable industry. If the guy was caught, we'd hear about "Jack the Ripper" as often as Joseph Philippe. Who? Well in the 19th century he ALSO killed several prostitutes in Europe (eight of them in Paris, to be exact), but no one's ever made a 3D movie about him for tourists - hell, the guy doesn't even have a dedicated Wiki page! Since the families of the Zodiac's victims (and two actual survivors) are still alive, I assume we won't see things like this about him for another 50-60 years. The case is just as (more?) fascinating but still relatively "too soon" to be taking such liberties, which is why of the few films about him, most just stick with the facts (i.e. Zodiac, which is David Fincher's best film and his least successful, because people are dumb). Maybe someday the Zodiac can fight werewolves or even Jack the Ripper (Jack and time travel seems to come up a lot - no reason he can't try 1960's San Francisco), but for now there seems to be a bit of tact in play. Jack can't be held back though! With everyone dead and the case destined to be cold forever, there will probably always be classier attempts at proving a theory, and just as many (more?) alternative history mash-ups that are fun as long as you don't think too much about how kind of gross it is.