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Friday, January 25, 2019

JACK THE RIPPER (1959) -- Blu-ray Review by Porfle

I saw JACK THE RIPPER (Severin Films, 1959) on TV as a kid in the 60s, and the thing I remember most is the horrific elevator scene at the end.  Sure enough, that memorable moment is right here in my long-overdue rewatch, and, although the rest of the film is in glorious black and white, that final ghastly image is in living, bloody color.

At least, it is in the US version. Severin's Blu-ray release has both this and the original British version, the rights of which were purchased for release in the States by famed film entrepreneur Joseph E. Levine (HERCULES) and jazzed-up (literally) with a new musical score, a teasing voiceover intro by Paul Frees inviting us to solve the mystery of Jack the Ripper ourselves while watching the film, and other small touches here and there including that color shot.

The film's original elements are gone, so Severin has assembled the best looking prints of both versions with the elements available.  The British director's cut, which is in 1.33:1, is near-pristine and quite lovely, while the US print (1.66:1) is considerably more worn.

This, however, is a plus for me, as my frequent readers will know.  I love a print that looks like it has been around the block a few times--it's a nostalgia thing, and a big reason why I love PLANET TERROR so much.

The story itself is a taut, wonderfully compelling fictional account by screenwriter Jimmy Sangster (CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, HORROR OF DRACULA) of the famous tale about mysterious serial killer Jack the Ripper's six notorious and very brutal slayings of prostitutes in London's Whitechapel district in 1888, a case that was never solved.

Here, London police inspector O'Neill (Eddie Byrne) and his American friend, Detective Sam Lowry (Lee Patterson) stay one step behind the killer's trail of ravaged bodies found in back alleys, their deaths apparently the work of a surgeon or other person with knowledge of anatomy and surgical tools.

Seeking advice from medical experts leads them to a hospital where we meet some of our main suspects--chief surgeon Sir David Rogers (Ewen Solon), aging and possibly over-the-hill Dr. Tranter (John Le Mesurier), surgical assistant Dr. Urquhart (Garard Green), and facially-disfigured hunchback (and thus chief suspect in the film's publicity) Louis Benz (Endre Muller), who tends to the surgical instruments during operations.

The atmosphere in the district is heated and volatile, with mobs of angry and often drunk men ready to form at a moment's notice to hunt down anyone even slightly suspected of being the ripper, resulting in a few tense sequences.

This mood is exacerbated by the sometimes claustrophobic nature of the film's stagebound sets (at Shepperton Studios), which are otherwise ideal for establishing the 19th-century setting filled with grimy cobblestone streets and dark, foggy alleyways where dastardly deeds are performed in the shadows.

In contrast to these are the bright music hall scenes that are alive with period frivolity including a raucous can-can dance sequence and a clash between some posh visitors on the prowl for a good time and a naive young dancing girl who didn't realize this was part of her job description. When she gets wise to her companion's intentions, she flees into the night and right into the clutches of the mysterious stalker.

Production, direction, and photography are all credited to Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman, who stage each scene in a just-right way that, unless I'm mistaken, was an inspiration for some of the visuals of the later version, FROM HELL.

The black and white cinematography is exquisite, and the music in both versions very good. I enjoy the brash Jimmy McHugh and Pete Rugolo score (I had the 45 rpm single of the main theme at the time) while some might prefer the more stately original by Stanley Black.

The cast is top-notch, delivering Sangster's snappy dialogue with aplomb.  The romantic angle between Detective Lowry and Dr. Tranter's beautiful, plucky ward Anne (winsomely portrayed by Betty McDowall), who works at the hospital, is well-handled.

The main draw, of course, is the sick thrill of Jack the Ripper's horrific murders (some shockingly staged for 1959) and the increasing urgency for our detective heroes to put a stop to them.  In the exciting finale, the killer finally tracks down the woman he's been searching for (each murder begins with him asking, in creepy, sotto voice, "Mary Clark? Are you Mary Clark?") and then menacing Anne herself as Lowry races to her rescue.

The Blu-ray from Severin Films is in 2.0 English mono sound and 1080p full HD resolution.  The British version has English subtitles while the US version does not.

Besides the two versions of the film, extras include the US trailer, photo and poster gallery, alternate "continental" takes which contain nudity, an essential interview about the film with author Denis Meikle ("Jack the Ripper: The Murders and the Movies"), and a history of the case entitled "The Real Jack the Ripper." Last but not least is a commentary track with Robert S. Baker, Jimmy Sangster, and assistant director Peter Manley, moderated by film historian Marcus Hearn.

JACK THE RIPPER is moody, atmospheric black and white 50s-style horror entertainment at its best, sharply-rendered in all aspects and a real treat for genre fans.  And there's a reason that elevator scene stayed in my memory for over half a century--it really tops off the movie in shocking style.

Buy it from Severin Films

Special Features:
British Version
US Version
Audio Commentary With Co-Director/Co-Producer/Co-Cinematographer Robert S. Baker, Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, Assistant Director Peter Manley, Moderated By British Horror Historian Marcus Hearn
Alternate Continental Takes
Interview With Denis Meikle, Author of “Jack The Ripper: The Murders And The Movies”
The Real Jack the Ripper Featurette
Theatrical Trailer
Poster & Still Gallery


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