As far as cold cases go, few hold a candle to the serial murders that took place in the East End of London in the late 1880s, perpetrated by the unidentified killer publicly known as Jack the Ripper. A product killer, much of the Ripper’s notoriety was stirred by his victims’ vicious and unnervingly clinical mutilations. The taunting messages he left for the police certainly didn’t dampen public interest. Indeed, the Ripper murders were a proper sensation, marking a watershed moment for both the treatment of crime by journalists and the public fascination with serial killers that persists to this day.
Real-life scandal and intrigue are breeding grounds for cinema. And there is perhaps no better master of chills and thrills than Alfred Hitchcock, one of a plethora of directors to envision the legendary Ripper on the big screen. Hitchcock’s third feature, The Lodger (which premiered 91 years ago this year), sees a Jack the Ripper-inspired serial killer on the loose, a suspicious tenant, and a sordid wire-crossing of the sensual and the morbid.
Jack the Ripper was perfectly poised for the silver screen. Visually, years of media frenzy had cemented the killer’s trademark look: a monster in the shape of a gentleman, stalking the streets by lamplight. Indeed, the Ripper walks a fine line between man and myth; he is a consummate exemplar of human cruelty, and at the same time, something more unearthly; a figure in the dark, a cautionary tale, a boogeyman. It’s an intriguing duality that lends itself well to conspiracy, speculation, and film.
Below, I’ve supplied some of the more tantalizing trends in the Ripper’s cinematic oeuvre, from the properly creepy to the outright ridiculous. Stay safe out there, and happy reading!
Give It To Me Straight, Doc
As seen in Jack the Ripper (1959)
Plot: With a script by Hammer horror veteran Jimmy Sangster, Jack the Ripper manages to be both historically flippant and determined to tell you exactly what happened all those years ago in the sordid streets of Whitechapel. Borrowing from the theory of one of the earliest Ripperologists, Leonard Matters, the film posits that the Ripper was a doctor hell-bent on avenging the death of his son, who’d committed suicide on learning his lover was a sex worker. Violent overreactions run in the family, it seems.
This category is a bit of a ruse. Really, there is no straightforward dramatization of the Whitechapel murders because a sweaty fog of “we don’t know for sure what happened” haunts all Ripper films. The case’s lack of definitive conclusion is both a narrative dilemma for films that want satisfying endings and an immense temptation for those inclined to stray from the factual path into speculative lunacy (*cough* From Hell). As we’ll see, the trend of most, if not all Ripper films, is deviation. After all, the delight of dangling threads is a big part of why interest in the Ripper case persists.
- Jack the Ripper (1976)
- Jack the Ripper (2016)
As seen in Murder by Decree (1979)
Plot: In this loving Hammer horror homage, Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) and his resolute confidant Watson (James Mason) investigate a string of murdered sex workers in Whitechapel, only to unearth a sinister government cover-up that wafts of Royalist Masonic conspiracy.
In terms of unsolved serial killer cases, the Ripper case is one of the most infamous. And the resulting ambiguity has turned the man into a myth; with one spring-heeled foot in the realm of reality, and the other planted firmly in the realm of fiction. The Ripper’s fictive bent has left the door open for “Ripper meets so-and-so” films, straight out of an Abbot and Costello crossover catalog. While the most successful pairing (in premise and critical reception) has been that of “Ripper meets Sherlock Holmes,” the cinematic Ripper has had more than a few run-ins with the Universal monster brigade, Jekyll and Hyde being a favorite team up.
- Dr. Jeckyll & Sister Hyde (1971)
- Time After Time (1979)
- A Study in Terror (1965)
- The Wolfman (2010)
- Edge of Sanity (1989)
What in Reincarnation?
As seen in The Ruling Class (1972)
Plot: Following the whoopsy daisy asphyxiation of his predecessor, Jack Gurney (Peter O’Toole) suddenly finds himself the 14th Early of Gurney. Which is a problem, because Jack has paranoid schizophrenic delusions that he’s Jesus Christ, which after nonconsensual electroshock thereby, become paranoid schizophrenic delusions that he’s Jack the Ripper. Whoopsy daisy indeed.
Jack the Ripper won’t stay dead damn it. Such is the plight of the iconic shadowy boogyman; to possess, to influence, and to inspire from beyond the grave. From secret children to delusions of grandeur, to bonafide reincarnation, Jack the Ripper is more of a Bluebeard’s ghost than a John Wayne Gacy. He has become a malevolent spirit of sorts, waiting in the wings to whisper sweet provocations in the ear of the right psychopath. Or hey, maybe you’re Bridge Across Time and you don’t need a slash-happy surrogate — just a tourist to bleed on an original stone of London Bridge to unleash the Ripper spirit on the unwitting American tourists. Did I mention Bridge Across Time stars David Hasselhoff? Because it aboslutely does.
- Bad Karma (2002)
- Jack’s Back (1988)
- The Hands of the Ripper (1971)
- Ripper Man (1994)
- Terror at London Bridge (1985)
- Night After Night After Night (1969)
- Fear City (1984)
- Monster of London City (1964)
- Assault! Jack the Ripper (1976)
- Terror at the Wax Museum (1973)
- Ripper (2001)
Oh My Giallo
As seen in The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971)
Plot: Julie Wardh, an American socialite, and heiress begins to receive letters of blackmail from a serial killer who’s been butchering local women. Suspecting her sadomasochistic ex-lover, but unwilling to confide in her husband, Julie confides (and falls in love with) a local gentleman. Naturally, all three men are suspects.
For the uninitiated, Giallo is a cinematic genre with roots in pulpy yellow-covered Italian crime novels (hence, giallo, which means yellow in Italian). While the boundaries of what is and isn’t giallo are fuzzy, generally speaking, a giallo film can be identified by its gore, eroticism, crime elements, and heavy emphasis on style. So suffice it to say: Jack the Ripper and giallo are a match made in genre heaven.
- Seven Murders for Scotland Yard (1971)
- The New York Ripper (1982)
Be Careful Who You Date/Sublet To
As seen in The Lodger (1927)
Plot: Based on a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, Alfred Hitchcock’s third feature film was the one that cemented his style, and set his stride. A handsome young man, who looks an awful lot like the description of the serial killer who’s been hacking blonde women to pieces, moves into Daisy’s family home. Almost immediately, he and Daisy develop a relationship, which is bad news because everything he does seems to point to him being the killer.
The “Jack the Ripper might be living under my roof (and under my sheets)” twist is a popular one. And truly, bringing the extremity of Jack the Ripper into the home is a masterstroke, grounding the outlandish and unimaginable in the it-could-happen-to-you horror of a home invasion. While Jack the Ripper is certainly terrifying as a menace lurking behind every corner, there’s something about the fear that you’ve unwittingly welcomed him into your home (or into your arms) that’s just as terrifying.
- Love Lies Bleeding (1999)
- Man in the Attic (1953)
- Room to Let (1950)
- The Phantom Fiend (1932)
- The Lodger (1944)
- The Lodger (2009)
- Lulu (1978)
- What the Swedish Butler Saw (1975)
- A Rogue in Londinium (2010)
- Pandora’s Box (1929)
As seen in Amazon Women on the Moon (1987)
Plot: Leave it to a parody of low-budget late-night TV to produce the most gleefully stupid version of the famed serial killer put to celluloid. Which, I must stress, is saying something. In a send-up of all the bonkers conspiracies surrounding the Whitechapel murders, a segment titled “Bullshit or Not” posits that Jack the Ripper was really…the Loch Ness Monster. Hell. Yes. I’ll take this over “he was really H.H. Holmes” any day.
What could be funnier than the dehumanizing butchering of at-risk women in a low-income neighborhood? A lot, probably…but that’s not the point. While certainly not in the best taste, there is something to be said for the catharsis of making a mockery out of something as horrible as unsolved serial murder. Hell, there’s a reason true crime podcasts are often filed under “comedy.” Taking the piss out of horrible shit is one of the best ways to rob it of its power. And if that means giggling as Jackie Chan’s sister in Shanghai Knights roundhouse kicks the creep into the Thames, so be it.
- Dr. Strangelove (1964)
- Red Eye (2005)
- Deadly Advice (1994)