Jack the Ripper (Home Video Review)

Starring Lee Patterson, Eddie Byrne, Betty McDowall, Ewen Solon

Directed by Monty Berman & Robert S. Baker

Distributed by Severin Films

Since terrorizing the Whitechapel district of east London circa 1888, infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper has been inserted into countless works of fiction, from evidence-based to exploitative and everything in between. It’s interesting to see how The Ripper has been adapted to contemporary settings throughout the years, from Alfred Hitchcock’s silent The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927) up through the canceled-early 2017 series Time After Time, based on the 1979 novel of the same name. I wouldn’t really say there’s a definitive version of the Ripper legend; one that clearly towers over the rest, though I did really dig Jack the Ripper (1959), a Universal-Monsters-inspired retelling of the Ripper murders where the eponymous villain is almost otherworldly – until he’s not. Working off a script by Hammer stalwart Jimmy Sangster, directors Monty Berman & Robert S. Baker deliver a film full of stock horror moments and cloaked in smoky atmosphere.

“Are you Mary Clark?” bellows an inhuman voice from the shadows; then, a woman is savagely killed. This is the m.o. of a killer who has been operating in the Whitechapel district of London for some time now. When the film opens the townsfolk are already quarreling with the local law enforcement, annoyed cops “aren’t doing enough” to stop the spate of killings. Scotland Yard Inspector O’Neill (Eddie Byrne) calls in his own reinforcements to join the swellings ranks being sent into town: New York cop Sam Lowry (Lee Patterson). Clues are scarce and the only words O’Neill and Lowry usually have to go on are spoken by drunken street urchins. Everyone is desperate for answers. The Ripper is a constant threat, and he shows no signs of slowing down.

Although neither Berman nor Baker played in Hammer’s sandbox the film has a vibe that would’ve fit within that wheelhouse. The sets capably sell the cobblestone streets and claustrophobic alleyways of old London. Smoke is ever-present, hanging in the air with a choking thickness. Sangster wrote for Hammer, too, and this story shares their trademark sensibilities. Likewise, some of the cast members appeared in later Hammer horror films. The film doesn’t get to pump up the color saturation since it is almost entirely in black and white – almost. There is one shot where color is used to punctuate a grisly moment. Easy to overlook today, I’m sure it provided a decent jolt for some audience members back in the day.

Giving The Ripper a more classic horror appearance only adds to his ghoulishness, but the voice modulated for this film takes it to a ghastly new level. For a minute I thought Paul Frees would be providing the voice, since he gives an introductory narration at the onset, but what the filmmakers chose is less theatrically grim like Frees and more primal, guttural. The murders are fairly benign by horror standards – a flash of the blade, a scream, maybe a bit of blood. Any effectiveness found in the killings comes from the tight environments and sense of abject helplessness each victim endures. The Ripper is given an identity in this film, and the reasoning for his spree is buyable.

Severin’s release includes two cuts of the film: U.S. and U.K. version. The difference between the two in terms of running time is approximately three minutes. There are also additional shots in the U.S. version, including a “shocking” color ending.

Viewers are given the option of either a bad picture of a worse one, as both the U.S. and U.K. cuts of the film look awful. The U.S. cut wins out simply by virtue of being framed properly at 1.66:1, but the 1080p image is riddled with scratches, damage, debris, variable contrast, missing frames, and horrible fading. This thing is a mess, plain and simple. The picture came from a 1960 Library of Congress print, which clearly was used a doorstopper for the past 58 years. The U.K. cut looks even worse, presented at a cropped 1.37:1 aspect ratio and displaying worse visual qualities than the U.S. version.

Both versions carry an English LPCM 2.0 mono track, though the two have differing scores. I sampled both and honestly they aren’t too far apart in terms of instrumentation and sound design. Dialogue is passably clean and easy to understand. There is some minor hissing throughout. The score is punctual and sheer, highlighting big moments with bigger brass.

Jack the Ripper has been realized so many different ways as a contemporary character it’s hard to compare this film to others where he is featured. I liked the Hammer-esque approach here, and making The Ripper something a touch beyond simply evil (at least, until his identity is known) was a smart decision. Severin’s presentation of the film leaves plenty to be desired, but the content contained within is good enough to warrant a purchase.

Special Features:

  • British Version sourced from a telecine master (1080)
  • 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/Extended Continental Takes
  • Interview With Denis Meikle, Author of “Jack The Ripper: The Murders And The Movies”
  • Gentleman Jack – The Whitechapel Murders Revisited Featurette
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Poster And Still Gallery
Jack the Ripper (1959)
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  • Special Features:
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