Hello and Hallo-welcome to another edition of Twofer Tuesday, where you get two films for the price of one–shame that price is your SOUL (lightning, lightning, thunderclap, thunderclap, cackle)! You join your reviewers, Andy and Lilly, as they venture into the foggy streets of 1800s Whitechapel, which are no place for a lady at night (so they should both be alright).
Today’s film offerings: A Study in Terror (1965) & From Hell (2001)
Lilly: Full disclosure: I’m all about Jack the Ripper stuff. I’ve been on the tour in London far too many times, I’ve read books, I’ve listened to all the theories (both plausible and outlandish), and we own TWO Jack the Ripper themed board games (three, if you count a pocket version of one).
Andy: He’s also a sort-of brutal irony in human form. No one knows who he was, but he’s easily one of the most famous serial killers ever. He’s very stylishly shown, but in reality he mutilated his last victim so horrendously she could only be identified from her ears. His victims elicit sympathy for their anonymity amid the squalor of London, but in death have achieved an immortality they would otherwise have lacked.
Lilly: Second full disclosure: I’m all about Sherlock Holmes stuff. I studied the stories in uni, I have done walking tours (both self guided and not) of locations mentioned in the tales, I have visited 221B Baker Street more than once, I have several video games starring the great detective, and we own FOUR Sherlock Holmes themed board games (though they overlap with the Jack ones in the case of two of those).
So, did I like A Study in Terror, a film where Sherlock Holmes attempts to solve the unsolved mystery of who Jack the Ripper is? Can I just point you towards those first two paragraphs, please and thank you, I’ll wait here.
Super biased as I am, however, I’ll do my best to review the film without dying of excitement. Let’s do this!
A Study in Terror is everything we love about 1960s British horror–outlandish, garish, creative death scenes, and cockneys. Okay, maybe not all horror from that era had cockneys, but one set in 1880s Whitechapel sure does. With an opening scene where a prostitute gets stabbed through the neck with a large knife (there are no spoilers with these films re: the deaths, just wiki Jack the Ripper–though don’t depend on the deaths being in order at all, because nope), you can’t say this film doesn’t kick off quick. It’s actually pretty well paced, the murders happening at perfect intervals between Holmes and Watson (and Mycroft makes three!) trying to solve the case.
Let’s talk Holmes and Watson for a minute. It was said at the time of the film’s release that they were clearly heavily influenced by Rathbone and Bruce’s depiction of the pair, and since Bruce is (in)famous for creating the bumbling fanboy to Holmes version of Watson, I got to agree on this one. While John Neville’s Holmes is a picture perfect replica of the Paget illustrations of Holmes, and had some quirks that really delighted the Holmes fan in me (not to mention dropping famous lines like it was hot throughout the film like a Holmes’ Greatest Hits album), Donald Huston’s Watson had to practically comb his moustache every two minutes to make up for the mess it was after metaphorically blowing Holmes for every single deduction he made. I have a real pet peeve with having Watson act that way, so naturally, while amused by just how ridiculously up Holmes Watson was in this story, I was also annoyed because damn it, Watson is a sounding board with intelligence, not some sort of Yes Man.
Then there is the fast and loose way history is used in this piece. There are some good Holmes + History mashups out there (like The Seven Per Cent Solution which has Holmes and Freud teaming up, for one of MANY examples), but this…is not one of them. It is barely a good enough Holmes story, but coupled with the murders being in the wrong order, in the wrong places, and at the wrong time, well. It’s a bit like making a film about the Titanic set in Alaska in the 1980s. Don’t get me wrong, I’d watch Titanic 2: You Betcha That’s a Big Boat, but it wouldn’t be anything close to the actual story. And don’t get me wrong, historical fiction doesn’t need to have all the facts–fiction can come into play–but if you take the dates and locations and mix them all about, it’s no longer historical, even, it’s just using the same name and place. To go back to the Titanic comparison, it would be like a film called Titanic being about a schooner that hit a rock and everyone lived. Basic idea of boat disaster, but waaay off the mark.
That said, Sherlock Holmes didn’t exist, so we are already setting the bar pretty low for reality.
It’s a fun film. It’s cheesy, it’s got little Holmes fan shout outs and little Jack the Ripper mythology fan shout outs, and it features very young Judi Dench, so how can you say no! Go, watch, enjoy!
Andy: From Hell is a different beast entirely. Here, the chronology is more or less intact, Whitechapel is suitably depraved and disgusting (and most importantly, dark), and it seems to have a much firmer grasp of time and place.
What’s different is that the motive for the murders is a grand conspiracy involving everyone from the Queen down, and that the poor women of the East End, the ‘unfortunates’, were killed because of hidden knowledge about a royal affair.
Based on Alan Moore’s comic book of the same name, the story mostly concerns the trials of Frederick Abberline, one of the lead detectives on the case, and Mary Kelly, one of the women implicated in the plot. Unfortunately, if you know anything about the ripper killings, you can take an educated guess that things aren’t going to go well.
It’s an odd film, filled with all of the weirdness of late Victorian London – lobotomies, poor houses, opium dens, and bizarrely, grapes.
It’s certainly not a very fun or hopeful movie – there’s none of the morbid humour you get in, say, Sleepy Hollow, which has a similar vintage and Johnny Depp. Also, I am not sure about the decision to make Abberline a drug-addled psychic, considering the real guy was commended a bunch of times and lived until 1929.
Still, it’s one that might be worth watching. It’s conspiracy is pure hogwash, obviously, but it does a good job of leading us around between suspects. On the other hand, a half decent documentary might be your best bet on the ripper killings.