Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Jess Franco’s Jack The Ripper

Jess Franco’s Jack The Ripper (1976)
Dir. and written by Jesus Franco
Starring Klaus Kinski, Josephine Chaplin, Herbert Fux

Well here’s something with a pedigree that promises a perfect storm for amateurish sleaze. You’ve got A) ultra-prolific Spanish pornogratuer Jesus "Jess" Franco (JESS FRANCO’S DRACULA, THE AWFUL DR. ORLOFF) B) legendarily eccentric weirdo actor Klaus Kinski (CRAWLSPACE, MY BEST FIEND), C) a Jack the Ripper adaptation (a subgenre which has produced such jewels of taste and restraint as ASSAULT! JACK THE RIPPER and THE NEW YORK RIPPER*) and D) the year 1976, smack dab in the very black heart of exploitation grindhouse fever. Combine those ingredients in a blurry ripped-from-vhs rights-questionable youtube version and bake at four or five pints and you should have reached peak euro-sleaze at about 90 minutes.    

Given all that, no one is more surprised than I to have to inform you that this movie is mostly pretty normal. I never thought I’d say this about a Jesus Franco Ripper movie, but the whole thing is competently assembled, and, if anything, a little dry. Dry, for fuck’s sake! It’s not entirely without some sleaze and gore (there’s a pretty graphic dissection scene and an unpleasant bit where Jack rapes his victim as he’s stabbing her to death. Probably wouldn’t have that in the Merchant-Ivory version), but man, there’s a lot of polite British people having conversations in well-lit sitting rooms. It’s more stuffy period drama than venal exploitation fare. Hell, Hitchcock’s FRENZY from four years earlier is way more lurid.

Partially that might be because the film inexplicably has nothing whatsoever to do with the real Jack the Ripper case, which IIRC was not solved by a blind man who assures the police that he knows a murder took place because “My senses are twice as acute as most men, and I have a sixth sense: I recognize the screams of a dying woman.” Pretty good superpower there.

This same helpful blind man will ultimately identify the killer by odor, but not before he’s told the police that “The murderer, I feel, cannot control his compulsion to kill. I was able to sense that he was almost as terrified as his victim… he was consumed with strong emotion... Yes, insane, but a sort of madness which… could be transformed into brilliance… he seemed as one possessed, not a sadistic killer... He’s slight, strong, rigorous, but not a manual laborer, certainly an intellectual… His scent, it was… a strange odor I can remember exactly now. A rare blend of old books and fresh fragrance. The murderer smelled of several familiar odors, expensive soaps, sweat, and very fine woolen clothes and mild turkish tobacco, and also…alcohol… what I detected was medicinal alcohol and then a real surprise… a rare medicinal plant of India…. In England, it’s found only in a botanical garden, it is called akmar.”

“You’ve told me very little,” grouses the officer taking his statement, perhaps used to blind witnesses immediately solving the case and arresting the culprit themselves without involving the police.     

This is an absolutely phororealistic police sketch of a cartoon vampire.

This blind guy is clearly the hero of the movie, but it will come as no surprise to you to learn that Kinski is the villain, one Dr. Dennis Orloff (a name which seems to be a mainstay of Franco’s productions for reason I’d be genuinely afraid to ask). Orloff is, indeed, “one possessed, not a sadistic killer.” And he’s also “slight, strong, rigorous, but not a manual laborer, certainly an intellectual.” Since smell-o-vision has not been invented as of this writing, I cannot comment on the rest of the description. But Orloff is definitely a rather tormented man, by day working as a penniless doctor to the city’s very poor, but by night tormented with kaleidoscopic visions of his mother in a 19th-century S&M getup taunting him with sexually suggestive provocations. Although I am not a trained medical practitioner, I would have to guess that’s not a sign of particularly robust mental health.

That sounds like the perfect eccentric weirdo role for Kinski, but unfortunately he’s being dubbed by some British guy here, diminishing his weirdo readings and flattening out his performance somewhat. I can’t tell if he’s deliberately holding back or just phoning it in, but he’s hardly “electrifying” as they say on the DVD back cover. Still interesting to watch (he’s incapable of being anything else; even David Schmoeller had to concede that much), but not going mega here seems like a missed opportunity, since psychological realism is absolutely out of the question. His motivation (saw his mom having sex with a sailor, pretty much) is about as standard-issue as they come in 70’s slasher movies, and, conversely, is also not a real thing, so playing it low-key was probably not the right choice. Well, anyway, low-key if you don’t count the crazy psychedelic dream sequence:

The movie could have used more of that kind of nuttiness.

As it is, it has a handful of desultorily prurient murders but at least two large handful of drama. There’s Orloff’s ladylady (Olga Gebhard, SHE DEVILS OF THE SS) who would really like to marry the handsome young doctor; there’s a half-witted fisherman (Herbert Fux, LADY FRANKENSTEIN) who suspects he’s the killer, there are a series of nude victims (among them Franco muse Lina Romay, BARBED WIRE DOLLS, FEMALE VAMPIRE), and a police inspector (Andreas Mannkopff, dozens of German-language movies every year, none of which you’ve ever heard of) and his ballerina girlfriend (Josephine Chaplin --daughter of Charlie-- Pasolini’s THE CANTURBURY TALES) who I did not realize were actually the main characters until very nearly the last 15 minutes. And that blind guy turns up a few more times, too.  

The most interesting thing in the whole movie is that “Jack” (aka Dennis Orloff?) has an accomplice in a botanical gardener, who knows about the murders and inexplicably aids him. Why? That seems like it would be an interesting thread to follow, so predictably it’s ignored. That unfortunately leaves the whole thing without much of a hook to hang itself on. It’s presented as kind of a semi-classy period true crime tale, which is how most Jack The Ripper tales end up as fragmented non-stories -- true-life adaptations can be tricky because they tend to involve a lot of characters and plots which don’t neatly tie together. But this one is a little harder to understand, because aside from there being a killer in London in the 1800s, there’s not a single other detail which the films shares with the real Jack The Ripper story. So it’s a little harder to understand why Franco didn’t do more to craft an actual narrative of some kind here. It’s a solid scenario, but there’s not really any “plot” to speak of, just Jack seeing a new victim and killing her off, and then other characters in other sub”plots” talking a little about it.

Now, you’re probably saying “why didn’t Franco do more?” Are you fucking serious? The answer is he’s Franco, “not doing more” is pretty much his defining auteurial characteristic. But as Franco films go, this one is actually surprisingly competent in some ways which you wouldn’t expect. It’s actually a somewhat nice-looking movie at times, with great use of hard lighting and deep shadow. Co-cinematographer Peter Baumgartner’s other movie credits include titles like RANCH OF THE NYMPHOMANIAC GIRLS, SWEDISH NYMPHO SLAVES, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 BEDS and SEX ADVENTURES OF THE THREE MUSKETEERS so I guess by process of elimination I’ve gotta credit second co-cinematographer Peter Spoerri (in his only film as cinematographer in a lengthy career as a producer and production manager) for his handsome use of backlit fog and brazen super closeups of Kinski’s face. Even on the crappy VHS rip you can tell this looks pretty good, and the stills from the new German Blu-Ray by Ascot Elite look genuinely fetching. If it weren’t for the crappy dub job and artless gratuitous nudity, you could almost forget this was the work of a guy who was comfortable making seven movies in 1976 alone (although I guess the random abruptness of the ending might be a hint.) Take a look:

In fact, with a handsome look, convincing period costuming, and Kinski in the lead, this is a rare Franco film which actually flirts with being a real movie. Shame it doesn’t really have much to offer beyond that. I'm as weirded out that I have to say this as you are, but this is one case where Franco should have gone sleazier.

*Though in fairness, it’s also spawned about as many stuffy over-mannered procedurals as it has lurid rape movies, as we see in MURDER BY DECREE and the 1988 Michael Caine starring mini-series JACK THE RIPPER.

Good Kill Hunting

JACK THE RIPPER, no “Jess Franco’s”
Close Your Eyes and Whisper His Name. I have no idea what that means, and watching the movie doesn’t make it any cleaerer.
Uhhh, I think they do talk about “Jack The Ripper” here, but otherwise it has nothing in common with the real life case.
Switzerland/ West Germany, but with a Spanish director
Serial Killer, Slasher, True Crime (sorta)
None. Josephine Chaplin, maybe? She was Charlie Chaplin’s daughter and appeared in LIMELIGHT (uncredited, as a child) and a Pasolini movie. But she was also directed by Menahem Golan before Franco came calling.
Klaus Kinski, Jesus Franco
Yes, I think “Jack” rips at least the top off every woman he kills, plus there’s a few full frontals in there, a few even while they’re not immediately being murdered.
Yes, “Jack” rapes at least one of the women while murdering her. Ick.
“Jack’s” greenhouse accomplice calls the incoming bodies “dolls,” and not in a pet name sort of way. But she doesn’t do anything interesting with them.
Well, “Jack” is definitely pretty nutty
Oddly I can’t recall any. “Jack” tends to approach his victims more or less straight-on
Even if you do see visions of your hooker mom leering at you at night, you would probably still be better off not murdering a bunch of 19th-century British streetwalkers. Seems like a real hassle. But if you MUST do that, at least don’t leave a superpowered blind man as a witness.

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