Friday, 14 March 2008

JACK'S BACK

The name of Jess Franco does seem to evoke rather extreme emotions amongst fans and critics alike. Some view him as a genuine auteur, while others regard him as a talentless buffoon. I reside in the former category. Like Jean Rollin, he's a marginal director but an extremely valuable one in my opinion. Those who grudgingly admit he's made a few competent films often assert the law of movie averages dictates that anyone with such a vast quantity of films under the belt will, eventually, get it right. of course, this conveniently ignores the fact that Franco turned out some absolute gems early in his directorial career. Those who love Franco's work and those who are relatively new to his films are directed to Robert Monell's wonderful blog, I'M IN A JESS FRANCO STATE OF MIND. You'll find the link within my list of blogs worth checking out. My own Franco journey began with 3rd gen bootleg tapes of VENUS IN FURS, NECRONOMICON and THE WITCH KILLER OF BLACKMOOR (taped off a German satellite channel), back in the days when UK fanzine editors used to trade tapes while the 'Old Bill' and Trading Standards officers used to pass their time by raiding the homes of folks who just wanted to see a damned film! JACK THE RIPPER was one of those films I first saw on grain-riddled VCR and watching the DVD compelled me to appreciate just how far we've come.






Jess Franco's partnership with producer Erwin C. Dietrich ran for 15 films and JACK THE RIPPER was arguably their most lucrative venture. Here, Switzerland - save for a few stock shots - replaces 19th century London, with the Ripper portrayed by the late Klaus Kinski.In the fog-shrouded East End, prostitutes are killed and cut-up by a Doctor who spends his days prolonging the lives of patients and his evenings reducing the life expectancy of London's 'ladies of the night'. Many of the more recent serial killer flicks have operated in a world bereft of law and order, where police are neither seen nor heard, allowing the maniac to remain active. In JACK THE RIPPER, the killer strives to keep one step ahead of Inspector Selby (Andreas Mankopff), who must juggle domestic concerns with the pressure of ensnaring his elusive prey. As Selby struggles to come up with the answers, his girlfriend Cynthia (Josephine Chaplin) decides to lure the Ripper into the arms of the law: a dangerous game which makes for a tense final act and, it must be said, a finale that runs out of ideas. Despite this rather weak conclusion, JACK THE RIPPER is a worthwhile entry in the Franco/Dietrich filmography. Kinski in particular is excellent, switching moods to present the two faces of the Ripper, while Chaplin makes for a convincing heroine who is willing to risk life and limb in order to halt the killing spree. Mankopff is slightly less impressive as the floundering cop; indeed, his detective work is frequently overshadowed by the input of a blind witness to murder (Hans Gaugler) whose observations consistently amaze: more grist to the mill of a wholly literate script.On a visual level, JACK THE RIPPER looks ravishing, thanks to DOP Peter Baumgartner who clearly had an influence over Franco's directorial style. At various points in Franco's career, the challenge of turning Swiss streets into London walkways would have resulted in a mess but it's a fairly stable transformation, with colourful tavern interiors, and fog-infested side-streets that recall the alleyways of Mario Bava's Kill, Baby......Kill!Anchor Bay's Region 2 DVD does full justice to Baungartner's expertise, with an absolutely stunning transfer (taken from the print restored by VIP). Those of us who have 'seen' this film via bootleg tapes or even Platinum's dreadful budget DVD will not believe their eyes: bold primary colours, nice inky blacks and virtually nil edge enhancement. This film could have been shot 32 days ago rather than 32 years and an excellent restoration documentary shows, for once, exactly what goes into the process of taking a battered print and turning it into a work of art. A 21 minute featurette is also included; worth a view, though a little judicious editing could have resulted in less overlap with Dietrich's other contributions - the main one being an absorbing commentary track where Erwin comes over as an astute businessman with an exceptionally retentive memory. Practically all of the major and minor cast members are mentioned here, with Kinski singled out as an unselfish artist who never caused Dietrich any problems during their 3 film association. Other topics include censorship problems (the eye in the bag caused outrage in Germany, and this, along with several other scenes were darkened to obscure some gory fx shots); cast selections - we learn Chaplin was recruited to help meet the required quota of Swiss actors - and there are warm memories and anecdotes recalling Franco's zest for filmmaking. Also listen out for a memorable quote concerning on-screen nudity (particularly relevant here): "The shame persists, the money has gone".While some of us may regret the lack of insight into any historical research that may have been undertaken (Dietrich fails to acknowledge a line of dialogue hinting at a royal connection to the killings), it's still a fine commentary which increases our appreciation of this film. Sure, the heightened clarity afforded by digital technology does show up some amateurish fx work, but this tip-of-the-hat to Franco's previous Orloff-ian adventures does contain some nerve-shredding scenes; not least when Lina Romay is taken to a secluded spot after being tracked down by her deadly 'client'. Watch out, too, for a continuity error regarding identification of the killer which takes place during the 81st minute.

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