11/14/09

An Evening with Klaus Kinski: Jess Franco's Jack the Ripper (1976)

Over the years, there have been many people who’ve tackled the role of Jack the Ripper. From Tom Savini to Ian Holm to Anthony Perkins, many actors have stepped into the role, but when Jess Franco began his production on the classic tale, there was only one actor in his mind, Klaus Kinski. Franco never met a script that was full of violence and sex that he didn’t like, and with 190 films to his credit, I always think of him as the spiritual forefather of prolific filmmakers like Takashi Miike. Like Miike, Franco also never shied away from trying his hand at a variety of material. Still many people consider Jack the Ripper (1976) to be his most uncharacteristic film.

The film concerns itself with Dr. Orloff (Klaus Kinki), a physician whose practice is floundering with a string of low-income clients who can’t afford to pay. By night, the good doctor moonlights as Jack the Ripper terrorizing the back alleys of White Chapel. The case is taken up by Inspector Selby (Andreas Mannkoff) whose only leads are the vague impressions of a dowager and the smells picked up by a blind man. The Ripper eludes capture at every turn and continues his reign of terror aimed at London’s ladies of the night. When Selby’s girlfriend Cynthia (Josephine Chaplin) goes undercover without Selby’s knowledge, it’s a race for the Inspector to find Cynthia or the Ripper before she becomes the next victim.

If you’re looking for a film that bothers with historical accuracy, then you’re looking in the wrong place. You’re better off with the pseudo-history in the Hughes Brother’s film From Hell than taking a lesson from Professor Jess Franco. Very little in Franco’s film is even vaguely accurate, but that’s not what he was striving for. He was interested in portraying Jack the Ripper as a sexual sadist with seriously twisted oedipal issues. In one of the films most interesting scenes, Dr. Orloff has a vision of Cynthia dressed as a prostitute who provokes his ire by taunting him with his mother’s own past as a whore. That night to find his release, Orloff in Ripper mode hires a woman for sexual pleasure and cuts off both of her breasts. It doesn’t take a psychologist to see the symbolism is his choice of victims or the acts he perpetrates on them.

Most films about Jack the Ripper spend little time on the killer’s motives or modus operandi, and instead they turn their focus on the detective on the prowl for the murderer. While Jack the Ripper is far from a great film, it did spark my interest by pairing the mythos of the White Chapel murders with the sado-sexuality of Franco’s other films such as Eugenie or Justine. The film also maintains an air of creepy, voyeuristic sexuality though the lens of cinematographer Peter Baumgardener. He was well versed in erotic, or perhaps more accurately, sexploitation films from his pervious work on films such as Naked Stewardesses (1971) and Swedish Nympho Slaves (1976). From the aforementioned breast dicing to a scene where Dr. Orloff humps the body of another victim, the depraved sexual nature of the killer is definitely the film’s most interesting contribution to the cinematic persona of The Ripper.

Klaus Kinski was the perfect actor to play the deviant version of Jack the Ripper. With a face like a gargoyle, his perfectly placed blonde hair, and steely blue eyes, Kinski manner easily gives the impression of a man with a darkness barely contained behind his eyes. His performance in the film gives the whole of the proceedings weight, and there is never any doubt that he was the star. That being said, unlike his run-ins with Werner Herzog that I detailed last week, both Franco and producer Max Dora have praised Kinski for being communicative, easy going, and more than willing to give his best to help the film. In an interview on the DVD I watched, Dora even went so far as to say that Kinski pitched in and directed some of his own scenes. The version I watched which included the interview was from the official Jess Franco collection, and the special feature was enlightening and very interesting. However, the disk only contains an English dubbing that was middling at best. While it also had the film in its original German, it didn’t provide an English subtitle track to match up with it. I would have much rather heard Klaus deliver his lines in his native tongue rather than the clumsily dubbed voice, but I tried hard not to let this detract from my enjoyment of the film.

The supporting cast rarely rises above their roles although there are a few scenes sans Kinski that do stand out including a questioning session in Selby’s office that hit was sharply scripted. Andreas Mannkoff performance as Selby was serviceable, but he didn’t have enough of a presence to make an impression. Thankfully, he only shared a single scene with Kinski or his flaws would have become more apparent. More entertaining was the officer who always accompanied Selby. The actor that played him is not important. What made the character interesting was the performer who dubbed the voice. The voice he chose to give the officer was a broad caricature of a homosexual that would have been more at home in a dubbed version of La Cage aux Folles.

As usual with Jess Franco films, there is a bevy of beautiful, and generally fully naked, naked on display. Franco’s muse Lina Romay shows up as an Austrian girl in a dancehall before becoming one of the Ripper’s victims, and Esther Studer, another Franco regular, also plays a victim. The oddest casting among the beauties was Josephine Chaplin as Inspector Selby’s gal pal Cynthia. Chaplin was the daughter or Charlie and just getting her start in the business. Though she did not stack up in the looks department with many of the other women, her performance was interesting, and her scene as Dr. Orloff’s vision was undoubtedly her shining moment in the film.

Jack the Ripper does not look like a Jess Franco film, but the characters sure act as if they’re in one. To my knowledge, only Franco’s film has perused the idea of Jack the Ripper as a tortured sexual deviant, and taking this spin on it and focusing primordially on Jack set it apart from the dozens of other films on the subject. Jack the Ripper was not made as a piece of historical fiction, but instead, it serves as kind of psychological examination of the speculative motivations of the Ripper. It’s not going to be a film everyone loves, but if you enjoy Franco when he’s at his best, then this is one definitely worth your time.

Bugg Rating

1 comment:

  1. I have heard of this film but never bent over backwards to see it but think it is about time. I am learning to appreciate but Franco and Kinski later in life. I gave this post a link in my new Links of Uranium category. Will be searching for this soon.

    Bill

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