When someone says that a title went straight to DVD, it conjures up images in my mind of Transmorfers, I Am Omega, and other knockoff titles of the same ilk. However, when someone says that something went straight to video, I see that in an entirely different light. Then visions of 3'D box art and Full Moon Productions dominate my mind. The original VHS boom in the '80s' meant that the market was flooded with titles, but only a precious few of them were original material intended solely for the home video market. The first of such films made was 1985's Blood Cult, filmed over nine consecutive days by first time director Christopher Lewis, half-nephew of Ricardo Montalban. Shooting his first film in under a week and a half just wasn't enough for Lewis to accomplish in '85. He went for two. The second, while lacking the infamy of the first direct to video title, made a name for itself in an entirely different way. It starred special effects guru Tom Savini as the titular character, The Ripper, and they do mean that in a "Jack the-" sense.
In 1888, Jack the Ripper terrorized London's White Chapel district. (For more sketchy cimematic info see From Hell that historical maven Jess Franco's Jack the Ripper.In 1985, obviously not wanting to be predictable and wait until the 100th anniversary, Ripper style killings begin to pop up all over L.A. Meanwhile, Professor Richard Harwell (Tom Schreier) is just beginning the new semester of his class Famous Crimes in Cinema, covering the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, Bluebeard's Murders, and of course, the famous killings of Jack the Ripper. As chance would have it, Harwell comes across a ring he feels strangely drawn to in a antique store. After having contact with it, he begins to have visions of The Ripper committing his crimes, and soon he has to make it his own. The ring begins to affect the professor's demeanor, film nerd student Steve (Wade Tower), begins to suspect that his favorite teacher might just be the killer stalking the City of Angels.
Seeing as the main draw here is Tom "Sex Machine" Savini, then let's start off talking about The Ripper by talking about the splatter master. Savini is best known for his make-up work, but for the entire run of his career, he has made a point of inhabiting both sides of the camera. From his first appearance in Romero's Martin to Maniac, Knightriders, Two Evil Eyes, Zombigeddon, From Dusk Til Dawn, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Savini has fostered a cult of personality as strong around himself as a performer that easily rivals that of his behind the scenes work. For further proof, just check out his IMDB photo which looks much more like a Congressman's Craiglist ad more than one of the most revered icons of horror cinema (Not to say that he deserves it, from all accounts I've been given from convention goers, he's a real piece of work.) however, Savini cultists will be sorely disappointed here. While Tom plays the titular character, he really doesn't show up until the last 10 minutes for an unconditionally hammy appearance, diabolical mustache twirling included.
Not only was The Ripper an early direct to video offering, it was also shot on video as well. This cost cutting technique might be de rigueur for today's indie filmmaker, but anyone who remembers the 900 lb camcorders from back in the day, knows exactly how they looked and sounded. The entire film has the production value of an early MTV video, and no expense was spared when it came to smoke machines and bad lighting. (Though some of the lighting was clearly to disguise the fact that Savini doesn't appear in all The Ripper's scenes.) The Ripper also missteps when it comes to its scenes of gore. The Godfather of Gore's name above the title leads to an expectation of some real grisly grue in your near future. Unfortunately, the gutting scenes look straight out of a butcher shop waste-bin. I kept waiting around for a big payoff, but it never came.
While there's not too much else to talk about when it comes to The Ripper, I do want to mention a few of the actors. Lead actress Mona Van Pernis looked like a cross between a female Slim Goodbody and '70's porn star Sharon Mitchell, but as far as the level of acting in the film went, she was the standout of the lot. However more interesting was the relationship between Professor Harwell (Schreier) and Steve (Wade Tower). While in the beginning of the movie it seems like a fairly typical student-teacher relationship, although one brought together through mutual love of old horror films, as the film progresses, Steve's interest in his teacher seems more and more fraught with sexual tension. Though Steve and Harwell are both seen making out with their respective girlfriends, there's so many quiet long looks passed between the two of them to only chalk up to bad line delivery. While it adds nothing to the film, it is interesting to wonder how much of this allusion to a sexual desire was intentional and what is merely easily imposed by the viewer.
The Ripper probably wouldn't appear on any list of top slasher films, but on a list of Jack the Ripper flicks, it may belong at the bottom of the list however, it still belongs. It feels like with a script polish and a descent budget there could have been something to this movie. just as Robert England brought the Victorian Phantom of the Opera back to the cinema a few years later (successively in my opinion), Jack seems like he could have been a ripe subject for an '80's slasher to cover. As it stands, The Ripper is no more than a curiosity for fans of slasher horror films and Tom Savini. While Christopher Lewis is the granddaddy of direct to video titles, he also was the father of the first line of duds to bear that appellation. So thank him for the many wonderful direct to video titles that would line the store shelves, but if you see The Ripper, you'll truly understand how he kicked off the long tradition.