horror cinema

JACK THE RIPPER ‘THE DEMENTED GENIUS’ – HIS DEEDS AND TIMES

MURDER BY DECREE

CANADA/UK 1979

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In the late 1960s Nic Cohn published an account of popular music. The title of the book, A WopBopAlopBamBoom, was a reference to a great rock and roll hit by Little Richard. Cohn nominated Last Train To San Fernando by Johnny Duncan as the best record made in Britain in the 1950s. The argument for the surprising claim was simple. Everything else was rubbish. Something similar can be said for Murder By Decree. If the film is the best of the Jack The Ripper movies, the competition is not great. The Lodger and Lulu have merit and may even be masterpieces but although serial killers are important to their plots they do not deserve a place on lists of Jack The Ripper movies.   Johnny Duncan could sing and strum, and Murder By Decree beats its competitors.

From Hell, which was made twelve years later, had more poetical ambition but that ambition was not realised.   Murder By Decree is different. It aspires to nothing more than entertainment, something to be consumed like a satisfying but plain British dinner. The movie relies on competency and craftsmanship rather than inspiration and it sidesteps innovation.  Indeed, the notion of having Sherlock Holmes investigate the Jack the Ripper murders had been tried before in the 1965 movie A Study In Terror. That movie patronised its working class characters and made the fatal mistake of allowing the talentless British Georgia Brown to perform two songs.  With no sense of what was either amusing or thrilling the movie refused to come to life.

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Murder Be Decree has sly light humour and intrigue. This unambitious movie feels like a victory for the technocrats over the poets.   Perhaps in a film that features Sherlock Holmes this is it how should be, a celluloid echo of the science of Holmes and the no-nonsense values of his creator Arthur Conan Doyle.  Murder By Decree is not perfect. Some of the interior scenes are routine, and the final confrontation where Holmes explains the aristocratic conspiracy could have been done in a quarter of the time.   There are almost twenty minutes between the climax of the film and the final titles. Yet it is not difficult to forgive the transgression.

The plot is based on the theory in the non-fiction book Jack The Ripper The Final Solution. According to the author Stephen Knight, there was an aristocratic conspiracy.  Knight alleged that the Duke of Clarence fathered a child and that the mother Annie Crook was hidden in a mental institution. The deceit was known by five prostitutes who were murdered to protect the secret.   The Duke of Clarence was an unimpressive individual but the theory has holes. For example, the child was conceived when Annie Crook lived in Britain and the witless Duke was wasting his days in mainland Europe.

Providing we ignore the facts, the theory makes an entertaining tale, which is why it has been used more than once by moviemakers. From Hell in 2001 and Jack The Ripper, a TV drama from 1988, both recommended the Knight account as the solution. Murder By Decree adds Sherlock Holmes, so it should feel even more opportunistic.   But the script is interested in its characters and there are subtle references that share knowledge of the actual history of the crimes and their investigation. The makers of Murder By Decree have taken time to think about what they are doing.  Nothing in the movie feels cheap or cynical, and in a Jack The Ripper movie that is rare.

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John Hopkins wrote the screenplay. He came to fame in the 60s because of his tight scripts for Z Cars.  Hopkins does not overwrite.  Back then playwright Dennis Potter was heralded for his vision but Hopkins had the superior craft and technical skill. Boosted by his success on Z Cars, Hopkins was allowed by the BBC to write a four play series called Talking To A Stranger. Each of the plays tells what happened in the same weekend but from the point of view of a different character. Talking To A Stranger is regarded as a television masterpiece. In 1979, when he worked on Murder By Decree, Hopkins had acquired plenty of experience. His work was uneven but he was also prolific and versatile.   Hopkins was not the equal of Harold Pinter but he always had his moments. There are a couple in Murder By Decree. Watson is struggling to lift the last pea off his dinner plate. Holmes, always the lateral thinker, borrows the fork of Watson to squash the pea. The doctor is offended. He had wanted to eat the pea while it was still whole. Apart from being humorous and a welcome break from essential exposition the short scene defines the relationship between the two very different men.   Later, Watson visits a London pub to find a witness amongst the East End. He talks to a prostitute who thinks she has attractions that her peers lack. She is proud of her full set of teeth but during the conversation the prostitute realises that one of her tooth has loosened.   A simple idea explains a precarious livelihood and the defiance and lopsided delusion that the poor need to persist. For once the prostitutes in Murder By Decree are not patronised and reduced to being chirpy cockneys. There is conflict between the women, and in a subsequent scene Hopkins is able to describe quickly what it must be like for a poor woman to be dependent on a hopeless male.   What possessed a seasoned professional like Hopkins to extend the final scene is a mystery.

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If the script is sturdy, the accomplished cast take it to another level.  Christopher Plummer leaves no room for doubt as Sherlock Holmes, and James Mason adds real dignity to the modest contribution of Doctor Watson. The script is well written but it is hokum. The actors could be excused for being frivolous but they treat their performances as serious work. They grace the film with their presence.  There are also dignified cameo performances from Frank Finlay and David Hemmings.  Geneviève Bujold appears as Annie Crook for one scene only.  She is discovered by Holmes in the asylum. The emotional scene between the shocked and upset Holmes and the ruined Crook could have unbalanced a modest film but the two actors ensure we are affected by a tragedy that is not real but typical.

Bob Clark directed the film and Reginald H Morris was the cameraman. Neither managed milestones in their careers but something went right when they combined for Murder By Decree. Perhaps the craftsmanship of Hopkins and the presence of gifted actors inspired Clark and Morris to remember their own technical skills.  The shots of Parliament behind the Thames evoke the paintings of Whistler.   For once the fog is not white. It does not have the authentic and sickly yellow tint but it is gloomy.  In early scenes we see the face of the assassin but like the vague witnesses of the Ripper we know we cannot identify him.  Indoors, the photography is less impressive but there the focus is on the actors, and Morris still leaves his mark with a memorable wide-angle shot that is filmed through a mirror. Holmes talks to three visitors who stand at the back of the room. The open carriage journeys through Victorian London not only give the movie visual distinction but reveal Holmes and Watson as gentlemen at ease with the city around them.

 

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The plot may be based on nonsense but it does no harm to the British people if the Royal Family is portrayed as a shower of violent hypocrites, the pinnacle of the social exploitation that marred Victorian society. And if the Royal Family had nothing to do with the Ripper murders, there is enough in the history of our monarchs to justify a movie suggesting this particular family would not be averse to slaughter.   The script of Hopkins is as harsh with the radical politicians. The left wing Inspector Foxborough is a man who welcomes the Ripper murders because in his opinion it will precipitate social change. Holmes condemns Foxborough as a heartless man too willing to sacrifice innocent working people. This gives the film political balance, and it is consistent with how a man like Sherlock Holmes would think. Radical politics would have been beyond the great detective but, like Conan Doyle, Sherlock was capable of civilised compassion. The condemnation of Foxborough, though, does feel glib, especially as the judgement by Holmes is repeated in the overextended fourteen minute scene at the end of the movie. People adopted radical politics in 1888 for a good reason. They were horrified by the plight of the poor. At least we are given the satisfaction of seeing three powerful men humbled by the final revelations of Holmes. The consolation is that the powerful will always be paranoid about the threat of masses and that gives them real discomfort.   Fourteen minutes, though, is still too long for it to be explained.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

USA, 2010

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The poster for the movie is smart and mysterious. The cabin is detached from the woods it is supposed to be inside.   It offers a clue to what will make the movie different. This horror movie will have an added dimension. The Cabin In The Woods earned twice the considerable amount of money it cost to make and received critical acclaim. An inevitable sequel followed. The movie demonstrates originality and intelligence. There are some witty lines of dialogue, and serious ideas about both horror movies and the limitations of the modern world exist behind the mayhem. The movie is misanthropic and, despite the humour and wit, informed by despair. Those who like the film are entitled to the distractions it offers. They laugh at smart in-the-know jokes and feel gratified because they have identified the serious themes. Some of us, though, are not so easily flattered, and the success of Joss Whedon depends on audiences that are susceptible to flattery.

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Many years ago the film critic in Punch magazine asked, ‘how do you burlesque a burlesque?’ He was talking about the James Bond films of the sixties and the various send-ups that followed.   Most of these spy spoofs have been forgotten. The movies were limp and tedious. More important the humour in those films was irrelevant. The jokes were already in the original Bond films. Absurdity has existed in popular culture and entertainment for over three thousand years. What appear to be cheese and corn to one generation were previously recognised as audacity and irony by others. All we have to do to understand this is read Homer and Shakespeare. Not every attempt at audacity and irony succeeds. The level of success helps define quality but views regarding what is tolerable absurdity change. The impossible antics of superheroes of today would be laughed at by a mediaeval audience if we could find one.

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Although completed in 2010 The Cabin In The Woods appeared in cinemas in 2012. Scream director Wes Craven had already exposed the routine formula behind horror movies fourteen years earlier in 1996.   The jokes or point had been made. One of the attempts at humour in The Cabin In The Woods is embarrassing and crude.   The typical bulky handsome hero suggests that the four college friends separate to cover more ground in what is a small cabin. The joke is that this always happens in horror movies. Instead of staying together the victims part and allow not only the monster to kill them one by one but also the proliferation of set pieces. The problem with the scene is that the joke is several decades too late. Hitchcock managed the trick of separating the victims in Psycho but he had a smart scriptwriter. When the overrated Alien arrived in 1979, we were already familiar with the cliché and the device.

The script of The Cabin In The Woods was written in three days. This is not necessarily bad. The audacity that genre entertainment needs is often inspired or facilitated by contempt. Take a potboiler too seriously and it will become leaden and stodgy.   But two people worked on the script of The Cabin In The Woods. The moment that calls for the group to separate, and a few others, should have set off alarm bells. Writing in three days the script of a film that has had blockbuster appeal requires talent but even the gifted writer benefits from having the time to become acquainted with his characters and plot. If the writers are not engaged with the story, it is no surprise if it fails to involve those who are interested in something more than sarcastic spectacle. There is also something distasteful about spending $30m on a film that satirises the efforts of filmmakers who had a fraction of that budget.

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The Cabin In The Woods is a deliberate and textbook example of postmodern culture. The movie has an original concept and approach but avoids original moments. Instead, Joss Whedon creates a kaleidoscope jumble of clichés and familiar moments. This is not a criticism. Not just horror movies are targeted, and there is some reward in identifying the various references, elements and genres.   What The Cabin In The Woods lacks, though, is a cohesive whole. The movie feels like two films tacked together, the old spooky dark house in the first half and the dystopian technological nightmare in the second.   Each section has a different objective or target and neither is given enough attention.   The characters and the movie leave the old dark house too soon for it to be a satisfying examination of horror movies.   Compared to what other filmmakers have achieved with old dark houses the satire in The Cabin In The Woods is underdeveloped.   We are familiar with the caricatures and their predictable fates. This is okay but their premature demise is not.   As in Alien, the moments of slaughter appear as sudden shocks rather than the conclusion of scenes of suspense.   There is humour in The Cabin In The Woods but most of it is confined to the dialogue. The visual potential of horror is considerable, which is why it attracts young and ambitious directors ready to demonstrate cinematic style.   In The Cabin In The Woods the best visual effects exist near the end of the film.

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The climax is a dystopian nightmare that precipitates an Armageddon. Compared to The Cabin In The Woods the ambition of Westworld is modest. Nothing can justify an apocalypse but before we are doomed there are brief pleasures. The insert from Japan is clever. Whedon takes a sly dig at Japanese horror movies and the need of those directors to feature innocent schoolgirls. The corridor shots inside the computer centre after the widespread slaughter confirm how the human imagination is degraded in a world designed to provide gratification and little else. The descent of the elevator down to the technological hub and nerve centre is also very fine. The violence is restrained because the monsters are trapped behind glass walls. The journey is haunting rather than violent and it is very sinister.

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The Cabin In The Woods is not the only film to invite us to watch another audience and its creation. For the structure to succeed, though, there needs to be more than scattergun fun and jokes that most of us are primed to expect. Yet despite the second rate mockery The Cabin In The Woods does not feel like self-indulgence. If anything, the movie suggests atonement by Joss Whedon for some of the escapist nonsense that has brought him fame and wealth. The final scene, which is about as unhappy as could be imagined, reveals the hidden truth about the fascist fantasies that Hollywood and Whedon have called action movies. In a contest between superheroes and super villains decency and humanity will be found not amongst the supposed good guys waging battle but off screen amongst ordinary and undistinguished people. This is more than whimsy. Amidst his atonement Joss Whedon shares his misgivings about the modern world. The Cabin In The Woods is loaded with warnings. Imaginations programmed for sadistic thrills will not be alert to the consequences of their behaviour. The final murder in The Cabin In The Woods is ignored by the spectators inside the movie.   Technology also makes us remote from human feeling. The bureaucrats and technicians place bets on outcomes rather than worry about the fate of human beings.   Thanks to technology the corporate world can hide behind machines and secret algorithms.   The technicians in The Cabin In The Woods are the new unapproachable secular gods. Faced with their power, old-fashioned heroism, as the two survivors realise, is futile.

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Horror movies are conceptual and have the virtue of teasing out the hidden neuroses of human beings. But the sadistic taste for mindless gore that exists amongst some horror fans cannot be denied.   Nothing exposes our double standards more than our attitude to physical pain in our neighbours.   We can be sympathetic but pragmatism about suffering and stoicism is for other people. Right now the utilitarian politicians that run the world have decided to escalate the conflict in Syria. A few of the powerful decided that bombs and casualties were needed to make a point to other powerful people. These decisions could mean a lot of innocent Syrians will experience additional physical pain and premature death. Those making the decisions may have to risk a disadvantage in future meetings with rivals but they will, of course, be immune to any of the physical pain. In their world of bulletproof limousines and obsequious lackeys any discomfort is minimal for these self-imagined good guys. The rest of us in the West may not share the luxury of our masters but, like the bureaucrats in The Cabin In The Woods, we have the benefit of watching the suffering of others on large TV screens.   Some of us object to the creation of violent conflict in remote lands but many of us fail to sustain our protest. Others, often middle-aged males, respond with enthusiasm to the prospect of a battle that will not involve them.   Nothing adds to the spectacle on our screens quite like violence.   Escalation of the Syrian conflict means more people will die in a country in which there has already been unnecessary death and carnage. Some TV viewers, though, will open cans of beer and cheer.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.