A Review by Noah Antwiler
The legend of Jack the Ripper is a muddled and complex one, full of dubious speculation and rampant conspiracy theory. The brutality of these murders, combined with the apparent surgical skill of the killer and the sensational aura of fear spread throughout London by prosperous newspaper circulation gave the Ripper murders an almost romantic mystique. The failure of the police to solve the case to anyone's satisfaction lent the Ripper an enduring notoriety as one of the most well-known, but still unknown serial killers in history. Indeed, the identity (or identities) of the perpetrator(s) has never been established, which has led authors the world over to write about possible candidates. These works range between analytical to the fantastical, or (in the case of Jack the Ripper Goes West) to the head-shakingly stupid.
Now, I haven't yet seen the picture; I prefer to go into these movies blind and write my impressions live as I watch them. But just looking at the title I gather that ol' Jack has run fresh out of prostitutes to murder in Whitechapel. Or perhaps he's decided to dodge the heat coming down off Scotland Yard and has fled the country, seeking easier prey in the dumb white cracker population of the American Southwest of the 1890s. I'm just not sure that Jack's usual modus operandi will fly. I imagine our erudite serial killer will be out of place in an Old West saloon, pounding shots of whiskey and stalking the girls of Miss Rosie's brothel, but oh, what comedy must ensue! I wonder if he'll also continue his infamous habit of taunting the police by mailing them the internal organs of his victims by Pony Express. "I say, Marshal, you'll never take me alive, old chap."
It's not the way I would have gone, but then I would have just gone wacky and made Jack the Ripper Goes Hawaiian or Jack the Ripper vs. The Mummy. Let's see what the synopsis on the back of the case says...
"A mutilating knife-killer haunts the small Southwest-desert town of Mescal. (Mescalin, that's what I need...) Though most victims have been prostitutes (So there will be prostitutes in this movie! That's a good sign.), the first was none other than Travis Mescal, the only son of the town's first family. (try diagramming that sentence) When the Sheriff (Jack Elam) (they mention this like I should give a shit) proves unable to solve the case (his name is Jack-- COINCIDENCE??), the town leaders invite Investigator Burns (Jeff Cooper) to unravel the mystery. Along the way, he confronts tension with the Sheriff (sexual tension...) trouble with some citizens (we want our whores back!) and finally a killer whose motive we've heard before in Ripper-lore."
Hm. Well they're playing their cards close to their vest, I see. No revelations as to who the supposed "Jack the Ripper" will be, or if it's connected in any way to the Whitechapel killings. Well played, sir...but you see I'm no stranger to murder mysteries. I'm an avid reader of the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, student of the deductive method, and I rule at the Clue board game. (Did you ever face a bit of a conundrum when you discovered that you were the killer but didn't know it? "Ladies and gentlemen, I did it in the Conservatory with the Rope! And I'm glad I did it! GLAD, DO YOU HEAR?")
Anyway, I want you readers at home to know that I am on this case. I'll figure out who Jack the Ripper is, lickety-split, and I'll stake my reputation on the fact that I can do it before the killer is revealed. Call this review my own little private episode of CSI: Spoony Experiment. The investigation begins...
The movie came to me packaged in a multi-DVD set, the kind of sets that consider "Interactive Menus" and "Chapter Selection" to be "DVD Special Features." Like my collection of Sonny Chiba DVDs, all they usually do is get a crummy VHS copy transfer someone recorded off TV. Subtitles are a rare luxury, and most of the time the interactive DVD menu really is a special feature because sometimes you put the DVD in and the movie just runs on its own. So I was quite surprised when I put the DVD inside and was greeted with a menu screen-- an apologetic little amalgam of two screen captures crudely spliced together between a red "slash" across the center. In the background is a grainy shot of a nude brunette woman, but my eyes are drawn immediately to the lumpy, Joe Don Bakeresque physique in the foreground wearing a cowboy hat and a badge. His eyes are heavy-lidded, as if cellulite has infiltrated even his t-zone, making his brow a greasy, looming mass of flab. He has a massive jowl that protrudes beyond his chin and has actually enveloped the collar of his shirt, making his bulbous head resemble a baked potato balanced precariously atop a glazed doughnut. The way his eyes are angled downward makes me immediately think that he's looking down at my crotch, and combined with the "eeeeeeesh" expression his face, maybe he is.
But what surprises me even more than the menu screen is the funky, dare-I-say, 1970s-style rockabilly theme song that accompanies it! This is the first thing that I hear:
Evil lady's gonna get you in her spell.
BAM!! So the killer is a woman! DAMN I'm good! Let's hear more!
Paradise is what she'll offer you,
More than likely a prostitute. A killer prostitute! Do I win? Is this some kind of record? Have I just solved the murders in 0 seconds? There's still more song to go...
stardust and a silver spoon.
Rainbow-colored dreams to fill your mind
Stardust and spoons? Oh! I know! Heroin! Ummmm, a killer hooker with a heroin problem! Or it could be Tinkerbell. An evil Tinkerbell.
Even though it feels so right
You'll wake up in the morning light
and find that you're in Hell.
Evil lady's gonna get you in her spell.
Whoa, this is starting to sound like most of the dates I've had. I've played the crying game many times before...The melody sounds exactly like a slightly more-coherent version of "MacArthur Park" without all that mention of cakes being left out in the rain. But I digress.
Anyway, my list of suspects so far are:
- A murdering prostitute - Tinkerbell
I'm going to deductively eliminate Tinkerbell becuase she's not listed in IMDB. Just a hunch.
The movie started to play automatically at this point, so I had no choice but to watch. We open in one of the local brothels at night. A young man is getting dressed after some nauseating coital escapades with the local wench, lying in repose on the bed in the foreground. For a full twenty seconds, we watch him dress in silence, and I marvel at how he's managed to crowbar that much hair into a Buster Brown-style part on his left side. He looks a lot like Joey Lawrence to me. You know, the guy on the television series Blossom that said "whooooa!" all the time?
"Tomorrow's my night off," he says, hands wedged in the back of his pants. "Maybe I can stay a little longer, Miss Lady." Actually, I don't know for sure that's what he said, but the sound quality is so bad that I've got my speakers red-lined and I still can't make out what he's saying.
Miss Lady, being a whore, probably doesn't give a good god damn how long Joey Lawrence stays as long as he pays for the time. She rolls over onto her belly, exposing nothing due to the Blanket of Convenient Obfuscation (tm) that conceals all her naughty bits. "Talk to me tomorrow," she mumbles.
"Goodnight, Miss Lady," Joey whimpers as he leaves. What is he saying? Is he Jerry Lewis or something? Oh Miss Laaaaaaadyyyyy!
But once Joey's gone, we can see someone else enter the room. Only the feet, of course, wearing shiny black shoes. The person steps deliberately over to Miss Lady's bedside. "Damn it, Anus," she says (at least, that's what I hear) "I told you to go home!" Actually, you didn't. When she rolls over, the mystery person swipes a knife across her collarbone, which in this movie is enough to be considered a mortal wound. I guess. The credits begin, consisting of someone hitting a random progression of four notes on a Casio CX-800 keyboard set to the Waterfall sound effect. The "music" plays against a backdrop of bubbling red Kool-Aid, but all I care about at the moment is who is actually going to take credit for directing this garbage. And finally I see it: Larry G. Spangler. One quick trip to IMDB later and I learn that this is Larry Spangler's first and only directoral effort (thank God), but before this he was the writer and producer for the films The Legend of Nigger Charley and The Soul of Nigger Charley. And somehow this guy's career never took off! I guess maybe it was when he went to all those swanky Hollywood producer parties and someone asked him what projects he's worked on, when he responded "The Legend of Nigger Charley" everyone in the room beat the everlasting shit out of him.
Now we can see someone writing a letter. "Dear Mr. Burns," the writer narrates, "My name is Simeon Hollyfield." ("My name is Madeup McPhony") "President of the Mascal City Bank. I'm taking the liberty of coming to see you on a matter of extreme urgency!" We can see as he reads this the boots of a scrawny man walking around, boarding a train, and various other traveling motifs. Why is this guy writing a letter telling him that he's coming over? Just go! I didn't know you needed to make appointments to see private investigators.
The investigator in question is Edward Burns, a man voted Most Likely to Look Like Mozart by his senior class. "Three murders?" he asks, "Your letter only mentioned two."
The bank manager, who I'm going to call McWormy because his name is retarded, hesitates. "There was another before I left...She was stabbed just like the others." Au contraire, movie, but the woman I just saw get killed wasn't stabbed. Someone cut her throat!
Then the scene cuts with all the grace of bus crash over to the lumpy sheriff, who slams the door on the way into his office. I'm still trying to recover the whiplash of the abrupt jump-cut, and not concentrating on the crappy audio to make out what he's bitching about, but it sounds like this: "I smell a body! Eighteen years I been bangin' heads, wipin' noses, workin' round the clock and what do I get fer it? A damn kickina butt! Kickina butt!" The sheriff proceeds to chew all the available scenery as he screams this, kicking a file cabinet, smacking the wall, and thumping a tin cup against his furniture like Kruschev thumping his shoe against a podium during his "we will bury you" speech. A kid behind the desk looks on with narrowed eyes as if he's finally seen for the first time that the old man has gone batshit insane.
The sheriff's pissed off that McWormy went over his sweaty, oily head to hire a P.I. "He's bringin' in some fancy detective, name o' Burns er somethin'! Says I had two months on this case and ain't solved nothin'! Well I'm only one man, and two months ain't very long!" Yeah! It's only...sixty days...What do these people expect out of him, results or something? Sheesh! He's not a miracle worker, you know! (Note to Billy the Kid: if you're looking for a place to hole up, I suggest Mescal!)
The sheriff throws the kid out so he can throw his temper tantrum in peace. He digs out a bottle of Wild Turkey and pours himself a shot. Frankly, I'm amazed Sheriff Lardass bothers with the glass, but the reason the investigation is taking so long is becoming clearer already. This guy would be outmatched by Bugs Bunny, to say nothing of Jack the Ripper. The kid grabs up his fiddle and goes off to his music lesson after saying hi to the local hispanic family. One of them is a pretty Mexican lady named Nina, and she's joined by a merry-looking fellow offering a bottle of tequila as a gift. Seth mumbles something about having to go or else he'll have to polish the Sheriff's belt buckle again, and I spend the next minute hurling.
Apparently the lesson has taken eight hours or something because the camera goes outside while the lesson is going on, and it's suddenly become the dead of night. The kid is sawing his violin bow back and forth completely out of time with the caterwauling coming out of his instrument, but louder than the violin is the instructor's metronome which I literally mistook at first for the sound of someone out back chopping wood.
We can see Jack the Ripper's feet pacing around somewhere, while the metronome continues to crack away. Soon the violin gets drowned out competely and all we hear is the metronome getting louder and louder as Jack stalks the nice Mexican lady as she comes outside to collect her laundry off the clothesline. *POK...POK...POK...* I get it!! Tension! Telltale Heart homage! Fine! The Mexican lady shrieks at the sight of her murderer, and the camera cuts to a POV shot in her perspective as a knife plunges into the cameraman's chest. The kid (whose name is Seth, I finally gather) stumbles across the body and gives out the most womany, Ned Flanders-like scream to ever come out of a young boy. It would probably be a lot scarier if the woman wasn't clearly breathing when she's supposed to be dead.
Seth's shrill girlish screaming rouses the whole town, and they waste no time in forming a good ol' torch-wielding lynch mob. The sheriff stops chowing on his kidney pie long enough to ask if there was anyone else at the house the last time he saw. Seth mentions something about seeing "Ramon the Horse-Thief," a guy I figured was just the dead woman's husband (stupid me). The next morning, Inspector Burns rides in on the stagecoach and sees that some resourceful townsfolk have wasted no time on silly stuff like due process and lynched Ramon in the middle of the road. It's stuff like that that just screams to tourists "Welcome to Mescal!"
Burns is more than a little confused when he brings Ramon's body back into town, lashed on top of the stagecoach. Everyone in town seems completely satisfied that Ramon was the killer simply because Seth says he saw him there that morning. Burns looks at all of them like they're completely retarded (and right now I can't argue) and suggests "don't you believe that an accused man is entitled to a fair trial, according to the law?"
Sheriff Lardass is incredulous. "Don't you start preachin' law to me, mister! I know the law!" Yeah! Don't you bring your newfangled city-Constitution 'round these parts, boy! Around here we live by the code o' gettin' drunk and hangin' folk! Stick your head in the sand and things'll blow over! Burns wants to know who hung Ramon, because nobody's coming forward to admit it. The sheriff is righteously pissed now because while he's out here arguing with this city-folk, his pork chops are getting cold. "Now lissen here, Burns! I'm the sheriff here, and I been gettin' along fine without yer advice!" Uh huh, four murders and a lynching on your watch, things are absolutely peachy. Burns eventually just throws up his hands in frustration and tries to get some work done by himself.
Burns' first stop is the local undertaker. He asks the man who he thinks killed the victims, to which the undertaker shrugs and says that he doesn't know and doesn't really care. His job's just to dress the stiffs up and plant 'em. "Strange that a man of your profession has so little compassion," notes Burns, which seems to really light the guy's fuse.
"Compassion?! You think being a town undertaker is my life's ambition?" (I wanted to be a lumberjack!) He says he doesn't know why Burns bothers wasting his time chasing down the killer of three whores. The mention of prostitutes makes Burns perk up. Awright!
He and McWormy go to visit the affluent Elizabeth Mescal in her manor, and there they discuss the murder of the three women, and whether she things the death of her son was connected at all. "Indeed not! If Travis knew any of...those women...then that was his affair." She looks more than a little pissed off at the accusation, and prepares herself a cup of tea, dumping the contents of some wax-paper packet into it, explaining that it's something that helps curb her depression. Drug use and a disdain for prostitutes? I'm calling it, right now! Elizabeth Mescal is Jack the Ripper! You heard it here first!
Burns can't seem to believe that everyone in this town has their head up their ass and says "a definite similarity exists between all the deaths (you stupid bimbo)" like the fact that they were all knifed to death in the same time period, but Elizabeth is willing to write that off as coincidence.
The kid, Seth, visits Burns in his hotel room that night. It looks like Burns prefers to study his notes half-naked. "I think I lied. I didn't really see Ramon kill Nina."
"You think you lied? Either you saw the six-foot Mexican knife a woman to death or you didn't, you jackhole!" says Burns. Only he doesn't. Instead he just invites the kid into his room. Whoa. Let's put a shirt on now, mmkay?
Cut to a horrible, HORRIBLE shot of the Sheriff in his pink jammies, stained with underarm sweat and body grease. Auuuuugh! I can see his belly hair!! "WHAT??" he bellows, mouth opening wide and releasing a visible cloud of garlic-and-ham funk. His head looks like a caramel apple left out in the sun! "Seth LIED to me?"
"Well, let's call if a half-truth," Burns says. Um, no, let's call it complete bullshit. Seth saw Ramon like eight hours before the murder.
"You must be real proud o' yerself! Ya made me look like a damn fool!" Um. Yeah. Burns did that.
"You brought it on yourself, Jarod...Ramon got hung on your word." Burns sighs. The Sheriff's name is Jarod? Jarod Lardass? I would have guessed it was "Drunkie" or "Asshat."
At Burns' words, the Sheriff looks morose. "I didn't think of that." NOOOO! Really?? Please, please GOD can we wait until the Sheriff has his pants closed?? I can't focus on this movie while this ugly bastard is stuffing his shirt into his pants and touching his wrinkled, crusty penis.
"That's your problem, Sheriff. You never think!"
Lardass, for a brief but hilarious moment has an expression on his face that says "Awww ya got me." But then he sucker-punches Burns in the gut and follows up with a double-fisted Riker uppercut under his chin! Lardass is like a house on fire, raining his meaty fists down on Burns. The P.I. manages to land some shots until the Sheriff clocks him with a wooden stool. Unfortunately this much physical exertion causes the sheriff's heart to seize and they both collapse back into their neutral corners to regain their strength. I didn't think it was possible, but the Sheriff has actually become sweatier. The sheriff's niece, Jennie Colcourt, a prissy virginal young lady splits them up. Lardass takes his leave to go throw up and have another heartattack while Jennie busts Burns' balls.
"Being a sheriff is all my uncle knows how to do! And without that he's nothing!" I got news for you, Jennie, all your uncle knows how to do is fart and sweat. "Do your job, Mr. Burns," she says with her nose high, "only leave something of my uncle along the way!" I think there's plenty of your uncle to go around...
Amazingly, burns looks cowed at Jennie's bitch-fit and goes outside to apologize. They decide to join forces now that all of that awkward male (sexual) tension is out of the way. That's one way women are different than men. Women need to actually relate to one another and talk out their differences. Men need a cage match.
That morning, Myra, the waitress in Hooker's Saloon finds Burns. Burns invites her in and gets dressed while she outlines her story. Eeeeew, what is with this movie's obsession with showing dudes putting their pants on? I've seen way too much Old West underwear than I ever wanted to. She tells him that she knows the guys who hung Ramon, and while she can't prove it, she identifies a square of fabric with a metal buckle found on his body as belonging to one of the men involved. Where did this thing originate? I don't know! Burns never mentioned it until this very moment. It's an awfully big thing, you'd have thought I'd have noticed.
Seth runs into the saloon on the behest of the sheriff and delivers the buckle-thing (I still don't even know what it is) to one of the bar-flies. Everyone starts freaking out, wondering what they should do and arguing about how much the sheriff knows. The sound is so bad I can't make out half the conversation, and even when someone mentions what the buckle-thing is, I can't catch the word. I tried to replay it six times and I still don't know what it is. "It was your *koncher* they found, not mine!" I don't know. Anyway, they all start fighting about "whose bright idea was this" and "maybe we shouldn't have hung that guy for no good reason" until the bartender whips out a pistol and shoots everyone. Just how many men's deaths does this make Seth directly responsible for? Five?
Lardass and Burns were waiting for this and spring their "trap" on the bartender. He gets on his horse and starts to ride off, but the sheriff gets in the way, rifle pointed and ready! The bartender manages to draw, cock, and fire his pistol twice at the sheriff, whose reflexes are so obliterated by decades of alcohol abuse and undercooked beef that all he manages to do is launch himself backwards behind some crates instead of firing the weapon he had trained on the man for a full ten seconds previously. Hooker is halfway down main street by the time Lardass lurches back to his feet and shoots him in the back. Just...wow.
Burns goes back to his hotel room and finds Myra's body hung up on a coat-hook, her throat slashed. Strange that she has a knife-wound across her throat, but there isn't any blood in the room or on her body. Whoops!
Burns decides that he wants to get a look at Travis Mescal, because apparently nobody got a look at the body except the undertaker, so he goes to the cemetary to exhume the casket. While he's taking a prybar to the tomb, the sheriff leaps out of nowhere and claps a hand on his shoulder, grinning like an idiot in one of the least-effective attempts at a cheap scare I've ever seen. Together they haul out the coffin. "I guess you know we're breakin' the law," grins the sheriff.
"This is in the pursuit of justice!" Burns declares. For great justice! But when they crack open the casket, they find that it's filled with sandbags! Oh no! The undertaker is involved in some kind of coverup! We see him talking to Myra's dead body, rambling about how nobody has any right to judge him, blah blah blah. He starts pacing the room until Jack the Ripper's arm thrusts out of the nearby window holding a knife and the undertaker very obligingly walks straight into it.
The next morning, Burns confers with the local pharmacist about the medication that Mrs. Mescal has been taking. The pharmacist says that he gave her a month's worth of medicine, but Burns says that the box he saw was almost empty. Um, when did he see this, exactly? The box I saw had a fair amount of medicine packets inside it. But whatever. She says that she's taking it for depression, but Burns thinks that she's using it for something else to explain how quickly she's going through her dosage. The pharmacist flips open his Giant Book of Medicine and reads that the arsenic medicine she gave Mescal can, in large quantities can be used to treat skin diseases such as syphillis. Of course I already knew that...um...I mean that's very interesting...
Meanwhile, Jennie is playing piano up at Mrs. Mescal's house (why?). Liz stops her (because she sucks) and takes her upstairs to a blue silk curtain. "Ooooh, it's lovely!" Jennie says, until a grinning Elizabeth sweeps the curtain aside to reveal...
There's a weird guy behind an iron door with an Inigo Montoya moustache and peeling skin. It looks like that Ortega guy of The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, only without the stogie. Ortega grabs Jennie by the hair while Elizabeth tries to get the door open.
Ortega throws Jennie onto the bed and leaps on top of her while a cheeky-looking Elizabeth sits nearby to watch the festivities. Jennie squeals like a piglet for about two minutes while Ortega wrestles with her making gorilla noises ("Hrrooooo! Hrrooooooggg!"). But Jennie counterattacks by smashing a vase over his head!
Jennie runs for the hills with Elizabeth hot on her heels! Some psycho mutant killer you turned out to be, Jack! Liz takes up a knife and chases her down the halls, screaming something about her being a whore just like the ones who gave her son syphillis. Um...Jennie's not a whore, is she? If she is, I totally missed that one. I thought she was just a music instructor.
Jennie falls down the stairs, and just as Elizabeth is about to stab her, Ortega grabs her arm. Furious, Liz wheels around and confronts him. "Why don't you appreciate what I'm doing, son?" she moans, "I did it for you! I killed them for you!" Man I love it when I'm right!
Outside, Burns and Lardass hear the screaming going on and hurry up to the house. Burns struggles with the door and finds it locked until the sheriff boots it open with a half-hearted swat of his foot. "I KILLED THEM FOR YOUUUUUU!!" Liz howls, raising her knife to stab her son! No, don't kill Ortega!! The sheriff rushes into the room (well, "rush" isn't quite the right word. "Stumble" might be better. Or "stagger.") and shoots her. A surprisingly difficult shot, really. Liz and Ortega fall over the banister and hit the floor hard. The camera cuts to Jennie who is still looking up the stairs (where Liz and Ortega no longer are) and screams a half-second too late looking in the wrong direction (as if she were waiting for her cue). Great editing, guys.
Burns tries to comfort Jennie, who's hooting like a goddamn howler monkey at the maximum volume of my speakers. I guess their microphones had no problem picking that up. The sheriff inspects the tangle of boddies on the floor, but alas, Ortega has died once again. Those bastards!
The movie concludes (so to speak) by watching a badly out-of-focus long shot of a man so out-of-shape it could only be the sheriff watching a stagecoach leave town as the "Evil Lady in MacArthur Park" song plays us out. Uhm, is it just me or did the words "Jack the Ripper" never cross anyone's lips once in this entire movie?