Ripper: Letter From Hell (2001)

JULY 20, 2012


A while back, I wrote that the problem with most Jack the Ripper movies is that they have to give it an ending when the real life case didn’t have one. Well, the screenwriter of Ripper: Letter From Hell apparently had me in mind when he wrote his movie a decade or so earlier, as (spoiler) the movie is seemingly offering 2-3 possible solutions and leaving it to the audience to pick their favorite. That or it’s just really sloppy writing, which is always a possibility for DTV horror movies with Bruce Payne.

Payne plays the professor of the young, attractive folks that make up the rest of the cast, and they form a study group for his assignment about “getting into the mind of a serial killer” (can’t they just copy the work from 486025 other movie characters who had this sort of topic?). However, after one of them is killed early on (sadly, Kelly Brook’s character), they decide to apply what they know and what they planned to do in order to figure out who killed her. I don’t know why they thought the cops couldn’t handle that sort of thing, but at least they know about each kill as it happens instead of contrived nonsense (like in Urban Legend where everyone thinks Pacey is at a ski trip). This also prevents them from being TOO stupid for the most part, at least until the climax when they sort of have to do questionable things in order for the movie to keep going (if you’re a Community fan, see Abed’s idea of a scary movie from episode 305 for an example of a “smart” horror character – it’s boring as shit!).

There’s also a lot of attempt to make this something DEEP, as opposed to the typical whodunit slashers that were coming along in the late 90s and early 00s thanks to Scream (though by late 2001 they were all relegated to DTV status; I think Valentine was the last of that group to get a theatrical release). The Ripper case obviously carries more weight than the usual made up tragedy, and the heroine is a rather unlikable nutjob who bangs the professor at one point. In the film’s jarring opening sequence, we see her survive a group of murders on an island, played out as if it were the recap from a previous Ripper entry – it’s never fully explained, either, but at least we have an explanation for her behavior, and there’s more than one hint that she has come here because she suspects that Payne’s character is the killer.

And she’s played by the always welcome AJ Cook, which helps as she’s kind of obnoxious - berating her classmates right off the bat, stealing their ideas, and generally just being terrible. But Cook’s inherent likability allowed me to keep from hating her, and she softens some as the movie progresses (plus she rids herself of her terrible punk hair). Emmanuelle Vaugier is also on hand as one of the other study group members – this movie doesn’t suffer a drought of attractive women, that’s for sure.

It also has a surprising number of extended kill scenes. Not really STALK scenes; it’s more like the killer sort of sucks at his/her job, as he’ll lunge and cause an injury and then we’ll get another couple minutes of struggle. I could see if someone actually escaped early on and then this stuff would let us think that the others had a chance, but it’s a bit odd – once the character is isolated we know they’re dead, so why drag out the part where THEY pretty much know it too? Still, I liked some of the two-part kills, like when he forces a car off the road and then after some “where is he?” type panicking from the driver, he rams it from behind, sending her careening out the windshield and down a cliff. There’s also a logging saw death that is both gorier than expected and well executed – one of those “just when you think it’s over…” type setpeices.

However, it’s got some really stupid shit, like the ever obnoxious “Oh look our names all match up with the original victims” concept. It’s just the initials, but still – all the kids are in the same class; did the killer have to wait until there were 6 people with the right initials in the class to pull off his plan, or did he luck out? Then they do it AGAIN by lining all the names up in a certain way and showing that it spells out the occupation of the person accused of the killings. Come on, pick ONE idiotic thing to show how obnoxiously patient the killer had to have been, not two.

Also: the ending. Everything ties back to that confusing opening sequence, again giving the impression that this was a sequel to a movie since the person who seems to be the killer (at least, in this scene) had such a minimal presence here, to the extent where he almost seemed like a figment of Cook’s imagination. Then they opt to try to paint Cook herself as the killer, which would be fine if it all added up with previous scenes (unless they were going for some sort of High Tension type thing). Oh and then we see her living in the time of the actual Jack the Ripper before revealing it as a dream she’s having in a mental institute. Was the whole damn movie a dream? PICK A TWIST AND EXPLAIN IT.

Maybe the sequel sheds more light on it, though my friend Phil, who is a fan of this one, said it wasn’t very good, and from what I can tell it doesn’t have any of the cast/crew returning, so I can’t say I’ll be putting much effort into seeing it. It’s a perfectly serviceable slasher (if too long – 112 minutes!) and there are some fine sequences, but the convoluted ending and un-user friendly approach to the backstory keep it out of “must see” status.

What say you?

P.S. Halfway through it dawned on me that I was watching entertainment based on a horrific real life tragedy, which is always a touch exploitative to me anyway, but made me feel a bit worse given last night’s appalling events in Aurora. Still sort of stunned about it, given how many times I’ve been so excited about a movie that I’ve gone at midnight (in fact I came very close to going to see TDKR at midnight here in LA) – it’s pretty terrifying considering I’m usually more nervous about the drive over or even the alley from my garage to my apartment. I’ve been joking about the crazy Bat-fans all week, with some of those meatheads calling critics “cunt” or “faggot” because their reviews dared to point out flaws in their beloved movie, but I never considered this sort of event was possible. My thoughts and condolences to the victims and families, and I pray the rest of the weekend (and forever after) goes on without further incident inside what should be one of the safest and most wonderful places in the world: a theater with a packed audience of fans.

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