2 Ripping BD Yarns From Severin… Monty Berman’s JACK THE RIPPER and Ivan Nagy’s SKINNER, Reviewed.

SAUCY JACK, YOU’RE A NAUGHTY ONE…

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Jack The Ripper (1959). BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

For readers of a certain vintage, the name of producer Monty Berman will evoke such ’60s / early ’70s gimmicky TV action staples as The Saint, The Baron, The Champions, Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased) and the camp escapades of Jason King, both in and out of Department S. All of these seemed to boast iconic title sequences / music and as an added bonus, The Champions arrived just in time to stimulate our developing libidos with the spectacle of the icily beautiful Alexandra Bastedo, the erstwhile Bond girl who would subsequently appear in such Euro Horror epics as Vicente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride.

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It’s my blog so we’re having a gratuitous pic of the glorious Alexandra Bastedo here, OK?

Less well documented (even within the recent slew of books about British Horror flicks) are Berman’s attempts (in cahoots with Robert S. Baker) to ride Hammer’s coat tails with the likes of Henry Cass’s Blood Of The Vampire (1958), John Gilling’s Burke and Hare biopic The Flesh And The Fiends (1960), The Hellfire Club (1961) and the item under consideration here, which (like The Hellfire Club) was directed as well as produced by Baker and Berman (the latter, interestingly enough, born in Whitechapel, a quarter of a Century after Saucy Jack littered its streets with his prostitute victims).

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In furtherance of those Hammeresque aspirations, Jimmy Sangster was poached to script the film and came up with a thoughtful effort taking in the iniquities of social deprivation, gender and disability discrimination, rough street justice, et al, while adroitly shifting suspicion between various characters. John Le Mesurier’s snotty surgeon is looking like the likeliest candidate until another posh doc is revealed, at the eleventh hour, to be the killer, motivated (in a persistent pet theory of Ripperologists) by his son’s death from syphilis, contracted from a Whitechapel working girl. Pursued by Inspector O’Neill (Eddie Byrne) and his men, “Jack” unwisely attempts to conceal himself in a hospital lift shaft and is promptly squashed to a pulp.

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Although an interesting historical footnote, Berman and Baker’s variation on the Ripper saga failed to elevate its makers, as intended, into the Premier League alongside Hammer. Crucially, that company’s lurid use of colour seems to have been completely lost on them. I suppose the b/w cinematography (which again, they divided between them) made it easier to convey a pea soupy East End on their threadbare studio sets, but this film is one of those which you suspect already looked dated when it came out. There is a sore thumb colour insert at the climax of the American release version (which also adds a portentous voice over intro and replaces Stanley Black’s score with one by Jimmy McHugh and Pete Rugolo, among other bits of fiddling) as JTR’s blood bubbles through the floorboards of the lift, this scene and several others excised from UK prints by the BBFC. Both versions are included here and you also get an audio commentary from Baker, Sangster and AD Peter Manley, moderated by Marcus Hearn, plus a selection of alternative “Continental takes”, shot for markets with a greater toleration of female nudity. On top of the expected poster and still gallery and (scuzzy looking) trailer, you get interviews with the ubiquitous Denis Meikle and Whitechapel murder tour guide Richard Jones, allowing you to evaluate their conflicting theories about who the Ripper or possibly even Rippers might or might not have been… an argument that isn’t going to be settled by this release or by anybody, any time soon.

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B&B possibly figured (wrongly) that despite the absence of colour, they could sell this one in The States on the strength of second string yankee hunk Lee Patterson in the role of holidaying New York cop Sam Lowry. Why, you may well ask, would a NYC cop want to spend his vacation helping out Scotland Yard? Well, as Lowry tells Inspector O’Neill: “We don’t have Rippers in New York!” Watch this space, pal… quack, quack, quack!

THE SHAPE OF WATER…

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Skinner (1993) BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

“He wants a vest with tits on it”.

My first encounter with Carl Daft and David Gregory was in 1991 (so obviously pre-Severin, pre-Blue Underground… this was even pre-Exploited) when I found myself sitting adjacent to them at a midnight movie preview screening of Silence Of The Lambs and we exchanged off the cuff critiques. Nearly thirty (yikes!) years later, Severin have released a film that could all too easily be dismissed as a poor man’s take on the Jonathan Demme hit, though as we’ll see, there’s a lot more to this story than meets the eye…

Dennis Skinner (the name a gag that might have been lost on non-British viewers, though presumably American audiences got the “Bob and Earl” reference), played by Ted Raimi, is a nerdishly likeable misfit who rents a room in what looks suspiciously like Norman Bates’ house (shades of Ed Gein, already). His landlady Kerry Tate (Ricki Lake) is having a hard time with her often absent husband Geoff (David Warshofsky) and romance begins to blossom between her and Dennis. He longs to show her his “real self”, but there’s a clue as to what exactly that might be in the mutilated shape of Heidi, a former flame who’s tracking him down with vengeance in mind…

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Suits you, Sir…

When he’s not romancing Kerry or working as a janitor, Dennis likes to kill prostitutes and skin them to construct lady suits for himself. Not the most endearing of hobbies but skilful scripting and direction from (respectively) Paul Hart-Wilden and Ivan Nagy (e.g. in the revelation of the childhood trauma that drove Dennis off the rails) keep us rooting for him and hoping that he can find redemption in the arms of Kerry… but Heidi has other plans for him…

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An obvious STV job, Skinner transcends its evident low-budget by dint of such deft touches as its ant-hero’s obsession with water and it’s ability to fill any vessel into which it is poured. The film’s casting could hardly have been bettered in this regard, with Lake having undergone a massive physical transformation in real life and Lords effecting a no less startling metamorphosis into the cinematic mainstream. Director Nagy was quite the Protean figure himself and it’s clear, from David Gregory’s fascinating bonus interview with him here and from other extras on this disc, that before his involvement in “other business” defined him forever in the public eye, Nagy was a film maker intent on making good films. With Skinner, he succeeded (even if that ambitiously quirky ending does come off as something of a misfire).

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Other bonus materials (apart from the obvious trailer) include interviews with Raimi, writer Paul Hart-Wilden and editor (actually the last in a long line of editors) Jeremy Kasten, plus the unexpurgated depiction of Skinner’s gruesome tailoring. All the surviving contributors agree that this would be far less problematic today than the ill-advised scene (Hart-Wilden insists that he didn’t write it) in which Skinner wraps himself in the skin of a black co-worker and goes into a cringe-inducing Amos’n’Andy routine. Hart-Wilden is wryly amusing on the troubled pre-production history of a film he was hawking around for several years before Silence Of The Lambs. Hammer rejected it on the grounds that it was too horrific (!), British Screen because he wasn’t Peter Greenaway. The success of Silence Of The Lambs finally got Skinner green lit in The States, only for it to be shelved when funds dried up. Nagy’s involvement in the Heidi Fleiss scandal having reignited interest in the property, Hart-Wilden and Kasten offer their respective insights on the struggle to get it finished and released. Skinner’s no Magnificent Ambersons but its behind-the-scenes saga is as compelling and salutary a tale as any of the perils and pitfalls that lurk behind Tinsel Town’s glittering facade.

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