The Film (4/5)
“One hundred years ago, in the city of London, a man shocked the world by raping, murdering, and mutilating women…he was never caught.”
That’s the tagline (it was also the first line of the screenplay), and it’s pretty much the perfect marketing setup for the film to come. The little “He was never caught” dangling above the big, red, JACK’S BACK title logo – it tells you everything you need to know going in; namely that 100 years later (to the exact date) a copycat killer is paying homage to one Jack the Ripper. But who’s the killer?
Of course, given the nature of the murders themselves (both Jack’s and the new ones), it only makes sense that we center on a small hospital – a sort of free clinic in Los Angeles. We meet a handful of doctors and watch them attend medical classes, where they’re instructed on the use of scalpels and the inner workings on the human body. They each have personalities and conflicts, but straight from the beginning there’s one particular doctor thrust into the spotlight – James Spader’s John Westford. He’s handsome (in that dorky 1980’s way), he’s charming, he really cares about the people he’s seeing, he’s bullish with clueless supervisors in that Dr. House way, but without tipping the scales into actually being an asshole. And it’s those qualities that keep us kind of wobbly (in a good way) as he finds himself in certain situations and – without laying the whole plot bare – ends mixed up in these copycat murders, to the point where he’s a suspect. That’s when his twin brother, Rick (also played by Spader), comes onto the scene, hoping to clear his brother’s name, find the real killer, and keep the Pretty Female Doctor (Cynthia Gibb) from becoming the next victim.
So yeah, you have a Jack the Ripper copycat killer film, set (and made) in the late 80s, in which James Spader plays identical twins – it’s enough to make one kind of roll their eyes. But, as it turns out, it’s really good, and for a handful of reasons.
First up is Spader – even if everything else was terrible (and it’s not) he’s bringing really solid work to the plate. There’s the surface good twin/bad twin dynamic, and a lesser script would have just left it at that, but the way each character is written gives them a very real sense of individuality, and Spader gets that completely. It would have been easy to just change wardrobe, hairstyle, and speech pattern and call it a day, but he’s really able to inhabit both roles, get to what actually makes them individuals and bring those qualities to the surface. He’s absolutely playing two different characters, but finds a way to marry them both as brothers. I mean it’s nothing that should have won an Oscar, but it’s damn fine work. And not just for a late 80s slasher – it’s damn fine work period.
And he’s not just carrying the film – he has a solid supporting cast to play off of, and Gibb matches him every step of the way.
But it’s not a case of performances elevating a lackluster everything else; Rowdy Herrington may not be a household name, but he did an excellent job of taking what’s essentially a superficial, b-movie concept and giving it just enough texture, just enough layers, just enough workman artistry that he was able to make it stand above everything it could (should?) have been. From the depth in the way the characters were written, to the flow of the screenplay, to the way he embraced his small budget in terms of direction and photography, his work was the catalyst for the lightning-in-a-bottle aspect of a movie that’s not quite a classic, but stands on its own as a movie that defies its own datedness and works just as well today as it did when it came out.
ScreamFactory offers up a 1.85:1 1080p transfer of the original negative with a DTS 5.1 track. It’s not necessarily a demo disc, but they did Herrington’s lighting and camera work justice. You might roll your eyes at the ultra-cheesy late-80s theme song that blares out over the title menu, but it’ll sound damn good over your speakers.
I don’t know if it counts as a ‘feature’ – but this is a BD/DVD Combo. However, both discs come loaded with the same features; namely, a little retrospective featurette and a commentary with Herrington himself. The featurette is pretty good, boasting interviews with Herrington, Gibb, Tim Moore (the producer), and DP Shelly Johnson. They all talk fondly of the film and their work on it, and you’re left just sort of happy and proud of the finished product they were able to pull together.
The commentary, however, is less successful. Where in the featurette Herrington was pleasant and talkative and engaging, in the commentary he’s kind of monotone and rigid. It’s the difference between having an active conversation with someone and being left alone in a room to essentially talk to yourself. He falls back on the ‘let’s talk about exactly what we’re seeing on screen’ thing more than a few times, but he does come through with some interesting little anecdotes and insight throughout, so it’s not a total waste of time, but it’s probably not anything you’re going to want to watch more than once.
It’s good! It’s not one of the best movies SF has ever put out (especially not when it’s standing in a library with Ginger Snaps and The Phantom of the Paradise), but it’s a good movie, and it had enough of a reputation from the old Blockbuster VHS days that there’s definitely an audience happy to bring this one home, so hi-five for ScreamFactory for giving them the opportunity to do so.