Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Review : Whitechapel (2008)

A fast-tracked inspector, a hardened detective sergeant, and an expert in historical homicides investigate modern crimes with connections to the past in the Whitechapel district of London. 

I'm no 'Ripperologist', but I do boast a rather unhealthy obsession with the crimes, the myths and the madness that surround the infamous Jack the Ripper's killing spree.

At school, I performed a presentation on the circumstances of Mary Kelly's demise, in explicit detail, and was somewhat frowned upon by my bitch of an English teacher in the process. My parents received one of numerous letters pertaining to my 'strange fixations', (others included short Horror stories, a predilection for all things 'Stephen King' by age eleven, and the always present, 'Killers Casebook' which I bought monthly to study up on Dahmer, Gein, Manson and all the rest of those crazy fuckers.

Needless to say, minus a two-decade long detour into drug addiction and mind-melting psychedelic insanity, I turned out just fine. Though my fascination with all things 'Ripper' continues to this very day.

I came across WHITECHAPEL completely by accident, and wasn't overly confident in its premise. A three-part mini-series that looks at the Whitechapel murders from a modern perspective, is not something that I find all that enticing. The initial imagery that caught my imagination about the killings was that of a fog-enshrouded 'Olde London Towne', that felt to my young self, much like a Hammer Horror film, made violently real. To set the events in the present day Whitechapel area seemed like a shark jump too far, for this kill-happy camper.

You know where I'm going with this, guys. I was wrong....

Whitechapel is 135 minutes of totally engaging, brilliantly performed and downright creepy television. It stays faithful to the original Rippers legacy, while recreating the investigation using a rather-damn-clever mix of modern technique, (using DNA, the Internet, modern surveillance), and a somewhat accurate study of the real/original case. For anyone who doesn't know the case and is actively seeking a route into its many mysteries, the history presented is not nearly thorough enough to begin your crusade here, but for long-standing enthusiasts and those who couldn't give a good shit about the history of the case, its all pretty good stuff. This is, after all, a Thriller/Crime Drama, that follows a copy-cat killer. Its not a reworking of the original case, per-se, but a modern work of Horror that dips into the Rippers history, as a means of apprehending the modern killer. If you look at it in this light, its a very fun, and mildly educational trip down Ripper-Lane. Theres even a monologue in which the writers clearly voice their theory on who the real Ripper was. Good stuff.

One of the most impressive achievements to be found here is the retention of the atmosphere and imagery that we all associate with the Jacks crimes. In this wholly modern setting, (and I believe its all filmed on location), theres a very real feeling of past and present intertwining. We understand that the tale is set in modern London, but our establishing shots of the city, in all its modern, high-tech glory, are the only link we feel in terms of this being a modern environ. Most of our time is spent in dark, dank alleyways, where screams herald yet another atrocity committed by 'Ripper 2'. Its gripping, potent stuff, and something of a feat, to make modern London once again feel like a hunting ground in which no corner, and no woman, is safe. It certainly doesnt hurt the gothic atmosphere to have our second, modern Ripper also enjoy dressing up as the real thing. The long flowing coats, glinting knife and hunters cap makes for a frightening figure, just as it always has.

The dark, oppressive atmosphere is greatly enhanced by the ever-present soundtrack, which recalls the theme from THE SIXTH SENSE, and lends a sense of the epic, even as it creeps out the viewer. In short,m this whole thing feels like a 'Ripper Tale' of old, and that is its greatest strength. The fog may be absent, but the labyrinthine alleyways, and shadowed underworld of the city and present and correct.

Performance wise, we get something of a treat. In truth, its really a three-hander, and all the leads carry the nightmarish trip into history with a very firm grasp of what makes us care for character. As the new D.I, and a clean-cut kid who is fast tracked up the ladder, (much to the dismay of his counterpoint), Rupert Penry Jones is immediately likable, empathetic and engaging. The always awesome Phillip Davis, as said counterpoint, is a (perhaps understandably), angry, old-school Detective who hates the young go-getter on sight, and makes it his mission to humiliate, ridicule and undermine the D.I's efforts a every turn. Its a well-worn character dynamic, but if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The two performances take what could have been a hackneyed on-screen relationship, and make it enthralling, and oftentimes, quite touching. Last, and certainly not least, is a fantastic performance from Steve Pemberton, (best known for his off-the-wall work in THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN). He's a revelation here, as a 'Ripperologist' who may well hold the key to the macabre goings-on. His performance is alternately creepy, endearing and, finally, even quite heartbreaking. Who would have thought it?

Gore-wise, we don't see much. Much is implied and envisioned by the viewer, yet there are moments that are pretty strong for a TV-Movie. Of course, as our killer is copying the work of Jack, each kill is a recreation of what has come before, so there are few surprises for the afficianado. What does surprise, is the smallest, careful attention to detail in certain scenes. The infamous death of Annie Chapman contains all the usual goods, ( intestines over shoulder, slit throat etc), yet goes so far as to show the fecal matter that would obviously be strewn everywhere during just such a crime. Its pretty vile, but its realistic, and its these subtle observations that elevate the work.

Horror fans could do a lot worse than set aside a few hours for WHITECHAPEL. Acting wise, its head and shoulders above most genre material, and its a mature, fresh and intelligently handled slice of serial-killer thriller, that owes as much debt to SEVEN, as it does to Hammers output, or the Micheal Caine starring mini-series of the past. It can never reach the dizzying heights of those works, but it remains a fun, exciting and well thought-out little murder-mystery. The climax doesn't quite reach the stark horrors of what has come before, yet it has a fulfilling coda, and is overall, a balanced, energetic and hugely atmospheric work. One question... if low-budget television can produce Horror this thoughtful and professionally acted, why the hell can't Hollywood?

Head down to WHITECHAPEL soon as you can. Jack's waiting....

7 Leather Aprons out of 10

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