Jack the Ripper slashes his way onto Blu-ray with Rowdy Herrington's JACK'S BACK, on Blu-ray and DVD from Scream Factory.
On the hundredth anniversary of the Jack the Ripper murders, a copycat has been recreating them with prostitutes from the Los Angeles area. On the day of the anniversary of the last murder, the LAPD is gearing up for a citywide manhunt to stop the killer before he claims his next (and possibly final) victim. When medical student John Westford (James Spader, WOLF) runs into high school sweetheart turned pregnant prostitute Denise (Danitza Kingsley, AMAZONS) being berated by his moralistic superior (Rod Loomis, THE BEASTMASTER) at the Echo Park clinic where he volunteers, he visits her at her apartment later and stumbles upon the latest murder and his colleague Jack (Rex Ryon, AMERICAN SAMURAI) standing over the body. Jack claims that he gave her an abortion and that she was killed while he was out getting her a prescription, but he ends up killing John when he tries to contact the police and hangs him to cover up the crime. Captain Prentis (Wendell Wright, CLOAK & DAGGER) is ready to close the case John as the killer when his twin brother Richard (Spader) shows up and throws a wrench into the works by claiming that his brother was murdered and that he saw the killer in a nightmare. Under hypnosis, Richard relives his brother's death and sees the killer's face. While the police are unwilling to believe him, consulting psychiatrist Dr. Carlos Battera (Robert Picardo, THE HOWLING) points out the documented shared experiences between identical twins and suggests that he is either telling the truth or it was he who was the killer. When his rap sheet reveals that he was in a street gang and went into the army where he became a medic, and that he only transferred to Los Angeles from San Francisco just before the murders, he becomes their new suspect. Evading detectives Morofsky (Chris Mulkey, TWIN PEAKS) and Hilliard (John Wesley, MOVING), Richard mounts his own investigation with the help of John's clinic colleague Chris Moscari (Cynthia Gibb, YOUNGBLOOD) unaware that Jack is stalking him after having seen him on the news claiming that he knows who killed his brother.
The feature debut of writer/director Rowdy Herrington (ROADHOUSE), JACK'S BACK is an entertaining and diverting (even in its contrivances) sleeper that nevertheless feels a little too streamlined. The first act sets the viewer up with a great concept of a city in the grip of fear on the night when the Ripper copycat will claim his last victim, as well as introducing the law enforcement and civilian characters who will become involved; a concept that could sustain the entirety of a modest low budget thriller. The last murder ends up a fait accompli, but the telegraphed twin angle of the story does open up the story to a number of possibilities: is Richard really the Ripper? Even if John was murdered, Jack is an obvious red herring, so might Richard discover that his brother really was the Ripper? How about some of supporting characters lurking in the background, whether played with sinister nuances or by actors who you would expect to be the killer based on their familiarity from other films (Picardo, for instance)? Even if the viewer has guessed the identity of the killer early on, Herrington obviously knew that was a possibility and added in some additional diverting twists. Although his acclaimed turn in Steven Soderbergh's SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE was two years away, Spader had already made a name for himself as an all-American-looking yet quirky and edgy actor in films ranging from Sean S. Cunningham's THE NEW KIDS and Bret Easton Ellis' LESS THAN ZERO to the John Hughes-scripted PRETTY IN PINK and MANNEQUIN. Gibb has little screen time to be spunky or terrified, and it feels like some interesting supporting actors and secondary characters fall by the wayside after being set up for more in the first act (RUNAWAY TRAIN's Diane Erickson, for instance, as a news reporter who gets to know John through his volunteer work at a massive homeless camp, who then is shocked when Richard turns up at the crime scene moments after his brother's body has been wheeled out and identified as the Ripper copycat). JACK'S BACK was one of a handful of genre projects in the eighties from executive producer Elliot Kastner, who also collaborated with fellow executive producer Andre Blay (PRINCE OF DARKNESS) on THE BLOB remake and credited producer/stepson Cassian Elwes (LIQUID DREAMS) on WHITE OF THE EYE and NOMADS.
Released theatrically and then on VHS and laserdisc in 1989 by Paramount, JACK'S BACK languished on the video shelves before popping up recently on streaming services. The film was released on DVD in the UK in 2007 by Showbox in a fullscreen transfer, and then in 2012 by Transition Digital Media in an anamorphic transfer from an NTSC-PAL converted master. Scream Factory's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen encode comes from a new master restored by Pinewood that finally lends some clarity to the backlit and fog-diffused photography, looking more "color noir" than eighties MTV. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track is accompanied by optional English SDH subtitles which also transcribe the lyrics to the theme song "Red Harvest" written by composer Danny Di Paola and performed by Paul Saax.
Herrington provides an audio commentary in which he discusses the origins of the project in his realization that the hundredth anniversary of the Ripper murders was coming up, combined with an idea he had been mulling over about a twin who investigates his brother's murder. He discusses his beginnings in Hollywood from gofer to gaffer in the roughly fourteen years before he made his directorial debut here. He speaks highly of Spader, who he initially wanted for the role, and that the producers wanted him to use Michael O'Keefe (CADDYSHACK) who did not want to read for the role and felt that it was impossible to make a film in twenty-five days. Spader was more enthusiastic and Herrington would end up working with him two more times as director. He talks about initiating the project with Kastner and Elwes, exploiting the visual possibilities of the Echo Park setting, finding locations, and the interesting supporting cast. He does tend to fall back on play-by-play at times, but he is otherwise enthused to discuss his first feature film (Herrington has also provided commentary for ROADHOUSE and A MURDER OF CROWS).
In "The Making of JACK'S BACK" (23:51), Herrington covers much of the same ground as the commentary with the additional input of producer Tim Moore (GRAN TORINO), cinematographer Shelly Johnson (JURASSIC PARK III), and actress Gibb. Moore reveals that Herrington had served as a gaffer for Johnson, and it was the cinematographer's recommendation that made him confident that first time director Herrington could tackle the project. Johnson discusses Herrington's preparation for the twenty-five day, low-budget shoot and their shooting and lighting style. Herrington and Gibb reflect on Spader's performance, how his demeanor changed entirely after shooting all of the John scenes, as well as his ad-libs (particularly the scene where he buys a gun which Herrington says got him the job directing ROADHOUSE). The disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer (0:57) and a DVD copy of the film and extras. (Eric Cotenas)
BACK TO REVIEWS