16 November 2006 | violencegang
Who Need A Decree When You've Got Terror?
As I wrote in my review of 'Jack the Ripper' (1959), it's only in recent years that movies about Saucy Jack have bothered with historical accuracy and providing a 'real' solution to the question of the Ripper's identity. The German silent productions 'Waxworks' and 'Pandora's Box' used the character as a sort of bogeyman, more akin to Dracula, Mr Hyde or the Phantom of the Opera than a real-life serial killer, and the various versions of 'The Lodger' and the aforementioned Jack the Ripper simply used Jack as a hook on which to hang entirely fictional mysteries, with no real people or situations in them.
'A Study in Terror' is no exception to this rule, and is all the better for it. This Herman Cohen-produced, James Hill-directed picture is an unpretentious little B-picture that pitted Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper a full thirteen years before Bob Clarke's big-budget, star-packed 'Murder By Decree'. While 'Murder...' is a good film, with a gripping storyline and strong performances from the likes of Christopher Plummer, James Mason and Donald Sutherland, it does take itself rather seriously in its attempt to present a supposedly surprising, and at the same time authentic, conclusion (which would have already been known to anyone who watched the BBC TV production 'The Ripper File', or read Stephen Knight's 'Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution'). 'A Study in Terror' does not try to do this and is concerned only with giving the viewer an entertaining ninety-five minutes.
Interestingly, '...Terror' was the first Jack the Ripper movie to propose aristocratic involvement in the murders, eight years before the late Joseph Sickert came out with his somewhat similar, but allegedly true theory that covered much the same ground, involving not just an aristocrat, but a Prince, who married beneath him. Admittedly, Sickert's theory claimed that the murders were committed to keep the marriage a secret, rather than to avenge a wrong, but it does seem curious that the fiction and alleged fact are so similar.
Although this film does present the real victims killed by Jack the Ripper and does so in the right order, there are many inaccuracies, the most notable being that the actresses playing the unfortunate individuals, including Carry On and Eastenders star Barbara Windsor and Edina Ronay, daughter on the famous chef Egon, are, in the main, considerably younger and more attractive that the real victims (Windsor, who played Annie Chapman is, even today, at almost seventy, considerably better looking than the real 'Dark Annie'), but this is an exploitation movie, and eye candy is a integral part of this subgenre. In fact this is a perfect example of an exploitation picture when you examine its constituent elements. The makers exploited not only the 1960's horror boom, but also the perennial interest in Jack the Ripper and the enduring popularity of Sherlock Holmes perfectly.
For a B-movie, 'A Study in Terror' boasts a surprisingly strong cast, including Dame Judi Dench, John Fraser, Adrienne Corri, Robert Morley, Frank Finlay and Anthony Quayle, who all lend strong support to John Neville and Donald Houston as Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson. Crucially, Neville, like Basil Rathbone before him and Jeremy Brett after, not only looks right as Holmes, his strong, sharp features recalling Conan Doyle's description of the character, but his portrayal of the character is more in tune with the classic conception of Holmes than Christopher Plummer in 'Murder By Decree'. Similarly, Donald Houston gives an entertainingly blustering, Nigel Bruce-like performance as Watson, whereas James Mason's portrayal of the character was a little too low-key for my taste. Finlay and Quayle apparently enjoyed the experience of crossing Holmes and the Ripper so much that they came back for more in 'Murder by Decree', with Finlay repeating his performance as Inspector Lestrade. Personally, I think he's better in this film, and Anthony Quayle, as Dr Murray, invests his character with a quiet strength and dignity that is missing from his unsympathetic Sir Charles Warren. As Mycroft Holmes, Robert Morley is amusing in his scenes with Neville's Sherlock, particularly expressing his exasperation at his brother's less than tuneful violin playing.
One area in which 'A Study in Terror' holds the edge over 'Murder by Decree' is it's ending. Without giving too much away for anyone who has yet to see either film, '...Terror' has a thrilling, literally explosive climax that befits a film of it's type, whereas '...Decree' drags a little, again because the makers want us to take it so seriously. My suggestion is to watch both movies and make up your own minds on this subject