When it comes to infamous serial killers, you think of guys like Ed Keemper, John Wayne Gacy and maybe even Jeffrey Dahmer. All psychopaths driven by a sinister urge to inflict harm out of sexual pleasure and hatred. In many ways, London’s Jack the Ripper was their progenitor.
A legendary, enigmatic serial killer who stalked the district of Whitechapel. Striking at night, murdering sex workers before brutally mutilating their bodies. The grizzly stuff of Hollywood folktale, spun into films like “From Hell” and “A Study in Terror”. The mystery even made its way to the realm of comic book films with DC’s animated film “Batman: Gotham by Gaslight”.
What’s curious is a similar reign of terror was eerily repeated once more in the late 1970s and for the rest of the world, it never even registered. Once again, sex workers were hunted down and mutilated. It happened in the area of Chapeltown, creepily similar to London’s district name of Whitechapel. For nearly five years, the police were unable to bring themselves to stop this man.
At some point, the city of Leeds even surrendered to the idea that the “Yorkshire Ripper” couldn’t be stopped. How could this have happened again? Is there more to the story of Netflix’s “The Ripper” than just the profile of a deranged killer? Join us as we enter the heart of darkness on this 4-episode long documentary.
It’s worth cautioning that Netflix’s “The Ripper” isn’t framed nearly as dramatic or as harrowing of some of the other crime documentaries on the streaming service. Certainly don’t expect big personalities like Joe Exotic from “Tiger King” or Deana Thompson from “Don’t F**k with Cats” to appear on screen. What viewers can expect to see is a very thorough and in-depth analysis of the various attacks and murders throughout Chapeltown.
There’s a heavy reliance on old footage, past interviews and present ones with those involved in the murders. There is a great amount of dignity and restraint shown in “The Ripper”. The kind that avoids scandalous soundbites and wild assertions. This works to both the documentary’s favour and to its disadvantage as well.
Spoiler alert, the Yorkshire Ripper was eventually caught. In a strange twist of fate, serial killer Peter Sutcliffe died from Covid-19 less than a month ago. What’s interesting is that the series breaks the typical convention we’ve come to expect from serial-killer documentaries. We only get a real breakdown of Sutcliffe in the fourth and final episode of the series “Out of the Shadows”.
It would have been more intriguing if the series took time to really dig into the psyche and compulsion behind Sutcliffe’s intentions. For a man capable of such horrific acts of violence, they make him sound almost quaint. Your typical garden variety serial killer. So if you’re expecting to see new footage of Sutcliffe spewing out his hateful manifesto or telling you his life story, you’ll find that here.
Now, what is captivating is the drama and societal ramifications that follow with the murders. “The Ripper” is a challenging documentary to say the least. So much of how we see events is through the lens of the Great man theory of history. The idea that major events, whether great or terrible, are embodied and can be distilled into a singular person or a hand few or extraordinary people. It certainly makes for entertaining television but it does tend to narrow our view of history and the events leading up to them. Life is rarely that simple and the effects and causes that lead to these events don’t exist within a vacuum.
Which is exactly why we believe that “The Ripper” excels better as a study into the social phenomenon of the murders. In lieu of it being merely another spooky number in the endless cavalcade of murderous psychopaths. Honestly, the way English society responded to the violent atrocities of these butchered women were pretty messed up. There were moments when we were actually taken aback at the callousness of the entire investigation.
For example, Sutcliffe had already committed a series of attacks against sex workers in the area but no one really took it seriously. The media in fact used terms like “good-time girl” to describe these victims. They sensationalised the gruesome details of their deaths simply to move papers. Headlines were more important to the media than the lives of these prostitutes.
Public outrage was only stoked at the death of a 16-year old girl, Jayne MacDonald. A victim that the newspapers called the “first innocent victim” in the entire case. There was clearly a stigma against sex workers and the fact that they hailed from low-income origins further exacerbated the situation. In a macabre sort of way, it’s funny how history has a way of repeating itself because the victims of Jack the Ripper had similar backgrounds.
All this social upheaval culminates in the penultimate episode “Reclaim the Night”. By far the most fascinating and engaging one out of the four. We finally get to see women finally stand up against the systemic issues that allowed for Sutcliffe to exist in the first place. There’s actually a wealth of material and dynamic angles “The Ripper” could have taken. Unfortunately, the show’s structure is far too rigid and inflexible to allow for deeper exploration. Each episode is paced out with each murder victim chronologically. The intention is to give a blow-by-blow accurate account but this method does little to flesh out the more curious aspects of the story.
For those looking for a ripping, bloody showcase of macabre murders, Netflix’s “The Ripper” will sorely disappoint. If you are looking for a historical and social analysis of how serial killers affect society, then this is definitely something worth investing a couple of hours into. While the story and cast are engaging in themselves, the structure and presentation handicaps it from reaching full potential. You can now catch “The Ripper” on Netflix today!
Speaking of high-profile murderers, if you’re looking for a documentary series that truly explores the long lasting effect of a particular case, we highly recommend “Who Killed Malcom X?”. Seriously, it is arguably the best documentary of 2020.
Be sure to let us know your favourite murder documentary in the comments down below!