— Angus Kohm (@AngusKohm) December 5, 2020
When my friend Ian gave me a DVD set that contained four movies, I assumed that they were recent(ish) low budget horror films. I have a number of DVD sets that are exactly that, some with as many as 25 movies included. Upon closer examination, I discovered that the movies in this cheap looking release were all much older than I expected. The listed release dates of the movies ranged from 1973 to 1982 – which was exciting news to me, as I am particularly fond of movies from the ’70s and ’80s. The weird part is that these were all movies that I had never seen (or in some cases even heard of). Having spent a lifetime watching movies from the ’70s and ’80s – particularly horror films – it is fairly rare to come across any titles that are completely unknown to me. This is especially true when dealing with what appears to be a cheapjack public domain DVD set. Certain titles pop up again and again on these discs (Night Of The Living Dead (1968), Horror Express (1972), etc.).
The first movie in this set is Jack the Ripper Goes West (1974) and I can honestly say that I had never heard of it. I do recall watching a movie starring David Hasselhoff called Terror at London Bridge (1985), which was about Jack the Ripper killing people in Arizona, but this was clearly not it. A movie about Jack the Ripper style murders in the Old West sounded like it could be a good time to me, but there was only one thing wrong: the movie was listed as 51 minutes long.
As one of my Twitter friends said, “51 minutes? does that qualify as a film?” My first reaction was that this “movie” must really be an episode of a TV series. It made sense to me. The weird mix of Western and Horror (and Private Detective) conventions could also be explained by this. Thinking back, I can recall some of my favourite ’70s TV shows doing episodes that were ghost stories (Charlie’s Angels (1976–1981) for one). I have another public domain DVD set of Western movies that includes episodes of an old (failed?) TV series called Cade’s County (1971–1972) starring Glenn Ford. So, it didn’t seem impossible that there could have been a short-lived Western series in 1974 that included a Jack the Ripper mystery episode.
Of course, it could have also been the pilot for a TV series that never got picked up. Either way, if it was indeed an episode of television, it would not qualify for a screening at the Home Drive-In. After doing more research, I was able to determine that there was a much longer cut of the movie (86 minutes) released as A Knife for the Ladies (1974). This sounded more like my Friday night cup of tea – and it was available to watch for free on YouTube. But I still had a problem. I had the 51 minute cut of the film on DVD and, being a completist, I felt that I needed to watch it. But how could resist seeing the (hopefully) uncut 86 minute version of the film?
So, I did what any insane connoisseur of aging cinematic trash would do: I watched both versions of the film so that I could compare them.
I started with the 51 minute Jack the Ripper Goes West, and I have to admit that it was pretty entertaining. It did feel a lot like an episode of a ’70s TV show, but I grew up watching ’70s TV shows and I happen to like them, so that was no disappointment. There were a few oddities that made me think “there has to be something more to this” – which, of course, I knew to be true. I’ll give one example from early in the movie (no spoiler alert required):
There is a murder in the Old West town of Mescal, and Simeon Hollyfireld, president of the town bank, writes/narrates a letter to a big city private detective asking for help. We see a montage of travel footage while the letter is being narrated. Hollyfield arrives at the office of private detective Edward R. Burns, played by Canadian actor Jeff Cooper. They say two lines and then suddenly we cut back to Mescal, where the town Sheriff (played by Jack Elam) is expressing his anger that a private detective is being brought to town. It happens so suddenly, that for a few seconds I thought that Jack Elam was pounding his fist on some furniture in the private detective’s office. When I realized that we were back in Mescal, I assumed that we were going to cut back to the private detective’s office at some point. After all, why would they bother filming a sequence of travel, and decorating a location (or set) with period furnishings and a hand painted glass door that says “Edward R. Burns Detective Agency St. Louis, Mo.” just for this:
Burns: “Three murders? But your letter only mentioned two.”
Hollyfield: “Night before I left, Lettie Mills, a girl who lived in the hotel, she was stabbed just like the others….”
Before Hollyfield is even done saying his line, we are already watching Jack Elam bursting through a door looking angry (hence my momentary belief that he was entering the private detective’s office). We never actually see Burns’ office again, and that bothered me for the rest of the 51 minutes of Jack the Ripper Goes West.
When I watched A Knife for the Ladies, I was pleased (and not surprised) to see an entire scene played out in Edward Burns’ office, during which lots of important information is revealed – including the history of the town, its important citizens, and details of the murders. Hollyfield even sets up the character of the Sheriff before we cut to him angrily bursting through a door. The scene takes exactly two minutes (from 5:14 – 7:14). In Jack the Ripper Goes West, the scene takes under ten seconds (from 4:00 – 4:09). Needless to say, the two minute version of the scene sets up the entire film and makes it work better. The nine second scene just puzzled and frustrated me.
It would be a stretch to call either version of Jack the Ripper Goes West / A Knife for the Ladies (1974) a good movie, but I actually did enjoy both versions in their own ways. I also enjoyed comparing them. The 86 minute version is clearly the way to go if you are only going to watch this movie once. It’s a strange mix of genres (perhaps a mash-up before anyone ever used the term mash-up). It’s not much of a horror film, although the beginning and the ending do kind of resemble one. It’s not a great western, either. But it does feature a few good moments of western action. It’s probably most successful as a 1970s TV-like detective story. If you have a taste for that kind of show, you may find some nostalgic enjoyment here.
What makes Jack the Ripper Goes West / A Knife for the Ladies appropriate viewing for a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn, is the fact that it IS a strange mix of these three genres. It’s hard to tell what exactly it wanted to be. And the results are at times campy and fun, while occasionally delivering a satisfying more serious moment. It was directed by Larry G. Spangler, who mostly specialized in westerns and ex-football players. He worked on the The Joe Namath Show (1969) and The Last Rebel (1971), which was a western starring Joe Namath. He also made three westerns starring Fred Williamson, as well as the non-western The Life and Times of the Happy Hooker (1974), which featured X-rated legend John Holmes in lieu of a football player. I think it’s fair to say that Spangler has earned his home drive-in credentials.
It’s also fair to say that Jack the Ripper Goes West / A Knife for the Ladies (1974) is #NotQuiteClassicCinema, that is simultaneously bewildering and accessible. Bewildering for its strange mix of genres, but as accessible as an old TV show. It makes for a perfectly acceptable time passer on a lazy afternoon. I may never watch either version of this film again, but I enjoyed the double-barrelled experience of doing it at least once.
Final Note: It also has a kick ass theme song that plays during the closing credits. It’s called Evil Lady and is written by Bobby Hart, Danny Janssen and Dominic Frontiere – Sung by Michael Stull. Give it a listen and see what you think.