‘The Ripper’ Review: An Elusive 1970s English Serial Killer Is True Crime’s Latest Fascination

"The Ripper" is the latest documentary miniseries capturing the endless excitement for the most brutal crimes in history. It depicts the carnage wrought by a serial killer of women in Yorkshire, England in the 1970s. But there was one other misogynistic element in the game revealed in this four-part series, and it turned out that the police opened the investigation and spent half a decade chasing a hunter who was constantly outsmarting them.
For fans of the HBO series "I'll Be Lost in the Dark" and even the podcast "Sword and Scale", both of which spare their details on gruesome crimes, "The Ripper" is an infinitely grim source of fascination. It also effectively shows a procedural breakdown within the police force, showing that the accumulation of misinformation related to the deaths of 13 women can be as insane as the murders themselves.
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Directed by Jesse Vile and Ellena Wood, “The Ripper” interweaves today's speaking heads with impressively edited, grainy archive material and time-specific re-enactments that are as compelling as any documentary forgery of this page from Sarah Polley's “Stories We Tell”. The series begins with the 1975 murder of Wilma McCann, who was hit with a hammer several times and literally pronounced dead in a ditch. Since she was a single mother who had left her four children at home during a carousel night in what was alleged to be the “red light district” of Leeds, police assumed she was a prostitute and therefore did not put much energy on the case.
That is, until the bodies piled up over a period of five years. As the series reveals, the Yorkshire Police Department clearly detested prostitutes - or women who stepped outside the social order. This included West Yorkshire head detective Jim Hobson, who appears to have gone wild on his own to ban sex workers from the streets.
Richard McCann, Wilma's son, who was five years old when she was killed, gives a stirring testimony in the four episodes, despite the fact that he has since criticized the Netflix series for making the killer sensational. (The title, "The Ripper," he told BBC Radio, "describes how women can be killed," and Netflix, he said, "wasted all that sensitivity by calling him that name.")
But the series makes little attempt to raise awareness of the unfolding hell that is its most refreshing asset in a moment that is truly insane for junkies who are truly criminal. "The Ripper" shows how a changing social milieu, in particular women's rights, more or less gave way to Peter William Sutcliffe to murder more than a dozen women and to attack even more. Sutcliffe, who died in prison on November 13, was given 20 concurrent life sentences in 1981. Vile and Wood aren't too explicit about the trial, but instead save Sutcliffe's revelation for the final episode, going through various other suspects in the process.
Unfortunately, in four episodes, the Yorkshire Ripper's modus operandi becomes almost numbing and even dizzying amid an escalating body of water as the cast of characters expands. It becomes just as difficult for the viewer to distinguish between the victims as it is for the investigators, and that seems to be on purpose. But the series nimbly shows how the economic desperation caused by a rapidly over-industrialized England took women like McCann, Emily Jackson, Irene Richardson, Patricia Atkinson and many more onto the streets and made them the victim of a misogynist murderer. It is also difficult to look away from the misunderstanding train wreck that is going around the police department as they went with little effort to catch a killer who was pretty much right in front of their faces the whole time.
Grade B
All four episodes of "The Ripper" are now streamed on Netflix.
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