Not that long ago the video store was a mundane and sometimes obnoxious part of life; driving over to some lonesome strip mall with your friends or family to comb through the all-too-often disorganized shelves of your local shop, argue over a selection, and then be stuck with it, for good or ill. Yet, it was also sublime. And for those who lived during the true video boom, video stores also equate to another bygone commodity: VHS. When JVC’s Video Home System won the early-80’s format war, the motion picture market changed forever. The genre and B-movies that had previously filled drive-ins across the country now often went straight to VHS. Then DVD took the world by storm in the late-90’s. It was a brave new world, and sadly, many films never made the leap, trapped now on a dead format. These often aren’t “good” films, but goddammit, they were what made video stores great. For we here at CHUD are the kind of people who tended to skip over the main stream titles, our eyes settling on some bizarre, tantalizing cover for a film we’d never even heard of, entranced. These films are what VHS was all about. Some people are still keeping the VHS flame burning. People like me, whose Facebook page Collecting VHS is a showcase for the lost charms of VHS box artwork. With this column it is my intention to highlight these “lost” films and the only rule I have for myself is that they cannot be available on DVD.
Title: Jack’s Back
Tagline: One hundred years ago the world was shocked by a man they called The Ripper. He was never caught…
Released by: Paramount Home Video
Director: Rowdy Herrington
Plot: A fiend mimicking the grisly murders of the infamous Jack the Ripper is slaying prostitutes in the city of Los Angeles on the one hundredth anniversary of those original crimes. A sensitive med student named John, who’s working at an inner city free clinic, discovers the identity of the maniac but becomes one of his latest victims when the killer hangs him with a rope, making it appear as suicide. However, his more surly twin brother Rick has a dream about the death and doesn’t believe that John would off himself. He teams up with his twin’s hot co-worker Chris to unravel the mystery, uncover the identity of the copycat-killer and put an end to the terror.
Thoughts: This is a dark and fantastic example of late eighties slasher-noir and it’s the debut film from the director of mother-fucking Roadhouse no less! Rowdy Herrington builds an atmospheric horror-thriller with multiple plot twists and an emphasis on mood and character over gore and scares. But most importantly, it’s a virtuoso performance from the criminally underrated James Spader, who kills it (no pun intended) while attempting to break free of the typecasting he inherited from Pretty in Pink, Less than Zero and The New Kids (otherwise known as his douchebag trilogy).
The story concerns a sicko having some centennial kicks on the 100th anniversary of Jack the Ripper’s nefarious murders in London. The city’s hookers are terrified as there is still one more copycat kill to go and the police have nothing. Enter John (James Spader), a med student with a heart of gold who inadvertently discovers the identity of the killer when he stumbles upon the most recent victim. This is where the movie pulls its first trick and kills off the hero we’ve gotten to know (and like) for the first act of the film, when he is strung up on a rope by (possibly) the Neo-Ripper and hung to death.
We are then introduced to Rick (James Spader), John’s more hardened twin brother, who awakens from a vivid nightmare where he sees a vision of his sibling’s murder. He immediately begins his own investigation, enlisting the aid of his deceased brother’s cute co-worker Chris (Cynthia Gibb), who had a big crush on the first twin and develops a new one for the second. They roam across a sleazy-yet-slick looking L.A. and this is one of those movies that really utilize the city’s neon-slime aesthetic from the period beautifully. The lighting and soundtrack are pure eighties and the plot continues to take several unpredictable turns, so I won’t ruin anything further.
Spader fans can rejoice because he delivers two great roles in one film! First, he plays the doomed John as one of the most likable humans you’ve ever met before, creating a real feeling of loss when he’s unexpectedly killed. Then he shifts things up with his darker twin Rick, who has a simmering intensity combined with an everyman charm. The Spades truly holds it all together with his sincere and charismatic performances.
I also simply must gush a bit over Cynthia Gibb (Youngblood, T.V.’s Fame) who I had an ENORMOUS crush on when I was a kid. She is about as adorable as you can get and shares a nice chemistry with Spader. The rest of the cast features the great character actor and Joe Dante staple Robert Picardo, as well as Chris Mulkey playing a typically smug L.A. detective.
Why this film is not available on DVD is as mysterious as the actual identity of the real Jack the Ripper. It’s a very cool little genre film that all hardcore geeks should check out as quickly as possible!