Monday, December 27, 2010

"Once the Lurking Lust is Loosed-": Robert Bloch's "The Night of the Ripper"

Robert Bloch had a writing career that spanned sixty years, during which he wrote about Jack the Ripper four times.  “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”, published in Weird Tales in 1943, presented the idea of the Ripper as an immortal making human sacrifices to stay that way.  He revisited the Ripper in “A Toy for Juliette” and the Star Trek episode “Wolf in the Fold”.  His most comprehensive look at the Whitechapel serial killer was in his 1984 novel The Night of the Ripper.     

The Night of the Ripper is replete with well-researched Ripper facts and historical detail: unusual slang (“buors” are prostitutes, “suckcribs” are beer halls), Victorian London locations and personalities involved in the case and, of course, gruesome descriptions of the bodies of the murder victims.

The background makes for entertaining reading, but the story itself is formulaic.  A wooden American doctor, Mark Robinson, joins forces with the dyspeptic Inspector Abberline to stop the fiend, while a nurse, Eva Sloane, provides the requisite love interest.  Characterization is weak and there are too many characters who are only introduced as potential Rippers.  Bloch feels the need to throw in cameos by Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle, George Bernard Shaw, and John Merrick, to no discernible purpose.  When Bloch reveals the real Ripper, it’s possibly the least interesting choice of all the suspects.

The Night of the Ripper is a quick read and might be worthwhile for Bloch’s detailed account of the setting and the crimes, but as a novel it feels hastily constructed and superficial.  The fact that at some points it seems virtually any character could be the Ripper, and a few ruminations on the beast within (“conceal it though we may, the beast is always there, waiting to escape”) suggest the deeper study of psychological aberration Bloch might have undertaken.       

Sunday, December 19, 2010

"Be Prepared to Take the Good with the Evil...": The Kingdom (Riget) 1994-1995

Take a blender.  Add a distillation of hospital dramas.  Dump in a liberal helping of Twin Peaks, but enhance it with an extra dose of quirky humor.  Pour directly from a bottle of spirits (clamp the lid down quickly so they don’t escape).  Blend well, and you might get a rough approximation of The Kingdom (Riget), Lars von Trier’s eight-episode miniseries for Danish television.  However, The Kingdom is a unique concoction, hard to describe or replicate (although Stephen King adapted The Kingdom for American television as Kingdom Hospital,  which I haven’t seen but apparently stayed fairly true to the original).

Centered on Copenhagen's Rigshospitalet, the fictional Kingdom is a sepia-toned labyrinth full of ghosts and demons.  Built, according to the introduction, on the ancient “bleaching grounds”, it is stocked with ghostly ambulances, spirits crying in the elevator shafts, and the menacing shade of Udo Kier.

Like any good hospital drama, The Kingdom has an ensemble cast of patients, doctors, and support staff – they are just a little quirkier than most.  The Swedish chief of neurosurgery (Ernst-Hugo Järegård) hates his Danish coworkers, frequently shouting his catchphrase “Danish scum!”  His arch-rival, Jørgen (Søren Pilmark), works the system from his lair in the basement, and is not above a little blackmail to get his way.  The medium Mrs. Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes) keeps finding ways to get herself admitted to commune with the unquiet dead.  Dr. Bondo (Baard Owe) lusts after a patient’s liver tumor, while Dr. Petersen (Birgette Raaberg) experiences an unusual pregnancy.  Two dishwashers with Down Syndrome (Vita Jensen and Morten Leffers) make cryptic comments on the supernatural goings-on.  Lurking behind them all are the ghost girl Mary (Annevig Ebbe) and the ominous Age Krüger (Udo Kier).  Despite the short duration of the series, viewers get to know them all through a variety of bizarre subplots, and the acting and script make even the smallest role engaging.

The first series has its share of chills, but is also very funny.  The final episode ends with an attempted exorcism and a difficult childbirth; in both, horror and humor combine.  The second series is weaker, focusing more on the quirky humor of the characters and less on the horror.  Like the first season, there’s a cliffhanger ending, but sadly, a planned third season never came to fruition since several of the major actors died.

With The Kingdom, Lars von Trier presents a unique series, unclassifiable and highly entertaining.