Director John Eyres does manage to capture the appropriate mood for a film with a concept such as this. The set pieces range from grim, to bleak, to bright, to sometimes very sleek, plus he manages to take an old tired horror device: a dark and stormy forest and manages to make it a bit tense with some suspense clearly evident to the audience awaiting the identity of the killer. Jack the Ripper, the famous or infamous serial killer has been fodder for horror movies for decades, and as always is the case, every new movie attempts to put a different spin on the serial killer, attempts to turn and twist, and flip the serial killer into a new movie, but alas, there are very few movies that can take the most interesting serial killer of all time and turn him into a good film.
There’s rarely ever been a bio-pic about the notorious killer who mutilated nearly ten prostitutes and was never caught, but there has been over a hundred films about the killer’s murders, the hunt for the killer, or, the always reliable take, in which someone, in the modern era, is killing people using Jack the Ripper’s killing methods. “Ripper: Letters from Hell”, not a really good title, is yet another take in the legacy of movies that attempt to hark on Jack the Ripper and attempt to break down and explore his methods, but while “Ripper” attempts to be new and original, and tries to pass itself off as psychological horror, it’s just another awful slasher movie that gets too big for its boots, and, surprise surprise, is straight to video.
The film, which brings the audience into a loopy, annoying and sometimes utterly confusing story is about a group of college students, mostly foreign (for some reason) whom are religiously admirers of serial killers, and they’re taught by an ultra pompous and smug teacher Marshall Kane (Bruce Payne) whom constantly challenges his students to un-foil various unsolved mysteries, the most annoying out of the class is the main character Molly Keller (AJ Cook), a quasi-goth, quasi-punk, quasi-outcast of the group who smirks and scoffs and is anti-social towards the others but is really smarter than them, and she seems to know it, but somehow doesn’t flaunt her brains up until when it’s really needed to move the plot of the movie along.
So, women begin dying and the police whom are never seen on the crime scenes, except for one officer (enter Jurgen Prochnow) asks Kane who happens to be an ex-officer, to investigate, but Kane refuses and has his class attempt to un-foil the mystery. A teacher puts his class in danger having them trying to solve who or whom is committing the vicious and awfully far-fetched murders. He fails to think about their safety, their well-being, or if the killer may turn on them and begin killing them. One girl is stalked in an abandoned floor of a night club and is somehow hung upside down from a building, another is run off the road, hanging from a ledge and ends up being discovered in a shed slashed repeatedly. How did they get her off the cliff?
We’re never told and once again, at her crime scene there’s no cops, no photographers, no forensic detectives, no reporters, only three police officers, one who is the awfully annoying Jurgen Prochnow, and we move on with the plot establishing the characters as they get all “Scooby-Doo” on the audience and try to discover who is committing the crimes. The characters are all thrown onto each other and forced into chemistry when really there isn’t anything worth watching, and the chemistry they attempt to conjure between one another feels more like acting exercises than actual acting.
None of the actors seems to deliver their lines with believability, and then we’re supposed to bear witness to the convoluted romance subplots between each of the characters. While A.J. Cook is incredibly attractive, her character has zero to no redeeming qualities to her, so it’s hard to believe anyone of the male characters would find her interesting or even a bit appealing. Each character has a very vapid subplot including the main character Molly (Cook) who experienced an odd tragedy on a boat when she was younger which she’s often haunted by throughout the film but the details are often very hazy and vague, Payne’s subplot as an ex-cop is also very hazy and hardly ever focused on. There’s never really an explanation about why he quit the force, what made him quit the force, and why Prochnow’s character is so intent on bringing Payne’s character onto the case.
Why would he want him on the case? Why not another police officer? “Letters from Hell” attempts to build suspense with horrible dialogue and very little tension but there sure is a lot of attempted jumps to shock the audience set to music that screeches aloud, a device that doesn’t work anymore. There is one interesting but very staged scene in which the class attempts to analyze one of the murder victims that leads to a big speech by Cook, but while “Ripper” attempts to study the facts of Ripper’s murders, there’s never any mentioning of the crucial facts of Jack the Ripper’s killings. How he slit the throats of his victims to keep them from screaming, how his last victim was mutilated because he was angry that one of his victims got away, how one of the main suspects was a doctor who later died in a mental institution, how the ripper was suspected to have an immense amount of strength due to the wounds and force provided with them.
But alas, the points of the ripper’s murders are only carefully chosen for benefit of the plot and moving it along to the end. It never cares about the cases, only about becoming entertainment, and it never succeeds in that, regardless of how much it tries. Then the students conveniently have a study group getaway at a cabin in the middle of the woods, above a cliff, on a dark and stormy night considering there’s a deadly serial killer on the loose. Why? Because it leads up to the climax. Why not have the children meet at a library, a dorm room, or class room? Because then they wouldn’t all be together to be killed one by one. So, the ending leads to the middle of the woods where the group splits, another faux pas in horror films where we’re led through cars that break down in the middle of the road, lots of rain, the obligatory chase scene through the woods, some gory deaths, and a ridiculous plot twist involving the victims names and their initials that I can’t describe much lest I ruin the plot, but there’s not much here to ruin.
The climax of the film seems as if it reveals the true identity of the killer but we’re led through three different sequences that seem to allude to one of the characters possibly being the culprit, but we’re never told. It’s left to our imagination, a presumptuous and rather arrogant move on the writer’s part assuming the audience will spend time after the movie attempting to decode the mystery, but it’s just so frustrating that there’s really no use in trying to decode who did the killings, so as we would do with any other straight to video movie, you just put it back in the box and take it back to the store. While it looks like it tries so hard to be passed off as a psychological horror film, it’s really just another awful slasher with pretty paint. Horribly acted, terrible characters and a vapid screenplay make for a truly confusing and pretentious story.