Written by: Robert A. Stemmle, Bryan Edgar Wallace
Directed by: Edwin Zbonek
Starring: Hansjörg Felmy, Marianne Koch, and Dietmar Schönherr
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
He stalks the city of sex and sin!
It turns out that it’s not a good idea to spend three days on a train, disembark at 5:00 in the morning, and then try to attend a double feature later that night. Even if said double feature was a killer lineup of rare Bryan Edgar Wallace* krimi movies at the New Beverly, a man has his limits. I hit mine that night somewhere towards the end of The Mad Executioners, and, secure in the knowledge that I had The Monster of London City on DVD back home, I made the (still tough) decision to bail. Doing so was probably for the best—not only is The Monster of London City the weaker of the two, but I imagine watching these two in such close conjunction would truly reveal the déjà vu-inducing formula of these films.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re the exact same movie, it’s easy to see the similarities here. Not only are both sourced from Wallace novels, but they also share director Edwin Zbonek and lead actor Hansjörg Felmy. In this case, Felmy is Richard Sand, a famous stage actor currently enjoying a run as Jack the Ripper in a phenomenally popular play. Unfortunately, the play’s popularity coincides with a rash of Ripper-style murders plaguing London, as prostitutes keep turning up strangled and slashed all over town. Naturally, Sand’s convincing performance makes him a prime suspect for police, who suspect art may be imitating life.
Astute viewers, however, will know that Occam’s razor rarely applies to this sort of thing. Sure, Sand—who we learn was once committed to a sanitarium for being a drug addict—seems suspicious enough, but anyone familiar with the genre knows it’s too obvious. As such, Wallace’s story obliges with plenty of other suspects—some very obvious, some not so much, to the point where you almost have to throw up your hands and go with it. Truthfully, I ultimately take the same approach I do with most gialli when it comes to these krimi pictures: instead of constantly trawling for clues and attempting to guess the killer, it’s much more productive to enjoy the story as it unfolds. Chances are, it’s going to pull an ending out of its ass, anyway.
But ironically enough, Monster of London City doesn’t do this. Compared to Mad Executioners—a film that veered off into weird, mad scientist territory—it’s pretty tame as far as its twists and turns go. Even its ending even makes sense—hell, I might even say it’s downright predictable considering a late turn of events really tips the script’s hand. Fundamentally speaking, it’s a stronger, tighter story, one that doesn’t dart off onto too many tangents (Mad Executioners sometimes feels like two movies mashed into one); however, it’s also a bit more standard as a result—The Monster of London City probably wouldn’t be the first krimi you’d show to someone if you wanted to show off an outrageous plot.
What it lacks in a wild, outlandish plot, it makes up for with a certain unseemliness. It pulls as few punches as it can get away with considering the era: not only does it refuse to shy away from the fact that this maniac is butchering prostitutes, it goes so far as to dwell on the murder sequences. Zbonek artfully stages them amidst heavy fog and shadow, avoiding the grisliness directly while heavily implying it with close-ups of straight razors and wide shots of strangulations. For a film from 1964, it feels pretty ruthless and lurid, particularly when it’s paired with some surprising instances of nudity—in this respect, it feels more like a direct precursor (or contemporary) to the giallo.
Of course, the krimi has a distinct aesthetic all its own. Again, watching this in relative close conjunction with The Mad Executioners highlights the genre’s tendency towards formula. Once again, Felmy’s character finds himself engaged to a woman (Marianne Koch!) whose relative works in Parliament (and whose eccentric behavior and intricate knowledge of the Ripper case make him another suspect). A requisite comic-relief subplot arrives in the form of a bumbling husband and wife detective duo who are determined to crack the case by any means necessary—even if it often results in public embarrassment. Their presence is expectedly a bit jarring since the rest of the film is fairly grisly and straightforward, but it feels like an entrenched part of the krimi formula, right up there with the elegant black and white photography, the London setting, and the masked murderers.
I suppose it’s interesting to see this genre with the eyes of a relative newcomer. Certainly, you can see its connection to gialli and slasher films, two other genres that are often criticized for their formulaic structures. A familiarity with those movies helps to see beyond the repetitiveness, so I’m guessing the krimi genre is no different once you really dive in. Even these two fairly similar offerings are distinct enough, as The Monster of London City mines the Jack the Ripper lore in order to faintly dabble in some meta-fictional musings about art’s obligations to reflect and/or shy away from reality. It’s not exactly fully formed, but there’s enough to chew on to at least set it apart from a more standard murder mystery. I do hope other krimis have some more of the gonzo audacity of The Mad Executioners going forward, though.
*In classic exploitation fashion, studios snatched up the works by the elder Edgar Wallace’s son and marketed them as B. Edgar Wallace movies in the hopes that nobody would really bother to notice the difference.
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