Armchair Cinephile 

Time After Time (Warner Bros.), recently reissued on DVD, takes some liberties with the life of H.G. Wells — suggesting not only that he actually invented a time machine, but that one of his best friends (played with suave dementia by David Warner) was Jack the Ripper. Jack hijacks the machine to 1979, and H.G. has to go catch him. In the course of playing detective, he's helped by a career woman (the embodiment of Wells' predictions about Women's Lib) who falls in love with him. It's quite an entertaining fantasy/romance, and the filmmakers have enough respect for Wells' intellect not to have him make a fool of himself in the future. They even conjure a decent sci-fi explanation for why the Ripper was never caught. Time was the directorial debut from novelist Nicholas Meyer, whose Seven Percent Solution also paired unlikely figures, Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud. Meyer's second film, incidentally, was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Paramount), easily the best film starring the original characters, which was just released in an expanded director's cut with ample bonus features.

From Hell (20th Century Fox) is a far more gruesome take on Jack the Ripper's story; and while its plot doesn't involve time travel, some of the documentary footage in the new DVD set indicates that the film's theories about Jack's identity are not the most plausible ones available. But the film never claims to be a documentary — what it does get right is a sense of evil that, even without an enormous amount of on-screen gore, is enough to make you queasy. The Hughes Brothers recreate the squalor of London's slums with meticulous attention to historical detail, then use a surgeon's bag full of expressionist tricks to bring the sets to horrifying life.

Few people are going to have nightmares about Crimes of Passion (Anchor Bay), another film about a homicidal lunatic with a thing for prostitutes. Here, the psycho is played by Norman Bates himself, Anthony Perkins, and the object of his obsession is Kathleen Turner, who leads a double life: by night she's "China Blue," by day she's a career-obsessed fashion designer. This is the epitome of the Ken Russell aesthetic: sex and violence overlap and comment on each other in a way that's campy even when it means what it's saying, and all of it is illuminated by garish '80s neon. Released the same year as the über-mainstream Romancing the Stone, Crimes proves that Turner's screen persona is just too weird to fit comfortably in bland Hollywood product.

All Jack the Ripper stories necessarily mix historical data with speculation, which is what screenwriter Loring Mandel does in Conspiracy (HBO). Here, the subjects — the architects and executors of the Holocaust — make the Ripper look like a choir boy. Basing his script on the notes of an historic meeting of Nazi officials, lawyers, and leaders of the German government, Mandel fills his hour and a half with nothing but talk, set almost entirely in a single dining room — you might call it My Dinner With Eichmann. But 12 Angry Men is a more fitting comparison, as the long conversation involves many dissenting viewpoints and a situation in which wills and personalities turn out to be as important as the ideas they're promoting.

Though many viewers may not welcome the opportunity, Conspiracy gives the audience a chance to see some humanity in this group, to envision how some (who were more sympathetic to the Jews) submitted to others out of timidity or fear. Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci, as the men who refuse to accept any strategy other than extermination, give rich performances that never treat their subjects like one-dimensional villains.

That may sound like more than Adolf Eichmann and Jack the Ripper deserve. But trying to understand how human beings bring themselves to commit horrible acts is not the same thing as accepting those acts; and it may be a more healthy response than demonizing "evildoers" and pretending we don't spring from the same gene pool.

More by John DeFore

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