Ripper Redux

The Lodger
Running time 96 minutes
Written and directed by David Ondaatje
Starring Simon Baker, Hope  Davis, Donal Logue, Alfred Molina

The latest embellishment of the classic horror tale The Lodger can best be described as Jack the Ripper in Hollywood. The creepy 1913 novel by lurid literary queen Marie Belloc Lowndes, introduced to the silent screen in 1927 by Alfred Hitchcock in his first suspense thriller, was remade in 1932 with Ivor Novello repeating the title role; in 1944 as a wonderfully authentic-looking spine-tingler with Merle Oberon, George Sanders and bug-eyed Laird Cregar in the title role; and again in 1953 as Man in the Attic, with the cantilevered face of Jack Palance provoking the screams. (And that doesn’t include the dozens of other graphic, hair-raising chronicles about England’s most celebrated villain, most recently the paralyzing From Hell with Johnny Depp (2001). The unsolved case of the maniac who terrorized London in 1888 by surgically dissecting the anatomies of seven prostitutes, producing suspects as diverse as Queen Victoria’s surgeon and the Duke of Clarence, has fueled the imagination of writers, detectives and filmmakers for more than a century. The paranoia surrounding the grisly Whitechapel murders shows no sign of flagging. But to transport all that bone-chilling mayhem from a mad doctor creeping across the wet cobblestones to the foggy alleys of the Limehouse slums to a serial killer cruising the peep parlors and pizza joints of Hollywood Boulevard just does not have the same je ne sais quoi.

This time a handsome and mysterious drifter carrying a medical bag (über-handsome, with the camera-ready charisma of Simon Baker, the star of TV’s The Mentalist) rents a guesthouse in West Hollywood looking for “total quiet and privacy.” Despite his wall-to-wall smile, polyurethane teeth and Paul Newman eyes deep and blue as swimming pools, this odd loner sleeps all day, stays out all night and then burns his clothes in the backyard barbecue grill. The landlords are a peculiar pair of psychological misfits, too—a violent security guard (Donal Logue) and his pale, abused wife (the excellent Hope Davis), who finds herself irresistibly attracted to her lodger. Her husband’s suspicions grow, especially since she’s the only one who ever sees him, coming and going in the midnight hours like a black panther. Did I forget to mention there’s a maniac stalking prostitutes in the neighborhood, hacking them to shreds with a scalpel and removing their reproductive organs while they’re still alive? This wacko imitates every detail of the original Ripper murders in 1888, down to the same incisions, position of the corpses and ominous letters in red ink once sent to Scotland Yard. As the red herrings mount, everyone becomes a suspect, including the husband, whose muddy work boots match the prints at one of the crime scenes; the wide-eyed wife who entertains visits from a dead child and hides something gruesome in the guesthouse; even the jaded veteran cop on the case (Alfred Molina), who has been a dedicated “Ripperphile” for years. Remember the rule of the corniest Hollywood films noirs: Look for the person you least suspect.

The filmmakers pile on the atmosphere (oblivious to every weather report in Southern California, this is a Hollywood where it never stops raining) and the snafus (the house where the lodger takes up residence is on Whitechapel Street—get it?). The cast works hard to make you believe they believe what the screenwriter tells them to believe. But in the end, it all seems contrived and silly. Writer-director David Ondaatje is to be congratulated for building the suspense while holding back the blood. The fear emanates not from what you see, but from what you don’t see. What I don’t see is box office potential for The Lodger.

rreed@observer.com

Ripper Redux