The latest documentary miniseries to tap into the neverending streaming craze around history’s most brutal crimes, “The Ripper” charts the carnage wrought by a serial killer of women in Yorkshire, England, in the 1970s. But there was another misogynistic element in play as revealed in this four-part series, and that turned out to be the police launching the investigation who spent half a decade chasing a slayer who constantly outsmarted them.
For fans of the HBO series “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” and even the podcast “Sword and Scale,” both unsparing their detailing of grisly crimes, “The Ripper” is an endlessly grim source of fascination. It also effectively flays a procedural breakdown within the police force, showing that the pile-up of misinformation surrounding the deaths of 13 women could be as maddening as the murders themselves.
Directed by Jesse Vile and Ellena Wood, “The Ripper” weaves present-day talking heads with impressively edited, grainy archival footage and period-specific reenactments as convincing as any documentary-aping fake-out this side of Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell.” The series opens on the 1975 murder of Wilma McCann, bludgeoned multiple times with a hammer and left for dead, quite literally, in a ditch. Because she was a single mother who left her four kids at home during a night of carousal in the supposed “red-light district” of Leeds, police assumed she was a prostitute, and as a result didn’t bother throwing much energy at the case.
That is, until the bodies started piling up over a five-year period. Clearly, as the series shows, the Yorkshire police force loathed prostitutes — or any women who stepped outside the social order. That included West Yorkshire senior detective Jim Hobson, who was seemingly on his own rampage to eliminate sex workers from the streets.
Richard McCann, Wilma’s son who was five years old when she was killed, provides stirring testimony throughout the four episodes, though he has since criticized the Netflix series for sensationalizing the killer. (The title “The Ripper,” he told the BBC Radio, is “a description of how women can be killed,” and Netflix, he said, “wasted all that sensitivity by calling it that name.”)
But the series hardly attempts to sensationalize the unfolding hell, which is its most refreshing asset amid a moment that’s really a feeding frenzy for true-crime junkies. “The Ripper” shows how a shifting social milieu, in particular surround woman’s rights, more or less made way for Peter William Sutcliffe to murder more than a dozen women and attack even more. Sutcliffe, who died on November 13 in prison, received 20 concurrent life sentences in 1981. Vile and Wood don’t dwell too explicitly on the court proceedings, instead saving Sutcliffe’s reveal for the last episode, wending through various other suspects along the way.
Unfortunately, across four episodes, the Yorkshire Ripper’s modus operandi amid an escalating body count becomes almost numbing, and even dizzying as the cast of characters expands. It becomes as challenging for the viewer to distinguish between the victims as it did for investigators, and that appears to be by design. But the series nimbly shows how economic despair caused by a rapidly over-industrialized England forced women like McCann, Emily Jackson, Irene Richardson, Patricia Atkinson, and many more into the streets and made them prey to a misogynistic killer. It’s also hard to look away from the trainwreck of miscommunication passing around the police department as they scrambled with little to go on to catch a murderer who was pretty much right in front of their faces all along.
All four episodes of “The Ripper” are now streaming on Netflix.