‘The Ripper’ review: a horrifying story of a killer from the perspective of victims and survivors

Is it a cautionary tale or exploitative viewing?

This documentary series about serial killer Peter Sutcliffe has already provoked heavy criticism from the people it purports to spotlight. Two of Sutcliffe’s survivors – plus relatives of seven of his victims and survivors – wrote to Netflix ahead of its premiere calling for an eleventh-hour name change. When they agreed to participate in The Ripper, it had a less provocative working title: Once Upon a Time in Yorkshire.

“The moniker ‘the Yorkshire Ripper’ has traumatised us and our families for the past four decades,” the families wrote in a letter seen by The Sunday Times. “It glorifies the brutal violence of Peter Sutcliffe, and grants him a celebrity status that he does not deserve. Please remember that the word ‘ripper’ relates to ripping flesh and the repeated use of this phrase is irresponsible, insensitive and insulting to our families and our mothers’ and grandmothers’ legacies.”

Their letter highlights the moral dilemma at the heart of a true-crime documentary like this one: is it a cautionary tale helping us to understand how one man was able to murder and brutally mutilate 13 women in West Yorkshire and Manchester between 1975 and 1980, or an exploitative nostalgia trip fuelling Sutcliffe’s notoriety?

‘The Ripper’. Credit: Netflix/Press

Despite its dubious title, The Ripper does a solid job of telling this horrifying story from the perspective of Sutcliffe’s victims and survivors. Co-directors Jesse Vile (Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet) and Ellena Wood (Louis Theroux: A Life in Anorexia) recount each of Sutcliffe’s murders – and the police response to them – chronologically and with care. Along the way, they definitely don’t let West Yorkshire Police off the hook. We see how a massively expensive manhunt and publicity campaign proved horribly ineffective, largely because police chiefs kept skipping over key evidence in favour of pursuing an over-convenient red herring.

Episode three, ‘Reclaim the Night’, is the fulcrum of this four-part series. Insights from journalist Joan Smith and Mo Lea – a survivor who was attacked by Sutcliffe when she was a Leeds art student – reveal how his killing spree and the police’s failure to apprehend him created a de facto curfew on women in the region. This sparked a series of Reclaim the Night marches in which women asserted their right to walk alone after dark, safely, just as any man could.

Vile and Wood’s methodical approach means The Ripper is sometimes plodding; then again, they deserve credit for honing in on each police failing even when they become repetitive. British viewers might also be irritated by production choices clearly made with an international audience in mind. Several talking heads with not especially broad Yorkshire accents are given subtitles at seemingly random moments.

Sutcliffe’s presence is only really felt in the final episode, where there’s a cursory exploration of his psychological state. Perhaps this is a good thing: ITV’s excellent recent miniseries Des, which dramatised the story of another late-’70s serial killer, Dennis Nilsen, left you thinking that Nilsen wasn’t just a monstrous human being, but also incredibly clever.

The Ripper ends with the names of every woman whose life was taken during Sutcliffe’s five-year reign of terror: Wilma McCann, Emily Jackson, Irene Richardson, Patricia Atkinson, Jayne McDonald, Jean Jordan, Yvonne Pearson, Helen Rytka, Vera Millward, Josephine Whittaker, Barbara Leach, Marguerite Walls, Jacqueline Hill.

There’s no mention of what happened to the man who murdered them after his conviction.

The Ripper is streaming now on Netflix.

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