Of course, innumerable amounts of people have written about their fascination with England’s most notoriously unknown murderer. We here at Biff Bam Pop! have done our part, too. Whether it’s a physical walk, book, poem, or a drawing, film has always had a fascination for the villain.
Although not a horror movie, Murder By Decree announces its intent through its opening scene: a rolling panorama of 1888 London during an October sunset, a fog rising, and the night’s first policeman whistles as Big Ben chimes in the distance.
Suspense and dread. That’s what the film offers. Oh! And a solving of the crime by fiction’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes!
Released in early 1979, Murder By Decree was a co-production between Britain and Canada. Because of this, the cast is made up of a plethora of names from both countries, including the brilliant Christopher Plummer as Sherlock Holmes, James Mason as Dr. John Watson, Donald Sutherland as the psychic Robert Lees, Sir John Gielgud as Lord Salisbury, England’s Prime Minister, and Genevieve Bujold in a stirring performance as a despondent Annie Crook.
Under the helm of director Bob Clark, who was also responsible for cult classics such as the horror film, Black Christmas (1974), the teen comedy Porky’s (1982), and everyone’s favourite holiday feature, A Christmas Story (1983), Murder By Decree mixes real-life terror and political intrigue with the best that fiction offers. Together, they form something new, evocative and wonderfully playful.
Audiences are introduced to Holmes and Watson in an early scene, best friends sharing an evening together at the theatre. Here they comment on the delay of the show due to the tardiness of nobility in the Prince of Wales, Edward VII, the future King of England. Known as a philanderer who had many mistresses and someone who would frequent brothels and prostitutes, there is a smattering of boos when the Prince enters the theatre. Watson, ever the monarchist, saves the day by beginning to chant “God save His Royal Highness!” which is taken up throughout the building, drowning out the heckling. Royalty, for their part, take notice.
It’s this scene that lays the groundwork for the underlying plot threads the surround the origins of Jack the Ripper in Murder By Decree, and the theory that, in real life, his murders were committed, in part, by someone of noble birth – that the cover up of Jack’s identity and his lack of capture was due to political interference. It’s a fascinating thought, one that is, ultimately, just as fictitious as any other I’d wager.
Still, the seeds are sewn: social order and class upheaval in late eighteenth century England, the stirrings of the weakening of the monarchy, Freemasonry, and the suspicion of government. And, at the centre of it all, there is Sherlock Holmes.
One of the many great things about Murder By Decree is the relationship between Homes and Watson. Plummer and Mason play them as best and long-standing friends. Mason’s Watson is proper and caring and very respectful of the establishment, while Plummer’s Homes is, perhaps surprisingly, more endearing than how others have played the character in the past. Yes, he can be distant, but he certainly has a sense of pity inherent in him – as witnessed in a wonderfully emotional scene with the troubled Annie Crook, incarcerated inside a lunatic asylum for falling in love with a man of the wrong class and having a child by him.
But Sherlock Homes, here, is a purveyor of truth, if not justice. He points fingers and utters barbed, disdainful words at government in the film’s final, explanatory scene at London’s House of Lords. “I thought it would be better we should meet here. We could be sure of privacy,” states the Prime Minister. “Secrecy would perhaps be the more appropriate word,” retorts Holmes with some venom.
Murder By Decree, as fictionalized a story as it is, is a wonderful and atmospheric play on pop culture, human history and human interest. Wile laying the blame for the Ripper murders at the feet of many individuals, specific and general, as well as institutions and movements, it perhaps fosters the growth of conspiracy theory – all the while being fully entertaining. The actors here are actor’s actors – they play their roles with passion and vigor. The action is intense at times and the atmospheric sense of horror entirely palpable.
Murder By Decree is a perfect film to watch for the first time – or again – during 31 Days of Horror.