In his 1827 essay "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts," Thomas De Quincey proposes an aesthetic appreciation of killing. He was writing in the wake of the Ratcliffe Highway murders and while his intentions were satirical, De Quincey's piece nevertheless legitimized the public's appetite for sensationalistic death.
The roots of the modern detective novel (and every procedural since) are in the Victorian era's crime coverage and popular interest in murder as entertainment. More than two centuries later, the horrific Ratcliffe murders commingled in the plot of Peter Ackroyd's 1994 historical novel, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, newly adapted for the screen as The Limehouse Golem, which opens in Canadian theatres this weekend. Adapted by Jane Goldman (Kingsman, Kick-Ass) and directed by Juan Carlos Medina (Painless), the horror-thriller burrows into the milieu and enters the mind of a serial killer.
The Victorian mystery about social reform, mysticism and murder in London's wretched Limehouse neighbourhood takes place in 1880, several years before the more infamous serial killings of Jack the Ripper. It covers the events leading up to performer Lizzie Cree (Olivia Cooke) being accused of poisoning her husband (Sam Reid) and includes a series of lurid murders that newsmakers, already fluent in the economics of titillation, ascribe to the titular creature.
"[Alfred] Hitchcock said a very smart thing about pure whodunits – that he didn't like them and distrusted them because it was an intellectual game, about just turning the pages eager to reach the end. It's not just about that," Medina says in an interview. "The challenge about 'whodunit' is to make it about much more than the 'who.' In the case of Limehouse, the identity of the murderer is revealed but it's not really solved. Who was that person?"
What Medina appreciates about Ackroyd (who has also written a portrait of Hitchcock) is that he doesn't write typical historic novels that treat the past as an exotic land. "Instead, he takes you to the mind of people at that time," Medina says. "He talks about the ideas, about the perceptions, about how they shaped who we are today. It's the history of the ideas."
In a movie about identity, the Golem is an apt symbol of London. "The mythical creature of Jewish folklore is an aggregate of all those different personas," Medina says. "It is a monster made of clay – metaphorically, the elements of the street. It's interesting because Ackroyd talks of London as a palimpsest, as a city where history layers over of history, you can always find another layer. So the Golem is this creature made of bits of London, an incarnation of the demon at the heart of London."
The film's East End music-hall setting is key. Dan Leno (Douglas Booth) was a real and outrageously popular star of the period who performed vignettes he wrote about events of the day – in this case, about the revenge wrought by wronged women.
"You have this kind of lust for violence that is at the origin of theatre, Greek tragedy, a violent representation of a violent society for the relief of the masses," the director says. "They vent their bad emotions, through catharsis."
Everybody's playing a part in The Limehouse Golem, be it social theorists Karl Marx and George Gissing, who make appearances in the film, to world-weary Scotland Yard inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy). Even the city itself is performing. The grisly proceedings take place in a gaslit London that is, "a little bit like a vision of Hell, with the fire and the smoke," Medina says.
Working with cinematographer Simon Dennis and production designer Grant Montgomery (both veterans of British television's Peaky Blinders), the director was inspired by debauched Hieronymus Bosch triptychs but mainly drew the look of the movie from the iconography of the time-melodramatic landscape paintings by John Martin, the moody moonlit night scenes of John Atkinson Grimshaw, and Gustave Doré's Divine Comedy alongside his historic engravings chronicling squalid London.
"It was something very gritty and visceral that I wanted – industrial and dirty. I wanted you to feel the soot on your skin."
Composer Johan Soderqvist also created one boisterous song set to genuine Leno lyrics (their original music is lost to the ages). "It's a kind of a parody and denunciation of the social violence against women, but he also makes a show out of it," Medina explains. "It's ambiguous on both sides: as the performer he's profiting from it and he's taking pleasure in the representation of that violence. And at the same time as he's exorcising it for the audience."
That appetite is still rampant today, with the revival of true-crime serials. "I watched hours of Making a Murderer," Medina says, "and to get a peek into the most intimate part of someone's life and psychological process, it's exhilarating and profound."
"The fascinating part about that is to wonder how people can do these things. When you watch it," he continues, "you wonder if they're innocent? Guilty? Could you have done it? There's no way to answer. That tension of not being able to answer is to touch the very essence of the enigma of a human being. The Golem is in a sense the audience that relishes that violence."