Hands of the Ripper (1971) d. Sasdy, Peter (UK)
In the waning days of the Hammer heyday, the studio cranked up the flesh and the blood in an attempt to hold the attention of their horror fanbase. Even their Dracula and Frankenstein flagship franchises were losing their allure for audiences to a bevy of scrappy independent efforts who were willing to shed more blood and show more flesh. After enjoying success with their trio of sassy Karnstein bloodsuckfests (The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire, and Twins of Evil), they danced out a pair of Jack the Ripper-themed costume dramas in 1971: the gender-bending Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde and the (slightly) more grounded Hands of the Ripper, which posits that the offspring of Springheel Jack, traumatized by the sight of her mother skewered in front of her, will grow up to be a ticking time bomb primed to plunge sharp implements into tender flesh.
Screenwriter L.W. Davidson, working from Edward Spencer Shew’s screen story, introduces a Freudian note with professional skeptic Dr. Pritchard (Eric Porter) encountering the lovely but damaged Anna (Angharad Rees) whilst attending a faux medium’s séance. After the old bag’s attempt to whore out her assistant ends in a literally bloody mess, Pritchard takes the troubled lass – who he suspects of the murder – into his home with the intent of studying and curing her of her mania. He’s none too concerned about any additional victims that might come to a sad end, believing that the greater good would be served by understanding the driving cause behind violence. If a few lives are lost in the process, so be it. However long-range his altruism might extend, it’s unfortunate that the well-intentioned prof is hardly equipped for the task at hand – hypnosis and good intentions only go so far when dealing with a latent psychopath.
All of assembled actors do their best to invest their characters with an admirable amount of shading and spine. Porter, fresh off the game-changing BBC TV serial The Forsythe Saga, lends a tremendous amount of gravitas in the central role of Pritchard and his sober presence is largely responsible for how well the melodramatic malarkey plays. Rees makes the most of an underwritten role, shy and simple and pleasant until she crosses paths with flickering lights and an uninvited smooch…whereupon she affects the demeanor of someone smelling rancid meat, stabbing and slicing everything in sight with the nearest pointy object. Playing Pritchard’s son Michael, Keith Bell seems a surefire winner for the Edgar Allan Poe lookalike contest while Jane Merrow makes a pleasant damsel in distress as his beautiful blind betrothed.
There are a number of memorably grisly onscreen murders, including a geyser-like throat slashing and an oft-trimmed sequence where a plump prostitute gets a handful of hatpins to the face. (It’s worth noting that all of Rees' victims – with one notable exception – are female.) Things get consistently sillier as the minutes tick by, with Porter realizing the folly of his ways far, far too late and chasing down his ward before she makes his son a preemptory widower. The climax in the whispering room of the local cathedral is quite effective, in spite of excessive and unnecessary loopy voiceovers from beyond the grave. The final downbeat moments also feel a bit forced, failing to achieve the full weight of tragic fatalism director Peter Sasdy seems to have been going for. (To be honest, the opening sequence rings just as false, with a Ripper-chasing mob of torch-bearing villagers that feels like footage from a different movie.)
Despite its minor faults, the film has been long absent from the home viewing circuit, which is why Synapse’s superb Blu-ray/DVD combo presentation (following their terrific Twins of Evil , Vampire Circus and Complete Hammer House of Horror ) is such a cause for rejoicing. In addition to the magnificent hi-def presentation and DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio (as well as an isolated music and effects track), the release marks the first time the film has been seen uncut in the U.S. – there’s not a lot of saucy skin on display (a brief glimpse of Rees in the bath), but the aforementioned killings still manage to pack quite a wallop.
We are also treated to a superb talking heads documentary The Devil’s Plaything: Possessed by the Hands of the Ripper, which gives long overdue praise to Aida Young (Hammer’s first female producer), with Ripper marking her final assignment for the studio. The Hungarian-born Sasdy is likewise lauded, the only other Hammer veteran crew member (Taste the Blood of Dracula, Countess Dracula) involved in the production. Other special features include a six-minute retrospective still gallery from several of Hammer’s biggest hits (although “The Evolution of Hammer Gore” title is a bit of a stretch since it’s hard to see much of a pattern, especially with no narration or notation), trailers and TV spots.
Hands of the Ripper is now available for purchase from Synapse Films – visit http://synapse-films.com/dvds/horror/hands-of-the-ripper-bddvd-combo/ for more info
--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine