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Hands of the Ripper Review

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by Chris McEneany Oct 16, 2006 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies review

    104

    Hands of the Ripper Review
    You've got to hand it to Hammer Films, when they weren't merely regurgitating endless rehashes of their powerful terror-triumvirate of Lee's Dracula, Cushing's Frankenstein and just-about-anybody's Mummy, they could actually come up with some interesting and unusual stories that offered something new and fresh to the genre that they, ultimately, lost a grip on. The seventies, as I have already stated in the Retro-review for Captain Kronos, were especially unkind to the studio, leading to its slow, lingering death - Hammer's once-shining beacon for horror becoming snuffed-out, like one of those Victorian gas lamps in the thick London fog, by much more impressive movies produced in Hollywood. But, as exemplified by Kronos, they did still manage to come up with the odd gem.

    1971's Hands Of The Ripper, directed by Peter Sasdy (who had also helmed the colourful Taste The Blood Of Dracula and the lamentably drab Countess Dracula for the studio) wasn't the first time that Hammer had tackled the practically “mythological” reign of terror that Jack The Ripper created in the Autumn of 1888 - they had produced an adaptation of the radio drama by Margery Allingham called Room To Let in 1950, with the airwaves' Man In Black, Valentine Dyall as the suspected Whitechapel murderer. It wasn't even the only Ripper film they made in 1971! Only a few weeks after Hands premiered, they unleashed the imaginative dross of Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde, starring Ralph Bates and Martine Beswick as the two personalities inhabiting the same body of a scientist seeking female hormones for his own experimentation. Written by the typically inventive Brian Clemens, the film was an audacious mess that did, at the very least, prove that Hammer was willing to take some pretty extreme chances with its scripts. But it was Hands Of The Ripper that found the eventual acclaim, proving to be a clever, witty and exciting tale of hereditary rage, scientific pseudo-babble and effectively atmospheric period-setting.

    “There was another murder, wasn't there? They're looking for Jack The Ripper!”

    Set a few years after the end of the Ripper murders, the film takes the premise that the original murderer had a family of his own and that, during a frantic pique of anger and violence after the fearful glut of Mary Kelly's slaying, he stabs to death his pretty wife right in view of his young daughter, Anna. Then, fleeing into the night, a Hammer/Universal stalwart of baying mob hard at his heels (unusually though, the torch-wielding crowd here open the film, rather than close it) leaving the traumatised waif to pick up the pieces of a uniquely dysfunctional family. Years later, Anna (the enormously pretty, yet fragile Angharad Rees in her motion picture debut) is working for Dora Bryan's fraudulent medium, supplying the ghostly voices for the duped patrons of a bogus séance to listen to.

    The scam is uncovered by Dr. John Pritchard (Eric Porter) and his son Michael (Keith Bell), and the doctor's feelings for this unusual girl are aroused still further when she appears to murder Bryan's chancing spiritualist after a rogue MP called Dysart makes lecherous approaches. A somewhat progressive psychoanalyst with a penchant for Freud's leanings, Dr Pritchard sees an avenue for his own research into the human mind and, taking the girl into his house - with a slightly My Fair Lady/Pygmalion angle going on - he seeks to cure her of the strangely violent tendencies that have lain dormant in her since the terrible incidents that she witnessed as a child. But what scientist in a horror film ever gets it right? Even with the best of intentions, Pritchard makes a complete hash of things and more murders ensue, getting nastier each time in true Ripper fashion until his own daughter-in-law to-be, Laura (Jane Merrow) is plunged into jeopardy in a truly suspenseful finale. But can the noble, yet misguided, doctor save the day, save the girl and save the soul of Jack The Ripper's daughter?

    “Doctor, I saw her. She was possessed! Her whole body contorted. Her hands ... they weren't her hands at all!”

    The psycho-sexual flavour of the piece, whilst fascinating and pretty wacky for its time, is hardly that outrageous when viewed today. The entire Freudian hypothesis expounded from Pritchard really amounts to nothing in the course of the story, making no statement that we haven't already realised and, ultimately, supplying no conclusions of any worth either. Filmmakers nowadays would revel in such psychological delving - Brian DePalma has made a career out of it, in fact - but with Hammer's sprint-to-the-finish style of film production, macabre joie de vive in supplying an incident every five minutes or so and streamlined, whistle-stop narrative, such depth is forsaken in favour of mood and action. But the ace play that Sasdy and screenwriter L.W. Davidson make is in having the good doctor, and ostensibly the hero, actually becoming an accomplice (after the event, maybe) to multiple murder. Although carrying on his noble endeavours in the hope that he can salvage this one girl's sanity, he is quite content to allow her victims to fall under her assorted blades - even himself during one gruesomely protracted sequence involving a sword and a door-handle - during the process.

    The sacrifice of the many to save the one becomes his primary concern when Sasdy's direction keeps on hinting at the lust he, himself, feels for the his troubled patient, and Porter's own performance trembles on the tightrope between decent bedside manner and the same lecherous advantage-taking of Derek Godfrey's Dysart. Porter is excellent in the role of the crusading doctor, masking the fact that his character has also quite clearly become unhinged by his devotion to finding a solution to Anna's dilemma by dressing up such antics as body-disposal in the name of science. His clinging to the belief that he can get to the bottom of her psychosis by hefting her onto the trademark couch and using hypnosis at every given opportunity just proves his own addiction to her more and more. And his coldness towards his son's fiancée, Laura - who is blind, by the way - becomes a much greater marring of his character now that he has found what he considers to be a “real” illness to unravel and understand. Check out his brusque dismissals of her at several junctures throughout the film - this emotional slighting would be less heavy-handed in a more recent film, perhaps, but with Hammer's typically breakneck pacing this element comes as a rich surprise in a story that is already attempting some deeper texture.

    “All young girls today lack character. It's a fact.”

    Angharad Rees copes admirably with the mentally scarred heroine/villain role, especially so when you consider how fresh she was to this game. Picked by esteemed Producer Aida Young, having been won over by her performance in a television play, the twenty-three year old actress consulted her father, a Professor of Psychology, about the part. She effortlessly manages to convince as a frightened stray, lost on the fringes of society and totally split into two psychological and spiritual halves - with both ignorant of the other's existence. Anna is a painfully sad character, as much a victim of the horror of her situation as those who find themselves on the receiving end of her sharp weaponry. The ambiguity of the plot as to whether she is actually possessed by the demonic spirit of her deranged father, or simply just insane, is another delicious layer that Davidson's script leaves at least partially up to the viewer to decide.

    It is remarked upon that no mere girl could have shoved a poker clean through a woman's body and through the door she was leaning against, and the later skewering of another victim's body with a sword is also a feat that her slight frame would seem to be incapable of committing. But then again, the clever finale twists such a notion on its head when apparently only Anna can hear the voice of her dead father instructing her to kill. The sight of her hands transforming is a neat visual aside though ... and they do say that the mad have the strength of many which, again, may account for her bestial power. Apparently, Rees had her contract stipulate that she wasn't to do any nude scenes. But, this being a Hammer Film, and Peter Sasdy being quite persuasive, the poor little actress found herself deposited in a bath for a brief instance of exposure that, to be honest, seems totally at odds with the tone of the film. Considering the starlets that had bared themselves for Hammer in the past, having the diminutive Rees (who resembles Hayley Mills in this film) follow suit seems wholly inappropriate, in my opinion. Especially so when you look at some of the other buxom wenches on display - or not on display, if you catch my meaning - such as Marjie Lawrence as the maid Dolly, for instance, and the awesomely-cleavaged Lynda (Open All Hours) Baron as the whore-with-a-heart Long Liz - a name lifted from one of the real Ripper's victims.

    “I shouldn't have thought there was enough woman there to satisfy a man like you.”

    The supporting cast are all good value, however. The familiar face of Norman Bird, as the Police Inspector, is almost masked by the hugely impressive Wolverine-ish side-whiskers, but he strikes just the right tone that you would expect from an East End copper in the wake of the hideous Ripper atrocities. Derek Godfrey as the wily MP Dysart is suitably oily and Keith Bell perfects a moustache-twitching Edgar Allen Poe look as Michael Pritchard. But Jane Merrow, who went on to encompass a vast range of TV roles in everything from Mission Impossible to Magnum P.I., is delectable as Laura. She may not be the most convincing blind person in horror movies, but she certainly gains your sympathy with the quiet pain she exhibits when reeling from Dr. Pritchard's frequently undisguised distaste towards her. It is a little odd that she doesn't seem to notice her companion's zombie-like state of suspicious silence in the lead-up to the powerful climax, though. Even her husband-to-be seems curiously oblivious to the trance that Anna appears to under. But then, these are just niggles.

    “You can't cure Jack The Ripper ... and that's who she is!”

    The production design is typically excellent, with some good location work at the train station, well-utilised cobbled-streets, carriages and Victorian frontages abundantly used, and the interiors richly decorated and heaving with period detail. Hammer's older, more gothic movies tended, quite ironically, to have rather sparse rooms and hallways - excepting, of course, their simply ravishing film The Brides Of Dracula from 1960, which is still a visually captivating experience all round - but Hands Of The Ripper literally drips with class and a sense of the lavish. Even the gore is more audacious and redolent.

    The killings are copious and splashy with the red stuff, a couple of the gruesome set-piece murders making the film fairly notorious for a while. The slashing of pretty Dolly's throat and the subsequent stabbing hilt-deep into the side of her neck must have been a real shock to audiences at the time, coming full-on into the frame with a sadistic relish. Although tame by modern standards and, admittedly, still pretty fake-looking probably even back in 1971, the scene incurred the wrath of the American censors - who were normally much more lenient towards Hammer Films than were our own - and, coupled with Long Liz's brief-but-horrific multiple face-pinning, actually served to get the film banned in several countries, lending it a somewhat unjustified “Nasty” tag. But the delivery of the carnage is still quite inspired, the intention to draw gasps from the punters is overt and the use of the innocent-looking Rees as the killer is a devastatingly effective lynchpin. A nicely disturbing shot involves Anna, still calmly under the trance of a murder's aftermath, absently dabbing at the Kensington gore that has decorated her small and pale hands - the visual juxtaposition similar to the unmasking of the young Michael Myers after he has just butchered his sister on Halloween night in Haddonfield. You'll be pleased to know that, despite the rather brief running time - even by Hammer's churn-them-out-quick policy of nearly-ninety minutes a feature - this edition of Hands Of The Ripper is completely uncut.

    “In her trance, any kiss will bring back the horror of the last image of her father ... then he would possess her. He would make her kill!”

    The Hitchcock-inspired denouement set in the Whispering Gallery of St. Paul's Cathedral is visually stylish and offers up a suitably demented grand final note of suspense and tragedy. But as well as Hitchcock, there is also a flavour of Italian giallo, the themes of sexual predation mimicking the sixties proto-slashers of Mario Bava and, in a way, opening the doorway for American and British appreciation for the later blood-storms of Dario Argento that would lap over these respective shores throughout the forthcoming years. Ripper's unfolding plot hinging, as it does, on flashbacks and the powerful trigger-responses of glinting reflections and a fatal kiss being devices that also fit in well with Argento's trademark narrative hooks.

    The main character suffering from a twisted and traumatised mind being another prime requisite of such psychologically-warped bloodletting. And the whole ethic of violence against women - particularly having their bodies penetrated by something sharp and cruel - seems to have groped down through the ages since Saucy Jack's real-life slaughter-fest, through Hands Of The Ripper and then settled deeply into Argento's mind. There was certainly nothing new about the fairer sex being stalked in movies even before Sasdy's chiller, but it is interesting to note that this type of film really only took off after Ripper. I'm not saying that Hammer's “little” second-fiddle movie to Twins Of Evil (the two toured the States as a double-bill - the film, that is, not the twins!) was pivotal to starting this genre-saturated trend, but it was there at the conception of such fare taking on its own identity.

    Folks, I have to admit that Hands Of The Ripper has probably inveigled its way into the Retrofest by default, more than by my own actual love for the film. Its timely release as this Special Edition, coming as it did, just when I had covered one of my own particular favourites from Hammer's years of decline, Captain Kronos, lending it more leeway than I might, otherwise, have afforded it. Together with the fact that I love the new chat tracks that Kim Newman and Stephen Jones seem to be attaching to dozens of nostalgic genre films these days, this practically catapulted Hands Of The Ripper back to the forefront of my mind. And, the good thing is that even I can be surprised by the occasional film that I may have otherwise overlooked. Thus, Hands Of The Ripper, has really gained a new fan in me. I'd always liked the film, but never really admired it, all-too-often dismissing it into the London fog along with Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde. But now I can happily recommend it as a clever, well-directed yarn that takes some of the old conventions and slashes them to ribbons. A departure for Hammer in storytelling and style, and further proof that the studio still had bite even when its number was clearly up.