“Hands of the Ripper” (1971)
by A.J. Hakari
It wasn’t that many years ago that I could literally count the Hammer horror pictures I’d seen on one hand. The number was woeful, and it soon led to a self-imposed crash course on every one of the studio’s genre titles I could get my mitts on. I watched a lion’s share of Hammer’s popular franchises and prominent thrillers, but it was their B-squad with which I became most enamored. Unable to rely on big-name stars oftentimes and forced to tailor their stories around tighter budgets, these movies made to fill out half of a double bill found the task of somehow attracting an audience doubly difficult. But once in a while, a gem like Hands of the Ripper would creep from this world and make a more concerted than average effort at clenching viewers’ collective fear factor in its grasp. The film is a bit slow-going by modern standards, the gore is sparse, and there’s no iconic villain present to inspire a string of sequels. But Hands of the Ripper has more than enough going for it in other departments, chief among them being a fantastic sense of atmosphere and a classiness that effectively marries bloodshed with the realm of suspense.
Saying that Anna (Angharad Rees) had a rough childhood would be an understatement for all time. Orphaned at a young age, Anna was brought up by a bogus medium (Dora Bryan) who’d have her play ghost in séances — that is, whenever she wasn’t being rented out as a private plaything for Parliament perverts. But no one knows just how horrifying this waif’s origins are, how she witnessed her mother’s murder at the hands of her father…a man better known as Jack the Ripper. Sensing a darkness dwelling within Anna, forward-thinking head-shrinker Dr. Pritchard (Eric Porter) decides to take her under his wing and root out a psychological explanation for what’s troubling her. However, the answers that Pritchard seeks may be more than modern medicine can explain, for it’s a real demonic force that’s taken possession of poor Anna and is compelling her to resume the Ripper’s grisly rampage.
One of the more curious aspects about Hands of the Ripper is how upfront it is about who’s doing the slicing and dicing. With a story like this, you’d swear that Hammer would opt for the whodunit route (as they tried and failed before — I’m looking at you, The Gorgon), so telling us right off the bat that Anna is our killer du jour is a nice way to mix things up. Instead, Hands of the Ripper finds tension in how others approach her condition, how they presume to know how to deal with forces beyond their control that they refuse to acknowledge. This entails many a role being reversed, with those who have the best intentions at heart also being the ones who cause the most damage. Not only does Pritchard’s desire to keep Anna tucked away and crack her tortured psyche inspire a whole new slew of murders for him to cover up, his reasons may not be all that pure, with subtle hints of the doc viewing the girl as a replacement for his dead wife dropped left and right. Meanwhile, that aforementioned politico (Derek Godfrey) who starts off the film attempting to rape Anna is the only one who knows the score, pleading with Pritchard to accept a supernatural explanation for all the homicidal goings-on.
Hands of the Ripper also differs from much of its Hammer brethren in how it carries itself. The studio’s traditional sensationalism has been dialed back here, going for a look that skews elegant over pulpy. In addition to the costumes and production design feeling more natural than the norm, the requisite violence is far less cartoony in quality. There are still money shots aplenty, from a hooker’s eye getting pierced by needles to the phony psychic’s own impalement (which is a fantastic reveal, by the way). But Hands of the Ripper aims for a spontaneous and sinister effect with its gore, one it accomplishes while never crossing the line into exploitation or becoming too unpleasant to bear. It’s fair to say that for all the time we spend following Pritchard’s attempts to explain away Anna’s illness, Anna never quite develops into a strong character herself, stuck in a trancelike state and employed as a catalyst to cue up her caretaker’s reactions all too often. But Rees does what she can to portray a frail figure unaware of the evil she’s carting around inside, and Porter does a great job of alluding to Pritchard’s darker side without tainting his concerned visage.
After masterminding terrific Blu-ray transfers for less prolific Hammer titles such as Twins of Evil and Vampire Circus, Synapse Films has performed another admirable upgrade with Hands of the Ripper‘s leap to high definition. It’s a movie well worth rediscovering, embedded with its parent studio’s stylistic DNA but altered enough so that fans aren’t left feeling like they’re seeing the same old slash and dance all over again. Some Hammer chillers are sexy, and some are charmingly low-rent, but Hands of the Ripper is a kind of no-frills creepy that doesn’t come around very much.
Hands of the Ripper Blu-ray/DVD combo bonus features:
–The Devil’s Bloody Plaything, a 28-minute mini-documentary about the film’s creation
–Slaughter of Innocence, a six-minute featurette showcasing Hammer’s gore and monster make-up effects throughout the years
-A still gallery
-A theatrical trailer
-An introduction to the film’s heavily-cut debut on ABC (audio only)