Monday, March 14, 2016

HANDS OF THE RIPPER

Peter Sasdy, 1971
Starring: Angharad Rees, Eric Porter, Jane Merrow, Keith Bell

On the verge of being caught, Jack the Ripper murders his wife right in front of their young daughter. Years later, she is a deeply troubled teenager, barely surviving on the streets of London. She lives with a fake medium — a woman who mercilessly exploits her — until a kind psychiatrist, Dr. Pritchard, takes her in. Determined to cure her with some experimental therapies, he doesn’t realize the extent of her problems: she appears to be possessed by the spirit of her father and lashes out violently when confronted with physical contact or shiny objects, sending her on a murder spree that Pritchard struggles to control.

Really Hammer’s only example of a proto-slasher — made well before Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) or John Carpenter’s more publicly renowned Halloween (1978) — Hands of the Ripper is one of the studio’s last great films, an underrated effort that isn’t nearly as celebrated as it should be. Tonally, it falls somewhere between the Gothic revenge horror exhibited by some of the Frankenstein entries and the more effective suspense films penned by Jimmy Sangster, like The Maniac or Scream of Fear, which contain Freudian themes and are generally centered on dark inheritances and disturbed families.

In terms of plot structure, Hands of the Ripper also has a fair amount in common with other Hammer films that feature a reluctant female villain, like The Gorgon, The Reptile, and Frankenstein Created Woman. In these films, the female protagonist is usually sweet and innocent, and often ill or psychologically damaged in some way, but commits murders while generally unaware of her actions — or unable to present them. Particular in their early years, Hammer had some questionable sexual politics in the sense that they simply didn’t have many interesting or strong female characters and the first decade or so is awash with damsels in distress. The sorts of lady villains present in Hands of the Ripper and Frankenstein Created Woman, as well as The Gorgon and The Reptile, are monsters because they have been shaped that way by others, often by scientists or father figures.

In this film, Pritchard is a lot kinder than Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein, but is also a divisive figure. He appears to care for Anna, but at his core he is really no different from Hammer’s cold, rational, and opportunistic scientist type, caring more about the “cure” or the experiment than the people around him. He knows she is killing and despite the horrific nature of her crimes, he doesn’t attempt to stop her, being too concerned with his own methods and their results; even Pritchard’s own son Michael and his blind fiancee become involved in one of the film’s most suspenseful sequences. 

The changing production codes also allowed for a shocking level of gore, at least compared to Hammer’s earlier films. Though, somewhat ridiculously, Anna’s mania is triggered by physical affection or shiny objects reflecting light in her field of vision, she’s responsible for quite a lot of gore — including a cut throat, a sword through an abdomen, and a hatpin in an eyeball — with some scenes that horrified contemporary viewers. This also has an unusually nihilistic flavor, including (SPOILER ALERT) a bombastic finale sequence in the Whispering Gallery that features a downbeat, surprisingly bleak ending for a Hammer film: the deaths of both Anna and Dr. Pritchard on the floor of St. Paul’s Cathedral. 

Directed by Peter Sasdy — responsible for horror films like Taste the Blood of Dracula, Countess Dracula, excellent TV film The Stone Tape, and Nothing But the NightHands of the Ripper comes with the highest possible recommendation and even you don’t like Hammer, you should really give this one a chance. Fortunately it’s available on Blu-ray, where the film looks absolutely fantastic. Though some genre fans roll their eyes at Hammer’s colorful period pieces, this features a menacing turn of the century London atmosphere and gloomy cinematography that enhances the downbeat tone. Though it lacks any of Hammer’s major stars, there are some nice performances, particularly from Eric Porter (The Day of the Jackal) as Pritchard and the underrated Angharad Rees (The Wolves of Kromer) as Anna, who is particularly well directed compared to some of Hammer’s other wide-eyed blondes.

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