James Hill, 1965
Starring: John Neville, Donald Houston, John Fraser “My knife's so nice and sharp, I want to get to work right away if I get a chance. Good Luck. Yours truly, Jack the Ripper.” In late nineteenth century London, prostitutes are being murdered in the seedy district of Whitechapel. The city’s most renowned detective, Sherlock Holmes, is soon on the case along with his associate Dr. Watson and the scant clues — including a case of personalized surgical instruments left at a pawn shop — lead them towards the missing son of the illustrious Duke of Shires. Holmes’ own brother Mycroft encourages him to find the killer, dubbed Jack the Ripper by the press, before the madman strikes again, sending Holmes into an increasingly complex web of lies, family secrets, and past violence, all revolving around a local asylum. It might seem a little off track for me to cover a Sherlock Holmes film for my British horror series, but — as with Hammer’s earlier The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee — this film does have some connection to the horror genre. I’m a massive Sherlock Holmes fan and it’s really a shame that this film and Hammer’s effort didn’t kick of a string of horror-tinged Conan Doyle thrillers. That bit of wishful thinking aside, A Study in Terror did have an interesting impact, both in terms of cinema and fiction; even though it’s relatively ignored and received mixed critical attention, it’s worth remembering because it was influential in two ways. First, it pitted the world’s most famous fictional detective against a historical, unsolved case; secondly, it was (as far as I can tell) the first work of fiction to pin the Ripper murders on a member of the British aristocracy, implying that a government-wide conspiracy is at foot. This theme began to reappear somewhat regularly, including in Murder by Decree (1978), which I’ll discuss more later, and Alan Moore’s masterpiece, the comic From Hell (1989-1996). The film’s connection to the horror genre is further highlighted in the fact that it was penned by Donald and Derek Ford of The Black Torment, and implied more sex and violence than the censors were apparently comfortable with; really it has nothing on, say, a Pete Walker film, but there are some brutal death sequences and a few implied seductions. And in his own way, Saucy Jack has become as much of a classic horror genre figure as Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster. It’s always felt a bit weird to me to cut Ripper-themed films out of horror genre discussions and include them with thrillers instead; after all, this is about a series of crimes where an unidentified person literally guts prostitutes and spills their entrails all over the street. The film’s twist — which I am going to reveal here, so look out, spoilers ahead — focuses on the same core plot element as Murder by Decree and From Hell: a rebellious aristocrat had a relationship with a woman of questionable morals and his family attempted to cover it up, leading, in a roundabout way, to the murders. In this case, Lord Carfax (John Fraser), Michael’s brother, became obsessed with covering up a scandal. The murder of several prostitutes was just a ruse, a diversion, in order to distract from his real plan, to locate and then murder Angela (Adrienne Corri). The plot is sort of hard to follow and improbable: While Michael (John Cairney) was studying to be a doctor, he met and married a beautiful prostitute, Angela. He learned that she was unfaithful to him — with Max Steiner (Peter Carsten), the owner of the inn — and in an ensuing fight, she tried to throw acid in his face, but only wound up hideously scarring herself. Steiner keeps her hidden away in a room above the inn, while Michael went mad from the incident and is similarly hidden away in the asylum by his former mentor, Dr. Murray (Anthony Quayle), who has let everyone believe that he’s dead. Sherlock’s deductions are a bit groan-worthy at times and his logical leaps make the head spin, but some of this is expected and the rest is made up for by a number of wonderful performances. Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen himself, John Neville, is absolutely divine as Holmes and I really wish he had been given his own run as the sleuth, like Peter Cushing or Jeremy Brett (though admittedly no one can compare with the latter). Donald Houston’s blustering Watson provides a nice counterpoint, as he is generally always affronted about something, adding a subtly comic twist to the grim proceedings. I know this use of Watson as comic relief annoys a lot of Conan Doyle purists, but when it’s done well, I’m afraid I can’t agree. It actually spares the film from being obsessed with its own cleverness, a fate that Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree suffers from. And while I think the latter is a better film, overall, it stands firmly on the shoulders of A Study in Terror and isn’t quite as entertaining in a diverting way. Also look out for Robert Morley (Theatre of Blood) as a wonderful Mycroft Holmes. The prolific Frank Finlay is probably my favorite Lestrade, a role he happily returned to for Murder by Decree (A Study in Terror’s Anthony Quayle also returned for that film, though not as a recurring character). And in an interesting sidenote, a young Judi Dench plays Murray’s niece and confidante. Her brief turn here reminds me a little of Angela Lansbury’s role in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945); both actresses are now so well known that to see them so young and relegated to supporting roles is a bit distracting. Overall, I have to recommend A Study in Terror, if only because of my Sherlock Holmes love. If you don’t feel the same way about fictional consulting detectives, or have a fascination with Jack the Ripper films, this might be something to pass over. The concluding exposition is pretty teeth-grinding, but the film’s presentation of issues like classism and misogyny blended with some good old fashioned inherited insanity and religiously-inspired paranoia make for a deadly cocktail, though one that A Study in Terror serves up with mixed results. The loose implication that Carfax could murder Angela by murdering every prostitute in Whitechapel is something I wish had been brought to the screen a bit more exuberantly, but I will be forever spoiled by Moore’s From Hell (though I refuse to acknowledge that the horrific film adaptation even exists). Though it’s available on DVD, a cleaned up Blu-ray release would be nice, preferably in some sort of Holmes-themed box set, or, even more amazingly, a Ripper set.