by Rosie Gibbs
‘Bloody Love It: ‘Hands of the Ripper”
Warning this article contains MAJOR SPOILERS – if you have not seen Hands of The Ripper then please do not read!!! You have been warned !!
In October 1971, Hammer Film Productions released a film which presented a new slant on the legendary and infamous ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders of 1880’s London – a ‘true’ myth which the company had previously explored in the film ‘Room to Let’ in 1949. Some two decades later, Hammer chose the unsolved mysteries of the brutal Whitechapel killings as a theme once more, only this time with an altogether different perpetrator – who was however by no means all that far removed from the dreaded and still today elusive ‘Jack’. Released on a double-bill with the rather more saucy vampire romp ‘Twins of Evil’, ‘Hands of the Ripper’ was received with a respectable level of praise from audiences, though perhaps over the years has not gained a reputation as one of Hammer’s stand-out finest. For me personally, however, it’s a favourite, and what follows is something of an ode to the whole package…
‘Hands of the Ripper’ operates on what was a fresh angle on the Ripper legend – in the tale, we follow the journey of Anna, the daughter of the man who had become ‘Jack’, who as an infant tragically witnesses what we presume is her murderous father’s final killing and his subsequent capture by mob and law. In his final moments of freedom, he brutally stabs Anna’s mother to death in front of Anna’s crib, before giving the traumatised child a final embrace and kiss on the cheek. Some years later, we see that Anna (Angharad Rees) has been taken in by the unscrupulous phoney medium, Mrs Golding (a welcome cameo by the late, great Dora Bryan). Mrs Golding embroils innocent Anna in her fake seances, having her act as a hidden spirit guide, and also proposes to make a live-in prostitute of her. Her first client, Mr Dysart (Derek Godfrey), presents her with a sparkling brooch, and its glint in the light triggers an unusual reaction in Anna which results in her murdering Mrs Golding in a cold rage with a poker. Local physician Dr John Pritchard (Eric Porter), taking pity on the young woman and convinced he can help her with the assistance of psychoanalysis, has her stay with him, and as the story unfolds he pieces together who Anna really is and why she is cursed with the impulse to kill.
The film was directed by Peter Sasdy, who would later go on to direct many episodes of Hammer’s television series ‘House of Horror’ and ‘House of Mystery and Suspense’, and the Hungarian filmaker presented in ‘Ripper’ a delightfully subdued work which still hits the spot on the shocks and scares. The film’s opening sequencing involves a low-key yet still cleverly menacing circular view of all those gathered at the séance, staring down at the viewer passively yet with scrutiny. Subtle lighting and a soft focus in the camera work make for an attractive piece overall, replete with glitzy chandeliers and shimmering costume pieces – not least those which send Anna into her psychotic trances – and this is a welcome break from the dank dungeons and moody backstreet settings of many of its counterparts. The gore, when it occurs, is then all the more shocking in contrast – the hatpin-related fate of the unfortunate street walker ‘Long’ Liz, based on one of the real-life Ripper victims and here played by the excellent actress Lynda Baron, is particularly memorable and possibly one of Hammer’s greatest dispatchings.
The concept and narrative itself, scripted by Lew Davidson and based on an original story by Edward Spencer Shew, is I believe another aspect of what elevates ‘Ripper’ above the average Hammer. The piece shows at its start a horrific trauma suffered by a small child and the haunting fluted soundtrack which becomes something of a theme for Anna, played out over the opening credits and shots of her infant tear-stained face, is rather moving and shies away advisably from sensationalising a small child’s suffering. Shew’s story competently marries both the emerging (at the time the film is set) theories of psychoanalysis and the concept of mediumship and the ability to ‘hear’ those who are deceased, and questions whether the two can co-exist and even become manifest together in someone who has experienced traumas such as Anna’s. The presence of both a phoney medium (Bryan), out to exploit those who wish to talk with their dear departed, and a true medium (Madame Bullard, played by Margaret Rawlings) with an actual gift, admirably upholds both sides of the argument regarding how ‘real’ clairvoyance may or may not be.
Another of the film’s main strengths is its strong cast, in particular Angharad Rees, who portrays the china doll-faced Anna with grace and depth, convincing as the meek, genteel young ward of Dr Pritchard and suitably cold-blooded and snarling during her moments of murder. This film was Rees’ only Hammer part and one can’t help wishing she had taken others as she was such an engaging screen presence – standing ball-gowned with bloodied hands in a post-homicidal daze or cowering in dirt in a crowded jail cell, she is very believable as a sweet-hearted yet understandably mentally troubled protagonist. Jane Merrow is also completely charming as Laura, the fiancée of Dr Pritchard’s son Michael (Keith Bell) – in fact this spirited, energetic young woman is I think one of Hammer’s most positive representations of a young female, and credit is due to the writers for introducing a character with a disability (in this case loss of sight) who radiates positivity and capability, and whose absence of sight is rightly presented as merely one of the many facets of their overall being. The rest of the cast, including stalwart Eric Porter, are all capable in their roles, resulting in another of many boxes ticked for this outing.
My absolute favourite part of ‘Ripper’ however is the final sequence, which sees Michael and Laura escort Anna on a visit to St Paul’s Cathedral. The unique and inspired setting of the cathedral’s Whispering Gallery sees Anna, already in one of her trances and by now hearing actual instructions – imagined or extra-sensory – from her father, attempt to strangle the terrified Laura (the only point at which the bare titular Hands are used to kill). The wounded Dr Pritchard, from the ground far below the Gallery, calls to her and pleads with her to ‘come back’ to them, ending in tragedy played out in a beautifully bittersweet, poetic and satisfyingly redemptive final shot. This last sequence and ending frame round off this absolute gem of a horror film brilliantly and I say, long may it be appreciated and cherished as an excellent addition to the Hammer canon.