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Hands of the Ripper (Blu-ray)

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Network Distributing
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Peter Sasdy
Eric Porter
Angharad Rees
Jane Merrow
Keith Bell
Derek Godfrey
Bottom Line: 
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It seems slightly odd that right the way through the high watermark years of its ascendancy in the 1960s, Hammer Films Productions utterly neglected one of the ripest ingredients for inclusion in the studio’s impeccably British period Gothic recipe: the legend and mystery surrounding Jack the Ripper offered all the trappings associated with the Hammer brand at the time, from the stylised world of Victoriana it took as its setting – a traditionally Gothic, lamp-lit urban landscape of narrow, fogbound cobblestoned back-alleys -- to the sinister folkloric construction of the gentleman killer in top hat and black cloak who is most associated with these eternally fascinating true-life Victorian crimes; the unresolved Ripper killings always seemed perfect territory for the Thames-side Bray outfit’s elegantly crafted brand of fairy tale myth-making and bloodthirsty exploitation.

In fact, way back in 1950, one of the proto-company’s first ever quota quickies of the day, made soon after James Carreras had assumed managerial control, had been an adaptation of Albert Campion creator Margery Allingham’s play “Room to Let” -- a spin on the Ripper story dictated by the outline of Marie Belloc Lowndes’ short story “The Lodger”, itself adapted for film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1927. Both have the Ripper posing as a house guest in a respectable boarding establishment, although “Room to Let”, like “Hands of the Ripper” does thirty years later, transposes the action to Edwardian times, imagining Valentine Dyall’s insidiously evil Ripper as having escaped from a lunatic asylum in which he’s been incarcerated since 1888, and lodging thereafter with an family innocently unsuspecting of his true identity! Yet subsequent imaginings of the Ripper myth in British film during the ‘60s were confined to Hammer’s fly-by-night rivals, such as Robert Baker and Monty Berman’s Tempean Films, which produced the movie “Jack the Ripper” in 1958 (shot at Shepperton and scripted by Hammer stalwart Jimmy Sangster), and James Hill’s “A Study in Terror”, made for Tigon and released in 1965 -- which re-imagines the Ripper killings as a case study for Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional amateur sleuth Sherlock Holmes.

Then, in 1971, two unusual Ripper-centric scripts found their way into production at Hammer in close succession. This was the period when the company was becoming more a brand name than the intimate family concern of yesteryear, most of its output now being farmed out to outside producers ... including “Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde” -- written and produced by Brian Clemens at Elstree in 1971. Going into production at Pinewood a few months before that slightly tongue-in-cheek offering, though, there was also “Hands of the Ripper”, a kind of glossy period psycho-sexual thriller that was actually one of Hammer’s few remaining in-house productions, overseen by its trusted veteran female producer Aida Young after recently handling the last few Dracula sequels and some of its ‘Hammer Glamour’ fare like “Vengeance of She” and “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth”.  

Young had been brought back to Hammer after starting her career there years before by Michael Carreras, working as his assistant during the period when he’d also come back to the company in the role of independent producer and director during the sixties. By 1971 he’d taken over from his father James as managing director, and Young took on “Hands of the Ripper” later that year only reluctantly, feeling (correctly as it turned out) that the Hammer formula was by now nearing exhaustion point as most of the more creative individuals at the company, such as Anthony Hinds and Jimmy Sangster, had by then left. The film actually came about after a story outline by a small time crime writer -- someone called Edward Spencer Shew -- found its way onto the desk of an executive at Hammer’s distributor, Rank. The subsequent screenplay was eventually written by obscure Canadian screenwriter L.W. Davidson (whom nobody seems to know a great deal about), while Shew’s novel eventually appeared as a Sphere paperback tie-in published at the same time the film was released -- although it’s not a straight translation of the actual movie’s plot, which offers a much more nuanced reading of lead character Anna’s psychological state, since the novel is set in 1888 and imagines the Ripper was actually a woman possessed by the spirit of an earlier serial killer.

Apart from a short pre-credits prologue which sets up the central premise of the story, Hammer’s adaptation takes place later, in 1903, and explicitly ropes in Freudian psychoanalysis to set the story up as a classic confrontation between science and superstition -- with the nascent disciple of psychiatry and the remnants of the Victorian fad for mediumistic spiritualism battling it out for interpretation of Anna’s divided state of mind. Is it psychosis or possession by the spirit of her dead departed father, Jack the Ripper, that causes Anna to murder while in a trance-like fugue? The trigger for these violent rampages and attacks is any kind of flickering light -- which brings back the memory of the traumatic incident of her mother’s murder by her father’s syphilitic hand, as a torch-bearing mob hunted for the Ripper in the streets outside their home. The flames from the fire grate glinting on the brass bars of the bedstead, from behind which the young Anna (who looks very much like the same blonde little girl who appeared in the red mac at the start of “Don’t Look Now”) viewed this horrific spectacle, is thereafter recalled by any kind of reflected play of light – particularly, it seems, when expensive jewellery is involved!

Although Aida Young went into “Hands of the Ripper” knowing it would most likely be her last work for Hammer Films before she went freelance, and despite the fact that the film was really only meant to fill out the lower half of a double-bill pretty much as an apéritif  to “Twins of Evil”, the third and last entry in Hammer’s Le Fanu-inspired Karnstein Trilogy, she still made sure the film was treated with utmost care and attention, first of all by employing Hungarian-born Peter Sasdy as its director after having been impressed with his dedication and determination to take the work utterly seriously (no matter what the subject-matter in hand) during the shooting of “Taste the Blood of Dracula”, for which he’d been recruited by Young the year previously. Sasdy also had some input into the shooting script (which could explain its subtlety and sophistication in comparison to the hokey “Hands of Orlac” themed novel, a point which survives in the movie in the form of Anna’s dainty hands becoming disfigured by syphilitic sores each time she murders) and he oversaw the casting, which looked beyond predictable Hammer mainstays like Peter Cushing and Michael Ripper to a fleet of respected British character actors and theatrical performers, led by Eric Porter in the pivotal role as the film’s obsessed Freudian psychoanalyst Dr Pritchard.

Although having appeared in its production of “The Lost Continent” in 1968, Porter was not your average Hammer performer, and was actually a pretty big name at the time having starred in the epic and hugely popular BBC adaptation of John Galsworthy’s “The Forsyte Saga”. Elsewhere familiar respectable thespian faces crop up throughout in a host of roles of varying sizes: Derek Godfrey was a renowned Shakespearian stage actor and here plays a slimy, upper-crust Edwardian MP who attends séances in darkened back parlours but also enjoys the services of prostitutes, which makes him the perfect client for fake medium cum amateur pimp Mrs Golding (played by the late, renowned and vocally distinctive actress Dora Bryan) who farms out young Anna to paying customers in an upstairs attic room after using her to mimic the voices of the dead during her faked communications with the spirits downstairs. Other cast members include staples of ITC TV series such as Jane Merrow, who plays the blind fiancée Pritchard’s son Michael’s (Keith Bell), Laura; Margaret Rawlings as high society medium Madame Bullard; Norman Bird as a mutton-chop sideburn-sporting police inspector; and actress Lynda Baron as a cockney lesbian prostitute named after one of the Ripper’s real victims, Long Liz -- who takes Anna in off the street only to become her next victim, when Anna wanders back to the Ripper’s old East End haunts after falling into one of her killing trances.  Anna herself is played by Angharad Rees in what was her first major starring film role; one which reunited her with Eric Porter who’d been in the BBC “Play of the Month” adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman” -- which was where she made her first television appearance in a small role as a parlour maid in 1968.

Sasdy’s direction strives to be inventive within the constraints of the material, often working with interesting camera set-ups and employing lots of movement and unusual camera angles to enliven lengthy dialogue scenes, etc., as well as conducting the film’s frequent (and unusually bravura) episodes of bloody violence with a real gusto! There is a glossiness about the production that allows the film to stand out among its peers in the Hammer Horror fold even now: director of photography Kenneth Talbot suffuses its imagery in soft-focus elegance, and the efforts of art director Roy Stannard to furnish the sets with some of the most authentic and convincing Victorian era dressings of any Hammer product must add a level of prestige to the production that recalls the Gainsborough training of many of the original pioneers of the Hammer aesthetic, who worked on the first of its colour Gothics “The Curse of Frankenstein” back in 1957. Stannard’s work was probably made considerably easier for having the props department at Pinewood at his disposal as well as the use of sets left standing from Billy Wilder’s recent production of “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” shot the year before, resulting in “Hands of the Ripper” being one of the most expensive-looking Hammer films ever made -- although the climax in the Whispering Gallery of St Paul’s Cathedral had to be augmented with front projection stills blended as seamlessly as possible into Pinewood sets, because the crew were refused permission to shoot in the real location  -- although some shots seem so realistic that they appear to contradict this assertion by  Aida Young.

Sasdy’s extensive use of real outdoor locations, his top tier cast and an unusually lush score by composer Christopher Gunning (which brings the film an air of romantic tragedy with its shimmering orchestral counterpoint) also lend it the aesthetic of a much more ‘worthy’ big studio period drama … yet it is simultaneously one of the studio’s goriest efforts – prefiguring and structured essentially like one of the slasher movies that were to come a decade later in the early-eighties, with Anna reproducing her father’s crimes and murdering a string of supporting actors with all sorts of lethal implements (a poker, an serrated ornamental dagger, a handful of hatpins and a sword) that just happen to be about whenever she isaccidentally induced into one of her murderous fugues. The question of the nature of the division in Anna’s unconscious – inherited psychological imbalance or ghostly manipulation from beyond – is matched by the division in the patriarchal motivations which drive Dr Pritchard’s Pygmalion-like interest in turning Anna from a common street urchin (plucked from Medium Mrs Golding’s employ and then from a police cell crammed with caterwauling streetwalkers) into a replacement member of his own family, dressing her in the gowns and jewellery of his dead wife, etc., while also acting as a paternalistic father figure physician, probing into her mind using psychoanalytic technique and hypnotism. Underpinning both themes is Hammer’s usual obsession with eruptions of the repressed psyche; and though Anna’s corrupted childhood brings forth the hidden monster that was always lurking inside, it is Pritchard’s battle between fatherly and sexual interest in Anna which adds psycho-sexual tension to this material – although, it has to be said, it comes mostly in the performance of Eric Porter rather than the rather thinly written script.  

The film has suffered many censorship woes during its history due to the gruesome nature of his graphic violence, with its many scenes of copious blood gushing, throat slashings and eye piercings galore. Network’s new HD Blu-ray release is of course as complete a version as is known to exist, although there has always been the belief that a much more graphic cut of Dolly the maid’s murder still exists somewhere out there, after claims that an alternative version was prepared for the Far Eastern market in the 70s and then, for a brief time, accidentally released on a 16mm library print version of the film in the UK by distributor Rank. However, this version has failed so far to be unearthed by anyone, so the film continues to exist here in as complete a form as we are likely to get for now.

The print looks mostly fine and is clearly an improvement on past DVD versions, preserving the film grain of the negative used for the digital scan and bringing added clarity and contrast where it is needed. The audio commentary, recorded in 2006 by critics Kim Newman and Stephen Jones with actress Angharad Rees, is a nice blend of career interview, informed critical opinion and memoir; while the theatrical trailer from the original release presents the film as though it’s a typical piece of Hammer fare from the period. An extensive HD photo gallery of stills is divided into sections covering production stills, behind-the-scenes shots, portrait images (with Angharad Rees pictured in some very ‘70s clobber), and a promotional gallery of garishly colourful poster images and lobby cards. Also on the disc (in standard definition) there’s an episode from Brian Clemens’ mystery anthology series “Thriller” from 1973, also starring Angharad Rees. In “Once the Killing Starts” Patrick O’Neal plays American classics scholar at Cambridge Michael Lane, who concocts an ingenious plan to murder his wife (Patricia Donahue) while creating a watertight alibi for himself, after taking up with one of the young students in his class (played by Rees). Afterwards though, he finds himself haunted by anonymous notes which keep turning up in the post, or are scattered around his home, that indicate someone else somehow knows exactly what he’s done! Shot cheaply on a mixture of video and film, there is a nice idea at the core of this TV play, although the plot is probably easier to second guess now than it was at the time. The young Michael Kitchen (“Foyle’s War”) also appears as one of Lane’s graduate students, whom is suspected of being the anonymous source and so becomes another target for the professor's spiralling murder spree!

“Hands of the Ripper” was perhaps one of Hammer’s most lovingly crafted works, an unlikely combination of elements in which high levels of Kensington gore and the rich details of mainstream British costume drama creates something that still stands out as an original take on Hammer’s classic return of the repressed Gothic themes – here given an air of romantic tragedy that elevates the production to high melodrama. It was Peter Sasdy’s favourite work for Hammer, and it is well served here by Network’s superb HD rendering. A worthy addition to the Hammer fan’s expanded collection of upgraded classics.

Read more at Black Gloves' blog, Nothing but the Night

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