[25 July 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There are two schools when it comes to Hammer and their beloved horror films: those who love the older, more subtle scary movies the British movie studio produced from the early ‘50s until the late ‘60s, and those who prefer their terrors on the slightly more sexual and visibly violent ‘70s side. Both have viable resources from which to choose, including classics like Christopher Lee’s take on Dracula, Peter Cushing as a far more considered Dr. Frankenstein and/or Van Helsing, and dozens of genre defining Victorian era frights. With the advent of Swinging London and the cultural countermand of the hippie movement, Hammer decided it needed to contemporize. While it still dabbled in period pieces, it ladled on a healthy dose of post-exploitation blood and breasts.
Hands of the Ripper, now out on Blu-ray from Synapse Films, falls somewhere in the middle of this often baffling business plan. It cuts down on the more craven content (those there’s a bit of nudity for those looking for same) while upping the splatter, if only in early Me Decade terms. The story centers on a young girl named Anna (Angharad Rees) whose the daughter of ‘the’ Jack the Ripper. A decade after the infamous killer’s death, she is a ward of an old woman who uses her in fake séance scams. One night, a psychiatrist and practitioner of Freud’s new psychoanalytic technique, Dr. John Pritchard (Eric Porter) stumbles upon the ruse and is immediately drawn to Anna. When her guardian dies a gruesome death, he agrees to take the frightened child in.
Along the way, we are also introduced to the doc’s determined son Michael (Keith Bell), his blind fiancé Laura (Jane Merrow), and a member of Parliament (Derek Godfrey) who hopes Dr. Pritchard can keep his name out of the press (he was the last one seen with the now dead old lady). Eventually, what we learn is that Anna is seemingly “possessed” by the spirit of her late father and anytime she sees a bright shiny object, or experiences physical love, she gets blank faced and starts slitting throats. Dr. Pritchard is convinced he can unlock her deeply troubled psyche and heal some of her emotional scars. Of course, with bodies piling up like cordwood, it’s going to be hard to keep Scotland Yard out of his experiments.
After an opening reminiscent of Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso (this film predates said giallo masterpiece by four years) and a satiric bit of sideshow spiritualism, Hands of the Ripper settles into a redundant rhythm that is both engaging and exasperating. We know that Anna will be pushed too far, that she will end up doing what her “Daddy” (or the imaginary voice inside her pretty little head) tells her to and that Pritchard will spend most of the movie running interference for his make or break consulting case. As a proponent of Freud, he is only interested in a “cure,” though Anna’s curves provide a decent diversion as well. Even as our politician prowls the various Edwardian studies, hoping to hide from what is nothing more than a bad case of being at the wrong place and the wrong time, we wonder if his tale will take on any added meaning.
Sadly, Hands of the Ripper is much simpler than that. It’s almost slasher like in its set-up and slice and dice. Anna is preparing to meet the Pritchards at a fancy restaurant and, with the help of a buxom maid, puts on her fanciest duds. A shiny necklace later and our front heavy servant has a shard of mirror stuck in her throat. After another attack, Anna runs out into the street and comes across as collection of prostitutes. One takes her in and starts baring her “soul,” so to speak. A flickering piece of metal later and some knitting needles are pearling their way through a hooker’s hand and eye socket. While the arterial spray is pretty tame compared to 2013’s glamorized gore fests, they still pack a powerful vein draining punch.
The acting is equally effective here, though lead Angharad Rees is a bit too reserved at times. She plays frail and fragile like it’s the inner workings of a statue. More effective is Porter, who does the doting doctor routine with just enough male midlife crisis leering to warrant our growing concern. Perhaps the best work here, however, is done by Ms. Merrow as the endlessly perky paramour of Dr. Pritchard’s son Michael who has been battling blindness for a while now. Sure, she does the whole ‘lack of legitimate eye contact’ routine, but for the most part, she makes a perfect red herring for a last act showdown between reality and the Ripper.
Director Peter Sasdy is also to be commended for adding a bit of flair to what could otherwise be nothing more than some gloomy Gothic horror. The opening is especially effective and the sequences where Anna goes bugnuts have a nice, nuanced nastiness. His Edwardian London locales look just about right and there’s baroque set designs in abundance. About the only place he stumbles is near the finale, when trying to fill in gaps of understanding that the audience obviously has. Instead of a bit more exposition, he simply keeps Pritchard and his female prize front and center, cementing their proto-romantic bond while ignoring some basic storytelling needs. Still, with a film like Hands of the Ripper, you don’t need all the facts. The combination of look, approach, and fright film follow through make for a sizable success.
Indeed, outside its limited lapses, this is an excellent offering, not pure classic Hammer horror but pretty darn close. As part of the new Blu-ray release, Synapse even offers up a documentary which describes Hands’ place in the studio’s schizophrenic ‘70s output. Thanks to those elements the production house used to avoid (read: bare skin and bloodletting) and some fine performances, we end up with an eminently watchable effort that evokes both the best and worst of old school scares. Today’s audience might balk at something as basic as Hands of the Ripper. The seasoned fright fan will find much more here to be happy about.