REVIEW: Hands of the Ripper (1971)

There is a generally held convention that Hammer, the famous British production house behind a string of gothic horror movies, peaked in the 1950s and 1960s before declining in the 1970s. While this is certainly true of the company’s commercial fortunes, in terms of film quality it is rather less clear-cut. Declining revenue did lead the company to pursue new styles of films and new genres. While a lot of the new films were overly sensationalistic, silly, or simply not very well written, more than a few decent works still made it to the screen.

Hands of the Ripper seems a case in point. It has a wonderfully Hammer-esque premise (Jack the Ripper’s daughter), a very strong central performance by Eric Porter, and an intriguing ambiguity about whether it is a psychological thriller or supernatural horror. It is, as they say, ‘one of the good ones’.

Dr John Pritchard (Porter) attends a purported seance, which he immediately recognises as a fake. Shortly afterwards, one of the participants – a young woman named Anna (Angharad Rees) – appears to brutally murder the other. Rather than report the crime to police, Pritchard instead takes Anna into his own home for study. Anna, however, continues to kill.

The slightly sleazy titilation of some Hammer films is thankfully mostly absent, allowing Hands of the Ripper to instead develop as a quite old-fashioned ‘penny dreadful’ thriller. While the film is largely free of partial nudity, director Peter Sadsy does not skimp on the violence. It is not graphic but it is certainly gaudy, with lurid bright red blood flowing with the enthusiasm of an Italian giallo. The film’s use of Jack the Ripper’s legacy is little more than an attempt at branding, really: what vague details are presented of the real-life serial killer are inaccurate at best, while the film also manages to be set 15 years after the 1888 Whitechapel Murders yet still be set in a generic 19th century. For the purposes of the narrative it works fine, but Ripper enthusiasts will probably be dissatisfied.

Peter Sadsy directs the film solidly, making good use of a typically limited budget to create a good sense of atmosphere and of the historical period. The climax, on the whispering gallery of St Paul’s Cathedral, is particularly effective.

Eric Porter is excelled as Pritchard, giving a sensitivity and an honourable streak to a classic tortured scientist. As a doctor in the then-new field of psychoanalysis, he is effectively a Victor Frankenstein figure. He is obsessed with using science to cure Anna’s murderous rampage, and of course like Frankenstein his blinkered view and personal drive curse him with tragedy. Angharad Rees does decent work with a difficult role: so much of the film has her falling into trance there’s not much room for her to develop her character. More successful are Keith Bell and Jane Merrow as Pritchard’s son and future daughter-in-law. The acting is typical of British film and television of the time – what is often referred to as ‘BBC acting’ – but it has heart and integrity. Merrow is, it must be noted, a sighted actor playing a blind character. It’s forgivable given the time in which the film was made, and to her credit Merrow gives fiancee Laura plenty of dignity.

Any given Hammer production is often a bit of a curate’s egg – trash cinema with unexpected highlights – but Hands of the Ripper ably manages to be something a bit more competent and substantial. One could ever go so far as to call it a hidden gem: a decent thriller buried within the studio’s lesser period.

In Australia, Hands of the Ripper is available in Imprint Film’s excellent four-film boxed set Hammer Horror.

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