There’s a bit of a fog surrounding Hammer’s Hands of the Ripper, largely because it’s been tough to see the film both uncut and in a decent transfer. Co-funded and distributed by Rank in the U.K., director Peter Sasdy was able to make use of standing sets on the Pinewood backlot, giving this low budget shocker a much richer look than expected.
Ripper in fact is among Hammer’s most evocative period films, and yet while it is known for being one of the studio’s bloodiest productions – deaths include impalement by fire poker, throat slashing, stabbing, and hairpins that are cluster-shoved into eyeballs – it’s a small-scale tale of a young woman’s identity crisis, and a humanistic doctor’s determination to use Freud’s new theorems to cure the psychologically bruised patient.
Pretty Angharad Rees (Poldark) plays Anna, the daughter of Jack the Ripper, who initially seems to go into a trance whenever a) her gaze is transfixed by shiny reflections in metal or glass, and b) kissed, and while her murderous impulses aren’t kept hidden for long, the real reason for her ill-bent behaviour is the sudden possession by daddy Ripper. From a plot stance, it’s all nonsense – Anna should’ve decimated a fair percentage of London, if not walked into a few streetlamps given the high likelihood of being distracted by shiny, flickering reflections in her daily existence – but Rees portrays the likeable waif quite convincingly as a humble gal, and as a cold-blooded killer.
The fact Dr. Pritchard (The Forsyte Saga’s Eric Porter) denies her culpability and feels any deaths are mere hurdles to curing the incurable gives the story a peculiar romance of the mind – besides initial horror, he accepts the death of his loyal maid and the need to dispose of her cadaver rather well – plus he never abandons his patient regardless of circumstances, especially when he too is grievously harmed in an especially nasty sequence.
Ripper is a mash-up of Ripper lore, soul possession, and a bit of Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) - where a man of wealth and position similarly uses his portable Freud to cure a frigid woman with a criminal streak – and it largely works in spite of some disjointed sections within Ripper. There’s also a sense the studio curtailed filming to save money of some scenes – in one transition, Sasdy seemed to have been forced to settle for a freeze frame that feels wholly out of place – and the film’s running time is unusually abrupt. (Hammer’s Vampire Circus [M], released a year later, is even more disjointed due to un-shot scenes, a heavy use of wide master shots, and some unfinished visual effects.)
Christopher Gunning’s score is grounded by a beautiful main theme (which, when first heard over the bloody Main Titles, is admittedly jarring), and Kenneth Talbot’s cinematography is very moody. (Talbot also pulls off some tricky visual effects in the finale, where patient and doctor are reunited, and figuratively consummated in St. Paul’s Cathedral.)
Synapse Films have done a marvelous job rescuing and restoring this minor classic, and the included making-of doc nicely places Ripper in its historical context within the Hammer filmography. Interviews include Jane Merrow (The System, The Six Million Dollar Man), who plays Pritchard’s blind daughter-in-law, and rare audio from an interview with the late Rees. There’s also stills from Hammer’s first poke at Jack the Ripper, the rarely seen Room to Let (1950), which has apparently vanished from distribution.
Other extras are the film’s TV and theatrical trailers, an isolated mono music & effects track featuring Gunning’s score (not present on the bonus DVD which otherwise features the same extras), reversible sleeve with alternate boob artwork that bears absolutely no resemblance to anything in the film, and a montage of stills and gore moments from the film and Hammer Films, respectively, set to music.
When the film was released in U.S. cinemas, Universal lopped off some of the risqué gore, but as was their peculiar practice at the time, the film was further cut down to the extent new material was shot and recorded to pad out the film for its 1977 TV airing. The studio had done similar editorial nonsense with Joseph Losey’s The Secret Ceremony (1968), but with Ripper, the changes sound quite ruinous: actor Severn Darden recorded a bookend narration track which made it appear that what you've just seen were thoughts from a novelist on criminal psychology. Apparently video copies of the intro were destroyed in the grievous fire on the Universal lot in 2008, so Synapse have edited together the intro / outro audio which gives a sense of the radical changes done to the film, especially the opening scenes.
Peter Sasdy’s work for Hammer includes Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), Countess Dracula (1971), Hands of the Ripper (1971), and episodes of Hammer House of Horror [M] (1980) and Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense / Fox Mystery Theater (1984).
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan