Sunday, September 9, 2018

Hands of the Ripper

(1971) Directed by Peter Sasdy; Written by Lewis Davidson; From an original story by Edward Spencer Shew; Starring: Eric Porter, Angharad Rees, Jane Morrow, Dora Bryan and Derek Godfrey; Available on: Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

“I believe that girl is suffering from a disorder of the mind, possibly brought on by some terrifying experience in her childhood, or maybe it was congenital, but it has divided her mind.” – Dr. Pritchard (Eric Porter)

A big “grazie” to Redjack for hosting the Jack the Ripper Blogathon, dedicated to one of history’s most notorious unsolved cases. I’ve always been fascinated by the subject, and by extension, movies and books that attempt to unravel the mystery – the wilder the speculation, the better. Some favorite mix-ups are Time After Time (1979), in which H.G. Wells tangles with the Whitechapel killer, and Hammer’s Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), which presents a novel twist on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic story. Hammer Films dipped into the Jack the Ripper* well twice in 1971, with Hands of the Ripper (released just 14 days before Sister Hyde).**

* Surprisingly, Hammer only made one other Jack the Ripper-themed, film with 1949’s Room to Let.

** Another Fun Fact: The film played on a double bill with the equally underappreciated Twins of Evil.

Hands of the Ripper, the third Hammer film directed by Hungarian director Peter Sasdy (after Taste the Blood of Dracula and Countess Dracula), starts with a “what if.” In this case: What if Jack the Ripper was a family man? The film plays coy with the infamous killer’s identity or motives. In the prologue, he’s portrayed by an uncredited actor in heavy makeup with a bad skin condition. From the vantage point of her crib, young Anna witnesses the brutal murder of her mother at the hands of her father. The story jumps forward 15 years later, with the orphan 17-year-old Anna (Angharad Rees). She now lives with her aunt, Mrs. Golding (Dora Bryan), who runs a fraudulent business as a psychic medium. Sensing she can make some quick money, Mrs. Golding rents her niece to Dysart (Derek Godfrey), a wealthy aristocrat. The transaction goes sour, however, when Anna resists Dysart’s advances and Golding dies in a spectacularly gory fashion. Anna is arrested as a prime suspect, but Dysart isn’t above suspicion. Dr. Pritchard (Eric Porter), an enterprising disciple of Sigmund Freud, vouches for Anna’s innocence, and takes her under his wing, in an effort to unlock the secrets locked inside her troubled mind. 

As we soon discover, the good doctor’s motives are less than pure. Pritchard blackmails Dysart into using his high-standing position to collect more information about Anna’s past. In the meantime, Pritchard invites her to live in his house as an honored guest, but she’s basically a lab rat to test his theories and a means to make a name for himself. It also becomes evident that his feelings for Anna are more than academic. It’s easy to see the contrast between his thinly veiled animosity for his daughter-in-law to be, Laura (Jane Merrow) with the tenderness he displays for Anna. In a passive-aggressive act, he invites Anna to occupy the venerated room that once belonged to his deceased wife, while Laura is relegated to a guest room (despite the fact that she’s blind and unfamiliar with the layout of the guest room). Pritchard seems to be grooming Anna for a life beyond her illness, when she can take on a role as a potential lover.

Angharad Rees (who appeared mostly in television roles prior to the film) brings a subtle, sympathetic approach to her portrayal of Anna. Instead of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, she plays an individual that’s completely unaware of the propensity for violence that lurks within. She never quite makes the conscious connection that she’s continuing in her father’s footsteps, which makes her character especially tragic. Rees consulted with her father, who was a professor of psychology for the finer points of her character, answering the question about how she could appear innocuous on the surface, but have a horrible violent side that remains out of sight.   

In addition to the Freudian themes that run throughout the film, we’re treated to an illustration of classical conditioning: When Anna sees the flashing crystal amulet and receives a kiss upon her cheek, these neutral stimuli trigger a violent response. She associates these benign stimuli with her traumatic childhood memory. As a result, she’s caught in an endless loop in her subconscious, doomed to mimic the same violent act.  The film presents a clash between old paradigms (mysticism and mediums) and the budding science of studying mental illness (psychoanalysis). Dysart asserts, “You can’t cure Jack the Ripper, and that’s what she is,” asserting that she’s possessed by an evil force, and imploring Pritchard to turn her in to the proper authorities. Instead, Pritchard advocates steering away from society punishing people for situations beyond their control, attempting to understand Anna’s violent compulsions. Since this is a Hammer film after all, the filmmakers aren’t as interested in conveying a sensitive portrayal of mental illness as they are in entertaining and shocking the audience.

Hands of the Ripper continues in the Hammer tradition of attention to detail on a tight budget. The filmmakers utilized existing exteriors from The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), and repurposed M’s office from the James Bond films for Dr. Pritchard’s study. The film’s climax also called for innovation, when Sasdy and crew were denied permission to shoot the climax in St. Paul’s cathedral. Instead, they used still photos and rear projection as a work-around. The bloody makeup also received a first-class treatment. Although Bunty Phillips was credited with the makeup, Hammer veteran Roy Ashton was brought out of retirement for the gorier effects.

Hands of the Ripper helped usher in a new type of Hammer film in the 1970s. Dressed as a period horror film, it kept one foot firmly planted in the old-fashioned morality of its predecessors and its dated notions of morality, but with a big difference. The film takes a more sympathetic attitude toward mental illness, and cloaked in the guise of depicting a simpler time, provides subversive social commentary about the inequality between the sexes. We can’t ignore the evils perpetrated by Dysart, who basically goes unpunished in a male dominated society. He’s free to continue his awful behavior, yet demands that Anna pay for her transgressions. Hands of the Ripper is a fine example from this overlooked era in Hammer history. It’s a thoughtful film, with a decidedly fatalistic streak, that shouldn’t be missed.

Friday, August 31, 2018

August Quick Picks and Pans – Animation Month

Loving Vincent (2017) This Polish/British co-production from writer/directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman explores the life and death of Vincent van Gough, told through the lens of his artwork. The film’s unique look, which captures van Gough’s style, is nothing short of mesmerizing. Thanks to a painstaking process that required the animators to paint over live action footage, each scene immerses the viewer into one of the master’s works. The color sequences are bookended by black and white flashbacks that recreate the appearance of old photographs.

The filmmakers admitted to watching a lot of film noir during the movie’s production, which informed the tone of their work. The story takes place a year after Van Gough’s death, focusing on a courier tasked with delivering a letter from the late painter. It’s part biopic (as we see the artist’s troubled life in flashback), and part mystery, as we witness the perspective of Van Gough from the many people who knew him, and explore the ambiguity surrounding his death. Loving Vincent is an unforgettable visual treat, as well as a captivating, touching portrait of the ephemeral quality of genius (and how the spark of madness often resides with such prodigious talent).

Rating: ****½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Perfect Blue (1997) Director Satoshi Kon’s (based on the novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi) landmark anime feature employs elements from psychological thrillers and gialli to convey the fragmented mind of its protagonist. Mima, a pop singer, retires from her music gig to become an actress, which becomes the catalyst for a series of disturbing and deadly events. Her life begins to spiral out of control, as she embarks on her career change. As her choices chip away at her wholesome image, the change is too much for some fans. A website dedicated to her seems to be reading her thoughts, and she’s stalked by a strange man who might be linked to a series of gruesome murders. She begins to question her grip on reality and her identity. It’s an unnerving depiction of mental illness that recalls Repulsion and Psycho, and a frightening commentary on the unfortunate price of fame and the perils of toxic fandom.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

In This Corner of the World (2016) Get out your hanky for this one. Director/co-writer Sunao Katabuchi (based on the manga by Fumiyo Kono) follows Suzu, a young woman from Hiroshima stuck in an arranged marriage. The filmmakers wisely assume we know the events leading up to the conclusion of World War II, so they don’t attempt to provide a history lesson. Instead, we see how one family is affected by the war. Suzu experiences a difficult transition living away from the big city, stifled by a passionless relationship and hostile in-laws. Her life is beset by tragedy, heartbreak and hope, living under the constant threat of American bombs. The gentle, pastel-colored animation belies the horrors depicted in the film, serving as a fitting tonal contrast. Katabuchi doesn’t sugar- coat Suzu’s life, but creates a nuanced experience that’s visually entrancing and emotionally exhausting.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix

Kirikou and the Sorceress (aka: Kirikou et la Sorcière) (1998) Writer/co-director Michel Ocelot’s spirited interpretation of a West African folk tale might require some suspension of disbelief for western eyes, but it rewards with a timeless story that has many lessons to teach us. Kirikou emerges from his mother’s womb, walking, talking and ready for action, albeit in miniature form. When his village is terrorized by Karaba, an evil sorceress, he saves the village, yet remains an outcast. His persistence and ingenuity, however, prevails above all. Kids and adults can benefit from Kirikou’s gentle message that we should never judge something by appearances alone. The endlessly inquisitive Kirikou also teaches that to understand someone, you only need to live in his or her shoes.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime

Les Maîtres du Temps (aka: Time Masters) (1982) Writer/director Rene Laloux’s adaptation of Stefan Wul’s book was released in the States in a butchered (dubbed and edited) form, but it’s worth seeking out in the Eureka video edition. In this cosmic odyssey, a researcher surveying an alien planet crashes his land vehicle, leaving his young son stranded in a forest, with only an egg-shaped device to keep him company. The device is the boy’s only link to human connection, and possible rescue, from a spacecraft many light years away. Laloux’s film features colorful characters, alien vistas, and a cool twist. It’s not quite as mind-bending an experience as his earlier work, Fantastic Planet, but it’s a trip well worth taking.  

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD (Region 2)

The Phantom Tollbooth (1970) Directors Chuck Jones and Abe Levitow, working from a script by Jones and Sam Rosen (based on the kids book by Norton Juster), take us on a funky voyage through a nonsensical land. The animated feature (bookended by live action sequences) stars Butch Patrick (Eddie Munster) as Milo, a kid who’s bored with school and can’t find anything to do. When a strange tollbooth unexpectedly appears in his living room he’s whisked away to a world with various lands. He’s accompanied by Tock, a watchdog (with a clock embedded in his chest), and travels through a world where absurdity reigns supreme. The film reminds us about important life lessons, such as using your brain and taking decisive action. It suffers from a soundtrack full of mostly forgettable songs, but the colorful, Alice in Wonderland-inspired animation and fun wordplay take up most of the slack. While far from perfect, it’s diverting enough to keep kids and adults reasonably entertained.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Sunday, August 26, 2018

It’s National Dog Day

I’m taking a quick paws (I couldn’t resist… someone please stop me.) from my regularly scheduled programming to honor our four-legged pals on National Dog Day. They offer so much, yet expect so little in return. For the price of some kibble, treats and toys, they pay us back tenfold with unconditional love and unwavering companionship.

Some followers of this blog (I think there might be two or three of you) might recall that I featured a post several years back, “Pet Peeves About Pets,” with guest blogger Lassie, ranting about the unfair depiction of pets in many films. I think the least we can do in recompense for these cinematic transgressions is National Dog Day. For the occasion, I’ve invited Lassie back to introduce today’s short film, courtesy of the good folks at Honest Paws. She’s joined by my trusty neurotic dog, Luna (pictured above), to introduce the short video “100 Years of Famous Dogs”:

Hi folks, this is your old pal, Lassie and your new pal, Luna. Barry from Cinematic Catharsis lured me out of semi-retirement to talk to you humans about “100 Years of Famous Dogs.” Luna is a dog of many barks and few words, so I’ll do the introduction on her behest. If I could rate the following video, I’d give it two thumbs up. Alas, I’m a thumb-less canine, so I’ll just tell you I had a howling good time. Enjoy!

To learn more about Honest Paws, visit: