(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
“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.