The early ‘70s were a rough time for Hammer Films: the horror genre was shifting away from Hammer’s brand of traditional gothic filmmaking, the studio’s classic-era guiding hands had moved on and foreign distribution was getting tougher. That said, some fans and critics also look at this as a great time for the studio from an artistic standpoint because the need for new production staff and directors brought an influx of fresh young talent who could lend new perspectives to the traditional Hammer gothic approach.
One of the finest talents to emerge at Hammer during this era was Hungarian-born Peter Sasdy, who made some fan-beloved favorites like his vampire-film duo, Taste The Blood Of Dracula and Countess Dracula. Hands Of The Ripper is another memorable effort from his Hammer days, offering a distinctive take on the Jack The Ripper legend that effectively offsets gothic stylings with psychological horror to create an unusual tension.
Unlike most films in this vein, Hands Of The Ripper isn’t actually about Jack The Ripper himself. Instead, it proposes the idea that the Ripper had a daughter who was psychologically scarred at an early age when she saw her father murdering her mother. Years later, the child grows up to be Anna (Angharad Rees), a teen orphan who is used by her adoptive mother to play a “ghost” in fake séances.
The mother also tries to pimp Anna out to a customer, resulting in a scenario where certain physical and visual cues cause her to go into a fugue state – and lash out violently. Anna accidentally murders her adoptive mother but is rescued by Dr. John Pritchard (Eric Porter), a kind widower who intends to use Freudian analysis to get the bottom of Anna’s condition. Sadly, he does not know what he is dealing with – and others suggest that Anna might actually be possessed by the spirit of her father. Before the mystery is resolved, the streets of London will run red with the blood of more victims.
The script has a few flaws – namely, Dr. Pritchard acts too naïve about Anna’s condition, even after she’s started to rack up a body count – but there’s a lot for Hammer fans to like here. The plotting leans hard on coincidence in spots but it succeeds in the way it pursues both psychological and gothic styles of horror, with the latter being effectively woven into the film’s second half. A vignette involving a visit to a genuine psychic is particularly effective and the film has an intense finale that works on both gothic horror and purely dramatic levels.
More importantly, the film benefits from vigorous, beautifully stylized direction by Sasdy. He makes effective use of a lovely score by Christopher Gunning, often deployed to ironic effect, and gorgeous cinematography by Kenneth Talbot that creates a lush backdrop for the dramatic fireworks (it also uses canted angles to great effect). The scenes where Anna is driven to attack her hapless victims have a visceral, brutal edge to them that ensure they rank with the most startling moments in Hammer horror history.
Sasdy is equally invested in the dramatic side of the picture, generating real sparks in the scenes where Porter discusses psychology vs. spiritualism with superstitious Parliament member Dysart (Derek Godfrey). Most importantly, the director plays the film’s story for tragedy, culminating in an ending that tugs the heart-strings even as it wracks the audience’s nerves.
The sense of drama in Hands Of The Ripper connects so strongly because Sasdy has a strong cast to work with. Porter anchors the cast effectively, starting off as the voice of reason but slowly shifting to shock and anguish as he realizes what he has unleashed. Rees plays the innocent and vicious sides of her character with equal skill, coming off well in both the dramatic and horrific scenes.
The rest of the ensemble backs the leads nicely. Godfrey makes an excellent, sometimes slyly funny counterpoint to Porter’s characterization. Margaret Rawlings steals her one scene as a real-deal spiritualist who tries to help Dr. Pritchard and Jane Merrow is both affecting and likeable as the blind fiancée of Pritchard’s son.
In short, Hands Of The Ripper might have some flaws in its storyline but it makes an excellent showcase for Sasdy’s directorial skills – and it shows that Hammer had more going for it during the early ‘70s than it gets credit for.