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.