Peter SasdyEric PorterDora Bryan
Hands of the Ripper
Medium: film
Year: 1971
Director: Peter Sasdy
Writer: L.W. Davidson, Edward Spencer Shew
Keywords: Jack the Ripper, horror, Hammer, historical
Country: UK
Actor: Eric Porter, Angharad Rees, Jane Merrow, Keith Bell, Derek Godfrey, Dora Bryan, Marjorie Rhodes, Lynda Baron, Marjie Lawrence, Margaret Rawlings, Elizabeth MacLennan, Barry Lowe, A.J. Brown, April Wilding, Anne Clune, Vicki Woolf, Katya Wyeth, Beulah Hughes, Tallulah Miller, Peter Munt, Philip Ryan, Molly Weir, Charles Lamb
Format: 85 minutes
Website category: Horror 1970/80s
Review date: 4 November 2009
That was intense! Hammer horror films normally seem rather cosy and mannered if you watch them today, but this one's fairly fucked up. It's from Paul Sasdy, the director of Countess Dracula, and it's a rather odd, feverish movie which works much better than it probably deserved to.
The title's misleading, mind you. I expected it to be about a Victorian surgeon who does some pioneering transplant surgery with Jack the Ripper's hands as raw material, only to find that they have a mind of their own and just keep on killing. Nope, I was wrong. I suppose Hammer had already covered that ground in their Frankenstein films. On the contrary, this movie is working on a psychological rather than supernatural level. Admittedly it's also dipping a toe in the world of spiritualism and mediums, but that really was an obsession of the Victorians and it's arguably historical flavour as much as anything else.
A small girl sees her mother murdered by her father, who appears to have been Jack the Ripper. Fifteen years later she's the ward of a dreadful old fraud of a medium who reminded me of Beryl Reid but is actually Dora Bryan, as seen in Carry On Sergeant, The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery and Last of the Summer Wine. We begin the film at one of Bryan's seances, which is a real freakshow and has a certain amount of creepy atmosphere despite the fact that it's fairly obviously all theatre. Some of her guests are desperate to contact their loved ones, whereas also present are two stiff-necked Victorian gentlemen who regard her as a criminal who merely hasn't been arrested yet. They're right. Things go from the dodgy to the disgusting, whereupon the plot starts taking a few surprising turns.
That's as much as I want to say about the story. This is one of those films which plays its cards close to its chest right through the entire first act, not even giving away what kind of story it's planning to be. A police procedural? Psychopaths in high places? Victorian hypocrisy? We can see the players, but it's far from obvious what they've got planned for each other. The story settles down after the first act, but it never really lets you get comfortable and for once you can't easily divide the cast into victims and villains. The most important character would seem to be Eric Porter as Dr John Pritchard, better known to me from the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes adaptations as my favourite Moriarty of all time. Needless to say, he's great. The character makes a string of appalling decisions in this film and it would have been easy for Eric Porter to lose the audience's sympathy, but he never slips up in his intensity and integrity.
Angharad Rees plays little orphan Anna and does more than you might expect with her disturbed but also rather passive character. Derek Godfrey is memorable as Dysart and there are a good number of magnificently larger-than-life female characters, including Dora Bryan, Lynda Baron and Margaret Rawlings. This is a well-played film. The film's vision of Victorian London is broad and theatrical and the actors are more than living up to that. Admittedly Jane Merrow's first scene left me thinking that she was appallingly bad, but then I realised that her character was supposed to be blind. One might argue that that's a failure in itself on Merrow's part, but it's a much more subtle one than the one of which I'd been accusing her. Oh, and there's a walk-on role for Molly Weir from Rentaghost.
Then there's the setting. We're all familiar with clip-clopping Victorian London from Sherlock Holmes adaptations, if nothing else, but I admire this film's whores. It's not that they're not attractive. On the contrary, they're grotesque, with the ones we meet in that police cell being a little bit shocking. If you're sick of movies which make prostitution look glamorous, this film is for you. Put that alongside the spiritualism and you could hardly get a more striking microcosm of Victorian duality. On one hand, the afterlife, while on the other, the horrors of this one. I really enjoyed the use the film makes of its historical setting, but I do have a few complaints. The first is that the finale is set in St Paul's Cathedral, but Hammer was refused permission to shoot there and had to mock it up on studio sets instead. It's not the same. They manage quite well, but it's a shame that they had to manage at all. There's nothing like a bit of Sir Christopher Wren.
My next complaint is that they've got their dates wrong. This film is set fifteen years after the Ripper murders (1888), but before the death of Queen Victoria (1901). Well, maybe Dr Pritchard's "fifteen years" was an off-the-cuff approximation. Finally we have the silliness of the London mob carrying burning torches, as if this were medieval Transylvania. Oh, and this film has a throwaway line picking up on the theory that Jack the Ripper was a nobleman, although the line comes from a psychic. There's also a gruesome hat-tip in Lynda Baron's character being named after one of Jack the Ripper's real victims, Elizabeth Stride, aka. "Long Liz".
The film's intensity carries through to the killings. It's not Tom Savini level gore, but it's nasty enough that there's an American TV version with several scenes missing and the running time padded out with a psychiatrist in 1945 relating these "fictional" events to some reporters. There's a throat-slitting! I was impressed, even though one of the victims is visibly breathing afterwards.
I'd also note that at least one of the victims is sufficiently eminent that there's no way we shouldn't have had an army of policemen bringing the plot to a screeching halt shortly afterwards. How did our protagonist expect to get away with that one, then?
There's a lot to like in this film, but what really sells it is Dr Pritchard. He could have been a joke. His decisions are terrifying and his scientific theories are laughable, especially since he thinks he can find insights into crime in general rather than one specific pathology. If he'd been played by Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, he'd have scared you rigid. He's taking a hell of a risk with his household staff and family, although you can't say that he doesn't end up paying the price. In the end one could reasonably argue that he's as mad as anyone, yet Porter keeps us on his side. He makes him likeable. Note the way in which we're in no doubt that Pritchard's intentions are honourable, despite (a) the scene where he walks in on her in the bath and stays for a good minute or two, and (b) eventually losing it and kissing her. Now that's something that would have been beyond most actors.
As usual with Hammer, it doesn't quite feel like an A-film somehow. They released it in a double bill with Twins of Evil, for what it's worth. However it is a remarkable little curiosity, telling a warped and slightly offbeat story with enough style to make you think they'd been watching Italian horror or something. It's rather good, actually.