|Director: Peter Sasdy
Starring: Eric Porter, Angharad Rees, Jane Merrow, Keith Bell
After a long hiatus, Synapse Films continues its excellent Hammer Horror series—focusing mostly, thus far, on the British company’s early 1970’s output—with this long-awaited, totally uncut UK release of Peter Sasdy’s Hands of the Ripper (1971). Owing as much to the Jack the Ripper myth as to Freudian psychoanalysis, Hands of the Ripper can be described as a variation on the theme of Shaw’s Pygmalion; only instead of trying to transform a flower girl into a duchess, Dr. Pritchard (Eric Porter) attempts to cure a hapless young waif (Angharad Rees) of her murderous urges which are aroused whenever she is kissed.
One of the more interesting and underrated efforts from Hammer’s final film production years, Hands of the Ripper comes from a period when many of Hammer’s in-house producers and staff had left the company, and independent producers and production companies were approaching Hammer to get their horror projects made. This created an atmosphere in which directors could take greater liberties with Hammer’s established Gothic horror formula, mixing up and joining together disparate myths, and turning various tropes over on their heads.
The plot of Hands of the Ripper concerns a teenaged girl (Rees), who must survive in the squalors of Victorian London by working for a phony psychic and is eventually forced into prostitution. Whenever the girl sees a flickering light and is kissed, her mind regresses to a traumatic moment she experienced as a little girl at the hands of her father, Jack the Ripper, and is compelled to brutally murder whoever happens to be nearby. When Dr. Pritchard (Porter), a noted psychiatrist, takes her under his wing and attempts to cure her schizophrenia, he finds himself unable to control the bloody murder spree that ensues.
Having a curse, or a monster from a dark past return to haunt the present is a traditional Gothic storytelling device. What’s less traditional is the fact that the “monster” in this case is completely internal—living inside the mind of the protagonist. Silver bullets, wooden stakes, crucifixes, and other weapons of the monster-hunter are replaced with hypnosis and psychoanalysis. This may, in principal, be less visually cinematic than, say, Hammer’s kinetically-physical Dracula (1958), but director Peter Sasdy makes it work by generating much empathy for the doctor, and genuine pathos for his young patient. This culminates in an appropriately tragic ending at St. Paul’s Cathedral which also serves as the final departure from the traditional Hammer formula. Instead of the usual fiery conflagration done to thunderous music, we are treated to a quietly moving conclusion, done to the plaintive strains of Verdi’s Requiem—a memorable touch and a nice foil to the very gory murders that pepper the rest of the film.
While Hands of the Ripper may lack the sheer star power of a Hammer regular, such as Peter Cushing, in the title role, Eric Porter, (who had previously made a name for himself on British TV in The Forsyte Saga), rises admirably to the occasion as the determined Dr. Pritchard—his character steeped in Hammer’s long tradition of similar Churchillian, no-nonsense characters, such as Prof. Quatermass, Father Sandor, and Capt. Lansen from The Lost Continent (also played by Porter). Angharad Rees as Anna is a wonderfully delicate creature—a perfect foil to her own inner demon, and the rest of the cast is made up of top British character actors of the period.
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1, Synapse’s newly restored 1080p transfer of Hands of the Ripper is a clear upgrade from any previous DVD and home video releases. Any restoration work is entirely unobtrusive and the film retains a natural, filmic look, if also just little fuzzy at times. The print itself is naturally grainy, especially in darker interior scenes, and the colors don’t quite pop out at you as they could, but they are stable and pleasantly earthy, and any such limitations seem to come from the source material itself, rather than the transfer. Overall, this is a well-done high-def presentation and is far preferable to many other high-def releases where DNR smoothes out all the film grain and the image is sharpened within an inch of its life.
The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 Mono track sounds clear, clean, and natural across the entire spectrum. Dialogue is clearly audible and Christopher Gunning’s excellent, mostly pastoral, music track has a nice body and clarity.
Synapse’s blu-ray release boasts some nice extras, the most notable being a making-of featurette called, The Devil’s Bloody Plaything: Possessed by Hands of the Ripper, which features a wealth of genre experts including Richard Klemensen, Tim Lucas, and Kim Newman. There is also a motion still gallery which traces the evolution of Hammer gore, plus the usual still gallery with images from the present film. There are also the standard original theatrical trailer and TV spots, an audio introduction to the film for its television release by a renowned psychiatrist; and an isolated music and effects audio track.
The new Hands of the Ripper blu-ray release from Synapse Films will rightly be a natural purchase for most Hammer fans, as well as for fans of classic horror films in general. It is very much in Hammer’s Gothic horror tradition, yet also takes a few interesting departures from the norm, thus making it a more thoughtful viewing experience than some in Hammer’s oeuvre. It is also a well written and directed film, and, as has been noted by others, is also one of the goriest of all Hammer films, featuring some very graphic murder scenes—a precursor perhaps to the slasher films that were soon to dominate the horror genre. I hope Synapse continues to release more Hammer films in the future.
~ By Dima Ballin