Movie Review: Hands of the Ripper

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Hands of the Ripper (1971)
Directed by Peter Sasdy
Starring Eric Porter, Angharad Rees, Jane Merrow, Keith Bell, Derek Godfrey, Dora Bryan, Marjorie Rhodes, Marjie Lawrence, Lynda Baron

A little girl named Anna, the young daughter of Jack the Ripper, witnesses her mother being murdered at the hands of her father, before he disappears into the night, forever gone and forever burning that memory into her psyche. Over a decade later, something triggers those memories in Anna and she becomes ‘possessed’ with some evil force and power, brutally killing the lady that had taken her in. When questioned by the police, she has no memory of it. Fascinated by her case, Doctor Pritchard decides to take her into his home and family to study her, trying to unlock the secrets in her brain, using the ‘newly’ discovered psychoanalysis techniques from a Dr. Freud. But before he can grasp what is going on inside this young woman’s mind, bodies start to pile up as something keeps triggering those memories and she becomes her father’s daughter again and again.

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Hands of the Ripper is an usual title in the Hammer filmography. It was made at a time when the studio’s reign of terror was coming to a close. Most of the “regulars” that had been working with the company for years were now gone, replaced with gore and nudity which was becoming more and more apparent in their later films. This was an attempt to compete with the modern day horrors that were coming out from other studios. Unfortunately, the fans had already been growing tired of Hammer’s gothic period pieces and this added appeal didn’t hold onto them. But that didn’t mean that Hammer wasn’t still turning out well made films. Hands is a prime example of that. A strange one perhaps, but a good one.

The odd thing about Hands is that it feels like a cross between the old and the new. It seemed the filmmakers were really trying to produce a serious film to make the audiences think, not just some cheap exploitation picture. But then contradicting that attempt is several very graphic murder scenes and a brief nude scene. Kind of like they either couldn’t make up their mind, or that there were two people running the show. One would think if they were going to exploitation route, there would have been a lot more nudity, which they had ample opportunities, especially the sequence dealing with some the local ladies of the night. But while we have a lot of cleavage showing, no nudity there. The only nudity in the film is a bath sequence with Anna getting cleaned up after being brought home by Dr. Pritchard, which is more creepy and voyeuristic than sexual. 

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But then we get some very strange moments in the film, where you really try to understand Dr. Pritchard’s motive and plan for what he’s doing. At first, he seems intrigued by Anna and how could she have had the strength and power to do what she did in the beginning of the film, and really wanted to unlock that secret. Then there are times when we see maybe something a little darker and more devious in his eyes when he looks at Anna, especially in the scene where he comes into her bedroom during her bath. The look on his face I think really betrays what his character really is thinking. Could this be a comment on psychoanalysis in general? In any case, Dr. Pritchard  just isn’t a very good doctor, or at the least, has very questionable methods.

There is also the point of what is really wrong with Anna. Does she have a deep rooted evil planted in her subconscious mind, put there either by genetics or from seeing her father murdering her own mother. Or, as the movie sort of implies, she is actually being possessed by her father’s spirit, who is really causing all of the murders, while Anna simply goes off in trance. We’re never really sure and they don’t really explain. I think if more time was spent with the good doctor trying to figure out what the cause is instead of having to hide the bodies and get Anna away from the murder scenes, we might have learned something!

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Even with all of these confusing elements, Hammer still produced an entertaining piece that may not be one of their best, but is still a fine notch in their history. Aida Young had worked her way up from the bottom with Hammer, eventually making it to being producer. She worked on as the producer on some of the later Hammer pictures, like Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Taste the Blood of Dracula, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, and Scars of DraculaHands would be her last film for Hammer. This would also be the last feature film director Peter Sasdy would do for Hammer, though he did work on several episodes of their series Hammer’s House of Mystery and Suspense and Hammer’s House of Horrors.

As I mentioned earlier, one thing that really was missing from Hands was the usual suspects in appearing front of the camera. Not to say that we didn’t have a good cast here, but not the colorful ones that we usually get to see. The saving grace here I think is Eric Porter, who plays Dr. Pritchard. Coming from the stage, he brought a very realistic performance of this troubled doctor, giving him quite a depth of character. Angharad Rees plays the grown up Anna and does a decent job here, but really hasn’t much to do. She has a wonderful smile when she is happy, but then spends most of the film in a daze or trace, under the influence of her dark memories or her father.

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Adding to the argument that this was much more than just an exploitation film was the wonderful music by Christopher Gunning. Being one of his first films that he composed a score for, he does an incredible job here, creating a beautiful theme that really enhances the film and brings it to a higher caliber than some cheap b-movie feature. The same with the ending, creating something almost operatic in nature, the tragic death of a couple, in a very grand scale.

The Blu-ray release from Synapse Films is just beautiful. The colors are bright and vibrant and the film just looks gorgeous. Hammer was known for their glorious colors and this disc really shows it off, looking probably the best this film has ever seen. The disc also has a featurette on the making of the film which gets input from some of the Hammer scholars out there, like Little Shoppe of Horrors publisher Dick Klemensen and author Wayne Kinsey. Along with others like Joe Dante, they give some insight on this film, what was going on at the time, and the people involved. It can make one appreciate a film a little more when you know what goes into it. The bottom line is that if you’re a fan of Hammer movies, then you have probably already bought this. If you haven’t, then you really need to add this to your collection.

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