The very young daughter of Jack the Ripper witnesses her father kill her mother. Fifteen years later, after being abandoned at an orphanage, the young girl’s trauma continues as she’s forced to work for a woman who not only conducts fake seances for desperate, grieving loved ones and forces her to participate, but also has a habit of selling the girl to various ‘gentleman’ for the night. But one night a series of events causes the girl to snap, unwittingly throwing her into a trance and causing her to kill her benefactor and leaving her with no memory of the events afterwards. Dr. John Prichard, a sympathetic psychiatrist not only thinks he knows what’s going on, but also believes that by studying her, he can decipher what causes people to murder and help to cure her psychois. But not long after taking her back to his home, the good doctor quickly realizes he may be out of his depth.
Gee, ya think!?
Hands of the Ripper is an early 1970s horror film brought to the masses by Hammer Film Productions. The 70s was essentially the beginning of the end for the classic Hammer film formula, so the studio started branching out a bit into more bloody and risque territory. By today’s standards it’s all still pretty tame, but when compared to their earlier output it basically just means there was more blood and skin shown on screen. But just because a little desperation started to show doesn’t necessarily mean that the quality plummeted. Though their output from the 70s isn’t as well known (except for maybe that trippy Dracula A.D.) they still managed to put out some enjoyable stuff, and Hands of the Ripper is one of them.
For starters, the story is actually pretty good, and likely not about what one would initially think. Considering this is a story involving Jack the Ripper it would be easy to assume that the film would follow the lines of some sort of gory slasher. But it’s actually more of a mystery/psychological thriller with horrific undertones and supernatural elements. Anna may be the daughter of one of the world’s most notorious psychos, but she’s just as much a victim as, well, the victims. Anna is a deeply troubled girl with a traumatic past that she’s unknowingly buried in her subconscious. Then along comes this doctor who you think wants to help her and shows clear signs of wanting to help her, but despite his best intentions and his claims to the contrary he really doesn’t understand what’s going on with his charge. Instead of helping her he unintentionally exacerbated the problem and then covers up the resulting crimes, further traumatizing his patient (which maybe shouldn’t be a surprise since he was a firm follower of Freud, but I digress…) So instead of outright hating this stone-cold killer, you instead feel sorry for this tragic young woman who’s only real sin, despite the body count she wracks up, was being born into a very unfortunate lineage.
Surely watching your mother’s tragic murder won’t still be traumatizing 15 years from now, right?
Of course, eliciting an emotion like that is impossible without decent performances, but Eric Porter and Angharad Rees manage to pull everything together quite admirably. Rees is practically the personification of a wounded bird. She is at times glowing and innocent, but at the same time you can tell just from the look in her eyes just how lost and damaged she truly is. As the proverbial heart of the movie it’s crucial that the audience see her as a victim in order for the film to work, and Rees manages to pull it off with great skill.
Baby girl needs a hug.
Porter meanwhile does an equally impressive job. He manages to balance the doctor’s caring and altruistic nature and his sinister motives in a way that only makes you want to punch him in the face instead of outright kill him. It’s clear that he wants to protect Anna, but in doing so he covers up her (multiple) crimes and attempted murder, all just to further his own scientific ambition. It doesn’t help that it’s slowly revealed that he does indeed hold more than just fatherly affection towards the girl. It’s a credit to the man’s acting that he only comes across as minimally creepy in these moments (or at least as minimal as you can be when your a 50+ year old man lusting after a 17-year-old, but I digress again…), but in the end attraction is what gets Anna in trouble, so it comes back to bite him regardless of his intentions.
Let’s be fair, you kinda deserved this.
Like many of the films from the studio, the visual style seen here is quite distinctly ‘Hammer,’ with interspersed moments of oversaturation and dark dreary tones, deep shadows, intentional highlights and the occasional deliberate use of bright colors to draw the viewer’s focus. It’s quite beautiful, as most Hammer films are. The one downside regarding the visuals was that they were forced to use photographic plates for the film’s finale, since they weren’t permitted to film in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Those moment’s stand out like a sore thumb, but it still manages to look quite impressive, especially when one considers the time period the film came out in.
Still doesn’t look right, but they did line up the actors and the background pretty well.
So is Hands of the Ripper any good? I’d say yes. I don’t know if I’d put it up there with the top-tier of Hammer classics, but it’s definitely one that I greatly enjoyed. It feels a bit more intimate than some of the studio’s earlier output, with the focus set squarely on two well-meaning but ultimately broken souls. There is a bit of redemption for both of the main characters at the end, but like a lot of films that address broken psychies and mental illness, it is ultimately a tragic tale that ends up being a bit bittersweet. It’s a visually beautiful film that is well acted, well paced and managed to keep my interest through the duration. Though it has its fair share of blood (bright red, as per tradition), there’s probably not enough bloody bits to please the true gore hounds, but if you’re looking for a sentimental tale of gothic horror then Hands of the Ripper may fit the bill.
Hand of the Ripper is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
It is also available on DVD and Bluray.