The First Cut Is The Deepest – ‘Hands Of The Ripper’ At 50

❉ Johnny Restall on an overlooked Hammer masterpiece, which debuted in October 1971 paired with ‘Twins Of Evil’.

“Hands Of The Ripper is a tragic, gothic character study, touching on themes of crime and punishment, inherited behaviour, free will, and emotional repression. That it covers these weighty topics in less than ninety minutes with grace and commitment, without ever being anything less than utterly gripping, is testament to Peter Sasdy’s assured direction, the literate script by television writer L.W. Davidson, and the utter conviction of the lead performances.”

In October 1971, Hammer Studios released Hands Of The Ripper on a double-bill with the equally superb Twins Of Evil. While the latter film brims with fresh energy and style, it is essentially a highly successful update of the established Hammer brew of gothic castles, fairy-tale Europe, and decadent vampires. Hands Of The Ripper takes a far more psychological, understated approach to quietly create something of an overlooked masterpiece for the studio, every bit as strong as its more celebrated co-feature.

The opening sequence begins traditionally enough, as an angry torch-wielding mob pursue the familiar top-hat-and-cape wearing figure of Jack The Ripper through the gaslit streets. He escapes their clutches by ducking into a house belonging to his working-class mistress and toddler daughter. The blood dripping from his fingers alerts the unsuspecting woman to his murderous true identity, and the title card is superimposed on the screen over a shot of his raised hand as he promptly stabs her to death.

So far, so predictable – but the film only establishes the clichés in order to dispense with them. With the murder concluded, Christopher Gunning’s score takes an unexpected turn from lurid horror into delicate sadness. The Ripper gently kisses the little girl watching through the bars of her bed before leaving his illegitimate daughter all alone, mesmerized by the lifeless body of her own mother lying in front of the open fire.

An abrupt cut from the child’s face between the bedstead bars to that of a young woman looking out from the bars of a small grille window neatly informs us that we are looking at the same person many years later. Anna (Angharad Rees) hides in the dark, impersonating a lost child at a phony séance chaired by her adoptive guardian Mrs Golding (Dora Bryan). In attendance at the dubious supernatural spectacle alongside a grieving couple are Member of Parliament Dysart (Derek Godfrey), and the sceptical Dr John Pritchard (Eric Porter) with his son Michael (Keith Bell).

Once the spiritualist performance is over, the predatory Dysart lingers, having persuaded Mrs Golding to let him visit Anna in her room for his own dubious, fleshly purposes. When he tries to buy the nervous girl’s affections with jewellery, the play of firelight on the trinket seems to send her into a trance. Enraged, the venal M.P. strikes her, and Mrs Golding rushes in to intervene.

Waiting outside for a cab, Pritchard hears the commotion and returns to investigate. He finds Anna catatonic and Mrs Golding brutally murdered, with Dysart having fled the scene, fearing for his ‘respectable’ reputation. A doctor of psychology, Pritchard is intrigued by Anna’s state and makes the fateful decision to take her into his care, despite Dysart’s assertions that she is “possessed” and responsible for the killing.

While the traditional mystery plot revolves around who has committed the crime, Hands Of The Ripper is far more concerned with the why. The murderer’s identity is little surprise in itself, and the film removes any remaining doubt about it barely halfway through. It is not a whodunnit; nor is it at all concerned with uncovering the identity of the real Jack The Ripper. Instead, it is a tragic, gothic character study, touching on themes of crime and punishment, inherited behaviour, free will, and emotional repression. That it covers these weighty topics in less than ninety minutes with grace and commitment, without ever being anything less than utterly gripping, is testament to Peter Sasdy’s assured direction, the literate script by television writer L.W. Davidson, and the utter conviction of the lead performances.

Whilst it is easy to imagine the part of Dr Pritchard being written with Hammer’s regular star Peter Cushing in mind, Porter is absolutely flawless in the role, bringing a deeply complex character to life with an intensity and subtlety all of his own. Pritchard is an unyielding, driven man, so zealous in his conversion to Freudian psychology that he is willing to disregard serious ethical and moral concerns in pursuit of the proof of his theories. Yet through tiny gestures and flashes of warmth in his eyes, Porter suggests a more vulnerable side to the man, constantly repressed behind his pompously rational exterior. His Achilles’ heel is his inability to turn his critical gaze on himself. His lack of patience with his son’s blind fiancée Laura (Jane Merrow) is pointedly ironic, given the faults of his own inner vision. A widower, his prickly relationship with his son and lack of enthusiasm for Michael’s upcoming nuptials suggest a classic Freudian conflict on his part – of which he remains blissfully unaware.

It is however Pritchard’s relationship with the orphaned Anna that drives the plot and gives the film its emotional heart. There is a clear attraction between the two, emphasised by the doomed romanticism of Gunning’s musical score. Both are deeply lonely people, but their mutual lack of self-knowledge ensures that their misguided union can only result in destruction. Pritchard moves Anna into his late wife’s room and has her dressed in her clothes, seemingly oblivious to the implications of his actions. His diagnosis of her condition is achingly close to the truth but his ego and his own unacknowledged desires prevent him from seeing what is in front of him until it is too late, just as he fails to see the initial murders clearly until his perspective is forcibly changed (by a closing door and a reflected view).

Rees’ unforgettable performance makes Anna deeply sympathetic, her haunted eyes and faltering voice expressing constant unspoken depths. She conveys a heartrending gulf of neglect and emotional desperation beneath her withdrawn surface, battling to control impulses she cannot even remember afterwards, let alone understand. Anna is visually portrayed as being trapped by her surroundings, whether physically caged by bars and railings, prone beneath the interrogatory lights in Pritchard’s study, or drowned by the opulent clothes the Doctor chooses for her, which swallow her like a doll.

For all her vulnerability, Rees is just as convincing during Anna’s terrible trances, the contrast between the two sides of her personality making her hopeless position all the sadder. It is a grim irony that her ‘episodes’ are bought on by the things she needs the most but can never have, due to her social situation and terrible inheritance – wealth, warmth, and affection. All that is left to her is to lash out, caught between the selfish patrician benevolence of Pritchard, and the exploitative, hypocritical cynicism of the establishment figure Dysart (who eventually occupies a moral high ground his actions do not warrant).

The film is not without its flaws; its grasp of London’s geography is dubious, and a few of the plot contrivances seem strained. Yet by the time it reaches its devastating climax in the Whispering Gallery of St Paul’s Cathedral, it has earned its place as one of Hammer’s finest and certainly most moving works, for me. For many years, the studio’s 1970s output was dismissed as sleazy and tired. This view seems to slowly be shifting, and Hands Of The Ripper deserves to be rediscovered as one of the jewels in the Hammer crown.


❉ ‘Hands Of The Ripper’ is available on Blu-ray from Network Distributing as part of The British Film collection in a High Definition transfer made from original film elements in its as-exhibited theatrical aspect ratio. Special features include Audio commentary with Angharad Rees and horror historians Kim Newman and Stephen Jones, Original theatrical trailer, Thriller: Once the Killing Starts, Extensive image galleries and Commemorative Booklet by Stephen Jones. Cert 15. Running time: 84 mins approx. RRP £9.00.

❉ Johnny Restall writes and draws inky pictures. You can find him on Twitter @johnnyrestall.

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