Hands of the Ripper – UK, 1971

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Hands of the Ripper is a 1971 British horror film directed by Peter Sasdy for Hammer Film Productions. Produced by one of the few female members of staff at Hammer, Aida Young, who had previously worked on the likes of One Million Years B.C., She, Taste the Blood of Dracula and Scars of Dracula, the film employs many stars of period BBC drama as opposed to the usual faces regularly seen in their films.

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Poor young Anna (Angharad Rees) witnesses the brutal slaying of her mother at the hands of her father, who happens to be Jack the Ripper. Catching sight of the flames in the background, she is psychologically scarred (or maybe possessed) and commits terrible acts herself in her adulthood whenever flickering lights are present or she is kissed.

Taken in as an orphan by local camp medium Mrs Golding (an always barking Dora Bryan) she is rescued from a life of prostitution by kindly sceptic, Dr Pritchard (Eric Porter, best known on television from 60’s sensation The Foryste Saga).

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Denied the opportunity to sample Anna when she stabs Bryan to death, permanently shocked-looking Mr Dysart (Derek Godfrey from The Abominable Dr Phibes) is jointly accused of being prime suspect by Pritchard, who rather than informing the authorities prefers to study their motives and behaviour having become an student of psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud.

We are introduced to Pritchard’s son, Michael (Keith Bell, Island of Terror) and his blind fiancée, Laura (an unconvincing Jane Merrow) who live a carefree life of high society and handkerchiefs but meanwhile, Anna is increasingly being exposed to flashing lights and 15 years on from her father’s murder sprees around London’s East End, is playing catch-up numbers-wise.

Despite Dysart’s pleas to let the noose be her judge rather than science, Pritchard continues to support Anna and find an answer to her condition (despite her decimating his staff) until she becomes a threat to his son and his beloved and the climax leads to a tense resolution in the Whispering Gallery of St.Paul’s Cathedral.

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Shot at Pinewood studios and utilising sets from James Bond productions and exteriors from Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock HolmesHands of the Ripper is less typical Hammer horror and more gruesome period drama, the actors slotting into the period setting seamlessly.

Featuring considerably less nudity than early 70s audiences had become used to (especially considering it played the lesser of a British double-bill with Twins of Evil) the film is nevertheless tightly plotted and features one of Hammer’s most gruesome killings, with shouty prostitute, Long Liz (Lynda Baron, best known as Nurse Gladys Emanuel from TV comedy, Open All Hours) receiving a handful of hat-pins to her eye, a scene that was trimmed significantly by the British Board of Censors and entirely by their counterparts in America.

Director Sasdy, a Hungarian, also helmed the fun Taste the Blood of Draculathe not-really-fun-at-all Countess Dracula and the highly regarded Stone Tape television play, a medium in which he eventually stayed. Both he and Young had a very particular vision, leaving behind the previous Ripper films which had focused on the mystery of the Victorian slayer’s identity (indeed, even the killer seen in the film’s prologue is played by a still unknown actor) and homed in on the tragedy and lives affected by such tragedies. As he often did, musical director, Phillip Martell took a chance on a previously unknown composer, Christopher Gunning, who supplies a score which is all sweeping period drama and less stabbing booms of dread.

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The film suffers slightly in tone, the over-the-top camp of the fake clairvoyants and grizzled prostitutes being at odds with the demure Anna and ultra-serious Pritchard, the two worlds, whilst clearly a very real Victorian Britain, sitting uneasily together onscreen. The sets are superb, a perfect backdrop for mystery and murder; even faced with a flat refusal by St.Paul’s Cathedral to film inside, the sneaked shots of the interior are faultlessly used as a projected backdrop for the film’s resolution.

The numerous killings are well-executed and shown in pleasingly graphic detail. The downbeat nature of the film is tied up nicely with a suitably gloomy finale, though the lack of a major horror star hampered its commercial appeal at the time, and it only retrospectively became something of a fan favourite.

Daz Lawrence, HORRORPEDIA

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Other reviews:

“Sasdy gives the film the sense of class that the story deserves, only let down by a odd budgetary restriction – the climactic scenes in St Pauls have disastrously shoddy still images back projected that don’t look remotely like a real location – it’s only the quality of the film so far that prevents this scene from wrecking the movie.

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