Hands of the Ripper is a 1971 British horror feature film directed by Peter Sasdy (I Don’t Want to Be Born; Countess Dracula; Taste the Blood of Dracula) 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.
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 a kindly sceptic, Doctor Pritchard (Eric Porter, best known on British television from 1960s sensation The Forsyte Saga).
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 had become a student of the 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 fifteen 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.
Shot at Pinewood Studios and utilising sets from James Bond productions and exteriors from Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Hands of the Ripper is less typical Hammer horror and more gruesome period drama, the actors slotting into the period setting seamlessly.
Featuring 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 Dracula, the 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.
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, MOVIES and MANIA
[May contain spoilers] Other reviews:
“Sasdy uses the two-phase trigger, and embrace followed by a reflected light shimmering in her eyes, with consummate skill, finding a different and surprisingly staging for each victim in a sophisticated cat-and-mouse game with the viewer’s expectations. In addition, he adds a disturbing sensuality to the proceedings, heightened by the glorious colours and the enchanting beauty of Rees.” The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror
“There are few surprises, but something feels tense in every scene. Most of the tension comes from the psychological drama, although actual violence and gore come in short intense bursts […] All told, it’s a serious and rather sad film. It partially answers its own questions and gets the viewer thinking.” David Elroy Goldweber, Claws & Saucers: Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy Film 1902 – 1982
“Ripping good.” John Stanley, Creature Features
“Hands of the Ripper is sufficiently affecting to qualify, by horror movie standards at any rate, as a weepie. It’s artfully directed by Sasdy and photographed in soft, subdued shades by Kenneth Talbot. These sombre hues are cunningly interspersed with the glimmering lights and mirrors services which exercise such a malign influence on Anna, and the film’s suspenseful highlights are further enhanced by Christopher Gunning’s alternately romantic and blood-curdling score.” Jonathan Rigby, English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema
“Sasdy’s approach is really quite effective and climax, staged in the Whispering Gallery of St Paul’s Cathedral, it’s strikingly so. But… Sasdy has taken the murders and charged them, rather impulsively, with uncharacteristic brutality. With the regularity of commercial breaks, the killings stand out as spectacular contrivances… The result is that the whole film is thrown off balance.” Films and Filming, 1971
“Flawed, and so close to the fag end of Gothic that it could almost be a parody, this is nonetheless a film well worth watching.” Andy Boot, Fragments of Fear: An Illustrated History of British Horror Films
“The cracks in Hands of the Ripper are papered over admirably. Kenneth Talbot’s soft-focus photography, and Christopher Gunning’s wishful theme, help establish an almost tranquil atmosphere for Peter Sasdy to fracture at carefully paced intervals. Hands of the Ripper expectly mixes the sophistication expected of Hammer’s films with the gore its new audiences demanded.” Marcus Hearn, Alan Barnes, The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films
“Sasdy skilfully manipulates the complicated material, ferreting out the psychological nuances while delivering a suspenseful and exciting film that ends in a breathtaking climax. One of Hammer’s best.” The Horror Film, CineBooks
“Latish Hammer offering, strong on period detail, good acting and grisly killings but strangely lifeless, despite careful direction by Peter Sasdy.” Alan Frank, The Horror Film Handbook
“Hands of the Ripper is a rarity: a Hammer horror movie that is serious, gritty, and thoughtful. Its tale of a man of science’s fall from grace also happens to be laced with enough explicit gore to satisfy the most hard-core horror fans. In all, it’s an appealing mix of the grotesque, and a rather thoughtful film.” John Kenneth Muir, Horror Films of the 1970s
“Director Sasdy makes the violence an important and inventive aspect of the story, and he handles it with some facile camera work. Writer L.W. Davidson also adds political and social dimensions to the believable characters […] the acting is exemplary in both the leads and secondary characters.” Mike Mayo, The Horror Show Guide: The Ultimate Frightfest of Movies
“Disappointingly routine, with the usual virtues of good performances and period authenticity but all the faults as well – a basic appeal to sadism rather than imagination in the horror sequences.” Monthly Film Bulletin October 1971
“Peter Sasdy maintains the period setting credibly well (always a notable feature of his work for Hammer) and creates an excellent climax set in St Paul’s Cathedral. The film contains some notably gory jolts, although some of these spill over into unintentional ludicrousness, the funniest being when Eric Porter has a sword plunged three-quarters of its way into his body without it ever emerging out the other side.” Moria
“This is a superior thriller, bloodcurdling in several of its sequences, and with a highly exciting and impressive finale…” Photoplay, 1971
“Eric Porter, as a dour, dedicated pioneer “follower of that man Freud,” is decidedly anxious to cure her beyond the call of duty and the Hippocratic Oath. But Miss Rees keeps hearing those voices and stabbing people until she and the good doctor wind up dead in St. Paul’s Cathedral. All things considered, Freud himself might have had a hard time with Miss Rees and company.” The New York Times, July 14, 1972
“There’s a lot more here than just some nifty gore sequences, however, as the script does a great job of working in some interesting psychological elements by way of Pritchard’s attempts to psychoanalyze and learn from Anna’s behavior. This makes the story more compelling than it would have been if it were just left as another Jack the Ripper movie and it helps to set it apart from other cinematic adaptations of similar material.” Rock! Shock! Pop!
“Audiences were demanding more on-screen gore, and Hammer complied with Hands of the Ripper and its plethora of throat slashings and other horrific set-pieces. Importantly though, none of this bloodletting gets in the way of Davidson’s sharp screenplay and excellent performances from both Porter and Merrow. Rees is the star though, exhibiting a naivety and innocence that brings so much to her characterisation of Anna.” The Schlock Pit
“Hands of the Ripper’s storyline offers more nuanced characterizations than most Hammer films, while viewer identification is routinely complicated by the complexity of the character’s motivation […] The repetitive nature of Anna’s killings, all staged with a nearly identical build-up that involves flickering flames or shimmering reflections, is no accident.” Slant
“Despite a goodly sum of graphic violence, Hands of the Ripper is not so much frightening as it is sad, at times almost overwhelmingly so. The whole feel of the film is one of a downward-spiralling in melancholy, the sadness beautifully accompanied by Christopher Gunning’s touching theme music.” Tim Greaves, Ten Year of Terror
“Superbly plotted and dotted with a number of surprisingly gory death sequences (the maid’s neck slashing is particularly brutal, the prostitute’s end by hatpins is nicely done), this is also extremely well acted by Porter and Rees both of them confident in their respective roles as they begin an inevitable descent into tragedy.” The Terror Trap
“Interestingly enough, though the film was made over 40 years ago, the murders themselves remain quite shocking. I can only imagine how audiences in 1971 reacted to them. The scene where Anna suddenly attacks a housekeeper made me flinch, as did a later scene in which one of Anna’s victims stumbled out onto a crowded street, minus an eye. Angharad Rees gave a good performance as Anna, one that keeps you guessing as to whether or not she’s just crazy or if maybe she really is possessed by the spirit of her father.” Through the Shattered Lens
“Rees is particularly effective in the role, while Sasdy keeps the tension reasonably high; nevertheless, one can’t help experiencing a certain sense of déjà vu, for all the narrative ingenuity.” Time Out
“Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Michael Powell’s masterpiece Peeping Tom (1960), Hands of the Ripper is brimming with the same sort of psychosexual-homicidal compulsions–in both cases brought on by a parent’s perversion of love. Director Sasdy skillfully manipulates the complicated material, ferreting out the psychological nuances while delivering a suspenseful and exciting film that ends in a breathtaking climax.” TV Guide
“Peter Sasdy’s final feature for Hammer is also his best, a near-perfect combination of pathos and horror. Anna commits the most gruesome murders but because of Angharad Rees’ sensitive performance, she never loses the sympathy of the audience. Porter is also excellent as the well-intentioned (but essentially misguided) doctor.” Gary A. Smith, Uneasy Dreams: The Golden Age of British Horror Films, 1956 – 1976
“It is a glossy, well-mounted production, admirably performed by a first-rate cast. Angharad Rees makes the pretty killer entirely credible.” Variety, December 31, 1970
Dysart: “Damn it Pritchard you’ve got a possessed being in your home, as savage as any wild beast.”
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Cast and characters:
Eric Porter … Pritchard
Angharad Rees … Anna
Jane Merrow … Laura
Keith Bell … Michael
Derek Godfrey … Dysart
Dora Bryan … Mrs Golding
Marjorie Rhodes … Mrs Bryant
Lynda Baron … Long Liz
Marjie Lawrence … Dolly
Norman Bird … Police Inspector
Margaret Rawlings … Madame Bullard
Elizabeth MacLennan … Mrs Wilson
Barry Lowe … Mr Wilson
A.J. Brown … Reverend Anderson
April Wilding … Catherine
Anne Clune … 1st Cell Whore
Vicki Woolf … 2nd Cell Whore
Katya Wyeth … 1st Pub Whore
Beulah Hughes … 2nd Pub Whore
Tallulah Miller … 3rd Pub Whore
Peter Munt … Pleasants
Philip Ryan … Police Constable
Molly Weir … Maid
Charles Lamb … Guard
Aspect ratio: 1.66: 1
Audio: Mono (RCA Sound Recording)