Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: Hands of the Ripper & A Reflection on Hammer’s Final Decade

This October, we’re challenging ourselves to watch at least one horror movie a day. Today, we’re going back to the 70s and the last days of a once-great production company: Hammer Films.

You’re a Victorian-era doctor. You stumble onto a murder scene where a young woman named Anna appears to have just killed her elderly benefactor. It’s possible a man of some high standing in society actually committed the deed, but you secretly know better. This woman fell into some kind of fugue state meaning she now has no memory of grabbing that poker and pinning her adopted mother to the door. Her actual parents are long since dead and now so is the woman who took her in as a young girl. She has nowhere to go. Do you:

  1. Quickly walk away and let the system work it out?
  2. Go find your friends and ask them if they want to see a dead body, Stand By Me-style?
  3. Turn the woman over to the authorities and testify to what you’ve seen?
  4. Take her into your home, study her, blackmail the only other witness to her first murder, and then cover for her subsequent fugue-state murders?

Very few would likely pick D, yet that’s exactly what Eric Porter’s Dr. Pritchard does in 1971’s Hands of the Ripper, director Peter Sasdy’s final Hammer Horror film. “Sure, she killed some members of my wait staff and shoved needles through that one prostitute’s face,” Pritchard seems to be thinking. “But if I can just figure out what’s wrong with her I might become the next Freud! Also, I might be falling in love with her. Little fuzzy on that, to be honest. Mostly in it for the science!”

Dr. Pritchard comes home to find Anna passed out after her most recent murder.

I don’t mean to sound glib. I’m just having a bit of a fun with a movie which actually takes itself quite seriously. For all of its hatpin-to-the-eye and poker-through-the-chest gore, Hands of the Ripper is a rather classy take on the possession sub-genre, helped immensely by Angharad Rees’ central performance as the troubled daughter of Jack the Ripper.

We meet Anna as a young girl. Hotly pursued by an angry mob, her father barely escapes home, his hands still bloodied from his most recent conquest. Rather than try to explain the blood stains to his wife, he just decides to kill her, too, because Jack the Ripper gonna rip, amright? Poor Anna witnesses all of this and is forever programmed afterward to turn homicidal when she’s exposed to two specific triggers which call back to that horrific night: something shiny AND a kiss. One or the other won’t do. They have to both happen and in the order.

Whether she’s simply crazy or secretly possessed by her father’s ghost is the film’s kind-of-there, but-not-really mystery. It’s a mystery to Dr. Pritchard, not the audience.

So, for the love of all that’s good, if you give Anna a shiny necklace don’t then kiss her on the cheek. That’s this movie’s equivalent of having premarital sex in a slasher: it equals automatic death. Unlike a slasher killer, however, Anna never remembers her murders, giving her character a pitiable, tragic dimension. Adding to the tragedy is the way people keep taking advantage of her. Even when her savior, Dr. Pritchard, arrives he’s just as self-interested as any of them. By the end, you realize Anna never really had a chance, not as a woman in that era born to that father.

As with the other Hammer Horror features of the era, the deaths are unapologetically violent and bloody.

Hands of the Ripper is actually my first blind selection of the month. I had never heard of it before last night and didn’t read any reviews or even watch a trailer. All Amazon Prime needed to grab me was an enticing box cover and the phrase “Hammer Horror” in the plot description. To this point, we’ve covered a lot of modern, 80s, foreign, and modern horror this month, but Hammer is a giant of the genre which shouldn’t go overlooked.

Sadly, Hands of the Ripper came at the start of Hammer’s final decade of existence. Founded in 1934 and named after an old vaudeville act, Hammer independently produced 42 films before scoring its first true hit, 1954’s Quatermass Xperiment. It soon thereafter achieved its greatest success with a series of updates on the old Universal movie monsters. This gave us Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in countless Dracula and Frankenstein movies not to mention various takes on werewolf, Jekyll and Hyde, zombie, and satanic occult stories.

These films were made quick and on the cheap with the same crews and often same locations. They were also foundational to the horror education of many a British kid of the era, including Sherlock’s Mark Gatiss, who eventually made a BBC documentary about it (you can watch it on YouTube).

“When I went along to the cinema as a teenager with groups of friends, if we saw the log of Hammer Films we knew it would be a very special picture. It seemed to me they were striving for something more than a splatter film. They set a mood with absolutely striking photography, and you were drawn right into it.” – Martin Scorsese

Hands of the Ripper isn’t from that era, though. By the late 1960s, Hammer fell on hard times and turned gorier and sexier to win back audiences. The company left its longtime home at Bray Studios. Crew members who’d been with them for decades retired or moved on. Anthony Hinds, the son of Hammer Films founder William Hinds and later a producer of over 60 Hammer productions, referred to the newer movies as “soft porn shows.” He’s not entirely wrong. Oh, so many lesbian vampire movies.

Peter Sasdy was part of a new wave of directors who first started on various Hammer-produced TV shows like Journey to the Unknown before graduating to features. For Sasdy, he finally made the leap from the small to big screen with 1970’s Taste the Blood of Dracula and 1971’s Countess Dracula, both of which are far more typical 70s Hammer Horror with plenty of gratuitous nudity and untold gallons of blood.

Ingrid Pitt as Countess Dracula’s Elizabeth, Hammer’s version of the historic “Blood Countess” who is apocryphally thought to have literally bathed in blood to preserve her youth.

The Hands of the Ripper script came to Sasdy from a story idea by leading court reporter Edward Spencer Shaw, who in 1963 published a complication all of the British murder trials he’d covered starting in the early 1900s. So, if he had an idea for a Jack the Ripper movie Hammer was duty-bound to listen. Script-writing duties fell to both Shaw and Alfred Hitchcock Hour alumni L.W. Davidson.

Altogether, they created something which feels like their attempt to bridge the gap between Hammer’s classier past and seedier future. There’s certainly plenty of blood as well as obligatory nudity, but the blood doesn’t rise to the grotesque and the nudity is actually quite innocent, a matter-of-fact glimpse of Angharad Rees’ breasts as she bathes. The aim is clearly to tell a more sophisticated story.

It’s in stark contrast to Hammer’s similarly-plotted 1971 entry Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde in which the Victorian scientist turns into a sensuous murderess, becoming the real Jack the Ripper in the process. She even bumps elbows with Burke & Hare. That film leans into the blood and nudity and has a lot of fun in the process.

Fun, however, is sorely missing from Hands of the Ripper. The script starts out strong before descending into a series of roughly identical murders. The only real ingenuity in that area comes in the finale when Anna chases Dr. Pritchard’s blind daughter-in-law while valiantly attempting to fight back against the voice inside her head. However, as a representation of both Hammer’s past as well as its sexier, gorier final years Hands of the Ripper is an intriguing sight to behold.

As a sad postscript, three years after the film’s release, the UK suffered a financial crash which choked off much of Hammer’s funding. In the company’s final, desperate years it made silly kung-fu horror movies like Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, cranked out satanic possession flicks to ride The Exorcist wave, and plotted an ultimately unproduced Loch Ness monster movie to mimic Jaws. By 1979, Hammer went out of business, laying dormant for decades until a 2008 revival.

Do you have a favorite Hammer film? Is their style of horror not really your jam? Or are you simply disappointed I didn’t pick a Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing Hammer title? Let me know in the comments.

Sources: Reel Terror: The Scary, Bloody, Gory, Hundred-Year History of Classic Horror FilmsMark Gatiss’ A History of Horror

Hands of the Ripper and Countess Dracula are both currently available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Here’s What Else We’ve Watched So Far:

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4 comments

    1. Ah, the Spanish-made Hammer imitation with Lee and Cushing. It is pretty close to Hammer, actually. Do you like Horror Express? Have the actual Hammer films just never really appealed to you? To be honest, it’s never really been my thing, either. More appreciate historical importance of it than seek it out.

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