HANDS OF THE RIPPER (1971) (Blu-ray + DVD)
Director: Peter Sasdy
Synapse Films

Although they tackled the subject of Jack the Ripper in one of their very early features (1950’s drama, ROOM TO LET), Hammer Films didn’t humor any inkling of the Whitechapel murderer until 1971, a time when they were well into their horror heyday and after a number of Ripper-themed films from other studios had already been produced. With their Dracula and Frankenstein sagas still going at the time, HANDS OF THE RIPPER takes a different spin on England’s most notorious killer, and it also makes for one of the most unique Hammer horrors of the early 1970s, giving further credence to their creativy and appeal during the period when their output was under scrutiny from fans and critics alike.

In 19th century London, Jack the Ripper is stalking the streets of Whitechapel, returning to his flat where his unenlightened wife and infant daughter await. The identity of the sore-ridden, scarred slasher is revealed to the wife, who then becomes his next victim, though he spares his offspring from the same fate. Some 15 years later, the orphaned daughter Anna (Angharad Rees) has been taken in and exploited by a phony medium, Mrs. Golding (Dora Bryan, CARRY ON SERGEANT) who forces the girl to feign voices from the beyond during the séances she holds for profit. After one such evening, Dr. John Pritchard (Eric Porter, THE LOST CONTINENT) discovers her in the act, but when he leaves, he sees the silhouette of Parliament member Dysart (Derek Godfrey, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES) propositioning young Anna in the window. Disgusted, he ignores the fact, but when screams are heard, he runs back, seeing Dysart leave through the front door and discovering the body of Mrs. Golding speared through a bedroom door. With the police now looking for a strong, male murderer, Pritchard takes in Anna, even though he has the inclination that she may be responsible.

A believer in the studies and writings of Sigmund Freud, Pritchard intends to bring Anna into the family, carefully watching her and studying her psyche at the same time, but soon learning that she indeed has the impulse to kill. But even in her care, she continues to slaughter those around her with fierce, unearthly rage during triggered impulses (reacting from a reflection of light, followed by being given a kiss), as it seems she’s possessed by her infamous father, or at least according to a “real” medium (Margaret Rawlings) she is (Pritchard doesn't buy this theory but perhaps he's in denial due to the fatherly affection he feels towards Anna). Although Anna's infliction is capable of being set off at any time, Pritchard remains obsessive about caring for her and attempting to cure her, but her next victim may be Laura (Jane Merrow, NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT/ISLAND OF THE BURNING DAMNED) the blind and ever so sweet fiancee of his son Michael (Keith Bell, ISLAND OF TERROR).

Loosely based on a novel by Edward Spencer Shew with a screenplay L.W. Davidson (who didn’t do anything for Hammer before or since), HANDS OF THE RIPPER is an out-of-the-box, absorbing take on its rather worn-out subject, making it one of the company’s most refreshing films of the period. By this time, Hammer had changed a great deal as a film company and were no longer based at Bray Studios, here using the ample stages of Pinewood (where the standing street sets of Billy Wilder’s THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES were a considerable asset) to mount a beautiful-looking production. The combination of Edwardian period sophistication and fine acting mixed with some shocking slasher proto-type killings help the film to succeed on several levels, embracing the psychological horror concept (something Hammer was well known for) and incorporating it into a more trademark gothic period piece. Rather then relying on a buxom pin-up type girl for the lead (something that Hammer frequently did, not that there’s anything wrong with that), this film opts for a less glamorous yet tragic victim of circumstance in its female “monster”, and lovely young Rees (who sadly passed away in 2012) plays the doomed character — who can transform from a gentle lamb to a savage wolf in a flash — marvelously (to emphasize the character’s “possession” phase, a meaty male hand is fleetingly shown in close-ups when she's about to kill, always clutching some sharp instrument).

Without the advantage of a Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee in the lead, Porter brings a lot of believability to his performance even when his character’s motives are very questionable (at one point Pritchard admits accepting further bloodshed as long as it leads to a cure for his very unhinged subject). Although the film is not occupied with the usual Hammer supporting players, the rest of cast is definitely up to par, especially Godfrey as the upper crust, hypocritical Dysart — he and Porter share some solid screen rivalry, as their characters are forced to cooperate with each other due to their self-serving reasons. One thing for certain with RIPPER is that the gore has been upped here (this is shortly after Hammer’s SCARS OF DRACULA really went over the top in this department). This is especially witnessed in the throat-slashing of Dolly the blonde housemaid (Marjie Lawrence) and the eye-piercing (with a bundle of long knitting needles) of streetwalker Long Liz (Lynda Baron). The latter murder showcases one of Hammer’s most notoriously gruesome scenes, and long-time Hammer make-up man Roy Ashton (who hadn’t worked with company since the 1967 production of THE DEVIL RIDES OUT) was brought in to create the convincing and rather gruesome effect. A young composer, Christopher Gunning (GOODBYE GEMINI), was brought in by music supervisor Philip Martel to do the score, and he does a beautiful job of mixing he gloomy romantic melodies with the boisterous scare pieces; at times the orchestrations echo the best work of James Bernard.

HANDS OF THE RIPPER is pretty much the last major “Hammer Horror” to be given an initial, legitimate digital release in the U.S. (the last time it was actually visited here is when VidAmerica issued it on VHS in the mid 1980s), and although it’s been available on DVD in several foreign countries, this NTSC Blu-ray/DVD combo is a long time coming. When Universal released the film to theaters in 1972 (on a double bill with TWINS OF EVIL), the film was cut to get an R rating, and the TV version, well that’s another story. This is the uncut version (yes, we understand that there’s supposedly alternate/longer shots of Dolly’s throat gashing which was found in some cuts of the film, but apparently any such bits no longer no exist), and it’s another great addition to "The Hammer Horror Collection" from Synapse Films. The Blu-ray (Region A) carries a new High Definition transfer in 1080p resolution and it’s in a perfect 1.66:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The image quality is superb throughout, bringing out the film’s handsome production values and all-around visually appealing attributes to the max. There are no blemishes on the source material, grain is minimal, the detail is extremely sharp and well defined, and colors are brilliant throughout. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track is perfect, and an isolated music and effects track is also included for the Blu-ray only. A standard DVD (a Region 1 disc carrying the same HD transfer as the Blu-ray) is also included in the package, showcasing the film again in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement and an excellent mono English audio track. English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing are on both the Blu-ray and DVD.

Extras on the disc include another excellent featurette from Daniel Griffith and Ballyhoo Motion Pictures entitled “The Devil's Bloody Plaything: Possessed by Hands of The Ripper” (28:21) which does a thorough and entertaining job of telling the film’s back story. Included are interviews with Little Shop of Horrors editor Richard Klemenson; writers/journalists Tim Lucas, Kim Newman and Wayne Kinsey; filmmaker Joe Dante; and the film’s director Peter Sasdy as well as actress Jane Merrow. The participants make mention of the changes at Hammer at the time, Eric Porter and what he brought to the role, the unsung female producer Aida Young, and the fact that there’s no record of the actor who played Jack the Ripper in the film’s opening and flashback scenes. The late Angharad Rees can be heard though audio recordings (she had recorded a commentary for one of the British DVD releases of the film) discussing her brief nudity in the bath scene. Ballyhoo has also produced the disc’s "Slaughter Of Innocence: The Evolution Of Hammer Gore" (6:08) which is a motion still gallery of gorier shots from Hammer films from THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN to TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER. There’s a lengthy RIPPER still and poster gallery, the original Universal theatrical trailer, three TV spots and some rare audio from the US television introduction (from the 1977 ABC prime time broadcast which I remember seeing as a kid) featuring actor Severn Darden (using a thick German accent) as a psychiatrist attempting to explain the film’s events (the video portion of this no longer exists, unfortunately). The package has reversible cover art (the backside depicting the rather racy artwork used for the film's pre-publicity). (George R. Reis)