A sobering thing about watching these old Hammer films (or any old movie, but I mention Hammer in particular as I’ve been watching Hammer films lately on the Horror channel) – it is easy to look the film up on the internet whilst watching it, look up the cast. You read someone’s whole career in a simple filmography list, or their whole life summed up in a concise paragraph or two, even as they perform in the movie before you. Perhaps they had a long and glittering career ahead of them, or maybe this was as good as it got and only obscurity awaited them afterwards. It adds a poignant weight to the film when you realise that Angharad Rees, so young and beautiful in this film, died aged just 68 in July last year. Or Eric Porter died in 1995 aged just 67, or Derek Godfrey in 1983 aged just 59. You realise you are watching dead people on the tv screen, that they exist only on those timeless images locked into the film being watched, that strange cinematic brand of immortality graced upon all actors and film-makers. For Hands of the Ripper the unseen world beyond that film set is 1970/1; I probably well know the events in that world beyond the film set, the music being played on radios, the television shows popular at the time. It is 1970/1; Angharad Rees here is 27 forever, a life and career unknown to her still ahead of her, summed up on the tablet screen before me: two marriages, two children, a career chiefly successful in television, a later career as a shop-owner and jewellery designer. Yet on the tv screen in this film, forever a young unfortunate character haunted by the deeds of her father, Jack the Ripper (the French title of the film literally translates as ‘The Rippers Daughter”, probably a better title).
Hands of the Ripper may be a minor footnote in the long list of Hammer films, originally released as part of a double-bill with the far more successful (notorious?) Twins of Evil, but it is certainly worthy of examination and reappraisal. The performances are universally excellent, turn-of-the-century London is brought to life with excellent production quality, and the script has a sophistication that belies the rather fantastic (albeit original) plot. Historical horror of the real Ripper murders is coupled with psychological theories, a sympathetic character and sudden, quite shocking violence featuring strong gore for the time (one of the nastiest Hammer’s of the time, I’m sure). Its a heady mix indeed.
Angharad Rees plays Anna, who as an infant witnessed the brutal death of her mother at the hands of her deranged father, the infamous Jack the Ripper. Now a troubled young woman who has blocked-out her traumatic memories, flashbacks triggered by objects such as glittering jewellery catching the light cause her to fall into a trance-like state during which she acts as if possessed by the Ripper himself, killing anyone near her. Dr. John Pritchard (Eric Porter) believes she is not truly guilty, and protecting her from the police takes Anna into his house hoping to cure her disturbed behavior by using hypnotic therapy. Of course, he doesn’t bargain on Anna’s murderous rages resulting in a steadily-increasing headcount.
The weird thing about this film, is that although its one of the later Hammer films which are generally ill-thought of, and indeed may not be a title familiar to horror fans, its actually really quite good. Not as richly gothic as Hammer’s earlier output, or as sexy/camp as other Hammer films of its period (The Vampire Lovers, Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde), its successful for what it aims to be, and the cast is earnest and effective. Angharad Rees is particularly good as Anna; she is doomed from the start and shares a similar pathos to that of Frankenstein’s monster, we feel sympathy for her even though she is the instrument of all the death and gore. She is an unwitting innocent caught up in a horror she cannot escape from, the madness of her father. The Ripper himself is a presence unseen other than in the violent prologue, a nameless mystery that hangs like a phantom over the proceedings. Indeed, part of Dr Pritchard’s fascination with Anna is of discovering the identity of the Ripper, whose mystery and infamy still haunts London. Pritchard’s over-confidence in his ‘radical’ psychological theories, influenced by Sigmund Freud, blinds him to the true cost of what he is doing by protecting Anna from the authorities.
Perhaps the only miss-step for the film is with the rather oddly understated climax set in the whispering gallery at St Paul’s Cathedral, but it is well-staged and has an eerily-effective score that amplifies the tragedy that unfolds. As far as the rest of the film is concerned, the screenplay is tight and well-paced, and our feelings for Anna remain after her date with Destiny. Was she ever truly guilty, and does Dr Pritchard ultimately fail her? Is the Ripper triumphant? As is frequently the case with Hammer’s best films, there is a sophistication and thoughtfulness here that belies the general reputation that the films are held in. Certainly, this is a better horror film than I expected it to be.