Friday, 29 April 2016

Hands of the Ripper (1971)

In the early 1970s Hammer Films turned out a series of remarkably interesting horror films, including Hands of the Ripper, directed by Peter Sasdy. It’s a fascinatingly original reworking of a clichéd idea, this time Jack the Ripper.  It benefits from a strong cast, headed by Eric Porter as a turn-of-the-century medico who is an early disciple of Freud and wants to use Freud’s ideas to cure violent criminals.  

Jack the Ripper is not actually the subject of the film although he certainly plays a crucial part indirectly. The movie opens with one of the Ripper murders, witnessed by a small girl. We then jump forward fifteen years in time.

Dr John Pritchard (Eric Porter) is attending a séance. Pritchard is very much a sceptic. He considers himself to be as man of science. Whether Freudian psychoanalysis is actually more scientific than gazing into a crystal ball can of course be debated and in fact the movie does in its own way debate that very point. 

The séance has a tragic sequel. The medium (a rather nasty piece of work as we have already discovered) is brutally murdered. The police are baffled but Dr Pritchard knows there are two possible suspects. One is a Member of Parliament named Dysart; the other is the medium’s assistant, a timid young woman named Anna.

Dr Pritchard is extremely interested in murder. He believes that he can uncover the sequence of events that lead a person to become a murderer and he believes he can cure that person. He takes Anna into his home so that he can study her, whilst also keeping a close eye on the Member of Parliament.

More murders follow. Dr Pritchard is confident he is making progress but how many more people are going to die before he finds the answers he is seeking? And exactly what is it that he is likely to uncover? We already know part of the answer, which was revealed in the opening scene, but that opening scene left some vital details obscure.

Dr Pritchard has no patience with the paranormal or the supernatural. The MP, Dysart, on the other hand is a believer and wants Pritchard to pursue the truth through occult means by consulting a psychic. This sets up an intriguing contest between science and the occult since both the psychic and Pritchard are able to unlock vital secrets from Anna’s mind.

This is a film with, by Hammer standards, a fair amount of gore. Fortunately it isn’t really overdone. 

Dr Pritchard is a kindly sensitive man whose thirst for scientific knowledge leads him to take absurd risks. He believes that no price is too high to pay to advance knowledge. His scientific zeal proves to be irresponsible and dangerous. In some senses this film could be seen as a mad scientist movie, of the sub-type in which the mad scientist is not evil but is led into disaster by misguided zeal. It’s certainly a very unconventional but exceptionally interesting example of the sub-type.

Eric Porter is superb as Dr Pritchard, giving a subtle performance as a man who is both sympathetic and reprehensible in his irresponsibility. Derek Godfrey is very good as the slightly sinister Member of Parliament who may or may not have some involvement in at least one of the violent murders. Angharad Rees does well as Anna, a rather difficult role given that she spends much of the movie in a kind of trance state.

This one is apparently director Peter Sasdy’s personal favourite among his films. He has the benefit of an intelligent screenplay by Lewis Davidson and while the budget was naturally limited he also had the advantage of being able to use the Victorian streetscapes built at Pinewood Studios for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes giving the movie a surprisingly lavish look. Sasdy had already made two good gothic horror films for Hammer, Taste the Blood of Dracula and Countess Dracula. He understood horror and he also understood how to work within the genre whilst adding some original touches.

Synapse Films have released this movie in a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack, and with some worthwhile extras. The Blu-Ray transfer is excellent.

Hands of the Ripper has a plot that is intelligent and complex in both a psychological and a moral sense. The story moves along at a good pace, the acting is good, and there’s some excellent cinematography which towards the end even gets a bit arty and gets away with it.  This is a clever and original horror movie. Highly recommended.

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