Continuing our look at Hammer Horror with one of the company’s most impressive works from the 1970s.
It has long been the perceived wisdom amongst the self-declared Hammer experts – because Hammer does seem to attract a certain type of fan that seems to think that they have some sort of proprietary ownership that makes their voices the final word on the studio’s work – that the company lost their way in the 1970s. Even those critics and magazines that profess to love Hammer – or are pretty much devoted to Hammer in terms of content – often seem to be of the opinion that it all went a bit wrong after 1969. It’s an attitude I’ve found difficult to agree with. For me, Hammer in the mid-Sixties became complacent and content to rehash the same formula again and again. They were very good at it, and a lot of the films from that period are excellent. But complacency leads to laziness and Hammer seemed blind to changing tastes – ironically, the company that shook up the genre with a complete reinvention in the 1950s had become unadventurous and repetitive. During the 1970s, the company – not through choice, perhaps – had to start experimenting a bit, and in doing so made some of their best films. I maintain Hammer in the Seventies was in many ways at its creative peak, taking the traditional idea of the period gothic and at least trying to do something new with it. A lot of this was a case of throwing things at the wall and seeing what stuck and much of it ran up against nervous studio heads who didn’t understand what their new generation of producers and writers were doing, so perhaps it was doomed to fail – and there was only so much that Hammer could do in the face of a British film industry that was collapsing anyway. But some of the experiments that Hammer came up with at the time are fascinating, adventurous and provocative – and if they weren’t Hammer films, their reputation might be very different. Hammer haters are just as single-minded in their ideas of what the company’s films are as the lovers.
Hands of the Ripper is a fine example of just what the company was capable of when stretched a little. It also, perversely, shows how difficult this period of change was for the Hammer establishment, as the film is a little compromised by the need to be a ‘proper’ Hammer Horror and saddled with a lurid catchpenny title that no doubt had James Carreras foaming at the mouth but probably did the film no favours in reaching a wider audience. What should have been a period version of the psychological horror films that Hammer dabbled with from the early Sixties into the Seventies is given a certain supernatural edge that it doesn’t need or benefit from.
The film opens with the aftermath of a Jack the Ripper murder, the killer arriving home to find his wife waiting for him. Once she sees his bloodstained hands and guesses the truth, he stabs her to death in front of his young daughter. Years later, the girl – Anna (Angharad Rees) is a teenager living with a phoney medium Mrs Golding (Dora Bryan, gleefully hamming it up) and acting as the spirit voice for the woman’s gullible clients. One of those clients is MP Mr Dysart (Derek Godfrey), who has lecherous designs on the girl and pays Golding to be allowed to take her virginity. Unfortunately, the traumas of her youth are brought back by a combination of flashing light (in this case a shiny jewel) and a kiss, and before long, Golding is skewered to the door and Dysart is fleeing, witnessed by psychiatrist Dr John Pritchard (Eric Porter).
Pritchard takes an interest in the case and the girl, moving her into his apartment (the police accepting her innocence based on the physical strength needed to impale Golding). His motives are rather less altruistic than he makes out (perhaps even to himself) – he’s obsessed with the idea of understanding the cause of the murderous impulse, and sees Anna as the perfect case to study and make his name with. When Dysart – who he blackmails into finding background information on the girl – points out that she could kill again, Pritchard agrees but sees it as worth the risk. The risk, of course, is not to him anyway, but to others, as maid Dolly (Marjie Lawrence) finds out to her cost. Dolly won’t be the last person to fall victim to Anna’s trance-like killings and Pritchard goes out of his way to cover up the murders, each one taking him closer to finding out what causes them.
Directed with some style by Peter Sasdy, Hands of the Ripper is in many ways classic 1970s Hammer. As the company began to bring in new talent as producers, writers and directors, the films began to move away from the traditional Hammer look, even if they often remained period pieces. The casts often began to have fewer familiar faces and the stories became much more interesting. Here, the film benefits a lot from having a cast that is uniformly excellent. Eric Porter is on top form as the driven Pritchard, who is not a villain by any means – in fact, we are encouraged to sympathise with him while mistrusting Dysart, even though Dysart is actually in the right – Anna really does need to be locked away, for the safety of society. But we think Pritchard is doing the right thing, even when he begins to cover up Anna’s crimes, simply because his aim is a noble (if also selfish) one. It’s easy to imagine either Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing being cast in the role, but while both are fine actors, they would bring too much baggage with them, especially in a Hammer film. Porter, on the other hand, is entirely convincing in the role.
The main reason we approve of his cover-ups, of course, is that Anna is as much a victim as anyone else. She’s clearly had a terrible, terrible life and suffered untold trauma, and thanks to a strong performance by Rees, is a completely sympathetic character. While we know things will end badly for her – this is a horror film, after all – we still want her to be somehow cured and allowed to live the normal life that she deserves. Hammer often tried to go for the ‘sympathetic female monster’, but usually fudged it in the rush to the horror – their female monsters of the 1960s tended to physically transform into supernatural creatures, essentially separating the innocent human from the savage beast. Here, though, Anna remains herself – at least physically – and so we don’t have the comfort of seeing her become someone else. It’s much easier, therefore, to relate to what is happening inside her broken mind and understand the nightmare that she is experiencing – this is, ultimately, a grand tragedy as much as a horror film. While Hammer would increasingly have better roles for its actresses in the 1970s than it had before (when they were usually simpering victims or vampiric brides), it rarely offered anything as multi-faceted as this.
The supporting cast is good too, even those in small roles – not something you can always say about Hammer movies. Godfrey is suitably seedy, Bryan amusing but less one-dimensional than you’d expect, and Lynda Baron has a memorable role as a downmarket prostitute who falls victim to Anna – all too often, the prostitutes in Ripper films are rather too healthy and glamorous looking, but Baron’s character is suitably grubby – realism again taking place of Hammer’s usual need to fill the supporting cast with voluptuous hotties.
Sasdy is a good choice as a director – his films for the company include the more sombre titles of the era and gives the film the sense of class that the story deserves. His interpretation of the screenplay by Lewis Davidson – a writer who, outside this film, seemed to work entirely in the world of episodic television – is, like his work on Countess Dracula, quiet and serious, allowing the sudden bursts of violence to seem all the more shocking; indeed, the violence in Hands of the Ripper feels more visceral and intimate than in many a Hammer film. These scenes have a real shock to them, especially the death of the chirpy maid Dolly, simply because they are so sudden and because Anna seems so incapable of such actions. The movie’s look is only let down by the odd budgetary restriction – the climactic scenes in St Pauls have disastrously shoddy still images back-projected that don’t look remotely like a real location – it’s only the quality of the film so far that prevents this scene from unbalancing the movie at an important moment. Luckily, we are so caught up in the story by this point that you can forgive the odd bit of cheapness.
Unfortunately, the brutal killings are where the film fudges its own narrative. In each scene where Anna becomes ‘possessed’, we see close-ups of the real Ripper’s scarred hands, suggesting that this may well be a genuine supernatural possession. Yes, it fits with the title of the film and yes, this might simply be showing us what Anna sees in her own mind as she is taken over by her psychosis – but it’s an unnecessary addition. The film works because while Dysart accuses Anna of being possessed, we believe that she is simply traumatised. The film could have made it clear that possession is a backward religious interpretation of mental illness, or even left the idea of possession as an ambiguous thing for the viewer to decide on, but these insert shots (and a climactic shot where Anna’s face is replaced by the Ripper’s) seem to be forcing the issue as if someone got nervous that people wouldn’t understand that this was a horror film without the addition of occult forces. It pushes it towards being the sort of horror film that it doesn’t need to be and has probably done the film no favours in the long term.
Thankfully, these moments are brief enough for the viewer to choose to ignore. I still prefer to think of this as being a story of psychological, not supernatural horror. And it’s a pretty remarkable story. Certainly one of Hammer’s classiest films, it deserves as much love and attention as any of the 1960s classics.
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