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An infant girl watches in horror as her father, the infamous ‘Jack the Ripper,’ brutally murders her mother. Years later, young Anna (Angharad Rees) is now under the care of a fake psychic and has been forced into prostitution. At the end of a séance one evening, a woman is mysteriously killed. Dr. John Pritchard (Eric Porter) suspects Anna is the murderer but cannot understand how she could do this unspeakable act. Using new Freudian psychoanalysis techniques, Pritchard experiments on Anna and discovers a shocking secret. The spirit of the ‘Ripper’ is alive and well and may be possessing his own daughter! Can this evil be stopped before it’s too late? (From Synapse’s official synopsis)

Hands of the Ripper
My self-administered horror movie education was so backwards that Peter Sasdy’s Hands of the Ripper was the first Hammer Films production I ever saw in its entirety. Sure, I caught bits and pieces of Dracula and Frankenstein on late-night television, but the first time I ever sat down and watched a Hammer production from top to bottom was with VidAmerica Inc.’s VHS version of Sasdy’s film. My reasoning was quite simple – Hands of the Ripper is notoriously violent and I spent an awful lot of time seeking out notoriously violent movies. It was certainly a strange place to start, because it’s representative of Hammer’s ‘70s ‘reinvention,’ but as my starting point, it still holds a warm, nostalgic place in my heart. Unlike Vampire Circus (which was also released by Synapse on Blu-ray), Hands of the Ripper was readily available on home video in America (heavily edited), but, because it isn’t commonly associated with the studio, it’s still among Hammer’s most underrated horror features.

In A History of Horror’s: The Rise and Fall of Hammer Horror, author Denis Meikle describes Hands of the Ripper as ‘the last truly original idea that Hammer was to commit to film in the name of horror.’ From what I can gather with my limited knowledge base, he’s mostly correct (though Vampire Circus and Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires definitely did some unique things with bloodsuckers). The problem here is that so many of Hands of the Ripper’s conventions are, well, conventions now. It’s something of a prototype for the popular ‘80s slasher cycle, though it remains overlooked in favour of more obvious predecessors, like Bob Clark’s Black Christmas and Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, both of which were released in 1974. Had it been released with all of its gore intact (it was shorn of something like four minutes) I imagine the film’s status would’ve been elevated to something slightly above a sleeper favourite. This is the first time I’ve seen the uncut version and I’m pleasantly surprised by how gruesome it is. Sure, Hammer films grew a reputation on being bloody and Hershel Gordon Lewis’ splatter movies had already run their course, but, in 1971, realistically rendered stabbing and slashing wounds were still the exception rather than the rule.

Hands of the Ripper
It’s probable that Sasdy took some of his inspiration from Italy’s giallo thrillers, which hit their peak popularity a couple of years before Hands of the Ripper when Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was released. Following Argento’s film, the Italians put a lot more effort into ‘creative kills’ and stylized stalking sequences. Besides taking technical cues for its murder set-pieces, Hands of the Ripper also adds a bit of mystery into its plot during the first act. It’s not a forgone conclusion that Anna is the killer and the first murder is staged in such a way that the killer’s identity remains vague. The mystery only lasts until the second kill, of course, and the story takes on something more of a Jekyll and Hyde theme, but the use of a traumatic past event to trigger a killer’s instinct still attaches the film to the giallo tradition. Jack the Ripper has appeared on film since the silent era, but the mixing historical Ripperisms with the Freudian and trans-generational/subconscious memories elements was still pretty original at the time (though they were also used for various Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde adaptations, which tend to historically overlap with Ripper adaptations, including Hammer’s Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde). Hammer would revisit somewhat similar themes with Peter Sykes’ Demons of the Mind a year later, as would Rowdy Herrington, when he appropriated the Ripper legend for the ‘80s with Jack’s Back. Curiously, co-writers L.W. Davidson and Edward Spencer Shew have no other credits to their names, despite having played an unsung role in crafting a popular genre formula.

Sasdy follows the basic Hammer tradition of costumed melodrama, but spices things it up with some flashy camera work and more expressionistic use of shadows. This applies mostly to the horror sequences, where Dutch angles and swooping handheld shots are the order of the day. At his most stylized, the director seems to be following the lead set by Roman Polanski, which makes sense, since Rosemary’s Baby is often cited as one of the movies that convinced Hammer it needed to redefine itself for the ‘70s. Hands of the Ripper aside, Sasdy was not a director on the level of Hammer’s best, namely Terence Fisher and Roy Ward Baker. Most of his career was spent working in television and, outside of Hammer, directed two of the goofiest horror movies to come out of Britain in the ‘70s – Doomwatch and I Don’t Want to Be Born (aka: Sharon’s Baby, a title that crassly mixes the title of Polanski’s biggest hit with the name of his murdered wife). But even his less ‘refined’ films, including the Hammer-produced Countess Dracula (which I believe is next on Synapse’s Blu-ray list), are entertaining and he made one of my personal favourite entries in the Christopher Lee Dracula series – Taste the Blood of Dracula.

The film doesn’t feature a Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee-sized star in the cast, but none of the less famous actors fail to deliver either. Angharad Rees plays the tortured innocent with far more subtlety than the average Hammer damsel without entirely losing the twinkle of danger required to maintain her as a viable threat. Eric Porter is the obvious Cushing stand-in – he’s pompous and self-serving, but genuinely wants to help. Dr. Pritchard’s complexity comes out of the fact that he would be actually make a great adoptive father for Anna, if only he wasn’t so obsessed with his foolhardy agenda, which puts him in an incredibly dramatic position during the artfully executed climax. Had the two leads not fit together so well, this finale would’ve been more silly than authentically heartbreaking.

Hands of the Ripper

Video


Synapse Film’s Hammer releases are being released far too slowly for my taste. Vampire Circus was released in December of 2010 and Twins of Evil in July of 2012. A year-plus between discs is murder, especially when Synapse is doing such an admirable job with the material. Like I said in the feature section of this review, Hands of the Ripper was pretty easy to find during the days of VHS, but, like Vampire Circus and Twins of Evil, it never saw an official DVD release here in the States (well, until now, as a DVD of each was included with the Blu-ray releases). Besides being an obviously huge upgrade over VHS, this Blu-ray apparently marks the first time the film has been released in its proper 1.66:1 aspect ratio (all foreign DVD versions are listed as 1.78:1 or 1.85:1). This transfer follows the lead set by the other two releases in the Hammer Collection. Synapse has made an effort to clean the major blemishes, but hasn’t done anything silly, like scrub the print of its natural grain. Grain levels increase and decrease throughout (stock footage, for example, is very grainy), but are relatively even, overall. Textures are clearer than those of the included DVD copy. There’s a major uptake in the finer details that Sasdy’s grimy, gritty version of London ‘click,’ though wider-angle patterns are pretty soft, as they are in the source material. Cinematographer Kenneth Talbot (who regularly worked with Sasdy throughout his career) utilizes a lot of soft source lighting, which makes for a particularly dark image. The darkness does obscure some detail, naturally, and causes some pulsing effects, but the transfers strong black levels and sharper highlights help maintain a relatively consistent clarity. Daylight sequences do fare better and feature much more vibrant colours, especially reds, though the overall palette is mostly made up of subdued browns, grays, and blues. Some of the gradient blends have greenish tints and minor banding effects and, occasionally, sharpness levels get away from the disc’s producers, creating minor blooming effects and edge haloes.

Hands of the Ripper

Audio


Synapse keeps it real by maintaining Hands of the Ripper’s original mono soundtrack, presented here in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Like most similar single-channel soundtracks, this one is only as strong as the source material. The sound design is mostly stark, made up of dialogue and simple source sound effects. The vocal performances are rounder and more natural than expected, but do feature inconsistencies in volume and clarity; a lot of which seems to be related to ADR vs. on-set sound capture. The minimal effects work is rarely layered outside of a few outdoor sequences featuring laughing street-walkers and torch-bearing mobs. There’s a slightly tinny quality to most of the effects and some of the additions sound incredibly ‘canned’ (chirping birds, for instance), but without a lot of hiss or crackle. Christopher Gunning’s score does a nice job selling the suspense, the scares, and the melodrama. The music settles below the effects and dialogue for the most part, but is given its fair share of big stings and rarely distorts, even at higher volume levels. The score is also made available via an isolated audio track.

Hands of the Ripper

Extras


The extras begin with The Devil’s Bloody Plaything: Possessed by the Hands of the Ripper (28:20, HD), a rather substantial retrospective mini-documentary featuring interviews with Sasdy, actresses Jane Merrow and Angharad Rees, ‘Little Shoppe of Horrors’ editor Richard Klemensen, Hammer historian Wayne Kinsky, Gremlins[I] director Joe Dante, and authors Kim Newman and Tim Lucas. This featurette overlaps a bit with the ones found on the other Synapse Hammer discs in terms of the stuff about Hammer’s ‘70s reinvention and also covers the simultaneous production of [I]Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, the film’s themes, Aida Young’s rise to a lead production position, Sasdy’s history with Hammer, casting, production design, censorship, and music. The disc also features Slaughter of Innocence: The Evolution of Hammer Gore (6:10, HD), a slide-show catalogue of violent images throughout the studio’s illustrious history, audio footage from the film’s ‘lost’ U.S. television introduction (7:10, HD), a still gallery slideshow (5:40, HD), the original U.S. trailer, and TV spots.

Hands of the Ripper

Overall


Hands of the Ripper isn’t a Hammer Studios classic, but it’s a pretty good movie that deserves a second look from horror fans. It’s well-made, draws from interesting sources, had a clear influence on the slasher genre, and features some of the better, more understated performances I’ve ever seen in a Hammer horror film. Hopefully Synapse’s new Blu-ray release will shed a little light on this neglected film. This disc is limited by the source material’s age and condition, but has a solid, archive-worthy A/V representation. The extras are nice too, including a substantially informative retrospective featurette and audio footage from the film’s original U.S. television release.

* Note: The image on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality. They have been taken from the included DVD copy, which comes from the same digital restoration.


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