Sumptuous as a Merchant-Ivory production and savage as one of George A. Romero’s zombie movies, Hands of the Ripper mixes the strain of psychological horror evident in Hammer’s filmography (Scream of Fear, for example) with the increasingly graphic levels of gore demanded by shifting genre tastes and enabled by loosening production codes. Released on a double bill with Twins of Evil, another full-blooded offering from a time when Hammer was supposed to be in decline, Hands of the Ripper taps into the lore surrounding Jack the Ripper in ways that are every inch as unconventional as Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, an outrageous gender-bender that came out the same year. Though director Peter Sasdy isn’t as immediately recognizable a name brand as studio stalwarts Terence Fisher and Freddie Francis, Hands of the Ripper was his third film for Hammer in just two years and, like his previous outings Taste the Blood of Dracula and Countess Dracula, evinces Sasdy’s fluid directorial style as well as his eye for opulent décor.
In the pre-credits prologue, Jack the Ripper flees the scene of his latest murder, returning to the safety of home and hearth only to murder his wife in a fit of rage while his young daughter, Anna, looks on from between the bars of her crib. Fifteen years later, Anna (Angharad Rees) works for a fraudulent medium, Mrs. Golding (Dora Bryan), helping out during séances by mimicking the voices of the dearly departed. Attending one of these sham sessions with an eye toward debunking the phenomenon is the film’s resident authority figure, Dr. John Pritchard (Eric Porter), an eminent psychiatrist who practices hypnotherapy and espouses the revolutionary ideas of “that man Freud,” as one of his colleagues rather dismissively puts it. After Mrs. Golding’s untimely demise via fireplace poker, Pritchard solicitously takes Anna under his wing, even though he suspects her of the murder, so that he can poke around in her psyche. The results of Dr. Pritchard’s experiments are definitely mixed, especially when you consider the ever-mounting body count. These killings number among Hammer’s most explicit, including a bit of nasty business involving some hat pins, so it’s not entirely surprising that they were trimmed by censors both in England and stateside.
Hands of the Ripper’s storyline offers more nuanced characterizations than most Hammer films, while viewer identification is routinely complicated by the complexity of the character’s motivation. Though he knows her to be a serial killer, Pritchard continues his treatment of Anna out of an overweening need to be proven right in his theories, and this intractability leads inexorably toward his own downfall. Anna, too, suffers from the implacable nature of her compulsions: Traumatized by the events she witnessed as a child, she’s now forced to recapitulate that act of violence whenever a similar combination of stimuli set her off. The repetitive nature of Anna’s killings, all staged with a nearly identical build-up that involves flickering flames or shimmering reflections, is no accident: As Freud writes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the response to deep-seated trauma is a rigidly enforced repetition compulsion, an often futile attempt to work through and thereby master the traumatic experience. As the story moves toward its finale, a flamboyantly operatic scene filmed in a facsimile of the Whispering Gallery under the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the film approaches the pathos of Greek tragedy. Whereas most Hammer films end with the restitution of moral order and the triumph of the authority figure (see Van Helsing in the Dracula films), Hands of the Ripper concludes with that figure’s defeat and death. As they lay splayed across the mosaic tiles of the cathedral’s floor, Anna and Dr. Pritchard resemble nothing so much as pieces on a chessboard toppled over to signal surrender. We are all, Hands of the Ripper seems to suggest, such pawns of our ineradicable fate.
Effectively making its home-video debut on Synapse’s two-disc set (having been previously available domestically only on VHS), Hands of the Ripper looks truly superb. The 1080p/AVC-encoded Blu-ray transfer boasts a sumptuous and deeply saturated color palette, perfectly balanced black levels, and strongly etched fine details. Nighttime scenes never seem murky, and the tenebrous ambience of the interiors is certainly striking. The DTS Master Audio two-channel mono mix sounds first-rate, with Christopher Gunning’s score by turns lushly melodramatic and atonally atmospheric. The Blu-ray disc also includes an isolated score and effects track.
"The Devil’s Bloody Plaything" offers intriguing glimpses behind the scenes through interviews with director Peter Sasdy and actress Jane Merrow, as well as some audio commentary from Angharad Rees, who passed away last year (and to whom the featurette is dedicated). Genre connoisseurs Kim Newman, Tim Lucas, Richard Klemensen, Joe Dante, and Hammer historian Wayne Kinsey supply some useful historical context. Discussion touches on the state of the studio in the early 1970s, the career of producer Aida Young, as well as battles with censors in both the U.K. and America that resulted in some significant trims to the film’s bloodiest scenes. Easily the most fascinating bit relates how the crew stole shots of the Whispering Gallery that were essential for the finale. "Slaughter of Innocence" is essentially a still gallery accompanied by some atmospheric music that illustrates Hammer’s visceral use of the red stuff from Curse of Frankenstein up through To the Devil...A Daughter. Because Hands of the Ripper had to be edited so heavily for American TV broadcast, Universal shot new opening and closing scenes to pad out the run time featuring Severn Darden as a psychologist who dumped the requisite exposition directly into audiences’ laps. Synapse includes an audio-only version of the introductory scene (since the videotape master burned up in a catastrophic Universal studio fire in 2008).
Indication that early-’70s Hammer horror was far from tapped out, Hands of the Ripper gets a terrific Blu-ray transfer, as well as some illuminating extras, from Synapse.