“HANDS OF THE RIPPER” (Blu-ray Review, Synapse Films)
Before mulling over the merits of Synapse’s new HANDS OF THE RIPPER (1971) Blu-ray, let’s take a moment to applaud Synapse’s approach to their Hammer Films licence. Instead of launching with any of the beloved Lee/Cushing classics, Synapse have instead given their famously fastidious treatment to the dustier, more obscure titles from Hammer’s twilight days. For more casual fans of the studio like this reviewer, the chance to finally slap paws on these under-acknowledged titles allows a different perspective on the storied Hammer and its long legacy of blood.
Anna (Angharad Rees) is a teenage orphan in Victorian-era London, taken in by an evil, Dickensian matron who sells her into prostitution and performing sham psychic rituals. Anna does have a secret. It turns out she’s the daughter of the infamous, saucy Jack the Ripper and is prone to slipping into trances (triggered by flickers of reflected light—she’s apparently some kind of murderous magpie), wherein she’s driven to ply the family trade on hapless bystanders. Psychoanalyst Dr. Pritchard invites Anna into his home in order to study and potentially cure her homicidal blackouts, only to discover that the impulse to evil may reside in Anna’s blood rather than her brain…
One of a hectic eight films released by Hammer in the year 1971, HANDS was a move to explore a fresh angle by giving the supernatural standbys a rest and instead trotting out the rich, endlessly-compelling mythology behind Jack the Ripper. The result is an entertaining tyro-slasher that features several memorable, censor-flouting kill scenes (the best of which involves a fistful of hatpins). It’s also a perfect demonstration of the advantage Hammer films usually held over their competition, namely a boost in quality by casting better actors than a film of this sort deserved. With HANDS, Eric Porter is notably excellent as the dignified doctor and it’s a shame he didn’t go forth to do more with the studio. Hungarian director Peter Sadsy (COUNTESS DRACULA) is the other star of this film, Sasdy’s too-few efforts always showing a seriousness and craftsmanship lacking in the silly or lugubrious stuff that other Hammer helmers were content to turn in at that point (DRACULA A.D. 1972 marking a good example of Hammer’s decline).
Granting that, HANDS is not exactly a neglected gem, as was the very entertaining TWINS OF EVIL re-released by Synapse prior to this. HANDS is fraught with very long stretches between any sort of action, and Dr. Pritchard is hilariously tolerant of Anna’s half-dozen deadly dalliances with scullery maids and streetwalkers; perhaps this was some sort of statement on turn-of-the-century England’s class divide?
Now, to the HANDS disc: The sticklers at Synapse have brought along another sharp hi-def transfer, although it’s less of a spectacle than the other Synapse Hammer releases purely due to this film’s more muted, realistic colors, dingy environs, and very bright key lighting on the leads by Sadsy. Ballyhoo pictures provides a featurette, and if you’ve seen the docs for TWINS OF EVIL and Shout Factory’s recent blu-ray of THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, it’s now becoming obvious that Ballyhoo have sat down esteemed experts like Kim Newman and Wayne Kinsey, grilled them on loads of different Hammer titles in a single go, and are now parsing out the footage as the individual releases crop up. There’s nothing wrong with this approach as the clips are rightly informative and often quite funny, but it does take the surprise out of who might appear to comment on that particular film. Most intriguing of the extras is an audio track (the accompanying video reportedly no longer exists) for additional bumper scenes shot for HANDS with a fake psychologist presenting the movie as the adaptation of some fictional academic paper he had written, hoping to engender public sympathy for the mentally ill (!). In actuality, the bumper was created as filler once HANDS’ nudity and gore had been excised for a U.S. television airing.
All told, HANDS OF THE RIPPER is a tidy little Victorian penny dreadful, draggy in spots but showing the capability of Hammer to produce a decent movie when dealing with different material and not relying solely on either Mssrs. Cushing or Lee (or whatever overendowed pin-up/actress was then currently in the Hammer stable) to keep things afloat.