Proto-Slashers: Looking at the flicks that paved the way for Halloween and the heyday of slasher movies.
Hands of the Ripper (1971)
Suppose an infamous serial killer had a baby daughter who witnessed her father murder her mother. Years later, the memory of the event buried, the daughter commits a series of murders herself. That’s the premise of the 1971 Hammer thriller Hands of the Ripper, a terrific and not nearly famous enough late-era flick from the genre-defining British film studio.
As the title reveals, the serial killer/bad role model here is Jack the Ripper. Though his vaguely diseased and scarred face is seen only briefly in the film, appearing in the opening and in several quick flashbacks, his influence is felt throughout. In my books, madmen don’t come much creepier than the Whitechapel Murderer.
The plot really begins to get cooking when Anna (Angharad Rees), the Ripper’s daughter and now a young woman, is taken in by Dr. John Pritchard (Eric Porter). The good doc is obsessed (is there any other kind of doctor in horror flicks other than the obsessed ones?) with unraveling the secrets of the mind, especially those of the schizophrenic. Recognizing the signs of the disorder in Anna, the doctor sets out to cure her, developing a particularly unhealthy variety of codependency. As Anna begins killing, Dr. John (as Anna calls him) hides her crimes, allowing her to continue her murderous behavior.
Though we always know who the killer is, part of the grisly fun of Hands of the Ripper lies in waiting to see who will set Anna off and how. You see, each time the Junior Miss Ripper kills, she falls into a sort of catatonic trance first, facilitated by a kiss and a shiny object glistening in her eyes. It’s surprising how many ways screenwriter L.W. Davidson and storywriter Edward Spenser Shew find to bring these two elements together, happily ushering in yet another attack with yet another sharp object. When the killings do occur, they’re sudden and bloody, often catching the viewer off guard with their urgency.
Davidson and Shew have also given us interesting characters in Anna and Dr. John, as well as in some of the supporting characters. Anna, though a vicious killer, is sympathetic and likeable (when not slashing someone’s neck) and Dr. John is single-minded and purposefully blind to the danger he’s enabling, but with more than enough humanity to be a-okay otherwise. In bringing them together, Davidson and Shew have constructed a much more complex relationship than at first meets the eye.
Davidson/Shew and director Peter Sasdy make good use of the Whispering Gallery at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral during the film’s climax. It works both as a dramatic setting and, on a more hoighty toighty note, as a metaphor laden with whispers and repeating cycles. Hitchcock would be proud of their use of local landmarks and Freudian hoo-haw. Of course, being a Hammer Horror, Hands of the Ripper is literate and thick with period atmosphere. Though this might all sound a little mellow or highbrow for some gorehounds’ tastes, my advice is to slow down and smell the… er, blood.
Hands of the Ripper is a neat twist on Slasher conventions even before Slasher movies proper existed. Unfortunately, it has yet to be available on Region 1 DVD. Resourceful Ripper freaks, however, can find VHS copies and DVD-R versions available online, and those with Region Free players can pick up the Region 2 disc. With any luck though, MGM’s Midnight Movies series might just see fit to release this flick into the hands of Ripper fans in North America too.