JANUARY 25, 2012
Regardless of how I feel about each title, one thing I can say about all of the Hammer films that I’ve seen is that they’re not particularly sad in any way. I mean, sure, every now and then someone you like dies, but they never build toward what I’d call a tragic ending the way that Hands Of The Ripper does. I won’t spoil it, but I was surprised to get genuinely bummed out by its events, and thus it elevated the film from good to borderline great.
The cool thing about the movie is that it’s a Jack The Ripper story without Jack. Our heroine is actually the daughter of the killer, and the movie takes place about 15-20 years after his reign of terror. Due to a childhood incident with him that we see in the opening sequence, as well as a séance scene (I think?), the now grown daughter becomes possessed anytime someone flashes a reflected light in her eyes, taking on Jack’s MO and killing the “flasher”. The séance part I wasn’t sure about; it seemed like the lady running it was a phony, but something must have happened to set all this off, right? Otherwise we’d have to believe that no one ever flashed a light at her until now, and then it happens pretty much every day – otherwise she’d have killed more folks than her dad by now, right? I should note that there’s another thing that sets her off, but it’s presented as a sort of surprise – however, it’s equally if not more common an act she might encounter.
See, my problem with most Jack movies is that they get bogged down in trying to make their theory work, which is silly because (uh, spoiler) in real life he was never caught, so no matter what they come up with, it’s still just a movie – one that lacked an element of surprise because of the other problem with most Jack films. That would be the fact that many focus on possible suspects and cops, and never the victims. Every now and then some hooker we’ve never seen or heard of before is killed, with scenes built around typical cat and mouse ideas that are worthless – we know their fate already! But here, dealing entirely with fiction, they are free to create characters we care about a bit – the protagonist’s maid, the girl’s adopted mother, etc. So it becomes a bit of a mix between character study and something closer to slasher than typical serial killer tale. And as a bonus, by drawing on a famous tale (there’s even a hooker victim!), we’re sort of grounded in this world without the need for too much setup – it’s almost like a sequel in some respects. The kills start pretty early and we get 5-6 of them in the 85 minute movie: not too shabby at all.
It’s also well-acted across the board. Eric Porter (who reminds me a bit of pre-douche Kevin Spacey) is terrific as the conflicted Dr. Pritchard, who seeks to learn what causes someone to kill, which is why he takes an interest and then protects Anna once he sees that she is behind one of the recent murders (and understands that it’s not her fault). But he’s also a widower who dresses her up in his wife’s old clothes and lets her stay in his wife’s old room, so it’s got a bit of a sad, pseudo-psycho thing going on too – is he trying to help this girl, or replace his wife? I also enjoyed Keith Bell’s turn as Pritchard’s son, who is about to be married to a blind girl (something Pritchard seems to be opposed to), mainly because his makeup and hairstyle made him look like Edgar Allan Poe.
Angharad Rees is also quite good (and equally fetching) as Anna, who pulls off the tough act of being the film’s killer but also its sympathetic center. It’s a shame she didn’t make more features; most of her work seemed to be in TV and her last credit was in 1998 when she was still in her 40s! Retired too young if you ask me, unless she just wasn’t into acting, in which case I hope she’s well. She also gets to have the most fun in the movie – the kills are surprisingly graphic. Needles in the eye, a woman gets impaled and hung on a door… and the makeup is pretty decent as well. There’s also a terrific bit where a character uses a doorknob to “hook” the handle of a sword in order to pull it out after they’ve been stabbed – awesome!
Plus it delivers the usual Hammer style: colorful cinematography, excellent period recreation, lots of terrific mustaches… in some ways it’s one of the more unique Hammer films (female “villain”, the aforementioned tragic tone, etc), but it feels very much in line with their more famous titles, i.e. the Draculas and Frankensteins. In fact, a subplot about Pritchard blackmailing a guy to help him with his experiment is right out of Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, and the director is Peter Sasdy, who also helmed a couple of the Dracula sequels. And that’s probably why I dug it so much – it was a perfect blend of what I’d expect from a Hammer title, and what I DON’T.
Also: no Heather Graham. Important to any movie, really, but particularly beneficial to the ones about Jack The Ripper.
What say you?