Hands of the Ripper
In our continuing series of articles 'The bloke down the pub' tells us all about his favourite Hammer Horror films. In his sixteenth review he's finding out that you can't always count on a Hammer film to be an open and shut case with 1971's Hands of the Ripper.
Most Hammer movies are pretty comforting in a funny sort of way. There’s a bloke in a black cape murdering people, there’s a bloke in a nice hat who knows how to stop him. Black cape = bad, nice hat = good. So you can just sit back and be happy about that for a little while at least, living in a world in which there are easily recognisable bad people and easily defined good ones to teach them the error of their terrible, if slightly cool and exciting, ways.
But sometimes, like with Hands of the Ripper, the movie won’t let you know where you are. And that can be pretty scary as you realise the longer it goes on, the more you don’t know how this is all going to end. I mean here’s a kind man with a nice moustache, a devoted son who’s getting married to a blind woman, and a determination to explain things through science and not mumbo-jumbo spiritualism. He should be good, right? And what about the innocent blonde girl who, through no fault of her own, is a vessel for an evil spirit? Not just any evil spirit by the way, Jack the bleeding Ripper; which, I’m sure we can all agree, is one pretty evil spirit to be possessed by. Not only that, Jack is her dad! Clearly she’s a victim, and the kind man with the nice moustache is going to kill the evil spirit and save the girl, the day, and anything else that’s lying around Victorian London that might need saving. Right?
But then you start to notice a few things. Like the fact that the kind man doesn’t actually have a very kind face. In fact, he’s being played by Jeremy Brett’s Professor Moriarty, which means this bloke is not getting typecast as the friendly uncle type. And there’s a good reason for that too, he’s clever but cold. There’s a bit quite near the beginning of the movie where he’s really rude to the nice blind bird his son is marrying. I mean, she’s very nice about it, but it’s not definitely not right. His initial concern for the welfare of the girl, when he takes her in, leaves you thinking ‘oh right, he’s a good chap then, he’ll get this whole possessed-by-Jack-The-Ripper thing sorted out toot sweet’. But then he’s lying to the Police, blackmailing an MP - who fair enough is a bastard, but still, and then he drops the bomb that he knows the girl probably murdered the old woman, and alright maybe she’ll murder again, but think what we’ll learn about the science of murder. Uh-oh, you think, we’ve been here before. But who else is going to sort this out? The now grumpy son who frankly looks like ‘third copper from the left’ in a 70’s TV show? Hardly. And the blind woman is pretty obviously only there for the almost constant imminent peril any blind person is in in a movie, let alone being under direct threat of being outright ventilated by whatever sharp thing happens to come to the hand of the deranged ancestor of Jack the Ripper she’s knocking about with.
Alright, you think, maybe the deranged girl will save the day? I mean, it’s not her fault her dad’s Jack the Ripper is it? And every time she murders someone they’re careful to show the boils and scars on her hands that have suddenly appeared to show that Hands of the Ripper is more than just a title but an actual damn description of the movie’s monster; her hands turn into the hands of Jack the Ripper. It’s actually quite nifty they never explicitly call this out by the way. No-one talks about her hands changing, no-one even witnesses it really, only the audience get to see her hands are different. It’s all part of the disorientation you feel about the whole movie. You know they’re Jack’s hands, but you don’t know what that means. Does that mean she can be saved? That someone can, I don’t know, exorcise her hands or something? But the clue there is in her character, or at least in the fact that she never really gets one. She plays lost, confused, and unhinged very well. But she never settles into her almost My Fair Lady transformation from poor little nothing to belle of the ball. There’s supposed to be a moment where she goes to the ball too, all done up in a nice dress and all set up for a stroll through her dreams come true. But instead, she decides to shove a blade of mirror into the neck of that nice ‘is it OK if I turn my fake Cockney accent up to 11?’ maid. And at that point you think - so she’s too nuts to live, and he’s too cold to save her. So how the bloody hell is this all going to end?
It’s a good movie though, even if it isn’t comforting. The violence is so out-of-nowhere gory and intense that I was jumping, yelling ‘Urrggh!’ even though my eyes were still glued to the screen. And some really lovely use of capes. Top, top quality cape action. Whether it’s Jack the Ripper escaping down an alley at a Third Man wonky angle, or the psychiatrist slowly ascending the stairs towards the still figure of the bloody handed girl at the top, or the ending in St Paul’s cathedral where the cape looks like the broken wings of a dying animal. You cannot beat a good bit of cape. Yes there are far too many instances of prostitutes yelling Dearie for no particular reason, like it was a bloody mating call or something. And I’m not sure whether the gang of East End vigilantes would necessarily ALL need flaming torches. But I’m pretty sure this movie contains the finest ever acting example of trying to sound nice and normal on the other side of a locked door despite bleeding to agonising death. It really is a lovely piece of work from Eric Porter, showcasing that ability to drag politeness right from the very depths of the English soul.
It’s just a slightly different sort of Hammer is all. In a lot of them where you don’t quite know where you are, good-vs-evil wise, there is usually some moral at work. You know, ‘Don’t muck about in God’s garden, Frankenstein, or he’s liable to do worse than yell at you to get off his lawn’, that sort of thing. But in Hands of the Ripper, it’s not about morals really, it’s about how sometimes what people are born with can’t ever be cured, not by psychiatry, not by kindness. They are what they are and that’s the end of it. And there isn’t much comfort in that, now is there?
Speaking of which, another pint?