A young woman is possessed by the sins of her father as a Psychiatrist attempts to exorcise these inherited demons. Peter Sasdy directs a competent and gruesome thriller with lush interior and exterior set designs and a cabal of actors who deliver the Victorian line-readings with veracity and efficacy.
Sasdy begins the film with torch-bearing townsfolk chasing a cloaked figure through the darkened streets of London. He cuts to an interior shot of a young woman clutching a small child to her breast as firelight flickers through the drapes. The man comes crashing into the room and the woman looks relieved instead of terrified, contradicting our expectation. She recognizes her husband and is relieved that he is safe since Jack the Ripper has struck once again. The man throws back his cloak and we see a horribly burned face. Her sudden epiphany is literally cut short as he plunges a knife into his wife’s chest. The child, peering through the crib-like bars of her prison witnesses the brutal violence. Her mother’s breast which a few moments ago was a place of serenity and comfort is now a crimson smear. The firelight flickers upon her face with a hypnotic intensity as the scene fades out.
Sasdy sets up the narrative in the opening sequence which foreshadows the conflict between science and superstition to come. Dr. Pritchard rescues the child Anna, now grown into a beautiful young lady, from being prostituted by her guardian, a fake Sear who forces Anna into acting as the spirit voice of deceased loved ones in order to fool wealthy clients. When Anna is incarcerated under suspicion of murder, Dr. Pritchard becomes her legal guardian in order to examine her psyche to reveal the sickness that leads to violent acts and intent. Anna looks like a porcelain doll, precious and fragile but we witness her transformation into a crazed killer, her hands blistered and palsied and her eyes void of cognizance. As the killings mount Dr. Pritchard makes excuses for her violent impulses while attempting to cure her, believing in the power of psychoanalysis over seance.
Sasdy introduces two supporting characters in Michael Pritchard (the Dr.’s son) and his blind fiance Laura. Though primarily utilized to heighten suspense in the final act, the characters also lend a competing model of a traditional Victorian relationship that repudiates his father’s almost incestuous fascination with Anna. Also of note is the fact of Laura’s blindness is not seen as a handicap as she is portrayed as a strong and independent character. Her blindness plays a role in the final scene in the Whispering Gallery but it’s not entirely relevant to the denouement: I would argue that the ending works regardless of Laura’s ability to see. Blindness is a key concept to the story but it’s not Laura’s handicap…it’s Dr. Pritchard’s!
The Dr. soon realizes his impotence in treating Anna and is forced into seeking the aid of a Psychic; He despises the idea since he is a man of science but quickly succumbs to this spurious revelation. The plot revolves too easily around this point and his pursuit of Anna into Whitechapel after a grisly murder. It stretches credibility to believe that the Dr. so easily accepts the psychic’s strident pleadings. It is also rather humorous that as he races to find Anna he should so easily stumble into her in the crowded streets of Whitechapel within minutes of diegetic time.
HANDS OF THE RIPPER is really a misnomer since it really isn't Anna’s hands that are possessed; it’s her spirit. Though her hands are shown to become physically altered, her hands don’t act independently or follow some contradictory dreaded impulse. Sasdy doesn't shy away from a blood-spattering arterial spray or hatpin to the eye which makes this one of the goriest in the Hammer archives. Dr. Pritchard’s Freudian analysis can be applied to his own fate as he is impaled by Anna with a large sword. Far from misogynist, the subtext of the film seems to imply the power of femininity over authority, or at least reveals the nasty consequences of a patriarchal society. In the chase sequence, Dr. Pritchard runs by graffiti scrawled on a wall that proclaims the right for women to vote. Here, both of Anna’s “fathers” bear the burden of moral blame and she becomes victim of their indulgences. After all, is this not the historical thesis for the need of sexual equality?
Final Grade: (B)