I remember in the late 80s that one of my local TV stations, Tyne Tees Television bought the rights to most of the films made by the Hammer Studios which meant that I got to see most of the movies that this prolific studio produced. It also meant that I got to see the more obscure output that hadn’t been shown on TV before.
One horror movie that I remember as one of the best made by Hammer was Hands of the Ripper from 1971. This played at the cinema with the equally brilliant Twins of Evil after its initial release.
Jack The Ripper’s young daughter Anna sees her father kill her mother. A few years later, as a young woman, she finds that she lapses into trance-like states in which she exhibits her father’s murderous impulses. After bumping someone off she has no memory of actually doing it. After killing the woman who had adopted her from an orphanage years before, she is taken under the wing of a psychoanalyst named Pritchard who takes her to live with him, his family and maids.
Sometimes when I watch a period horror film I think, ‘This is going to be dry, dull and boring’. Hands of the Ripper is the exact opposite. It’s a cracking horror film. Peter Sasdy’s direction ensures that the murders are brilliantly executed and in a few instances, they completely take the audience by surprise. I also love the bright red blood. It’s very Dawn of the Dead.
There are many stars of British TV of the 70s and 80s peppered throughout the cast such as Dora Bryan, Lynda Baron and Molly Weir who all contribute to a great emsemble. But it’s Angharad Rees as Anna who steals the show. Watch how her face mutates into a mask of twisted hatred when she is possessed by Pops.
Hands of the Ripper is one of the best horror films made by Hammer Studios and is one of my favourites.
I have a long history with this film as I seem to remember it being shown on daytime TV here in the UK in the early 80’s. The thinking probably went along the lines of ‘We have such extreme horror movies now and so it will be safe to show this old 1950’s horror film which couldn’t possibly be seen as being scary anymore!’ I then saw the film as part of a double-bill of Hammer Horror films that were shown every Thursday night on Tyne Tees Television. I got to see most of Hammer’s films during this period as every week there was a new double-bill of two more of the studio’s back catalogue.
This film, to me, is the definitive Dracula. Freddie Francis’ sweeping direction is perfect when paired with the opulent and beautiful set designs that are just as sweeping. The iconography and more gruesome elements of the narrative that made the Dracula myth more explicit, shocking and graphic were also placed centre stage on the screen for the first time- the fangs, the blood (which I would have thought was imperative to the legend but was often excluded at that point in time for obvious reasons) that appears to be redder than red (and because of this reminds me of Dawn of the Dead), the searing burn marks left by a crucifix being used against a vampire, the ending that leaves nothing to the imagination.
The pace at which the film gallops along at leaves the audience with a feeling of there being no filler padding out the film. Every scene feels essential. The film has no flab whatsoever.
But it’s the casting that is the most innovative and interesting thing about this film. Cushing as Van Helsing is amazing but it’s (unsurprisingly) Christopher Lee as Dracula who impresses. He imbues the role with the authority and menace required but also with something that up until that point hadn’t been fully explored on screen before- sexuality. Dracula has always been a sexy character and Lee’s performance fully exploits and utilises this. There is a seduction and intimacy regarding the ritual he employs to bite his victim’s neck. His vampire gains access to his victims because of his brooding good looks and his aura of the exotic and unknown. He oozes sex appeal just as later the blood of his victims will ooze out of their veins. In fact, there is an impression of his female victims preparing for his visit with baited breath as they lie panting and ready on their beds for him to enter their quarters with a swoosh of his cape. He arrives out of nowhere and in secretive fashion a bit like a much more sinister but no less sexual and stylish version of the Milk Tray man.
Add to this the fact that the film just flows effortlessly and an ending that is still one of the finest climaxes to a horror film ever. It contains special effects that have aged very well indeed and are still a thing of beauty.
When all of these components are added together you have the perfect rendering of the Dracula legend and possibly Hammer’s greatest film.
This has one of the most crazy plots of any Hammer film I’ve ever seen. I won’t give away everything that happens though.
A Cornish village is suffering from some sort of plague that is bumping people off at such a rate that the local doctor asks an expert friend to investigate what is happening. When opening up the graves of the recently deceased they discover that all of the coffins are empty. Could the answer to this mystery be connected with the tin mine which is on the land of Squire Clive Hamilton? Is it also relevant that he used to live in Haiti and the fact that he practiced voodoo and the black arts whilst he was there?
I remember seeing this in the 80s as my local television station used to show a double-bill of Hammer films every Thursday night (a blessing!) It was scary then and it’s retained it’s ability to shock. The zombies themselves are the stuff of nightmares.
But unfortunately the film drags every now and again. But on the whole it’s worth seeing, even if it’s not the best of the studio’s output.
Fun fact- Martin Scorsese thinks highly of this film.