I didn’t know much of anything about Hammer’s Hands of the Ripper when sitting down to watch it. I knew it was Hammer’s stab at a Jack the Ripper story, but that was it, and honestly? Going in blind is probably part of the reason I got so absorbed in the film. I didn’t realize it wasn’t really a Jack the Ripper movie at all, but an unusual blend of Hammer period horror and slice-and-dice slasher with the historical Ripper only showing up briefly in a pre-credits sequence.
From there, the film follows a little girl who witnessed the murder of her mother at the hands of the Ripper, now grown (Angharad Rees), and under the care of a charlatan fortune teller. She seems sweet enough, but goes catatonic with the sight of a specific visual cue and is compelled to kill in gruesome Ripper fashion. The girl can’t help it. Eric Porter plays a psychiatrist who takes the troubled woman in, fascinated by her urges and whether or not the girl is truly evil or just broken.
The film was shot in Pinewood instead of Hammer’s typical Bray Studios, and if you’re a Hammer aficionado you’ll notice the difference. Funny how a small thing like a change of location can make a Hammer film feel different from other Hammers. It only very slightly makes a visual difference, and admittedly, it really only means something if you’re a Hammer fan, but it is appreciated. Otherwise, it will seem like any other movie and you’ll wonder what exactly I’m on about, but trust me. When you’ve seen most of Hammer’s horrors, a slight change like this is like some kind of treat.
It works pretty well as a slasher if you’re looking for gory kills (relatively, by 1971 standards). There’s one death by sewing needles that maintains its potency today. The film itself is not exactly thrilling, but it is engaging. Like most “lesser” Hammer films, it’s well-acted and tight enough to be a nice diversion on a boring night. Pretty good, not really good, but, hey, pretty good works.
Synapse treats the forgotten Hammer with more respect that one might expect, including a quite solid HD transfer (strong blacks, strong colors, good contrast, appropriate film grain) and a nice set of features including a 30-minute making-of documentary that makes for a nice follow-up attraction immediately after you finish the film. There are so few Hammer releases on Blu-ray that something like this becomes recommended strictly because we want to support more Hammer coming to Blu-ray. In this case, Hands of the Ripper is recommended as a solid early proto-slasher and a different take on what we’re used to from a “Jack the Ripper” flick.