Thursday, July 11, 2013

Blu-ray Review: HANDS OF THE RIPPER (1971)

Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack 
Region: Region A/1
Rating: Unrated 
Duration: 85 minutes
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono, English Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. Subtitles: English 
Aspect Ratio: 1080p Widescreen (1.66:1)
Director: Peter Sasdy

Cast: Eric Porter, Angharad Rees, Jane Merrow, Keith Bell

Another glorious Hammer Films production on hi-def Blu ray from Synapse, this time it Hands of the Ripper (1971) and it's Hammer's second stab at the Jack the Ripper mythos following Room to Let (1949) some three decades earlier. Directed by the incredibly skillful Hammer familiar Peter Sasdy (Taste the Blood of Dracula) the film is a fairly straight ahead thriller with a nice layer of psychological intrigue and supernatural suspense sewn into the proceedings. 

The films open in 1888 London as the notorious Jack the Ripper flees the scene of his latest bloodletting, he's pursued by an torch wielding mob out for justice. The elusive slasher just barely makes it home unseen but as soon as he bars the door behind himself his wife notices his blood-stained hands and quickly puts two and two together. In a state of panic and rage Jack the Ripper murders the woman in front of their infant daughter, his hands still dripping with blood from the earlier murder. 

Now we jump ahead fifteen years later Anna has been adopted by a fraudulent spiritual medium named Ms. Granny Golding (Dora Bryan) who enlists Anna to help her siphon money from the pockets of the the grieved wealthy through theatrical seances. On this particular night a seance is performed and in attendance are psychiatrist John Pritchard (Eric Porter, The Forsyte Saga) and his son Michael (Keith Bell) alongside a grieving woman whose lost a child and Mr. Dysart (Derek Godfrey, The Abominable Dr. Phibes) ), a lecherous member of British Parliament. After the seance Ms. Golding makes an arrangement with Mr. Dysart whom wishes to procure the unfortunate Anna's virginity for a price. When Anna refuses Granny comes into the room to calm the situation, but when reflective light dances upon Anna's face the young woman turns from meek to murderous, she grabs a fire poker and rams it straight through the spiritualist abdomen, impaling her to the door, to the shock of Mr. Dysart. Hearing the blood curdling scream from outside the home Dr. Pritchard rushes inside and comes upon the grisly scene just as Mr. Dysart flees the grisly scene. 

Pritchard knows quite well that it was the young Anna whom murdered the old woman but chooses not to reveal this to the authorities  in fact he takes the young woman home where he can psychoanalyze the young woman to discover just what could have pushed this demure woman could commit such an unspeakable act, believing it to be some for of schizophrenia. To this end he performs various Freudian therapies upon her to get to the root of the evil within her. We soon realize that the murder of the old woman was not an isolated incident and when Anna is subjected to reflective light upon her face the glint triggers a homicidal impulse. The films puts forth this question, is Anna's butchery some form the warped subconscious trauma or is it something more supernatural, perhaps she's possessed by the spirit of her father, Jack the Ripper?

Hands of the Ripper (1971) is a wonderful Gothic thriller with supernatural elements, director Peter Sasdy was firing on all cylinders here, it's a gorgeous period piece with atmosphere to spare and a great cast. Particularly Angharad Reese who is just fantastic as the sweet-faced Anna. There's a wonderful duality to the role as she turns from sweet, to murderous, she's pretty great and despite the fact that we know for a fact that she is the killer we do feel sympathy for her character. Eric Porter turns in a solid performance as the sympathetic psychiatrist who opens his home to the murderess. There's some hubris involved here as the psychiatrist jumps at the opportunity to explore the mind of a murderer, which turns out unsurprisingly to be quite an awful idea. Pritchard's poor judgment not only leads to more murders but to him actually covering-up a few of the murders, there's also a suggestion that the doc has more than pure thoughts where the young woman is considered, too. Definitely a film with some twisted subtext t go along with the onscreen carnage. 

The murders themselves are very nice, perhaps a bit dulled when viewed through eyes that have sat through countless viewings of 80's splatter horror, but surely shocking for the day and when taken in the context of an early 70's Hammer production a pretty gnarly affair. At just 85 minutes in length this is all ripper and no filler, a very well-paced Gothic thriller with great tragic ending, very nice. 

Blu-ray: It's good to see another Hammer property in the trusted hands of Synapse Films, the film distributor has been doing a bang-up job with the previous Hammer titles Twins of Evil (1971) and Vampire Circus (1972) and now we get Peter Sasdy's gruesome Hammer classic Hands of the Ripper (1971) with newly restored hi-def transfer, presented uncut for the first time on Blu-ray here in the U.S.. Presented in 1080p widescreen (1.66:1) with an MPEG-4 AVC encode. The image is very nice indeed and on par with Synapse's other Hammer presentations, meaning it's quite pleasing. Colors are strong and there's a nice intact grain structure, the cinematography itself is not very sharp, there's a lot of soft focus, but the Blu-ray image is about as sharp as could hope for, a very pleasing 1080p image.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono audio is strong and offers up what depth it's mono spectrum can offer. Dialogue is always clear and Peter Gunning's atmospheric string score comes through very strong, the set even includes an isolated music track for further enjoyment, this is good stuff. There are optional English subtitles included on both the Blu-ray and DVD.

Ballyhoo Motion Pictures again produce a few great supplements for the release beginning with The Devil's Bloody Playthings: Possessed By the Hands of the Ripper (28:21). The engaging featurette is like a half-hour mini Hammer Horror history lesson with interviews from director Peter Sasdy, Hammer historian Wayne Kinsey, author Tim Lucas, director Joe Dante and more. We get some very interesting tidbits about the film's production, producer Aida Young and the difference between the British and censored American cuts of the film.

Slaughter of Innocence: The Evolution of Hammer Gore (5:43) is as a nearly six minute montage of pictures highlighting the more gruesome moments in Hammer history set to Gunner's score.  

The U.S. Television Introduction (7:07) is an interesting audio only relic.  In the U.S. the film was heavily censored for gore and sexuality and an additional intro was filmed for ABC TV broadcast to pad out the abbreviated running time, while these film elements are now considered destroyed during the 2008 Universal Studios fire and what survives is an audio-only recording of actor Severn Darden portraying a psychiatrist which bookends the film. Not the highlight of the features in my opinion but an interesting artifact, even if the audio elements are a bit shaky.    

The last of the extras on the disc are the Original Theatrical Trailer (1:57), 2 TV Spots (0:59), the  Hands of the Ripper Motion Still Gallery (5:43) plus an Isolated Music and Effects Audio Track which is exclusive to the Blu-ray portion of the Blu-ray/DVD combo. Something new to this title is the inclusion of a reversible sleeve of artwork, neither of the previous Hammer Blu-rays from Synapse offered this nifty addition. Overall, a really great presentation of the film, the special features are a bit slim when compared to the previous hammer Blu-rays from Synapse but this is surely a case of just being spoilt, this is a definite recommend.  

Special Features: 
- The Devil's Bloody Playthings: Possessed By the Hands of the Ripper (28:21)
- Slaughter of Innocence: The Evolution of Hammer Gore (5:43)
- U.S. Television Introduction (7:07)
- Original Theatrical Trailer (1:57) 
- 2 TV Spots (0:59)
- Hands of the Ripper Motion Still Gallery (5:43)
- Isolated Music and Effects Audio Track (Blu-ray Exclusive) 

Verdict: Hands of the Ripper (1979) is a wonderful 70's Hammer thriller and a very interesting take on the Jack the Ripper mythos. We get some great turn-of-the-century Gothic atmosphere and a few grisly murders along with some psychological weirdness and supernatural elements, this is a fantastic watch. Lucky for us Synapse have also acquired the rights to the Hammer Films' erotic vampire opus Countess Dracula (1971) starring the sublime Ingrid Pitt (The Vampire Lovers) and if all goes according to plan it should on the store shelves by year's end! 4 Outta 5