Hands of the Ripper gets its first Blu-ray release from distributor Network in the UK (the movie has already been released by Synapse last year in the US and in France by Elephant earlier this year) following two previous DVD editions (Network and Carlton) edited in 2006. It is a very good example of underrated movies that greatly gain at being discovered, or rediscovered, as it is one of the best, if not the best, Hammer movie of he 70s.
When she was an infant, Anna witnessed the murder of her mother by her father, who was none other than the infamous Jack the Ripper. Many years later she has become a frail young lady used in fake spiritualism séances organised by her guardian, Mrs Golding. After one of these séances, which Dr Pritchard and his son attended, she his forced into prostitution by Mrs Golding to a notorious MP, Mr Dysart, who inadvertently triggers Anna's traumatic childhood memories, leading her into the first murder in a killing spree. Following the event, Dr Pritchard decides to bring her in his house to use her to find a remedy to murder.
Hands of the Ripper could be seen as a good representation of early instances of horror movies (as mentioned by Kim Newman during the audio commentary offered on the disc, the movie is structured like a slasher, with graphic and imaginative deaths coming every 10–15 minutes) but much more classy with its Victorian setting. However, it is much more than that. At the same it is an very good representation of the psychological terror genre (it is based on a similar idea as one of Alfred Hitchcock's best movies, Marnie, in which the main character kills because of a traumatic event in their childhood).
This is quite unusual from Hammer, which has always been specialising more in creature features. The movie is actually part of Hammer's later period which showed the firm dealing with different kind of movies: Straight on Till Morning (1972) or Fear in the Night (1972). This is therefore a specific case which could apparently be attributed to producer Aida Young who after having produced Peter Sasdy's previous effort, Countess Dracula (soon to be released in Bluray by Network) seemed to have wanted to introduce a different take on terror.
And what better way of doing this than using the ultimate human monster: Jack The Ripper. The character had previously been at the centre of Hammer's Room to Let (1950) but Hands of the Ripper appears more like a mix of the psychological and fantastic genres. The screenplay is essentially centred on one of Freud's psychoanalytical theories but retains a very interesting fantastic element: although we might believe, like Dr Pritchard, that Anna's killing spree is only due to her trauma as a child, during each murder we can clearly see the hands of Jack the Ripper...
The movie has many strengths. Firstly, for a movie shot on such a tight budget, it looks amazingly good with very detailed and sumptuous sets (Doctor Pritchard's house) or very clever ones (all the ending in St Paul's Whispering Gallery which makes use of clever paintings in conjunction with real sets).
It also features a great opening scene, both extremely efficient (the movie refers to it very often) and very well crafted - the photography is very lush, the set design is impressive, the romantic score is amazing, and it has just the right tilted camera angles to give it a dreamlike nature and differentiate it from the style of the rest of the movie.
Another strength of the movie, which also shows a will to differentiate it from other Hammer products, is the use of Eric Porter in a role that could have well been given to house actors such as Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee. The use of Eric Porter, considered more at the time as a serious actor, brings a new dimension to the archetypal role of the Doctor. He also reinforces the sexual tension between the Doctor and Anna: we do not know if he really only wants to cure her (this is only based on very recent theories at the time) or if he wants to replace his dead wife...
But the movie's main strength remains its tragic ending, heavily supported by the Agnus Dei of Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem, which really differentiates it from some cheap shocker. Despite clearly suffering from its budget (the fall of the mannequin, the actors pretending to put their hands on invisible handrail) it still manages to pull out an emotional and completely justified conclusion to the story. It also manages to be open to interpretation: the psychological one (the hands we see are in Anna's head) or the fantastic one (Anna is really possessed by the spirit of her evil father). There are many clues to support each theory but Peter Sasdy (and we can assume Aida Young as well) do not clearly choose one (again, as mentioned in the audio commentary, the book was much clearer as Anna really transformed into her father at the end).
The disc is just like the movie - not perfect but extremely well crafted.
The interactive menu is quite simplistic (extract of the movie on the left and banner with options on the right) but it shows a quality that few discs have: it does not spoil the movie. The image showed are only taken from the first seconds of the movie. Additionally, they are edited to Verdi's Requiem (used at the end of the movie, not the beginning) which gives them an additional depth.
The film is presented in a 1:66:1 aspect ratio that respects its theatrical release. I did not watch the previous DVD editions of the movie from Network and Carlton but the image of the Bluray, although not amazing, still shows that Network done serious work in trying to offer the movie at its best while preserving its original look: there is grain, yes, but it is well managed and allows the movie to retain its beautiful cinematographic appearance.
The sound is presented in Mono. I found it quite clear and well balanced in relation to the dialogues and the music. The film does not require more than this in my opinion.
The supplement features are mostly taken from the previous Network DVD to the exception of the four picture galleries (Production, Behind the Scenes, Portrait and Promotional) and the original trailer. This last one featured on the Carlton DVD release.
The audio commentary was recorded in August 2006 and features Writer/Editor Stephen Jones, Novelist/Critic Kim Newman and actress Angharad Rees who plays Anna in the movie and who died in July 2012. Overall, the commentary is good. It is quite instructive regarding many aspects of the movie (the usual conditions of Hammer's film production) and the story of Jack the Ripper (in particular, the amalgam in people's mind about the facts related to the Jack the Ripper case and the various stories imagined around it). It also provides plenty of information on the actors featuring in the movie and on Angharad Rees's career (too many to my taste but I guess that the two writers could not have done otherwise, having her with them for the commentary). Overall, you can see that they all like and respect the movie but they still joke numerous times about some aspects of it - tuenhard work from the writers to find ways of stabbing people, location of Doctor's house in St Paul compared to Whitechapel, etc...
The Bluray also reuses the same Thriller episode (“Once The Killing Starts”) already used in the 2006 DVD. This is a very nice episode of Brian Clemens' 70s TV series which only relates to the movie by having Angharad Rees in it.
Although the inclusion of the original trailer is interesting, the only original and interesting addition to the disc is a series of photo galleries mostly provided courtesy of Stephen Jones. Contrary to many galleries presented on Bluray or DVD discs, I really thought that they were bringing something to the movie by either showing alternate angles of the scenes featured in the movie, thus enriching the viewing experience (Production gallery), Peter Sasdy directing the movie or the actors discussing between takes (Behind the Scenes gallery), or interesting marketing material such as the pictures of the actors, on and outside the set, and the various posters for the movie's exploitation in the UK and in the rest of Europe (Portrait and Promotional galleries).
I did not have the opportunity to see the commemorative booklet offered by Network for the new release.
Overall, Hands of the Ripper is a movie that deserves to be discovered, or rediscovered, immediately to pay tribute to the wonderful result achieved by Hammer within the limitations of the firm's budgets and for its true originality. The Blu-ray could have been better, both in terms of the image and the supplements, but it remains a sincere work.