Hammer Film Productions made its reputation on a series of violent (by the standards of the time) horror movies set in the latter half of the 19th Century. And while only a handful of them took place anywhere in the British Isles, they were all suffused with a certain distinctive Englishness. That would all make it seem like it would be the most natural thing in the whole wide world for Hammer to take on the business of making a Jack the Ripper movie, and yet it somehow took until 1971, by which time the company was starting to spin out of control in the face of much trendier, more cutting-edge genre films from the United States and the Continent, for such a film to emerge (sort of - the 1950 Hammer film Room to Let was a Jack the Ripper story with apparent echoes of the Alfred Hitchcock classic The Lodger. But I'd be inclined to say that any Hammer horror films made before 1955 or 1957 don't "count"). And even then, Hands of the Ripper, the 1971 film in question, is quite a strange, offbeat way to go about the business of making a Jack the Ripper picture.

The story is easy enough to summarise, since there really isn't one. In 1888, Jack the Ripper (left uncredited, the actor's identity remaining unknown even to the internet) returns home to murder his wife just before he's captured by a lynch mob. The only witness to this last murder of the Ripper's career is his very young daughter Anna, who receives the grisly event as a series of flashes of images and reflected light. A decade and change later, Anna (Angharad Rees) is working with a psychic charlatan, Mrs. Golding (Dora Bryan), and on this particular night, Mrs. Golding's financial travails have finally turned her to pimping the girl out to Dysart (Derek Godfrey), a member of Parliament with a taste for young virgins. He offers a jeweled pendant as a necklace, and its reflected light causes Anna to flash back to the flickering firelight of the day her father killed her mother; when Mrs. Golding kisses her on the cheek in a kindly fashion, this completes the old memory, and Anna runs the old woman through with a fireplace poker, pinning her to the door.

Anna is taken in by Dr. Pritchard (Eric Porter), a debunker of the paranormal, who helps Dysart escape the police (since nobody would imagine such a slip of a girl capable of the savagery of the murder, and Dysart is the only other available suspect). The two men both involve themselves in finding out what's going on inside Anna's strange little mind: Pritchard is convinced that she's had a massive psychological trauma, whereas Dysart is increasingly certain that she's been possessed by the malevolent spirit of Jack the Ripper himself. And while they bicker over this point, Anna racks up quite a splendid body count.

That's pretty much the movie: watch as the little slip of an adolescent girl commits bloody crimes. Very bloody, at that; I haven't seen all of Hammer's late filmography, but on first glance, I'd be inclined to say that Hands of the Ripper is the studio's goriest film. That's not setting the bar tremendously high, mind you: the Italian gialli pretty much all hit this level, and American films could on occasion rise to some extraordinary heights of gruesomeness. Still, there's at least one effect in the scene where Anna goes into the whore's quarter of London to continue Dad's work that has an effect that even made as jaded a horror veteran as myself perk up with a little "ew, that's gross".

Given the time it was made, and the flow of influences, we must suppose that Hands of the Ripper was taking its cues from the Italian horror industry, but I don't think that's quite right. The thing is, there's never a minute's doubt that Anna is the killer - not from us, and not really from the other characters. There is, I suppose, some mystery around whether psychosis or possession is responsible for her actions, but L.W. Davidson's screenplay doesn't really care about answering that question. I would go so far as to say that we have in this film one of the earliest direct antecedents to the slasher movie, in which we are invited to watch a string of violent murders with no pretext of a mystery behind them at all, as there would be in a giallo: Anna is more in the line of Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, a killer known to us from the outset, whose actions are meant tob e satisfying spectacle in and of themselves.

And they are, for that matter, though I do Hands of the Ripper a disservice by pretending that it's solely a delivery system for gore effects. In fact, in its very bizarre way, it's a compelling character drama, as well. Director Peter Sasdy, making his third and final film for Hammer (though we don't need to feel too sorry for him: his very next project was the hugely influential 1972 TV movie The Stone Tape), brought to this project a rather blunt realist aesthetic that was miles and miles from the thick Gothic feeling of Hammer films before him; the color palette has been stripped of any and all Technicolor excess, and the camera doesn't seem to creep around in the corners, like it does in a Terence Fisher film. This would almost be a terrible problem, leaving everything flat and uninflected, except that it plays beautifully off of the inexplicable weirdness of the is-she-or-isn't-she plot. This might have the florid death scenes of a giallo, but it doesn't have the inscrutable dream logic; it's all very direct and severe, giving the film a realistic immediacy that serves it well.

That realism is also what allows it to function so well as a character drama. There's no sense of escaping to another world, like we do with so many Hammer Gothics; we're right in the messy problem of Anna with Pritchard, and forced to deal with each of them as they try to muddle through what's going on. Pritchard ends up being quite an interesting character indeed, a smug rationalist forced to deal with the fact that smug rationalism might not be useful even if it's right, and so thrust into a tragic reckoning with his arrogance as the film ends.

The problem with this is is that, as interesting and complicated as Anna is, Rees isn't up to the job of playing her. Overall, Hands of the Ripper has an unusually strong cast for a Hammer film, particularly one of this vintage: Porter is absolutely terrific, as is Jane Merrow as his optimistic future daughter-in-law, Laura. Keith Bell, playing Pritchard's son and Laura's lover  Michael, is far more interesting than the usual pretty boys Hammer was putting in that kind of role in the '70s, bringing a lustful good humor to the role. Godfrey brings substantial nuance out of what's maybe the film's most surprising role, a shitty libertine who turns out to have much more going on than just the repulsive sex fiend of his first scenes. Hell, even in the throwaway roles, Bryan really does make it seem like Mrs. Golding is torn up about selling Anna, and Lynda Baron brings something maternal and funny and lively to her role as a doomed prostitute.

But Rees just can't compete with any of them, and in a role that film needs to be as strong as possible, too. Pritchard's arc is complete enough that we can't say it's only Anna's story, but it's still primarily Anna's story, and Rees doesn't do anything with that: she's too mewling and insipid when Anna is "normal", and does nothing other than stare off blankly when Anna is entering her murderous fugue states. It's a one-note approach to a role written with room for more than that, and even if the thinness of Anna in the finished film doesn't harm Hands of the Ripper as a busy, bloody thriller, it does take a lot out of the film's ability to fully succeed as a character drama. And if the film could have triumphed on that level, it really might be one of the most interesting horror movies of the early '70s.