Sunday, October 28, 2007

hands of the ripper & the gorgon


If any of you tuned in to Modern Products (sundays 4-6pm on www.eastvillageradio.com) today you'll know that our (and by "our," I mean "my") big pre-Halloween super spooky super show was wraught with technical issues, which resulted in more on-air swearing than I've probably ever done before, then some supreme embarrassment, then some general goofiness. Taken in the right spirit (that is, if you "get me") I think the show will be pretty funny for those of you who listen to the (hopefully) uninterrupted podcast. By the end I was pretty tired and grumpy and I really, really had to pee, but the show was pretty fun anyway and even if you think I'm a total dorkus malorkus, the music is really good...


Meanwhile, I am broke. One of the advantages of having no money is that it's a good excuse to sit around and watch movies all night. Not that I ever really needed an excuse to do that, but some people seem to look on it kind of unfavorably, like you're not really meeting your full potential somehow if you're not out in the world doing...whatever it is that people do. Anyway, that is my tired, grumpy, roundabout way of saying that I was able to watch another two movies last night, again both Hammer horrors, this time a bit better than the last, or at least more exciting...

The first, "Hands of the Ripper" is a 1971 by Peter Sasdy, madman behind Hammer's excellent "Taste the Blood of Dracula" and "Countess Dracula," as well as "Doomwatch" (with George Sanders and foxy Judy Geeson) and the infamous UK TV film "The Stone Tape," which I've unfortunately never seen, but really, really want to. "Hands of the Ripper" is perfect early 1970s Hammer, with the right blend of class and sass.

The story is pretty brilliant. The daughter of Jack the Ripper witnesses the murder of her mother by her father as he attempts to evade capture. The girl, Anna, grows up slightly unbalanced (but presumably harmless, just a bit daffy) and is taken in by a faux psychic, who seems to also be attempting to turn Anna out on the side. The problem is that, whenever kissed, Anna takes on the persona of her (presumably now deceased) father and kills whoever it is that planted one on her, or whoever happens to by nearby.


After killing the psychic lady in one of her trance states, Anna is taken in by a Freudian psychologist, Dr. Pritchard, who lives with his 20-something son Michael (Michael's blind fiancee, Laura, also soon arrives). Pritchard takes Anna under his wing, and though his interest in her seems largely split between the paternalistic and the professional, there is a hint of sexual interest as well. The family setting at first seems to do Anna well, with kindly Laura and Michael accepting her readily as one of their own, but she's still a bit unbalanced and wanders off from time to time, at one point being mistaken for a prostitute (her father's quarry, natch) by a matronly, drunken lesbian (I think), who winds up getting an eyeful of hairpins for her trouble.

The ending, set in a church dome, with the entranced Anna and the blind, unaware-she's-in-danger Laura, set against wounded Pritchard's and Michael's race to reach the two in time, is at once suspenseful and ultimately quite tragic and moving. Sasdy does an excellent job of establishing, in the lead quartet, sympathetic, reasonably complex characters, and we really do care about what happens to them. Anna (played by Angharad Rees) is a tragic killer, at once a villain and a victim, at times not all there, at times quite lovable. Pritchard is played by Eric Porter, also good, with Jane Merrow as Laura and Keith Bell and Michael. Interestingly, none of these actors seem to have done many (or any) other horror films. It's somewhat unusual that out of all four leads in a Hammer film, none of them are Hammer regulars, but the cast is uniformly pretty excellent.


Like "Curse of the Werewolf," "Hands of Ripper" builds a strong, emotionally evocative story around a tragic, misunderstood killer, but while "Curse of the Werewolf" is slow and deliberate, "Hands of the Ripper" is relatively action-packed. The killings aren't terribly frequent, but when they come, they're pretty gruesome. Topping the bloodletting off is reasonably excrutiating (in the good way) scene in which Pritchard, stabbed in the side by entranced Anna, must catch the handle of the sword on a doorknob in order to remove the blade from his flank. It's a really clenched teeth moment, and an appropriately uncomfortable lead-in to the tragedy and suspense of the final reel...

Terence Fisher's "The Gorgon" (1964) is not quite as exciting as "Hands of the Ripper," but it has great atmosphere, a clever story and some great performances. Here we have some more familiar faces for Hammer fans, namely Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, though oddly each seems cast in the role that the other should be playing. Lee is in an unconvincing wig, playing a character older than he was in reality at the time, while Cushing, the older of the two actors, seems to be playing a part that could have been handled well by a younger man. Regardless of this, the two are fun to watch as always, with Cushing as the sort-of villain, and Lee as one of the heroes. The film's actual lead is Richard Pasco, who is also especially liked (he also appeared in Don Sharp's "Rasputin- the Mad Monk," with Lee and Joss Ackland, for Hammer).


The story, though it unfolds somewhat slowly, is genuinely pretty fascinating (John Gilling, who wrote "Plague of the Zombies," did the screenplay from a story by J. Llewellyn Devine). In it, a 1900s German town is haunted by a mythical Gorgon (one of Medusa's sisters, with snakes for hair, and the ability to turn anyone who looks at her directly into stone). When his brother and father are killed by the creature, Paul (Pasco) comes to town to find out what has happened, and refuses to leave despite the protestations of Dr. Namaroff (Cushing), who of course knows more than he's letting on. The two men clash over the affections of Carla (Barbara Shelly, from "Rasputin" and "Quatermass & the Pit"), who also possibly holds some secrets. Paul is joined by his university professor Meister (Lee), who comes to his aid in solving the mystery. Again, things end pretty tragically, as very few of the aforementioned survive...

What's there really to say? I'm obviously predisposed to love Hammer horror, so even a relatively minor film like this one was pretty fun for me to watch. Cushing and Lee are always a joy (I'm especially partial to Cushing) and it's generally fun to see them appearing in a film together. The print I saw of this wasn't letterboxed or especially good in any other regard (like "Hands of the Ripper," "The Gorgon" in unavailable on DVD, at least in the US) but visually I could tell there was something cool going on, with the set of the ruined house that's the Gorgon's stomping ground being especially expresionistically atmospheric.

Check back tomorrow for more film and comics, as we draw closer and closer to Halloween.

Stay spooktacular...

No comments: