Long Story Short

For many 2018 movie fans, the name Georges Melies is strictly confined to the character in the excellent 2011 Martin Scorsese pic Hugo.  For most of us aged classic flick fans, the name is that of a God, the man who pioneered cinema sci-fi fantasy, jaw-dropping special effects and the term “blockbuster hit.”  Of course, he was quickly forgotten as time and technology spat him out.  Like Ben Kingsley in the Scorsese movie, Melies ended up selling toys in a train station kiosk before the too-little-too-late accolades caught up with him, sadly when (like his Brit counterpart William Friese-Greene) nearly at death’s door.

But we’re not here to be depressing; rather we’re on board to celebrate the rediscovery and reconstruction of one of greatest finds in motion picture.  And I ain’t kidding!

In 1993, Lobster Film entrepreneur Eric Lange was involved in a celluloid trade deal with a Spanish archive.  “What have you got to offer?” he inquired when his contemporary expressed interest in several reels of film.  “Oh, I’ve got a color print of A TRIP TO THE MOON.”  Lange gagged, as this was an edition considered by the majority of the film archival community to be a lost cause.  Personally, for Lange, this was his Holy Grail.  He was sure it was a bogus claim, that the reel was likely merely a tinted and toned copy.

But it wasn’t.  And in what became a two-decade-plus odyssey of painstaking work, a complete, gorgeous 35MM-quality full-color print now exists of the great magician/filmmaker’s seminal 1902 work.  Furthermore, collectors can own this and all the amazing extras that go with it in the Flicker Alley/Blackhawk Films/Lobster Films (in conjunction with mk2, The Technicolor Foundation, Foundation Groupama Gan Pour Le Cinema, Steamboat Films and Rome) new stunning Blu-Ray (the dual release also includes a DVD version) A TRIP TO THE MOON IN ITS ORIGINAL 1902 COLORS.

The movie in itself is a landmark work.  At a time when Nickelodeon efforts were still mere snippets, the brazenly ambitious programs rarely running a reel or more, A TRIP TO THE MOON ran a full two reels.  It also utilized ground-breaking special effects, created and achieved by Melies and his staff.  It was also based upon a pair of then bestselling space travel novels, Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and H.G. Wells’s First Men in the Moon.

In the condensed, action-packed hybrid Melies version, a wizard/lunar scientist gathers investors to his laboratory to explain his theory of the first manned trip to outer space.  Eventually, the scoffers are finally convinced and the scientist (Melies himself) enters the bullet-shaped capsule with his moneymen and adventurers; not forgetting the eternal lure of sex, the projectile capsule has a bevy of turn-of-the-century showgirls push the capsule into its cannon-like launch pad ramp.

We are then given perhaps the screen’s first gross-out special effect (and one of the most iconic in the history of motion pictures),  the “rocket” poking the eye out of the man in the moon.

Now landed, these primitive astronauts are confronted by the insect-like Selenites, who capture them for, undoubtedly, a nefarious fate.  Nevertheless, the Selenite king is curious about them, but, being Earthlings, they respond as only they know how:  by slaughtering every Selenite in sight and making a hasty escape.

The movie ends in double prophesy.  First, (cinematically), it presents the debut plot line of an alien stowing aboard an Earth-bound spaceship. Second, it (factually) chronicles an ocean splash-down, wherein the capsule is picked up and towed to shore by Navy vessels.

As mentioned earlier, A TRIP TO THE MOON became the first international blockbuster hit; unfortunately, Melies never saw a dime of the overseas take, as pirates like Edison simply duped the prints, never recording the pocketed substantial box-office receipts.

But, again, we’re not here to depress you.  We’re here to celebrate.  How did a full-color version of A TRIP TO THE MOON come about?  I mean, after all, in 1902 there was no color film.  It’s an astounding, grueling tale.  Melies, in collaboration  with Elisabeth Thuillier’s local art workshop, had 300 women toiling day and night in shifts, hand-coloring each and every frame.  Now understand this:  a motion picture runs through a projector at roughly (even then) between 16-22 fps (frames per second); so, 16-22 x 60 seconds x 15 minutes (or approximately 13,375 frames).  And remember, this is for one print.  Imagine if Melies’s Star Film company had a standing order for 500 color prints…or even 100…or 50?  It’s mind-boggling.

All of this is discussed and visually presented in the accompanying feature-length 2011 documentary, directed by Lange and Sergei Bromberg, The Extraordinary Voyage.  Along with interviews featuring Melies admirers Costa-Garvas, Michel Gondry and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the 65-minute production offers a generous helping of Melies other works, including my favorite, 1898’s Four Troublesome Heads, plus Lumiere documentary footage of Paris at the time these magical reels were made.

But now back to Lange and Lobster Films.  The reel he received in 1993 was in wretched shape, but salvageable.  That said, nitrate decomposition was already well under way — not quite incendiary powder or apple jelly globs, but getting there.  Each strand had to be unwound, photographed frame-by-frame and stored on digital files.  Still, the result was a mess.  Post-millennium technology and Technicolor rode in like the cavalry, led by Tom Burton.  It was now feasible to repair torn frames (almost every image was cracked in half), remove scratches, and replace the hundreds (if not thousands) of missing images from an excellent existing black-and-white 35MM print.  These monochrome frames, when inserted in place, could then be cloned from the previous existing hand-colored image, and, thus, as Melies himself might have said, presto-chango, a mint full-color A TRIP TO THE MOON.

To call this experience “astonishing” is an understatement; we can also add “beautiful,” “awesome,” “spectacular,” and “unlike anything you’ve ever seen.”  To think that a multitude of Melies pics were done in this process is startling; to know that the majority of them are probably lost forever is…damn, there I go again, with the depressing part.  Of course, if one had to pick a single Melies color title to have in pristine condition, it would, without hesitation, be A TRIP TO THE MOON.  So, who’s complaining?  Not I.

But there’s more.  As even in 1902, movie-makers believed that no picture was meant to be screened silent, Melies provided a narration script, with parts for actors to recite.  This version can be accessed to view either the color version or the aforementioned black-and-white print (translated in English, for the 1903 American release).

But there’s still more!  Both versions of A TRIP TO THE MOON can also be accessed with one of THREE musical scores (Jeff Mills, Dorian Pimpernel or Serge Bromberg – take your pick), especially composed for the presentation.

We’re not done yet.  There are also two complete additional Melies works, each dealing with interplanetary space travel:  the extraordinary An Astronomer’s Dream, from 1898 (and in gorgeous condition, with music) and 1904’s The Eclipse. (also, with music).  The former is a horrific precursor to the 1902 lunar depiction; however, here the man in the moon is a vampiric demon with fangs who chews up bits of people, after using beauteous sirens as a lure.  In the latter, medieval alchemists probe the mysteries of the universe, discovering a rapacious moon and sun getting it on with some double-take tongue and backdoor action.  I’m serious, it’s fifty shades of green cheese.

Finally, there’s a beautifully illustrated 23-page booklet inside the Blu-Ray case comprising a perfect souvenir guide that one will undoubtedly peruse over and over again.

Wrapping up, let me concisely convey to sci-fi fans, SFX geeks, and silent movie buffs the world over, Flicker Alley’s A TRIP TO THE MOON IN ITS ORIGINAL FULL COLORS is what collecting is all about.

A TRIP TO THE MOON IN ITS ORIGINAL FULL COLORS.  Color/Black-and-White.  Full screen/widescree [1.33:1, Melies movies; 1.78:1, documentary]; 1080p High Definition. 5.1 DTS-HD MA. Flicker Alley/Blackhawk Films/Lobster Films.  CAT # FA0023R.  SRP:  $39.99.

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Agatha Christie’s “Jones”

In these tumultuous times it’s nice to know that in the UK there are at least two ubiquitous artistes who apparently will never go out of style:  Agatha Christie and Toby Jones.  It is therefore not surprising that these two formidable forces of nature should meet, or rather, collide, and most entertainingly, in a pair of new standout releases from Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment:  a 2010 production of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (on DVD) and, even better, a superb 2016 adaptation of the no-frills version of THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (Blu-Ray), each a prominent, perennial Christie gem and both featuring the extraordinary Mr. Jones.

 

It was inevitable that the greatest Poirot in the History of Poirots, David Suchet, would eventually be tackling a version of his most famous case.  And, thus, in 2010, it came to pass.  Since the 1974 movie edition, every subsequent take on MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS has been a celebrity-studded excursion, tantamount to a Christie rendition of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.  It’s one “Hey, look who it is!” star-gazing sighting after another.  And this lavishly produced tele-feature is no different.  Glamming the support of the great Suchet are the likes of Hugh Bonneville, Jessica Chastain, Barbara Hershey, Eileen Atkins and, natch, Mr. Jones (as the unscrupulous American millionaire, portrayed by Richard Widmark in the ’74 big-screen pic).

I’m not going to go into the plot, save the basics.  The title sets the stage as the rich-folks’ choo-choo chugs and halts in a snowbound wilderness somewhere in Eastern Europe.  A reluctant Poirot, surly and not really wanting to deal with any crime matters, is recruited to attempt to solve a passenger’s murder.  The problem isn’t a suspect, it’s a trainload full of ’em.

Even before the first “all aboard!” is sounded (the Aleppo set-up), this is a fun, suspenseful, super-enjoyable ride – the second-best way for folks to spend a wintry evening under the covers. The direction (Philip Martin) is crisp, the writing (Stewart Harcourt) is a sharp as the cheddar hors d’oeuvre served in the dining compartment, the production values (Jeff Tessler, Miranda Cull, Sheena Napier) and music (Christian Henson) sumptuous and the photography (Alan Almond) downright gorgeous.  Strategically released on DVD to coincide with the newest Kenneth Branagh EXPRESS, this Suchet deco-delight is a tough one to beat.

 

While EXPRESS is an undeniably intriguing, entertainment, it is the 2016 adaptation of Christie’s other world-famous work, THE WITNESS FOR FOR THE PROSECUTION, that wins the Jones v. Jones stakes hands down.  This is a WITNESS unlike one you’ve ever seen.  How so?  Well, because it’s not based on the renowned stage version or the celebrated 1958 Billy Wilder movie.  It’s gleaned from the original 1923 short story – a far different and somber cry from the rollicking post-WWII reboots.

Taking place in real time — Britain after the Great War — WITNESS does not presents us with the curmudgeonly barrister-protagonist so dear to our hearts.  The John Mayhew here is NOT the super-successful legendary defense attorney.  He is a struggling, failing near-impoverished lackey, living a sad existence in a loveless marriage and plagued by a crippling case of asthma, contracted when he was gassed during the war.

This Mayhew doesn’t choose his clients from the elite list; he trolls the prisons searching the dregs of society who cannot afford any legal assist.  It is during one of these desperate scavenger hunts that he comes across a man no lawyer will touch – yup, you guessed it, Leonard Vole (Billy Howle), accused of murdering Mrs. French a rich, older woman.

Mayhew senses that this unfortunate may have been dealt as many lousy cards as he has.  A war vet who rescued Romaine Heiler (Andrea Riseborough), a beauteous German waif he found in the trenches, Vole has had nothing going for him, save his dashing good looks.  Romaine, the German woman he saved and later wed, is now working in a second-rate music hall, yearning (but never attaining) solo singer status, due to the bigotry her coworkers hold against her Teutonic heritage.

That Mrs. French is not the gullible, lonely widow portrayed in the later WITNESS evocations is another revelation.  She is a cougar, whose mantra is “I like young men,” and pays increasingly handsomely for their favors.  She is also Kim Cattrall, amazing, sensuous and just wonderful in the role.  It should be noted that her devoted maid Janet (Monica Dolan) is also not motivated by sheer loyalty; she has a lesbian obsession for her boss.

All of these factors play key roles, as the case goes to court and the newspapers go wild.  Mayhew himself begins to get some play, even though he needed to align himself with Sir Charles Carter (David Haig) a mercenary scumbag of a lawyer.

When a mysterious woman comes forward with a scandalous tale concerning Romaine, who has now turned against her husband, Mayhew jumps for the bait and overnight becomes London’s heroic headline king.

Ah, but things are not as they seem, and Mayhew’s new lavish lifestyle and practice soon makes him wish for his days in the tenements – the result of a surprise and unwanted reunion at a posh resort; this is coupled by a shocking disclosure from the barrister’s wife (Hayley Carmichael), who venomously spits out the reason for her spousal hatred.  The ending is totally unexpected, and, frankly, quite shattering.

THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION is an engrossing, first-rate thriller that, like EXPRESS, benefits from top-notch participation in all areas, specifically the direction (Julian Jarrold), the writing (Sarah Phelps), the cinematography (Felix Wiedemann), the spectacular period set/costume design (Nick Palmer, David Bowes, Liz Simpson, Claire Anderson), the music (Paul Englishby) and, of course, the acting.  Howle and Risenborough are terrific as the Voles; ditto Dolan as lascivious Janet, Carmichael as the brittle, acidic Mrs. Mayhew and Haig as the bastard barrister.  But it is Cattrall and Jones who make this a must-see, must-own platter for mystery/Christie fans.  The Blu-Ray, we should add, in keeping with Acorn tradition, is a widescreen knockout.

No kidding, folks, this is already one of the best releases of the New Year.  And if you think my testimony may be biased, well, I guess I plead guilty!

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS.  Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 stereo-surround.  Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/ITV Studios. CAT # AMP-2616.  SRP:  $19.99

THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA.  Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/Mammoth Screen/Agatha Christie Productions. CAT # AMP-2547.  SRP:  $34.99.

 

And It’s Of Green Cheese

One of the most little-known (and, thus, underrated) works in John Ford’s formidable canon is his very personal 1957 indie pic THE RISING OF THE MOON, now on made-to-order DVD-R from the clan at the O’Warner Archive Collection.

A perfect celebration of the perks and foibles of the human condition, particularly if they’re of Irish descent, RISING is a three-story omnibus of Gaelic charm, scripted by one of the director’s favorite scenarists, Frank S. Nugent (with assist from T.E.B. Clarke), and based upon a trio of famed tales of the Emerald Isle.

Ford envisioned this sliver of a movie after completing The Searchers (but with creative seeds sown in his mind as far back as 1952’s The Quiet Man).  It would be a vacation of a “job of work” – a modest entry, shot on-location in black-and-white, in standard 1.66:1 widescreen and with no stars.

After The Quiet Man, Ireland was more than eager to welcome their new favorite son back with open arms, and potential backers couldn’t wait to dig into their pockets.  “John Wayne?” they asked.  “Nope.  No stars.  Locals, maybe the Abbey Players, no Americans.”  It was like the potato famine all over again.  When the dust cleared, only Michael Killanin remained (who would work with Ford on two more remote works, Gideon of Scotland Yard and Young Cassidy).  To quote Father Ted‘s Father Jack, “Feck all!”  And the cameras rolled.

The movie, like The Quiet Man, is a loving valentine to the country of Ford’s ancestors. Only quieter.  Personally, RISING is one of my favorite Ford works, and one I trot out to friends whenever I get the chance.  Certainly, it gets much play during the month of March, a quintessential St. Paddy’s Day platter.  It warms the cockles of me heart to expose a smattering of lads and colleens to the RISING‘s many pleasures, and have them enthusiastically respond with a sincere “I LOVE this movie!” critique (which they unanimously do, I’m proud to say)

The beautifully acted trilogy opens with Frank O’Connor’s The Majesty of the Law, a poignant piece bristling with roguish affection and conviction.  The village constable (Cyril Cusack) is out to serve a warrant on a blustery but beloved hermit, Dan O’Flaherty (the great Noel Purcell, forever Pablo Murphy from The Crimson Pirate).  O’Flaherety belted a neighbor in a scuffle and has been charged with assault and battery.  As passionate as he is honest, Dan is ready to go to jail (once he takes care of some personal affairs: “Would Friday be all right?”).  The law doesn’t want to arrest the impoverished resident; in fact, the man’s neighbors offer to pay his five pound fine.  But steadfast O’Flaherty refuses.  Even the victim, head still in bandages, shows up to pay the fine himself!  But old Dan will have none of it.  Soon the entire township is at odds, wondering if there can ever be a civil resolution.

My pet of the bunch is the second offering, Michael J. McHugh’s wacky and raucous A Minute’s Wait.  It tells of a train arriving at a small village depot, not unlike neighboring Innisfree, and right on schedule – a mere four hours late.  And, as the conductor melodically announces they’ll be a short “one minute wait,” the entire car load of passengers rushes the pub for the first of many station libations.  It is here we learn of the lady publican’s (Maureen Potter) adoration for the blarney-kissed conductor (Jimmie O’Dea), rhapsodizing about his confrontation with a castle ghost.  We witness elder clan members (May Craig, Harold Goldblatt) matchmaking their grown children (Maureen Connell, Godfrey Quigley), the winners of a rugby match converging upon the choo-choo, along with the victors/townsfolk of a Quiet Man-esque display of fisticuffs.  Throughout this mélange is a veddy English couple (Anita Sharp-Bolster, Michael Trubshaw), the brunt of a trunkful of insults, verbal and physical (they are forced to share their compartment with a crate of fish, then removed to a lesser space to make room for the town goat). Will these stories wrap to salvable conclusions? More importantly, will the hopelessly late railroad ever chug off into a Fordian sunset?  These questions are addressed via a final touch of hilarity involving the befuddled British couple.

The most beautiful of the stories is left for last, Lady Augusta Gregory’s 1921 (expanded to cinematic dimensions from its stage roots).  During the “troubles,” a British-occupied hamlet is witness to the arrest of a key agitator (Donal Donnelly), who is to be hanged.  Two nuns (Doreen Madden, Maureen Cusack), one actually the sister of the prisoner, request a five minute meeting with the doomed man.  But they’re really actresses who dress the hero up in a nunnery frock and spirit him away to a local theater until he can be smuggled out to sea and safety.  The apparent thick Irish policeman (Denis O’Dea) assigned to help the English is way smarter than he appears to be, and his nocturnal dockside dinner break with his wife (Eileen Crowe) is, in my humble opinion, one of the best pieces of film Ford ever shot.

As one might expect, American distributors weren’t knocking down doors to acquire THE RISING OF THE MOON.  Ford, who was not having a great year (his excellent British thriller, the aforementioned Gideon of Scotland Yard, starring Jack Hawkins, was chopped down to barely over an hour, relegated to the bottom half of a direct-to-the-nabe double-bill, and insult to injury, denied it’s superb Technicolor; Columbia ended up releasing it stateside in black-and-white).  Ford’s anger at not being able to sell a project on his name alone (which hadn’t been a problem throughout the 1940s) ate away at him with a vengeance.  Worse, John Wayne, the man HE made a star, could get any movie started by just nodding in approval.  Ford played his hand the best he could, and took RISING to Warner Bros. for whom he had just scored a sizeable hit with The Searchers.  Jack Warner, wasn’t thrilled, and begrudgingly agreed to pick up the movie with one proviso – that a “name” star introduce each story.  Ford called Tyrone Power, with whom he had a decent working relationship on the 1955 pic The Long, Gray Line.  Ford, in turn, demanded that Power’s name not be well…over-Powering in the ads and trailers.  Warner acquiesced, but, being Jack Warner, his word was about as good as a three-dollar bill (the mogul had after all screwed his own kin out of their studio).  Ford nearly plotzed when he saw the one-sheet – a duo-tone poster with the bottom half in full-color depicting the characters from the narrative; there, on the right side, was color portrait of Power with his name in large block letters.  That said, Power does a good job setting up each fable (it couldn’t have been more than a one-day shoot),  but is it just me, or does it look as if the actor is wearing leprechaun ears?

THE RISING OF THE MOON got lukewarm reviews, and did only marginal business (even in Ireland, its performance at the box-office proved to be a disappointing one).  The movie quickly evaporated into the mist of obscurity, occasionally surfacing in 1960s late night-TV screenings.

The anamorphic Warner Archive DVD-R is excellent, mastered from the 35MM elements, with stunning monochrome location work, achieved by the great Robert Krasker.  The hauntingly gorgeous music that appends the visuals comes via Eamonn O’Gallgher, melded into numerous Irish ballads, accompanied by an Irish harp and including, of course the iconic title tune.

I recommend THE RISING OF THE MOON without reservation (no matter what time of the year).  The variance of the stories will give your emotions a thorough workout, from laughter to tears.  It’s what first-rate movie-making is all about.

THE RISING OF THE MOON.  Black and white.  Widescreen [1.66:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic].  2.0 mono audio. Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video.  CAT # 1000382534.  SRP: $21.99.

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Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

 

 

Freud Where Prohibited

No better way to get the eight month jump on Halloween than by unearthing a rarely-seen fright delight, 1971’s HANDS OF THE RIPPER, available in a special Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Pack from the folks at Synapse Films.

Don’t let the title fool you – this is a fairly elaborate narrative with enough plot twists and Hitchcockian transference of identities to please even the most highbrow of goth snobs. That said, it is also a Hammer Film – and one filmed post the U.S. ratings systems…so there’s enough lurid sexual innuendo and gore galore to satisfy the splatter enthusiast (especially in this first-time ever American uncut edition).

I want to go on record as saying that this is one of my favorite Hammer Films – in fact, possibly my number-one favorite from their baroque library NOT directed by Terence Fisher.

The intense scenario, tantalizingly realized by screenwriter L.W. Davidson, originated from a story by Edward Spencer Shew, concerns the illegitimate daughter of Great Britain’s biggest tourist attraction. The picture opens with a posh-garbed toff escaping into a safe-house where his lover attends their baby progeny. Soon it’s apparent that the woman’s blood-spattered upper-class boyfriend is none other than you-know-who and, literally, in a flash (the gleaming blade heightened by the roaring fireplace), before you can say “Jack be quick,” she is carved into yet another pile of Victorian mincemeat. This Honeymooners episode gone wrong is all being watched with scrutiny by their crib-captive golden-tressed child. From this moment on, every shiny object, every glittery, sparkly thing, sets off the girl’s ultra-violent side – a trait due to the inheritance of her infamous pater’s bat-shit crazy gene. Vegas fans can only be grateful that she was born forty years before Liberace.

Moving a decade hence, we now see the orphaned Anna (the striking Angharad Rees) working for phony spiritualist Dora Bryan. An embarrassing sham séance takes a turn for the worse when Bryan pimps the young girl to an attending member of Parliament (Derek Godfrey). Before you can say Rees’ Pieces, there’s more carnage than a GOP Obama roast.

Also sitting in at this event is Dr. John Pritchard (The Forsyte Saga’s wonderful thesp Eric Porter); Pritchard’s a progressive medico specializing in the embryonic science of psychology, particularly the you-want-to-fornicate-with-your-daddy rappin’ of Siggy F. He rescues Anna, takes her into his home – and attempts to cure her malady…with horrific results.

Has Anna been irreparably psychologically damaged – or is she possessed? It’s science vs. religion that is the underlying theme of this surprisingly complex thriller. But don’t let that lofty stuff get in the way of this superb 85-minute Grand Guignol exercise. Not only is the oh-so-innocent-looking Rees conflicted by her parentage; as the body count rises, Pritchard too becomes obsessed. After taking the aforementioned Godfrey into his confidence, the lecherous politician insists on turning the girl over to the authorities; the doctor, a bit of a screwball himself, sloughs off his patient’s annoying homicidal tendencies…Regarding Anna’s penchant for serial killing, he responds with an icy “…it’s worth it!” if it – you know – benefits the world of science, blah-blah-blah…No black and white personality schisms here – it’s all gray…in fact, Gray’s Anatomy. Anna’s maniac button is kinda like ‘Tippi Hedren’s in Marnie, but on steroids.

The killings themselves are masterpieces of a demented imagination: staked through a door with a fire poker, jagged mirrors in the throat, hatpins in the eye…I mean, come on – where else are you going to see a dowager impaled by a lorgnette?

As indicated, the violence is tempered with a liberal dose of early 1970s movie sex. The slight albeit beauteous Rees is certainly not your typical bodacious Hammer girl; the fact that she’s rather “…modest up there” is even verbalized by an aroused lesbian hooker seconds before the streetwalker is turned into a Jackson Pollock painting (Rees, who is friggin’ terrific in this movie, is more akin to another wisp of a Hammer femme: Nike Arrighi in The Devil Rides Out). Other excellent cast members include Jane Merrow, Keith Bell, Norman Bird and Katya Wyeth. In an instance of art imitating life, the real Jack the Ripper was never identified (personally, I think it was Lincoln…never actually assassinated, but gunshot brain damaged to the extent of his having to split people like so many rails). In HANDS OF THE RIPPER, the actor playing the notorious Whitechapel murderer has also been relegated to anonymity, slaying his part uncredited. Pertaining to the former, its cover-up understandable because, as I said, he was our 16th president; but in movie lore…WTF? He owns the opening scene and even has dialogue. This was, after all, a 1970s motion picture, and not a Biograph one-reeler. And, seriously, if “3rd Pub Whore” gets billing (Tallulah Miller) – why not Saucy Jack? Ah, sweet mystery of life…Oh, well…Onward and upward.

The picture looks fantastic, thanks to some outstanding cinematography by Kenneth Talbot. The awesome 19th-century sets, snatched from the life-sized mock-ups built for Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, emboss the Hammer trait of making their rather “modest up there” budgets resemble a major studio super production. The lush music by composer Christopher Gunning is gorgeous – eschewing the expected shock chords for romantic lyricism. I know this might sound outrageous, but, in spite of the on-screen events – HANDS OF THE RIPPER is, in its own way, a very beautiful film and one that, in addition to humans, skewers Victorian mores and hypocrisy. To paraphrase that theater-goer in the bar after watching Springtime for Hitler: “Didja ever think this music was for a movie called HANDS OF THE RIPPER?”(Gunning’s score is accessible as an isolated track on the B-D)

The picture did have its share of problems. No one really wanted to do it. Producer Aida Young, who had a smash with Hammer’s She and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, eventually took it on – her last Hammer project – “…because I needed the money….It looked like the worst kind of rubbish, but I must say we made it work.” To this, director Peter Sasdy can’t be complimented enough. His take on the project is almost like that of a Frank Borzage film; furthermore, Sasdy’s expertise at creating atmosphere is pitch-perfect (check out his other dissection of Victoriana – 1970’s Taste the Blood of Dracula).

HANDS OF THE RIPPER opened on the bottom half of a double-bill with the more high-profile Twins of Evil. Double-bill indeed – as that vampire flick got the mucho share of hype due not to its formidable lead Peter Cushing but the Playboy tie-in with title real-life sibs, Mary and Madeleine Collinson, who jubilantly bared all for their art (I’m still not sure if the title refers to the ma’ams or…the mamms). If more exploitation evidence is required, the promo for the latter was Which is the Virgin? Which is the Vampire? A trick question if ever there was one.

I saw the pair – one of the last Hammer co-feature releases – in the spring of 1972. Even then, while “dual-ly” impressed with Twins, I stated without equivocation that I preferred the accompanying flick. Knowing that their large audience base would be kids, Universal cut both pictures with less finesse than RIPPER‘s Anna. Further sections (yeah, sections) were excised for the 1977 network TV broadcast. To make up for the shortened running time, which I surmise to have been the length of one of their 8MM Castle Films, Universal, as was their wont back then, filmed some extraneous footage in Hollywood to tack on at the beginning; it was a ridiculous modern-day recap with shrink Severn Darden discussing this extraordinary case of butchery. He might as well have been talking about Universal’s editing department (the studio did a similar hatchet job on Hammer’s Phantom of the Opera and Kiss of the Vampire. More ludicrously, they performed some likewise surgery upon Losey’s non-Hammer Secret Ceremony, transforming prostitute Elizabeth Taylor into a hat designer!  How’s that for downsizing?!). I was thus rightly astounded some 32 years later when I obtained a PAL DVD box set from the now-defunct Australian home video company MRA Entertainment. Twins of Evil, HANDS OF THE RIPPER and a third title, Vampire Circus, encompassed versions I never dreamed existed. I have no doubt that these extended renditions would have been too rough for even an ‘X’ back then – let alone the ‘R’ which ended up being affixed to them for the U.S. issues.

Suffice to say that Synapse’s B-D/DVD of HANDS OF THE RIPPER utilizes the complete unedited version; however, unlike the MRA discs, which were on the grainy side, the new mastering defines 1080p High Definition in both clarity and color resolution; to call this new transfer a marked improvement would be an understatement.

But there’s more, folks. Synapse has produced some special extras for HANDS OF THE RIPPER – the best being a top-notch mini documentary, The Devil’s Bloody Plaything:  Possessed by Hands of the Ripper, comprising interviews with Sasdy, Merrow, Joe Dante and Hammer authority Wayne Kinsey (sadly, Porter and Rees are now deceased). The packaging, too, is noteworthy, offering an ebullient graphic Belgian poster with Rees magically-appended to a Jayne Mansfield cleavage, nothing less than an act of bovinity. There’s also the U.S. theatrical trailer, TV spots, a still gallery and the audio-only of the Darden nonsense (the picture portion seems to have been lost – a Pyrrhic victory, as you KNOW they’ll find that before von Stroheim’s complete Greed). What’s truly cool about these supplements is the genuine affection that the company put into making them. If only other home vid outfits, whose divvying out of their “it’s just a paycheck” B-D/DVD featurette assignments had that kind of dedication and integrity. Trust me, it does make a difference!

In a genre rife with cheesy second-rate horror schlock, Synapse’s HANDS OF THE RIPPER is – I gotta say it – a cut above the rest.

HANDS OF THE RIPPER. Color. Blu-ray: Letterboxed [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; Mono audio [DTS-HD MA 2-0]; DVD: [1.66:1 anamorphic]; Mono audio [2-channel Dolby Digital]. CAT # SFD0129. SRP: $29.95.

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