FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Though I’ve sometimes reviewed films here as if the director were the sole author, it’s only for convenience, not because I’m a devotee of the cinematic theory of auteurism. I’ve analyzed cinematic adaptations of Hawthorne and Gaston Leroux in comparison to the original sources when possible, but sometimes the original prose sources aren’t readily available. Such is the case, so far as I’ve been able to determine, with the original story by Edward Spencer Shew from which Sasdy created HANDS OF THE RIPPER. The only reason this is something of an issue is that HANDS is one of the most thoroughgoing Freudian horror-films of all time, making it hard to know how much of the Freudianism stems from Shew and how much from Sasdy. However, some of Sasdy’s other films have strong Freudian currents, so at the very least he translated the original story’s concerns without dumbing them down.
Though I’m far from a Freudian, I can appreciate the interweaving complexity of his psychoanalytic theories. Most cinematic quotes of Freud are pretty simple from a theoretical perspective, not least Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. Hitchcock followed the Robert Bloch original novel in combining the Oedipus complex with the concept of “repetition-compulsion,” which asserts that victims of trauma ceaselessly replay the circumstances of their torments. In horror films this was a useful means of motivating a psycho to kill and kill again, so the repetition-compulsion explanation for psycho-killings has become—perhaps fittingly—the most repeated device in psycho-killer flicks. HANDS uses this trope as well, but it also incorporates a wider range of Freud’s central concepts, including the “primal scene,” the so-called “phallic stage” of female development and the idea of psychological transference, with particular reference to what occurs between patient and psychologist.
HANDS opens in the late Victorian era, as angry crowds pursue the serial slayer Jack the Ripper. The Ripper manages to find safety in his own home, but because he has fresh blood on his hands, his wife realizes that he’s a murderer. The Ripper kills his wife before the eyes of his five-year-old daughter Anna, whose eyes focus on the glittering of her mother’s jewelry as she dies—an association that will later become a psychotic trigger. Having silenced the inconvenient witness, the Ripper gives his little girl a kiss and flees the premises, vanishing from the movie’s diegesis.
Fifteen years later, orphan Anna—a fragile, withdrawn girl with no conscious memory of her trauma—lives with a dowager named Mrs. Golding. Golding runs a spiritualism racket, but she approaches one of her upper-class customers, name of Dysart, to pay for sex with Anna. Anna doesn’t understand what Dysart wants; Dysart gets rough with her. Oddly, his violence—slapping her down—doesn’t trigger Anna’s buried trauma. Then Golding rebuffs Dysart and tries to comfort Anna, while the light of the fireplace shines in the girl’s eyes. Together the gleaming light and the older woman’s show of affection trigger Anna’s psychosis, apparently reminding Anna of the last kiss she received from her killer-father, and moving her to imitate his example. With superhuman strength Anna seizes a fireplace-poker and stabs it through Golding—and the oak door behind her. Dysart witnesses the crime and flees to avoid being implicated; later, he will swear that Anna is possessed of a demon.
Anna, who immediately forgets having committed the crime, is hauled to jail as a witness to the murder (since no one believes a woman could have perpetrated such a deed). Doctor John Pritchard, a widower and a convert to Freudian theory, convinces the police to release Anna into his custody. He does what no practicing psychologist of the time would have done: he takes her into his own home and dresses her in the garments of his dead wife. Throughout most of the film—except for one scene near the conclusion—Pritchard seems entirely proper in Anna’s presence, not moved by any conscious erotic motivation. Even when he witnesses her bathing, he seems unmoved by her nubile charms. At the very least, though, he’s a Pygmalion seeking to mold a Galatea into an icon representing his pet theories. He gives no thought as to Anna being dangerous, either to himself or others, and, having witnessed Dysart fleeing from the scene of the crime, the doctor even blackmails Dysart to help him research the background of the winsome waif.
Shortly after Anna’s arrival, the film introduces its last two major characters, who in some ways mirror Pritchard and his charge. One is Michael Pritchard, the doctor’s adult son, and the other is his fiancée Laura, a gentle woman who happens to be blind. In their introduction-scene Pritchard is notably cold, though not quite rude, to Laura. This suggests that on some level that he doesn’t approve of his son’s choice in women, though no explicit reason is ever given.
It doesn’t take long for the trigger-effect, combining glittering light and female affection (from Pritchard’s maid), to strike again. Pritchard comes home to find his maid murdered and Anna missing. Naturally, rather than expose his foolishness to the police, he conceals the maid’s murder and goes looking for Anna. He finds her, but only after she’s slain a streetwalker who attempted to initiate Anna into the joys of lesbian sex.
Once Pritchard has returned Anna to his home, he’s still unwilling, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to admit that he’s unleashed a monster on the world. He confers with Dysart, who maintains that Anna has been demon-possessed. Pritchard won’t believe such a thing, but Dysart—who’s been unable to learn anything about the orphan’s background—threatens to expose the whole business to the police unless Pritchard takes Anna to a medium able to uncover the female killer’s nature. Backed into a corner, Pritchard agrees.
Despite Pritchard’s skepticism, the medium turns out to be the real thing: she relates Anna’s traumatized history to Pritchard flawlessly, holding back just one thing—the identity of Anna’s father. (She calls him a “nobleman” but the film, though obviously influenced by later theories about Jack the Ripper’s identity, doesn’t go any further down that path.) Anna’s trigger strikes again, and she kills the medium. Once again Pritchard spirits her back to his home. While he tries one last time to divine her trauma with the tools of Freud, he slips for a moment, and kisses her—though it’s unclear whether he’s kissing a would-be daughter or a would-be lover. Anna stabs him and flees, but this time she only wounds her target. Pritchard recovers, crudely binds his wound and pursues her.
By chance Anna falls into the company of blind Laura, and the two of them enter a vast theater. After some suspenseful moments climbing a staircase to a higher level, Anna’s trigger strikes again. But before she can make an attempt to hurl Laura to the floor below, Pritchard arrives and calls out to Anna. Perhaps realizing her murderous nature at last, Anna vaults off the high floor toward her new “father,” and dies in the fall.
At no point does Pritchard directly use the words “repetition-compulsion,” which term Freud first advanced in 1914. Pritchard does, however, describe the theory in essence, talking about patients repeating actions “in reaction” to past experiences. Ironically this diagnosis, though correct, comes from a physician who can’t treat himself. On some level Pritchard has transferred his needs to Anna: he wants the young girl to substitute for something lost in his life. Significantly, his maid comments that though he likes others to affect good spirits Pritchard himself “isn’t one for showing smiles.”
The most vexing question of HANDS OF THE RIPPER becomes, “Why does Anna become a killer after witnessing her father kill her mother?” Freud asserts that young children may mistake the parental sex act—aka the primal scene-- for a fight, and thus become conflicted about their relationship to their parents. Anna witnesses a real one-sided battle in which her father kills her mother, but it would appear that though she’s not actually possessed by her father’s spirit, as the medium suggests, she has subconsciously allied herself to her father’s murderous ways—perhaps it’s easier to identify with being a killer than a corpse.
As mentioned earlier, Freud claims that female psychology proceeds in a different manner than that of males. Young female children go through a “phallic stage” in which they emulate the active behavior of boys. Later, due to the forces of biology, socialization, or both, girls assume the “passive” feminine model. What Sadsy and his collaborators show here is a short-circuit in the Freudian process. Once the maternal force in the girl’s life has been destroyed, Anna internalizes the male penchant for violence incarnated by her father. To be sure, Anna commits her murders in a trancelike state and appears to take no pleasure from them, as one generally assumes the Ripper did. But even with that caveat, it’s apparent that Anna is attempting to “be a man like her father,” even as the quasi-parental Pritchard wants her to fill some female role, be it wife, daughter, lover or just a female patient.
Psycho-films dominantly follow a pattern in which a male psycho-- like Norman Bates-- kills nubile young women as a substitute for the sex-act, of which he’s incapable due to some trauma, often brought on by parental influence. But HANDS is perhaps the only psycho-killer film in which all the female victims are older women. The only other persons Anna attacks are Dr. Pritchard—who is stabbed but does not die—and young blind Laura, who’s nearly assaulted but is saved by outside interference. It’s no coincidence that the only four women Anna kills are women roughly in the age-range of Anna’s mother; no matter who else her father killed, she’s only concerned with re-enacting the horror of the primal scene, and surviving it by being active like the father, not passive and helpless like the mother. Laura is the only young woman Anna attacks, but merely by being blind she too recapitulates the helpless passivity of the mother. In fact, Freud correlated the symbolism of blindness with that of castration, which in turn he correlated with the symbolism of feminine biology. This may be the only reason Sasdy and company choose to make Laura blind, for it serves no overt function in the story.
In the end, HANDS paints a doleful picture for women seeking empowerment. Instead of rejecting the father’s violence, Anna internalizes it and turns it, not against those who exploit female victims, like Dysart, but against other women, whether they have committed questionable acts (Golding, the streetwalker) or not (the maid and the medium). Only once does she strike down a man who’s sought to use her for his own oblique ends, but she bungles the job, and her father-subsitute lives through her assault and finishes the job her real father left unfinished: the destruction of the dangerous female.
In most respects this qualifies as a film in the category of the uncanny, under the trope of "perilous psychos." However, the presence of a real psychic feat, that of the medium, transports it into the realm of the marvelous-metaphenomenal.