Hands of the Ripper

By Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Film Score Monthly, Sept. 1993
Reprinted with permission of publisher Lukas Kendall and Randall D. Larson

Hands of the Ripper

One of the best horror movie scores of the 1970s was for Hammer Film’s 1971 thriller, HANDS OF THE RIPPER. The film was a poignant story of a young woman possessed by the unwholesome spirit of her father – Jack the Ripper. The picture benefitted from a literate script, excellent direction, convincing performances, and fine production values.

Among the latter elements was its music. Christopher Gunning’s score was an outstanding example of the use of thematic interaction and the contrast between very lyrical, romantic melodies and harsher, more dramatic and dissonant motifs to create complementary senses of compassion and horror.

Gunning had gotten into film music through an association with composer Richard Rodney Bennett, with whom Gunning had studied at England’s Guildhall School of Music. Gunning began by scoring television commercials and also gained experience writing arrangements for pop singers such as Cilla Black, The Hollies, Tommy Steele, and Mel Torme. After several years scoring commercials, documentary films, and an occasional feature, Gunning was approached by Hammer Films music director Philip Martell and asked to score HANDS OF THE RIPPER.

“We used a fairly large orchestra for a Hammer film – about forty or fifty. Mostly strings, French horns, and some percussion and harps and vibraphones,” Gunning recalled in a 1993 interview. The composer was given between four and five weeks to score the film. New to feature scoring, the time pressure was taxing. “The biggest challenge was getting the music finished in time,” Gunning said. “In those days we had none of the composing aids that I used now – time-coded video cassettes and the rest. Basically, one has to remember the film. You went to see it once, twice, maybe went through it in the cutting room a couple of times with the editor, and from that moment on your worked from a shot list with timings given to you by the editor, and you had to rely on your memory for what was going on the screen.”

Gunning worked closely with Martell, who insisted on approving each musical cue as it was written. “I found it quite galling having somebody else imposing their ideas and personality on me,” said Gunning. “Nevertheless I do recognize a common failing of novice film composers is to write music that is too complicated. What I finally arrived at was far simpler than what I intended, and that may well have been of benefit to the film.”

This simplicity was indeed beneficial. Gunning’s score is constructed around the interplay of three primary themes – all of which are associated with Anna, the young beauty with the unfortunate parentage. “It was fairly obvious that the music at times needed to be really quite expressive and strings naturally suggested themselves,” said Gunning. “At the same time, it needed to be horrifying, quite aggressive, and I used the strings in a different way there. And of course the French horns come to the fore every time Anna, possessed by the Ripper, makes an attack.”

The most important theme was a rather idyllic motif played mostly by a solo flute accompanied by harp and strings. This motif represents Anna’s innocence, and it’s one of Hammer’s loveliest melodies. In contrast was the Ripper’s Theme, a chilling motif for high-end strings which accompanies the trance-like state when Anna is overcome by her father’s murderous spirit. “We needed something high and suspended,” said Gunning. “I used the vibraphone and the harp and very high strings, suspended, with hardly any movement.” The third motif arises out of the second, and actually accompanies the killings: a 6-note, ascending theme for brass over strings.

Gunning’s three themes are intricately related – the first for the girl herself, her delicate innocence and unfortunate pathos; the second for the unswayable compulsion that overcomes her; the third for the deadly actions caused by that compulsion. As the correspondence of these themes is intricately worked out, the score becomes a tour-de-force of leitmotif interrelation. For example, when Dr. Pritchard, the physician trying to help Anna, returns home to find Anna standing in a trance, hands bleeding, we first hear Anna’s Theme, played softly from an oboe over a very faint Ripper’s Theme performed on the harp, which subtly emphasizes the meaning of her bloody hands. The mixture of the two themes here effectively contrasts and complements the two sides of this unfortunate girl – innocent youth possessed by terrible evil. The music portrays her duality. It’s so subtle that most moviegoers won’t even notice it, yet it lends an almost subliminal effect to the mood and atmosphere of the sequence. The recurring of these themes will continue to establish an emotional undertone to the proceedings.

“It became evident when I first saw the film that contrast was going to be a vital factor in the music,” said Gunning, “because we had to contrast the two personae of Anna; one as a rather poor, disheveled child, and two, as an extremely dangerous, horrific person.”

Later, the Murder Theme is given a very evocative rendition for strings as Dr. Pritchard, having stepped out of the room, returns to find Anna hiding, possibly in another murderous state, potentially to leap out at him in a murderous frenzy. A moment of delicious suspense accompanies the trance music from strings, until Pritchard realizes that Anna has fled.

The Ripper and Murder Themes then alternate as the scene shifts between Anna’s wandering through the West End streets and Pritchard’s searching for her. Here the variation is more for vibrato violin, deep and quivering, slowly accompanying Pritchard’s urgent solicitations. When Anna is taken in by Long Liz, the prostitute, the Ripper Theme is supplanted by the Murder Theme, as Anna is overcome by her father’s compulsion and stabs the harlot to death. A gently shocking cue for spiraling strings and rustling cymbals greets the dying Liz as she staggers into the street and is found by her fellow streetwalkers.

The score segues to a somber, fluid, low strings motif as Pritchard investigates Liz’s house and finds Anna, at which time Anna’s theme is heard from the flute, very sad and tragic as the confused girl is taken away by her benefactor. That fluid strings motif will eventually become a fourth leitmotif, perhaps to be called “The Aftermath Theme” as it will always be associated with the awful results of Anna’s murderous rage, most effectively after Anna has stabbed Pritchard himself and he crawls across his floor, seeking help. But it remains a very minor motif compared to the omnipresent trinity of the Anna/Ripper/Murder themes, and Gunning’s single effort for Hammer horror remains one of their best scores.

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