ANDREW GARVEY enjoys two titans meeting head on, as Sherlock Holmes investigates the Jack the Ripper murders in A Study In Terror (1965)
TITLE: A Study in Terror
RELEASED: October 1965
STARRING: John Neville (Sherlock Holmes), Donald Houston (Doctor Watson), John Fraser (Lord Carfax), Anthony Quayle (Doctor Murray), Frank Finlay (Inspector Lestrade), Judi Dench (Sally), Barbara Windsor (Annie Chapman)
WRITERS: Donald and Derek Ford
DIRECTOR: James Hill
“‘ello, darlin’. Like a bit o’ fun?” Well, if by fun, you mean plunging a knife through a late Victorian Whitechapel tart’s neck, yes. Or possibly a raucous pub sing-a-long that includes a woman being held upside down and vigorously shaken until the money she’d just lifted from a drunken client tumbles from her ample bosom? Or perhaps the same woman being dragged into a trough and stabbed to death?
The first ten minutes of director James Hill’s Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper mash-up, seen with 2017 eyes looks almost gleefully misogynistic. And it’s not just the lower orders of Whitechapel glorying in the misfortune of women, either. Donald Houston’s buffoonish Dr Watson couldn’t be more chuffed about the murders if he were the killer himself while Holmes (ably and suavely portrayed by 1950s’ West End star John Neville) leaps at the chance to stride about the place showing off his brilliance.
Barbara Windsor’s casting as Annie Chapman gives the whole thing a brief air of ‘Carry on Ripping’ until (in a still-effectively unpleasant scene) she’s also offed by the Ripper. Frank Finlay, who also played the character in another Holmes vs. the Ripper film, 1979’s Murder By Decree, is the reliably dim Inspector Lestrade (“A bayonet? Soldiers carry bayonets!”), playing each scene like a baffled chimpanzee in his best suit who may or may not have wandered onto the wrong film set.
With a few musical numbers, some corkingly posh accents and a frantic fight scene where Holmes and Watson fight off three muggers (complete with speeded-up footage)and garishly red blood, A Study in Terror is, for the most part, quite the 1960s British film romp.
But it also has real enduring qualities, both as a horror film and in the popular mythology of Jack the Ripper. While not the first film to use the technique, it’s POV (point of view) slayings predate most Italian Giallo films and came a full fifteen years before Wlliam Lustig’s 1980 classic, Maniac. In Ripper mythology, there’s the iconic (and thoroughly unlikely) top hat and the cloak, the killer’s medical knowledge, the ‘dear Boss’ letter, blackmail, conspiracies and cover-ups involving the Government and the aristocracy.
But generally, A Study in Terror is a finely acted and well-crafted mystery, a quality cinematic outing for Holmes, stuffed with red herrings and lies, an iconic Ripper film and, fifty-two years on from its release, well worth an hour-and-a-half of anyone’s time.