A blood-soaked, ripping 1960s Sherlock Holmes yarn where the Baker Street detective battles history’s most notorious serial killer.
By Paul Mavis
Mill Creek Entertainment has released—on a beautifully rich, sharp Blu-ray transfer—1966’s A Study in Terror, the English indie (released here in the States by Columbia Pictures) that pits Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s world-famous fictional detective against real-life killer, Jack the Ripper. Directed by James Hill, scripted by Derek and Donald Ford, and starring a remarkable cast of U.K. stage and screen luminaries, including John Neville, Donald Houston, John Fraser, Anthony Quayle, Barbara Windsor, Adrienne Corri, Frank Finlay, Judi Dench, Charles Regnier, Cecil Parker, Barry Jones, Peter Carsten and Christiane Maybach (sorry-both Germans), Kay Walsh, John Caimey, Edina Ronay (sorry—Hungarian), Avis Bunnage, Barbara Leake, and Robert Morley, A Study in Terror is a rare combination: a first-rate Holmes screen mystery, as well as a delightfully naughty, gory 1960s exploitation romp. What more could any Anglophile cinephile ask for?
1888, England. A prostitute (Donna White) is stalked on the fog-shrouded cobblestones of Whitechapel, before a knife is plunged through her neck by the unseen assailant. Sometime later, at the Angel and Crown, streetwalker Polly Nichols (Christiane Maybach) tries to steal money from a john, and is ejected from the pub by owner Max Steiner (Peter Carsten), before she threatens to reveal a dark secret about goings-on above the pub. Walking the dark streets, she’s soon stabbed to death in a horse trough. Later that week, common whore Annie Chapman (Barbara Windsor), locked out of her apartment for nonpayment of rent, can’t even give it away free to Chunky (Terry Downes), the local butcher. With nowhere to sleep, she sets out into the night…before she’s carved up like one of Chunky’s sides of beef.
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Enter Mr. Sherlock Holmes (John Neville), the astoundingly brilliant “consulting detective” of 221B Baker Street, and his friend, Dr. Watson (Donald Houston). Through his extraordinary powers of deduction, Holmes already knows much about the “Jack the Ripper” murders, but he’s soon brought directly into the case when he’s sent a package by an anonymous stranger: it’s a case of surgical instruments…with a large scalpel missing from it. Holmes examines the case and deduces who it belongs to (through a hidden family crest). Calling unannounced on the Duke of Shires (Barry Jones), Holmes and Watson discover that the Duke’s son, Michael Osborne (John Cairney), a failed medical student, is “dead” to him. His other son, Edward, Lord Carfax (John Fraser), is sympathetic to his brother’s plight…but he has his own secrets, including funding a soup kitchen run by police coroner Doctor Murray (Anthony Quayle) and his daughter, Sally (Judi Dench). When Holmes discovers that Michael Osborne married a shadowy prostitute named Angela (Adrienne Corri), he must track her down in the hopes of discovering who, exactly, is Jack the Ripper.
A Study in Terror used to be a regular on pre-cable afternoon and late-night movie shows when I was growing up (Dialing for Dollars with Joe Ashton!) back in the early 1970s. Already an avowed Anglophile, particularly with movies and television, any movie that looked like it was shot in England back then I watched, particularly if it featured some action or blood…or beautiful girls (Hammer titles obviously checked off all the boxes for me).
You could be forgiven if you watch A Study in Terror today and think it some stray, unfamiliar title from the Hammer catalog. It was clearly produced with elements that would appeal to the international audiences that had made Hammer so successful: a period piece (in many cases, including this movie, from a well-known literary source), shot in lurid color, and featuring lots of crimson blood splashed amid the British black humor and the busty English roses. All it needed was an appearance by Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing, or maybe Terence Fisher listed in the credits, and you could have slapped the Hammer logo on it with no complaints (indeed, that same year, one of A Study in Terror’s producers, Tony Tenser, would go on to create Tigon Pictures, a low-rent, high-fun Hammer pretender).
Today, A Study in Terror is best known to hard-core Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper fans as the first property, literary or cinematic, that connected Conan Doyle’s fictional sleuth to the very real historical figure, Jack the Ripper (it would be done again, to greater media recognition, in 1979, when future Porky’s director Bob Clark virtually remade A Study in Terror as Murder by Decree, with Christopher Plummer and James Mason).
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Critics back in 1966 didn’t make much of A Study in Terror’s unique narrative invention, but with today’s media inundated with pop culture mash-ups that crisscross all levels of so-called “high” and “low” brow art, A Study in Terror is finally getting its due (who actually gets the credit for that match-up between Holmes and the Ripper is the subject of, from what I’ve read, much debate among all the writers and producers of A Study in Terror).
Aside from the mixing of fictional and historical, what struck me immediately about A Study in Terror is how Bondian it felt. True, Holmes doesn’t nail some looker only to have her die a spectacular death, but there is an emphasis on dash and derring-do here that feels far more modern and swingin’ 60s-ish than we’re used to for this kind of Holmesian period story. The literary Holmes is often described as having little or no emotion (or at least none shown to the world), but John Neville’s Holmes has a sardonic sneer-and-quip move that rivals Sean Connery. He’s a sharp, snarky Holmes, with a wicked grin that can convey anything from withering disdain to a cynical sense of fun. When Holmes takes an overdressed, and clearly embarrassed, Watson to the rundown pub, Holmes ribs him with, “Nonsense, Watson! You’ll bring some light to their drab lives!” When Holmes declares he’s intrigued by the “provocative” baiting of the anonymously-sent surgical instruments (by a woman, he neatly solves), he’s positively grinning with Watson, as if he’s motivated by the high adventure aspect of the chase as much as the mental workout it challenges (that’s quite un-Sherlockian).
Further synching up with the Bond craze at that time, the producers make this Holmes an expert in hand-to-hand combat, dispatching thugs with brutal aplomb…and with the help of a blade-hidden walking stick (the two fights here featuring Holmes are quite excitingly choreographed and shot…rather like those in the Bond pictures). We get a Bondian pre-credit sequence “kill” (and it’s gorier than anything you’d see back in the Thunderball era), and we get a fade-out that clearly indicates a sequel was planned. It doesn’t surprise me in the least to read that the Conan Doyle estate was involved in this production, with they and the producers hoping to create a merchandise-spinning franchise in the Bond mold (why then did Columbia—which infamously had passed on the first Bond movie—use that dumb TV Batman spin for the U.S. marketing campaign? Why didn’t they emphasize a more titillating Bondian vibe? Dumb move.).
There’s also a rowdy, bawdy tone to A Study in Terror that you’ll never find in a Rathbone Holmes (notice how the poster artwork Holmes is made to look like Rathbone, then and now the most famous cinematic incarnation of the sleuth?). Along with giving us the standard fog-enshrouded cobblestone streets and Holmes’ cluttered apartment, director James Hill takes his time showing us the plebeian goings-on in the Angel and Crown pub. Using the lush production design to get across an acceptably raucous Victorian verisimilitude, singer Georgia Brown belts out ribald music hall songs while the patrons wench and drink and carry on. Salty language compliments this vibe; when Polly is found out stealing, her john declares, “I do believe this damn whore has lifted my purse,” before she’s turned upside down and shaken until the money drops out of her overflowing top (victim Annie later tells her landlady what she can “shove” when asked for rent money).
Scripted by exploitation crackerjacks Derek and Donald Ford (The Yellow Teddy Bears, The Black Torment), A Study in Terror proves they could churn out a more-than-competent Conan Doyle pastiche; the mystery here is tight and twisty, and surprisingly difficult to solve (and that make-up job on Holmes, when he’s masquerading as a bum, is remarkable—totally fooled me). The script is also quite funny. With director James Hill’s nimble aid (The Kitchen, Trial and Error, and his massive hit, also from 1965, Born Free), A Study in Terror has a curiously light-stepped, amused feel for a serial killer mystery. The comedic highlight of the movie is the first cinematic appearance of Holmes’ brilliant brother, Mycroft, played in Robert Morley’s usual unperturbed, snotty good humor (god, why didn’t someone put Morley in some kind of film series at that time, like Rutherford’s Miss Marples?).
He’s not alone: everyone gets into the act here, including the dependably dour Holmes character, Inspector Lestrade (at one point, Frank Finlay deadpans for a giggle, “Mr. Holmes is usually right,”), while Dr. Watson, whatever performer Donald Houston’s intentions originally were (he stated he didn’t want to do a “funny” Watson), is a reliable laugh-getter (when legend Kay Walsh, as a slatternly drunk, exposes her knockers to Houston, his look of disgust is priceless). Even Holmes seems tickled by events in A Study in Terror; after thrashing a few yobs, he brightly calls to Watson, “Brisk work, Watson, brisk work!” to which Watson replies, after seeing Holmes’ rapier walking cane, “Nothing like a piece of cold steel, eh, Holmes?” They both exit the scene in high spirits…laughing (tortured drug addict Holmes laughing and enjoying himself with his friend after a fistfight?).
Director James Hill’s direction is sure-footed and speedy, with some surprisingly effective moments, such as a creepy, Peeping Tom-ish p.o.v. of the killer being seduced by Edina Ronay (A Study in Terror’s most deliciously seedy moment), and a rather brilliant shot of Christiane Maybach being stabbed, shot through the side of a horse trough, the blood swirling red in the water as the knife is plunged in again and again (Hill then jump cuts to Watson exclaiming, “Disgusting!” as he reads of her murder—classic). If A Study in Terror has one drawback, it’s that tone-deaf, anachronistic soundtrack from composer John Scott (his first), which is as jaunty and modern-seeming as A Study in Terror…but which curiously, doesn’t fit at all.