It makes a certain kind of sense to mash up Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper; the greatest detective vs the greatest unsolved mystery of the same era. 1979’s Murder By Decree did so memorably, but 1965’s A Study in Terror plotted much the same course, minus the various Masonic conspiracies featured in Bob Clark’s far more elaborate film.
Indeed James Hill’s original film for producer Tony Tenser is something of a novelty in that it’s got a very early slasher vibe; we open with the Ripper zeroing in on a hapless woman, and Carry On star Barbara Windsor has a notable bit of comic business before she meets her demise. Two terrific actors, John Neville and Donald Houston make for an unusually serious Holmes and Watson, investigating a familiar series of brutal murders in the Whitechapel area of London.
The mystery is pretty good, and things are kept fresh with a galaxy of suspects including Anthony Quayle as a surgeon with a penchant for helping the homeless via his soup kitchen, and Dame Judi Dench makes an impression as his daughter Sally. Robert Morley makes a bumptious Mycroft Holmes, while Frank Finlay a less-than-buffonish Lestrade. Indeed, this is a rather effective version of Holmes; even his penchant for disguises is rather effective when he pops up to confuse Watson in the guise of….you’ll have to see for yourself.
Uber-pornographer Derek Ford was a co-writer on the script, which makes it all the more surprising that this original story has a strong hint of Conan Doyle, with Holmes making some smart deductions from a set of medical instruments, and a sub-plot about a displaced aristocrat resolved in a satisfying way. While a little staid in places, A Study In Terror doesn’t sell out Holmes for cheap laughs or thrills; for fans of the great detective, it’s a genuine buried treasure.