AVAILABLE ON: DIGITAL, BLU-RAY [Region A], DVD [Region 2 Germany, Italy, Scandinavia]
RUNNING TIME: 104 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
Jonathan “Jon” Lansdale is a comic book artist and the creator of the successful hero “Mandro”. He lives with his wife Anne and their daughter Lizzie, though things aren’t great between the couple and she wants to move to New York so they can have a break. Jon has his hand severed in a road accident, and the hand cannot be found so he’s given prosthesis. After being sacked by his editor for objecting to modifications introduced to Mandro by the new cartoonist, he moves to California to teach in a college, but despite an affair with his student Stella Roche, Jon gets more and more agitated and keeps having visions of his severed hand being alive….
Watching Evil Dead 2 for the umpteenth time reminded me that I’ve almost always had a thing for living severed hands. Granted, they aren’t a particularly powerful menace and rarely a convincing one, but have always seemed freaky to me ever since I watched The Beast With Five Fingers at around ten years of age. I’m sure a psychologist would say something about that. I decided to check out this 1980 variant on the semi-classic 1945 flick, which was surprisingly both written and directed by Oliver Stone, though he’d already made Seizure which was also about an artist who could be going mad, a premise that probably appealed to a frustrated and hard-living Stone at the time. It’s known as another one of Michael Caine’s ‘paycheck movies’, though personally I’ve never found The Island and The Swarm to be that bad [don’t start me on Jaws 4 though]. At one point, his character gets angry because his replacement cartoonist has sucked the life out of his creation. And one could also say that about the film, which is more of a slow burning psychological thriller with loads of dialogue than a campy horror flick with lots of hand action. Maybe Stone took things too seriously, especially when he doesn’t really give us any more depth than the expected stuff, in a film where the title appendage has a flippin’ breathing apparatus and is not only able to jump in the air but walk [if that’s the word] from New York to California. And, quite frankly, the intended ambiguity isn’t very ambiguous – I sadly realised what was going on about half way through. Still, there are a few very effective and striking scenes and Caine, who’d just Dressed To Kill for Brian De Palma, is really very good – no, he’s not at all subtle but seems to be enjoying himself, no doubt thinking of the garage he said it paid for.
It was adapted from the novel “The Lizard’s Tail” by Marc Brandel. Stone had written the scripts for Platoon and Born On The Fourth Of July but nobody seemed interested, so a horror film seemed like a good idea. He wanted Jon Voight to play the role of Jon, but was turned down. He then asked James Brolin, but Brolin said that he thought the script was terrible – though later he said that he regretted passing up the opportunity to work with Stone. Christopher Walken and Dustin Hoffman also declined. The special effects were initially provided by Carlo Rambaldi and employed at least thirty animatronic hands which would all do different things. However, a rift developed on set between Rambaldi and cinematographer King Baggot, with Baggot complaining that the possibly overworked Rambaldi’s work wasn’t good enough and Rambaldi retorting that Baggot wasn’t adept enough at his own job to light the hands properly. Stan Winston and Tom Burman were then employed to give Rambaldi a hand [sorry]. Mandro, the Prince Valiant/Conan The Barbarian-styled comic book character, was drawn by artist Barry Windsor-Smith, who at the time was a real-life illustrator for the Marvel Conan comics. Years later, Caine admitted to Stone that the role really got to him and he became depressed and angry for a while. Shooting took place at New York City and various California locations including Big Bear Lake, Hidden Valley and Culver City. Then it was thought that there weren’t enough shots of the hand nor enough horror, so two creepy scenes were added as well as more hand footage. But the film was a flop and the reviews so poor that Stone took a sabbatical for five years.
Aerial shots show off the idyllic location where the Lansdale’s live, but there’s foreshadowing when Lizzie and her father see a lizard’s tail twitching, the rest of it having been gobbled up by a cat who suddenly [quite a sudden ‘jump’ this, though Stone rarely uses this device afterwards] grabs the tail. I have no idea if this scene is in the book, but its title refers to the way a lizard’s tail continues to move after it’s been killed. Jon doesn’t think that there’s much wrong with his marriage and can’t understand why Annie wants to relocate to New York for a bit. The discussion continues in the car, where they end up behind a slow-moving truck and an impatient driver behind them. In the heat of the argument, Anne accidentally pulls back too fast while Jon is waving down the truck driver, causing his right hand to be completely severed in an excellently staged sequence with a hell of a lot of blood. Anne and the police attempt to find the severed hand but with no luck. There’s a fair bit of time spent on Jon trying to adjust to not having his drawing hand and Anne dealing with the guilt of having caused the accident and trying to get closer to her husband. Is all this too slow paced? I guess it may seem so today, but Stone was aiming for a more character-based piece in a period when films like this were often more leisurely anyway. Jon is constantly grouchy which doesn’t make him the most likable protagonist, but I feel for him when, after the couple have moved to New York, the artist hired to draw for him goes too far and weakens his central character by having him think more. I remember when I was furious at HCF’s boss Bat a few years ago when, with the best of intentions, she changed bits of one of my reviews to go with a newer release of the movie in question [sorry Bat].
Jon moves away to fill this teaching post and we get a funny though somewhat bleak scene where he asks his students to name their favourite comic strip and they either can’t or show no interest. But Stella visits him and, within a couple of minutes, is stripping off [the camera gloatingly lingering on the sight in a way that may not happen in today’s staid times] with the words “I’m kinda old fashioned, I’d like to make it in bed”. I can’t figure out Annie McEnroe’s performance. Is she just really wooden or making no effort at all? Or is her emotionless delivery meant to link with the attitude of the other students? But then Andrea Marcovicci is lousy as Anne too, though we know that Stone was rarely a good director or writer of women. The sex he’s having doesn’t help Jon’s mental state even though she seems turned on by his replacement hand, and he’s soon imagining his real hand coming to life in the field beside where the accident happened, a manifestation of his frustration and anger, not to mention thinking that a crab on a plate is coming to life and a shower faucet is a hand. He seems to be having blackouts, while we get certain revelations about two characters and even a cameo by Stone himself. He’s a tramp who annoys Jon before falling victim to what we realise is his hand returning to hang around and do the things that Jon just wants to do, though it’s confusing as to what’s real and what isn’t. That’s okay seeing as we aren’t meant to be sure if the hand is real, but even after the film has finished one might be unsure about certain bits to the point where it feels like Stone wasn’t playing fair. By the way I’m halfheartedly trying to be ambiguous though I don’t know why because the film does such a poor job of being so. And as for the ending – we get what is quite frankly the expected conclusion before relocating to a strange laboratory full of elaborate equipment, a chess floor and Viveca Lindfors, and a further revelation which makes no sense except to leave us with an admittedly memorable final image involving Caine.
Still, the hand sequences are mostly very effective. I’m sure that some other reviews comment on how poor the hand looks but I find it to be fine. This hand is quite revolting in appearance, nicely dirty and partly decomposed, while its movements are fairly smooth. In fact I’m going to go further – this is quite simply the best practically done living severed hand I’ve seen on film, and it really helps that it keeps on appearing just when you’re beginning to relax. In his audio commentary Stone critricises some of the models but, despite all the props that were created they all look alike enough for me, even the shots of real hands from an arm clad in black – no silly discrepancies I could notice. The cinematography of course helps with Baggot often keeping the hand partly in shadow or glimpsed quickly. As well as breathing extremely heavily and boasting a special tank for that purpose, this hand is also extremely strong and can choke necks and crush wrists, though seeing as the slasher movie was booming at the time with teenagers being dispatched in all sorts of ghastly ways, it’s hard to see why Stone couldn’t have thought up some more interesting kills for the hand to carry out. We do though get some fun low angle ‘hand-vision’, while many of the hand scenes are in black and white, though it gets a bit inconsistent as to what’s in monochrome and what isn’t – still, one can see the seeds of Stone’s MTV-style phase in the likes of Natural Born Killers and Any Given Sunday with their frequent black and white inserts here. There’s a really good, if partly silly when you think about it, scene when Jon’s cat scratches his face then amusingly crashes through the window while something knocks some stuff over.
In general Stone doesn’t seem interested in making the house where two thirds of the film takes place a feature or a place of brewing fear, and appears more into the characters. Certain comparisons can be made with The Shining that hadn’t long been released even though The Hand is nowhere near on the same level. But despite its many flaws I still kinda liked this film. Much of this could be down to Caine who’s in nearly every scene and does seem to relish the opportunity to let it all out. He’s most certainly not phoning it in; his performance is full of energy and conviction, with his increasing dark moods and violent bursts quite unsettling. It’s just a shame that he has nobody really good to bounce off except the young Mara Hobel [the girl who remains one of the least deserving nominations for a Razzie for her performance in Mommie Dearest] – as his character’s daughter Lizzie; the scene where the latter sees some family violence is especially well played and really quite powerful, though it hints at an even darker, nastier film beneath the surface. James Horner wrote his third film score for this; his work here lacks the inspiration of his previous work on Humanoids Of The Deep and Battle Beyond The Stars which had proceeded this, mostly content to provide a few suspense motifs and not interested in the personal / emotional side of the story which he would no doubt have musically delved into a bit later. The Hand is really something of an oddity. It’s a bit muddled, and I don’t think that Stone was particularly interested in the horror genre despite the brutal violence he went on to often depict; he admits in his typically honest commentary that he doesn’t think he’s very good at it. Some or perhaps even all of the hand stuff doesn’t seem necessary seeing as he was focusing more on horror of the interior kind, though it does break up a film which may still be a bit too leisurely for its own good. The thing remains somewhat compelling.