The Hand (1981)
Dir. and written by Oliver Stone
Starring Michael Caine, Andrea Marcovicci, Annie McEnroe, Bruce McGill
THE HAND --the final film in my mini-marathon of “The” movies (THE BAY, THE CAR, THE WARD, THE POSSESSION, THE SKULL) and the second of my micro-marathon of body parts movies (THE SKULL, THE HAND)-- finds Oliver Stone making his first big studio film (following his debut, 1976’s SEIZURE). Given that it revolves around a murderous severed hand stalking a Brit, (Michael Caine, from JAWS: THE REVENGE and THE CIDER HOUSE RULES) I assumed it was an adaptation of W. F. Harvey’s short story The Beast With Five Fingers. Turns out no, it’s actually an adaptation of a different story about a murderous severed hand, Marc Randell’s The Lizard’s Tail. Huh. Who knew there was a whole sub-genre of killer hand literature?
Anyway, Caine plays Jon Lansdale, creator of a popular Conan-like comic called “Mandro,” who loses his hand in a crazy ass car accident while arguing with his wife, who in all honesty seems pretty done with this marriage but who can’t quite say so directly because Jon is such an angry dick. He’s an interesting character because I honestly don’t quite know how the movie feels about him. Caine plays him as an angry, borderline abusive asshole who refuses to introspect at all or deal with his problems. But on the other hand, he has good qualities too; he is obviously a very dedicated father to his cute little daughter, he’s a celebrated artist who cares deeply about his work, he’s friendly and helpful with his students after he becomes a professor later on. And he has plenty of good reasons to be angry, it must be said. His wife seems nice and reasonable at times, but she’s also cheating on him with some skeezball new age leotard jockey Yoga coach, subtly trying to kick him out of his own house (which he pays for) so she can enjoy her new boyfriend, is obviously planning to deny him custody of his daughter once the inevitable divorce happens, and to top it off it’s her fault that he lost his hand and no longer has a creative outlet since it was her shitty driving that caused the accident (although he does get a superstrong robot prosthetic out of the deal, just like I KNOW WHO KILLED ME). So it’s weird, because he’s obviously an angry, possessive asshole but at the same time we also can see that he’s justified on some level. Are we supposed to identify with him or not?
|Caine with his abused but bitchy and unsympathetic wife. Kind of a lot of those in Ollie Stone movies, is one thing I've noticed over these many years.|
It’s an important question to ponder, because it turns out that Jon’s disembodied hand has been taking matters into it’s own… well, hand, and taking it upon itself to attack the people Jon is angry at (plus one drunken hobo [Oliver Stone, DAVE] for no reason). So we’ve got a MONKEY SHINES kinda situation here, where Jon is consumed with (at least partly justified) rage that he’s not acting on, but then an outside force starts fulfilling his subconscious desire for revenge. Should we blame him, or is he a victim too?
Whether this uncertainty is intentional or not, it helps make THE HAND work as a surprisingly effective psychological horror movie. Lansdale has elements of both victim and villain to him, so his wavering between those roles gives the film a genuine tension. He seems to be aware of the hand on some level, even if he can’t see it-- but is he keeping silent about it because he thinks he’s crazy and delusional, or is he tacitly supporting the murderous hand by refusing to stop it? Or is it a little of both? As a psychology lesson, the movie’s a little questionable. But as a metaphor for an angry, conflicted person who will not face his demons, it’s surprisingly affecting.
|Let me give you a hand with that.|
The story itself is pretty conventional (there are really only two possible twists here, and the movie actually does both of them) and unfortunately the murders themselves are not all that great. I mean, getting killed by a disembodied hand just looks impossible; the thing’s got no leverage at all, no weight to hold itself down, and it’s tiny, so the actors being murdered have to awkwardly try to avoid drawing attention to the fact that they could obviously just yank the thing off. It bears an unmistakable visual similarity to the killer rabbit from MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, and at least the rabbit actually had teeth. The hand has nothing. There’s no excuse for being murdered by a single, disembodied hand acting on it’s own. I’m as bleeding heart as they come, but straight up, if you allow yourself to be strangled by a severed hand, that’s on you. Fortunately for the movie, it doesn’t kill too often; I count only four kills in the whole thing. And paradoxically, when it’s not killing and instead is skittering around like a giant boney spider, it does get a little unnerving. It has a kind of cold, insect-like intelligence to its movements, which makes its connection to Lansdale all the more frightening.
For an Oliver Stone film, this one isn’t overly stylized (after all, he would spend a few years doing more classic-looking films like SALVADORE and TALK RADIO) but it does have one odd quirk; every now and then --maybe five time or so during the entire runtime-- the color will suddenly leach out and it’ll turn black and white for a few minutes. I have absolutely no idea whatsoever why; it doesn’t seem to correspond to anything that I can identify either emotionally or stylistically. Other than that, though, this is Stone generally producing an unflashy picture which puts most of the emphasis on performance. It would be a better movie if Stone had been able to give it the twitchy, frenzied paranoia of his later movies, but instead it's more of a competent, slow paced point-and-shoot style. Fortunately, Caine (a highly discriminating artist who took the role because he needed to put a down payment on a new garage) does a phenomenal job playing this complex, somewhat unlikable character while still making him sympathetic on some level. When the end comes, there’s a real element of tragedy which comes almost entirely from Caine’s performance. The whole movie completely depends on him, so it’s good that he decided to actually work for that garage money when he clearly didn’t have to. Turns out, he and Ol’ Ollie Stone got on so well that they remain friends to this day. I doubt they go back and watch this one together very often, but I’m glad they made it. If it's a little short on thrills, it makes up for it with it's solid dramatic work and dark psychological side. For a movie about a killer, disembodied hand, it’s an oddly sad and introspective film that finds the majority of it’s horror not in disembodied body parts with a vengeful streak, but in the dark corners in the human soul.