Monday, October 5, 2015

The Films of Oliver Stone: The Hand (1981)

The Hand (1981)
Directed by: Oliver Stone.
Written by: Oliver Stone based on the novel by Marc Brandel.
Starring: Michael Caine (Jonathan Lansdale), Andrea Marcovicci (Anne Lansdale), Annie McEnroe (Stella Roche), Bruce McGill (Brian Ferguson), Viveca Lindfors (Doctress), Rosemary Murphy (Karen Wagner), Mara Hobel (Lizzie Lansdale), Pat Corley (Sheriff), Nicholas Hormann (Bill Richamn), Ed Marshall (Doctor), Charles Fleischer (David Maddow), John Stinson (Therapist), Richard Altman (Hammond), Sparky Watt (Sergeant), Tracey Walter (Cop), Oliver Stone (Bum).

After winning an Oscar for writing Midnight Express (1978), Oliver Stone was given a chance to direct a feature for the second time – this time for an actual movie studio, rather than just a cheapie company. He still had to make a B-horror movie, but still, Stone had been waiting for his chance to direct, and with The Hand he found it. The film is one of Michael Caine’s infamous “pay cheque” movies – a series of films he made in the late 1970s and early 1980s simply because he wanted the money. That explains how an Oscar-nominated (he hadn’t won either of his Oscars at that point) movie star agreed to be in a horror movie about a writer who severed hand murders people for an unproven director. The interesting thing about The Hand however is even if Caine did it for a pay cheque, and Stone did for a chance to direct, they both take the movie quite seriously – and the result is a movie that could have been pure camp turning into something darker and more disturbing than it has any right to be. The Hand may not be a masterpiece of the horror genre – but it’s a hell of a lot better than its premise seems to suggest.

In the film, Caine stars as Jonathan Lansdale – a somewhat successful comic artist, living in the Vermont countryside with his wife, Anna (Andrea Marcovicci) and their daughter Lizzie (Mara Hobel). The marriage is in trouble – she wants to move to New York for the winter, and he wants to stay put – and a miscommunication between the two of them has resulted in her thinking that she and Lizzie would move to New York without him so they can have a “break from each other”. So he’s already pissed when he gets into the car with his wife – who is driving. They argue, she drives recklessly, he sticks his hand out of the window to try and wave off another driver, and before you know, there has been an accident, and Jonathan is missing a hand. What’s worse, it’s his drawing hand, meaning his career in comics is over. Looking for a way to make money, Jonathan ends up taking a teaching job in California – meaning his wife is going to that break after all – but only after he has destroyed pretty much any chance he has of continuing to make a living in comics. Jonathan’s now disembodied hand – that was never found – starts to murder people who anger him, seemingly without Jonathan’s knowledge.

This all sounds incredibly cheesy to be sure. There are two ways you can decide to make a horror movie about a killer, disembodied hand – the way Sam Raimi did in Evil Dead 2 (1987), which is to pretty much make it into a gruesome comedy, aided greatly by the rubber faced Bruce Campbell. Most directors would probably go in that direction. What Stone does is different though – he takes the premise seriously. The scenes with the hand itself can get gruesome to be sure – Stone isn’t one to skimp on blood – but they make a surprisingly small amount of the films runtime. For most of it, it is a portrait of a man coming apart at the seams – a man who has lost his career, his marriage and potentially his daughter all at once. When he’s confronted by someone who reminds him of himself – a one armed bum (played by Stone himself), the hand snaps into action. Later, during his “break” in California he starts an affair with one of his students – and when things start to go bad there, the hand handles things. What do you think the hand will do when his wife shows up?

So despite the gruesome killings, The Hand is more psychological horror than anything else – and this is where Caine makes his presence felt. The movie could have become too serious and ponderous, and slowed down, but Caine is too skilled to allow that to happen. He makes Jonathan’s descent into madness feel real – so the movie remains grounded no matter how outlandish it gets.

The Hand has mostly been forgotten in the years since it came out – and to be honest, there is a reason for that. Had John Carpenter or David Cronenberg directed The Hand, it may well have become a classic (although two very different classics in either of those directors hands). What Stone does is make a competent, intriguing, disturbing and dark little horror film – not something that will go down as one of the best the genre has ever produced, but a decent film for genre fans. The ending of the film gets weird – the final scene is the creepiest in the movie, with a terrific performance by Viveca Lindfors as a strange “Doctress”, but shares some of the same problems the ending of Seizure had – namely, trying to pull the rug out from under the audience one too many times. You can certainly also say that like other Stone movies, The Hand has a “woman problem” – as the wife is pretty much painted as a one-dimensional, selfish bitch, and the young student Caine sleeps with in the movie is just a sex object. The other female characters – Caine’s agent, and the Doctress in the final scene, aren’t really portrayed well either. Then again, everyone in the movie – including Caine – is kind of an asshole. Caine is just the only one given any sort of depth.

In the end, The Hand is an intriguing early film by Stone. You see some of what would make him a great director here (as well as some of the flaws that are also in later films). No one is going to mistake it for a great film – but if you’re a Stone fan who has been avoiding it for years (like me) – The Hand is deserving of your attention.

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