Oliver Stone: The Hand (1981) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
22Feb/130

Oliver Stone: The Hand (1981)

Prolific comic book artist and writer Jon Lansdale has the perfect life.  He draws while his wife and child whittle away their time at their summer residence.  But as his wife grows dissatisfied Jon's rage grows and he loses his gifted hand in an auto accident.  His family hopes that he'll take this as a sign to retire but Jon, and a surprisingly vengeful hand, have other plans...

It's called what againKyle Commentary BannerThe Hand is a bizarre movie, and no matter what you're thinking, it's bizarre in a different way than that. The plot concerns a kind of dickish comic illustrator/writer whose severed hand literally comes back to haunt him following an auto accident. That's more than enough about the plot.

I would like to say that The Hand has one thing going for it, and that it's Michael Caine's frantic, over-the-top and yet strangely committed performance—which is rivaled only by his incredible, over-the-top and yet strangely committed Founding Fathers haircut—but that would be denying Oliver Stone the credit he deserves for wringing some legitimately interesting psychological tension out of a story in which a ghost hand crawls around strangling people. The hand also seems to have developed incredible physical strength, even in the absence of any connected muscles or tendons, but never mind that.

Here's what separates this movie from the Roger Corman-esque pulp that it by all rights should have been (and I'm not entirely certain it's a distinction that helps the film): at the root of The Hand is a story about an angry, unhappy man who is slowly losing his grip on reality as he loses control over the events in his life. Stone uses a number of visual techniques to represent this slipping, tenuous grasp on reality (and the character's increasing rage) in a way that's often genuinely effective. Sudden freeze-frames with flashes of white light, sequences that shift randomly to black and white, and Michael Caine's crazy, gleefully murderous face all have the effect of disrupting our own sense of the movie's reality in a way that mirrors that of the main character. It's unsettling and unpleasant, if not entirely unexpected, which makes his descent all the more horrifying.

Then we're treated to very literally filmed shots in which a rotting right hand crawls out an open window after strangling someone, and this is hilarious, if not entirely unexpected, which makes the movie all the more bizarre. I pose this question to you: what is going on here? It was an early movie for Stone, so perhaps he got a script that demanded a killer hand and decided to make the best of it, but there is a truly dark, scary, uncompromisingly bleak story of a man becoming a monster here somewhere that never comes to fruition because the script and all that it demands is insanely stupid. Take, for instance, the last scene, which I can't really effectively explain. I don't think any of the movie can be effectively explained — this HAD to have originally been intended as a Roger Corman film.

**Sidenote, I propose that we track how many of Oliver Stone's films would have been made markedly better by adding an exclamation point to the end a la Seizure! — This one gets my vote.

Star-whatAndrewCommentaryBannerWhile I admire your attempt to bring the great Roger Corman into the discussion I have to offer a rebuke.  Kyle, someone actually spent money on this movie .  If there's one thing Corman would not have allowed it's a budget that clearly broke six figures.  The lack of strings during that superimposed giant hand threatens sleeping Michael Caine scene should have been enough an indication.  After a bit of research it appears to have broken at least six mil Canadian, so hah-hah.

That said, I can answer your question about just what the hell is going on by playing into the mythos of Oliver Stone, or at least the one I'm going to have to confront going through these films.  The Hand is obviously a movie about paranoia, and like a lot of films delving into that the subject is not exactly a good person.  You're right to single out Caine as the best part of the movie but I was surprised at how much mileage Stone got out of a simple premise by taking it literally.

Everyone is out to get Lansdale, he's just not willing to admit why they would like to see him gone.  He's incredibly narcissistic, already bordering on violence before the accident, and treats his wife horribly.  What I like is that he's shown as an example of his gender in his sphere of culture because when we meet the young upstart who is supposed to replace him the youngster s belittling Lansadale's work while sitting in a legs agape pose that Sharon Stone might have used twenty years ago.

So when he finally loses his true phallus, the hand that draws his highly successful cartoons (oh, the pathos!), it's easy to see him escaping into a fantasy that let's him try and regain some of his pride.  The funny thing is that his other source of pride is belittling women. Professionally, personally, romantically, and scientifically he is rebuked because he is so horrible and just can't get that self-reflection going.

That's why I found the last scene so effective, but also a bit of a rip-off considering Michael Caine's film prior to The Hand was Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill.  In that film the violence and incomprehension was blamed in part on an audience willing to partake in it for cheap thrills.  Here the effect is lessened a bit by directing it at uptight, controlling, rich white guys with all the self-perceived talent and power but the Frankenstein machine that props him back up made for a fun ending.

Remember, Stone wasn't handed a screenplay and told to make it, he adopted the book (The Lizard's Tail by Marc Brandell) so whatever made it to the screen we have to put mostly on Stone.  This time, I don't feel bad about that.

As sexy as it looks

So, where's the controversy?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryI can see Stone courting, if not controversy, then an aversion to genre conventions that indicates a kind of defiance that will lead to controversy in later films. What's impressive is how devoted he is to making the main character an unsympathetic, detestable person (not simply a flawed but redeemable individual who finds heroism in challenging circumstances, as many such characters in a conventional horror film would be), all the while absolutely refusing the audience any other characters to empathize with as an entry point into the story.

What results is a movie where our only point of connection is to experience the ridiculous killer hand delusions not necessarily as literally as they're presented, but on the same emotional level. That in turn forces us to empathize (or something close to it) with Lansdale, if only for a minute before we start hating him again. This attempt to force the audience onto the side of an irredeemable psychopath is bold, reminding me of a more tame version of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer — that The Hand is relatively tame when it comes to any literal violence, and instead relegates it to the psychological, probably should be a little more controversial than it actually is.

Tiny Andrew CommentaryThere's no real controversy as to when it was released, even less so in this post-Saw era.  Part of why has to do with why I mentioned Michael Caine and now looking at what preceded its release.  The Hand came out one year after Friday the 13th and three years after Friday's more significant predecessor Halloween.  It's hard not to look at those idyllic shots of the lake tilted ever so slightly and once the piano chimes in not think of slashers.  But those two previous films had the benefit of being ahead of the curve by being art and trashy mass-marketed art (respectively).  The Hand, for all it's violent deaths, is tame by comparison.

Dressed to Kill had some plot details which bothered the blossoming homosexual community pre-AIDS crisis.  There's nothing in The Hand that is troubling in either content or delivery.

I can only hope I have an ego like this one day

How did Stone hit the zeitgeist this time?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryMuch of the movie seems directed at an older generation who refuses to let go of its control. It's interesting that Lansdale's comic is about an archetypal hero who, according to him, is “ruined” by developing more than one emotional dimension. He's upset that his wife starts seeing another man, seemingly not because of the relationship itself so much that he works as a yoga instructor—Lansdale is threatened by anything outside of his traditionally-defined gender roles. If there's something about the culture of 1981 being captured here, it may be that sense of rebellion.

Full disclosure: I wasn't alive in 1981 so what the hell do I know.

Tiny Andrew CommentaryC'mon Kyle, we just got done analyzing a director who created roughly 13% of his output when we were alive.  Let's show a little muscle here.

That said, I think that you're analysis is interesting here in that the older generation, in this case, is a successful artistic creator who hates women.  We're barely out of the Carter administration and well past the age of hippies, but already forces are at work to induce then-modern audiences to a viewpoint now considered conservative.  What I like is that Stone utilizes Caine's performance in a way that would polarize modern audiences.  Lansdale is both a rich man obsessed with control and order while maintaining a position as a smug intellectual pursuing the arts.  That's quite the dichotomy considering modern views on both.

Frankenstein - yo

That may be interesting, but is it any good?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryKind of. It's more interesting to me on paper than as it plays. I was impressed with how dark and singly devoted it was to presenting us with a horrible man pulling his world down around him, but dialing it one step back when it came to the Hand Attack! scenes would have allowed them to serve as disturbing illustrations of Caine's mental state without also being so ridiculous they're kind of funny. The scene where he watches silently as it crawls in shadow into the back seat of his wife's car before she drives off is just right—it's just restrained enough to echo how truly crazy he is while maintaining focus on the psychological, not the sensational.

I won't watch it again, but I don't regret watching it either.

Tiny Andrew CommentaryFile me in the "Absolutely" camp, but I admit it's difficult for me to think of an audience for the film outside people taking in a venture similar to ours or horror fans of a more cerebral bent.  It doesn't have the same kind of visceral chill as the slashers that preceded it and is too smart and literal for those wanting a quick kill-a-thon.  Michael Caine's performance is great, the kill scenes are smartly assembled, and there's enough of a subtext undercurrent to make what's to come interesting - but it's all put together in the kind of subdued package that creates a niche product.

Finally, it's hard not to see Mandro and wonder how badly Stone wanted to make a Conan film.  We'll have to revisit this in the future.

Next week: Salvador!

Stone with text

Posted by Andrew

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