From the director of Salvador….JFK…Platoon…Natural Born Killers… a film about an EVIL HAND!
This is an odd retro-find. Oliver Stone wouldn’t make another outright genre picture for another sixteen years after this (1997’s U-Turn) but 1981’s The Hand proves that in an alternate universe, this most politicised of filmmakers could have had an easy career delivering vivid B-movies. Well, I say B-movie. This actually has the budget and star power of an A-movie, but when it comes down to it, this is a movie about a severed hand that kills people, so there’s only so much directorial flair you can do with a film like this. Michael Caine is Jon Lansdale, a comic book writer and illustrator (as well as a father of one) whose marriage is on the rocks and looks set to sever permanently until something else comes apart. That’s right, the joint between his hand and forearm, in a car accident. Ouch.
His career irreversibly altered (the guy his agent has got to help him out with his comics doesn’t respect artistic dignity), Jon starts to become psychologically troubled and very paranoid, especially regarding his wife’s relationship with her spiritual guru friend. Jon gets a prosthetic appendage, but what of his original hand? It was never found after the accident, and from the looks of it, the thing’s got a mind of its own, and it appears to be killing those who have done Jon wrong… now especially since Evil Dead II, severed hands committing mischief are ripe for amusement, but the derision this film received from some quarters meant that even back in 1981 not many were taking such shock effects seriously. The thing is, should one want to watch this film twice (I know I would!) the film does become a lot less ludicrous once you are aware of the story’s revelations. Still, certain things, like a cat running full pelt through a window pane, never get any less hilarious no matter how many times you watch it.
Michael Caine did quite a few films around this time strictly for the money, his most notorious being Jaws the Revenge, but considering the gusto he gives here, I’m surprised this was one of this ‘pay cheque’ pictures, but then again, this is a film about a severed hand that kills people, so I’m assuming he wasn’t thinking much of the project’s artistic merits, despite his performance, which is eminently watchable and often quite gripping – over the top yes, but done with real flair and intensity. There’s colourful support from Bruce McGill (D-Day in Animal House and the recipient of ‘head or gut?’ in The Last Boy Scout) as an alcoholic work colleague who befriends Jon when the latter decides to take up teaching and a game Anne McEnroe as one of Jon’s smitten students who clearly doesn’t let a metal hand get in the way of some bedroom action. Stone directs with a lurid eye for shock effects (there’s a couple of great hallucinations where innocuous things resemble grasping hands) and one-on-one confrontations (the final scene in particular is terrific) and he himself has a cameo during one point. I didn’t recognise him at the time but to be honest I’d forgotten this was an Oliver Stone film! There’s also a brief but effective use of Blondie’s awesome ‘Union City Blue’ during a lonesome late-night drive and James Horner’s score is also pretty good, elements of which hint at the ambience he’d deliver in Aliens a few years down the line.
Not an outstanding genre film, but frankly the sheer craziness of the plot synopsis should deter anyone this isn’t meant for right from the off, so all that’s left is for us horror-thriller fans to lap up. As for fans of the director’s later work? Well, compared to the orgy of technique and narrative that Stone would eventually deliver, this early feature is more than just a mere Hand-job.