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Monday, November 5, 2007

Caught Red Handed (originally published 5/99)

For most of us, it is difficult to imagine life without our hands. From writing a note to caressing a beloved pet, the sheer number of everyday activities that require the use of our hands is staggering. Maybe that's why the makers of fantasy films have been so fascinated down through the years by stories involving supernaturally possessed hands.

As we saw last week, a single such novel, "The Hands of Orlac," has inspired at least four film adaptations. That story, like the current release, "Idle Hands," centers around a character who cannot claim total control over the actions of his hands. As unsettling as that prospect may be, however, there are a number of fantasy films that take matters even further. If you really want to see some creepy movies about supernatural hands, look for these titles on home video.

"The Beast With Five Fingers" (1946). Peter Lorre has long been associated with horror films, but usually we tend to think of him as the fellow doing the frightening. In this overlooked little horror classic it is Lorre, as Hilary Cummins, personal secretary to a concert pianist, who is the victim of the malefactor. When his wealthy employer dies, leaving his faithful secretary no bequest in his will, Cummins swears revenge. He mutilates the corpse by cutting off one of the hands, but soon comes to regret that rash act. The severed hand, taking on a life of its own, relentlessly pursues the hapless Cummins, despite his every attempt to destroy it. Robert Florey, a student of the German expressionist style of filmmaking, directed this shivery story with considerable style.

"Dr. Terror's House of Horrors" (1965). This is actually an anthology film, telling five short stories tied together by a framing narrative. The premise is that a group of men who are traveling together on a train find themselves enthralled by a fortune teller who uses his tarot deck to predict how each man will meet his doom. The fourth story stars Christopher Lee, star of the popular "Dracula" series from Hammer Studios, as a cruel and supercilious art critic whose vendetta against one particular artist leads him to run the man down with his car. The artist survives the assault, but loses a hand as a result of his injuries. Unable to paint any longer, the despondent artist commits suicide. His hand, however, lives on to take a ghastly revenge on the critic.

"The Hand" (1981). Although his Oscar winning screenplay for "Midnight Express" (1978) had established the young Oliver Stone as a bankable screenwriter, he was still trying to win his wings as a director when he wrote and directed this horror picture. Michael Caine stars as a cartoonist who loses a hand in an automobile accident. The loss of his drawing hand ends his career, leaving him angry and embittered. He doesn't act out his aggressions against those who have done him wrong, but his severed hand has no such scruples. Soon, those against whom the cartoonist holds a grudge begin to meet ugly ends. Stone attempts to walk a line between outright horror and psychological drama by leaving open the possibility that the reanimated hand exists only in the cartoonist's imagination, and that he is actually carrying out his personal vengeance himself while blaming it on the nonexistent hand.

"Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn" (1987). Director Sam Raimi shook up the world of low budget horror films with "The Evil Dead" (1983). Four years later he returned to the subject matter with a considerably enhanced budget to make not a sequel but a remake. Bruce Campbell recreates his role from the original film as a man who finds himself holed up in a backwoods cabin with a whole gang of horrendous demons after him. Even his own hand becomes possessed and turns against him. Tiring of being repeatedly assaulted by his own hand, he finally cuts it off with a chainsaw. Undaunted, the severed hand renews its attacks with redoubled vigor.

Raimi, an avid student of the horror film genre, was well aware of the films I've mentioned and was, in fact, paying tribute to them. Whether the makers of "Idle Hands" were so motivated is an open question. Personally, I suspect that their relationship with earlier possessed hand movies is limited to the middle finger, but, on the other hand, I could be wrong.

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