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Monday, November 5, 2007

The Many Hands of Orlac (originally published 5/99)

Usually when we think of movies about demonic possession, the first thing that comes to mind is Linda Blair's character in "The Exorcist" (1973). One minute she's a perfectly sweet little girl and the next minute her body is completely appropriated by a malevolent spirit, from the tip of her rancid toes to the top of her spinning head. Clearly, it's an all or nothing proposition.
The recently released "Idle Hands" presents a different take on the subject. In this film, it is only the main character's hand that is possessed. The rest of his body remains under his control, and yet it's remarkable how much mischief can be wrought by just one hand with a mind of its own, and a malicious one at that.

Interestingly, the idea of being betrayed by the independent actions of one's hands is far from new to the movies. In 1920, French novelist Maurice Renard published a novel called "The Hands of Orlac," in which a renowned pianist, Stephen Orlac, suffers irreparable injuries to his hands in a train wreck. A brilliant surgeon is able to amputate the damaged hands and replace them with the hands of a recently guillotined murderer, but that's just the beginning, not the end, of Orlac's suffering. When a series of murders are subsequently committed by someone with the fingerprints of the executed criminal, Orlac becomes convinced that his hands have committed the murders while he was sleepwalking. This shuddery story has directly inspired no less than four movie adaptations, and has been the indirect source of a number of others. Here are a few titles to look for on home video.

"The Hands of Orlac" (1925). The first film version of Renard's novel is a German production from the silent days. German filmmakers of the Twenties were especially adept at visualizing this kind of creepy subject matter, drawing on the eccentric visual style of expressionist art to set the mood for supernatural fantasy. Conrad Veidt, a master of the expressionist acting style, plays the part of Stephen Orlac.

"Mad Love" (1935). The second screen incarnation of "The Hands of Orlac" is this MGM production starring Peter Lorre in only his second English-speaking role. Lorre plays Professor Gogol, the surgeon who grafts the killer's hands onto Stephen Orlac's arms. Orlac is played by Colin Clive (who had played Dr. Frankenstein opposite Boris Karloff as the monster), but it is Lorre's villainous Gogol who takes center stage in this production. Gogol is obsessed by a morbid fascination with physical torture. This leads him to develop an infatuation with Orlac's wife, Yvonne (Frances Drake), who stars in a Grand Guignol style theatrical horror show in which her character is elaborately tortured. When Stephen is injured, Yvonne uses Gogol's infatuation with her to persuade him to perform the surgery. It isn't until Stephen's new hands begin to take on a life of their own that Yvonne begins to fully realize the kind of madman she has gotten involved with.

"The Hands of Orlac" (1961). This version of the story is less of a horror film and more of a psychological drama. Orlac, played by Mel Ferrer, loses his hands in a plane crash and has new ones grafted on. This time, however, it is not at all certain that the hands he received were those of a killer. Orlac jumps to that conclusion because a notorious strangler was executed on the night of his accident. In his agitated state, Orlac becomes easy prey for a seedy magician named Neron (Christopher Lee), who feeds Orlac's paranoia about the evil potential of his new hands in order to blackmail him.

"Hands of a Stranger" (1962). This variation on the Orlac story strays farther from the original than any other, even to the point of changing the name of the main character from Stephen Orlac to Vernon Paris. Instead of receiving the hands of a murderer, Paris is given the hands of a murder victim. Unfortunately, the new hands do not have the dexterity required for playing piano. Gradually, the embittered Paris becomes obsessed with thoughts of vengeance, which ultimately find expression in acts of violence.

The many cinematic hands of Orlac do not, by the way, constitute the sum total of supernaturally possessed hands on the screen. Far from it. Next week we'll consider some films about even creepier hands.

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