Monday, April 10, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Hand" (1981)

OK, that's more like it.

After my dispiriting foray into checking out a film I incorrectly assumed was related to to 1981's "The Hand," I followed through and watched the horror film that I only saw once 35 years ago but still holds a strong place in my mind.

When it's been that long you don't really remember a movie; all you have is memories of memories -- vague impressions of mood and emotion punctuated with a few crystal-clear flashbacks.

"The Hand" was writer/director Oliver Stone's second feature film, falling into horror/psychological thriller geography. It was a big flop, got savaged by critics and didn't do much for the careers of Stone or star Michael Caine.

It's really a garbage movie, but the kind you can enjoy without guilt.

(As opposed to the British 1960 version of "The Hand," which brings guilt but no joy.)

Caine plays Jon Lansdale, a famous-ish cartoon artist who draws a syndicated newspaper strip called "Mandro," who is a not-at-all disguised clone of Conan. He loses his drawing hand in a freak car accident caused by his wife, with whom he was growing increasingly distant. They can't find the hand to reattach it, and Jon spirals into a psychotic state in which he imagines the disembodied hand comes to life and starts killing people who have wronged him.

As I mentioned in the previous column, we're lulled into thinking the entire thing is a figment of Jon's tortured mind, but the final scene would have us believe the supernatural hand is a real, malevolent entity after all.

After Jon has been incarcerated for his many crimes, a psychologist has him strapped into a medical chair, his hair disheveled into a Jewfro of impressive proportions, with a bunch of electrodes attached to his head in a scene that is very reminiscent of the one in "A Clockwork Orange."

The shrink, an older, authoritative woman -- more on that in a minute -- gets Jon to say that the hand is crawling toward her neck because it wants to kill her. But she pushes him hard, urging him admit that it's he who wants to hurt her, and confront his own fear and anger. That he does, but then the hand appears to choke her out.

I guess that was a breakthrough, of a sort.

Stone based his script on the 1979 novel, "The Lizard's Tail," by Marc Brandel. Though after the movie came out the book was reissued under the title "The Hand." Brandel was the type open to change, having legally switched his name from Marcus Beresford in the 1960s.

Back in the day, I was fascinated by the idea of a severed hand killing people, and the idea that a guy could be committing horrid acts without being aware of it -- projecting his negative emotions into an object that may or may not exist.

Also, it must be said, my teen self enjoyed the tawdry special effects (by Stan Winston) and the sheer gore of the film. Jon's un-handing scene is still arresting for the sheer amount of arterial spurts and Caine's extreme depiction of agony in a very un-Mandro type of way.

Today, the movie's horror plot perambulations are less interesting to me than the subtext about shifting gender roles. 

Jon clearly idolizes Mandro, a noble savage who knows what he wants and takes it through force of will and (ahem) hand. That's how he would like to see himself, instead of a scared, sensitive artist who is petrified that losing his hand will also rob him of his vocation, his identity as patriarch and the love of his wife.

Andrea Marcovicci plays his wife, Anne, who was already in the preparatory stages of leaving Jon when the accident occurs. She's become involved in some New Age-y movement that seems to involve a combination of yoga, Scientology-esque self-analysis and sleeping with your instructor. Mara Hobel plays their daugher, Lizzie.

(Apropos of nothing: I was struck by the downright eerie physical resemblance between Marcovicci and Gabriel Jarret, who had brief run in the '80s playing androgynous boy/men, most notably in "Real Genius." Same person?!?)

Like Jon, Anne has both redeeming and loathsome qualities. She's a woman who has spent much of her adult life under the yoke of a controlling man, and strives for independence and self-discovery. But she also treats Jon quite shabbily after his maiming, pushing through with her plan to live separately on a trial basis -- this is what they were arguing about when she caused the accident -- essentially abandoning him in his time of greatest need.

Jon never says outright that it was Anne's fault that he lost his hand, though it lies there always between them unspoken, like a marker in the quiet game of wills they're playing. Jon, in his backward way, thinks that her guilt over his injury will cause her to reaffirm her marital duties as loyal wife; she uses his alienation as justification to pull further away.

Jon tries drawing with his left hand, but it's for naught. Then his agent arranges a tryout with a younger artist (Charles Fleischer) to handle the drafting side while Jon provides the writing. But he's infuriated when the other artist changes it around to make Mandro an existential character pondering his own motives.

Rather than turn the strip over entirely to an interloper, Jon vetoes the deal, thus also ending his family's entire source of income. Outfitted with a prosthetic hand -- which, inaccurately, is depicted as being capable of super-human strength -- he moves out to California to teach at a tiny hick community college, living by himself in a ramshackle cabin in the woods provided by the university. He befriends a drunken psychology instructor (Bruce McGill), who advises him on his blackout spells when the hand takes over.

And he dallies with a student (Annie McEnroe) named Stella who's a total figment of a male screenwriter's imagination: she simply shows up on his doorstep one evening, takes her shirt off and informs Jon that "I'm old-fashioned; I like to make it in a bed, OK?"

(As opposed to... what? The laundry room?)

The movie's deeper theme -- don't laugh; the better horror films always have ample subtext -- is about Jon's loss of masculinity, of his craving for dominance and respect.

He's a guy who lives vicariously through his creation, an all-conquering he-man who takes guff from no other. In reality, Jon is a rather effete fellow with a lilting Brit accent who wears colorful sweaters, dotes on his daughter and stands idly by while his wife's yoga instructor-cum-life-coach gradually seduces her under his nose. He earns a living by drawing pictures, not by competing with other men for the spoils of the land.

Rather than dilute Mandro's strength, Jon chooses to destroy him. Instead of accepting a payout, he forges his own, harder path. The hand becomes his new avatar for projecting his will onto others, and thus replenishing his own identity.

(If I were writing this for my old NYU cinema studies professors, I'd likely throw in some junk here about the hand being an extension of his man-parts, castration anxiety, etc. But I'm not, and I find most psychological/feminist/political analyses of film to be much more revealing of their authors than the movies themselves. So hie thee elsewhere for your dick metaphors.)

Soon the bodies pile up, the police grow suspicious and the hand turns its ire upon its weak, would-be master. Anne and Lizzie come for a Christmas visit, which is really Anne's excuse for running off to San Francisco to live with her new friends. We all know where this is heading.

More or less a forgotten film, "The Hand" brought back a lot of welcome memories from my earliest days as a movie lover. It's a silly, scary, rather skeevy film that touches a lot of erogenous zones for maturing minds.

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