Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Final Girl Film Club - The Hand (1981)

Cody is endeavoring to write about all of the Final Girl Film Club entries he missed over the years. The movies will be covered in the original Film Club order in most cases, while some of the articles will be posted to coincide with certain dates.

Cody and Priscilla watch as Michael Caine earns a paycheck giving Oliver Stone a hand with his career.

Seven years after directing his first feature (1974's completely wacked-out Seizure!) and right on the cusp of his big breakout, Oliver Stone took on this adaptation of Marc Brandell's novel The Lizard's Tail.

Michael Caine, who accepted the acting gig so he could afford a new garage, stars as Jonathan Lansdale, writer/illustrator of the Conan the Barbarian-esque fantasy comic Mandro. Lansdale lives in Vermont with his young daughter Lizzie and his wife Anne, but there's trouble with his marriage... He and Anne have grown apart emotionally, and lately she's been talking about putting physical distance between them as well and moving to New York City.

During an afternoon drive with Anne behind the wheel, Lansdale and his wife get into an argument, a fight that distracts her from her driving and leads to an accident, during which Lansdale's right hand is severed. The hand he draws with. His personal life is crumbling, and now his career is ruined.

Lansdale's hand is never recovered after the crash, but he attempts to move on with his life... Not very successfully. Gradually, his personal and professional lives fall apart even more, and to add to the troubles he starts witnessing strange occurences and having hallucinations.

Early on in the film, there's a visual representation of what Marc Brandell had in mind when he titled his novel The Lizard's Tail, as Lansdale's daughter is seen prodding at the severed tail of a lizard with a stick. Even though the lizard is dead, being consumed by the family cat, its detached tail wiggles wildly when Lizzie pokes at it, almost as if it has a life of its own.

The cat is one of the first in the film to realize something strange is going on after Lansdale's accident. Very often in movies we see cats doing things they normally don't, and in this one the cat freaks out and jumps straight through the glass of a closed window. It's almost believable here because if there was ever a cat that would do that it's Amanda. She's a very hyper and weird kitty, and we never see her again after the window scene.

Amanda the cat's jump comes just as Lansdale and the audience begin to wonder if his severed hand may indeed be out there acting in the same way as the lizard's tail. We're given glimpses of the hand moving on its own, we see it lurking around Lansdale, hiding under things... and eventually, we even see the hand start attacking people that Lansdale has issues with, people he feels has wronged him, grabbing their throats in its bone-crushing grasp and squeezing the life out of them.

Has Lansdale's hand taken on a life of its own? Has the severed extremity taken it upon itself to knock off its former owner's enemies? Or has the trauma and alcohol driven Lansdale over the edge - is the hand just rotting out in a field while we're seeing the events through the eyes of a man gone insane?

The film may be about a killer hand, a very goofy concept at its base, so much so that it has been used to great effect in horror-comedies like Evil Dead II and Idle Hands, but there is no comedic slant to this killer hand story. Stone tells it dead seriously; this is about as dour and dramatic as a killer hand movie could possibly get, even if the hand itself doesn't look all that convincing a lot of the time.

The Hand is a very strange movie, with some effectively unnerving moments, and has some great performances, as you would expect with Michael Caine in the lead. He's given capable support from the likes of The Stuff's Andrea Marcovicci, prolific actor Bruce McGill, Creepshow's Bedelia Viveca Lindfors, and Annie McEnroe, who would go on to marry the film's producer Edward R. Pressman and face off against Stirba - Werewolf Bitch in Howling II:...Your Sister Is a Werewolf. Roger Rabbit himself Charles Fleischer appears in a small role and Oliver Stone makes a director's cameo in the role of an ill-fated homeless man.

It's intriguing throughout, yet the pacing is a little too slow, the running time a little too long at 104 minutes. There is a lot of character work and the film wants us to be invested, but it doesn't help in the effort that, despite all the issues we watch him dealing with, Jonathan Lansdale is never a very likeable person. Those around him aren't great, either, but he certainly doesn't rise above the fray.

The problematic relationship between Jonathan and Anne is largely explored, especially before he moves to California for a teaching job at the University of Saraville. It's an example of what happens sometimes when there's a big age difference between the two people. She was likely enamored with him at first for a few reasons, one probably being his talent. And he had plenty of that, as we can see when he uses his left hand to draw after the accident - it still looks better than what most people can accomplish with their dexterous hand. But now she's wanting to see more of the world and he's trying to hold on to her. He's so worried she's leaving him and so insecure, that the first thing he says after coming back home from the hospital after the accident, regarding his stump, is "It's so ugly". Not to get too much into the psychological aspect of it all, but he lost a limb, lost his whole career, and yet what's bothering him the most right now is the aesthetics, because it's another thing that makes him even more unattractive and unfit to her. At least in his mind.

The Vermont location, a house by a lake, is lovely. The movie could have gained more atmosphere and had more appealing cinematography if more scenes had been shot there instead of the setting moving on to the city and then California.

Overall, The Hand is a mixed bag. It's not great, it's not bad. It's an oddity, an interesting credit in the filmographies of Stone and Caine. It's worth checking out if you get the chance, but not something you need to go out of your way to see.

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