31 Days to Scare ~ The Hand (1981)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Jon Lansdale is a comic book artist who loses his right hand in a car accident. The hand was not found at the scene of the accident but soon returns by itself to follow Jon and murder those who anger him.

Stars: Michael Caine, Andrea Marcovicci, Annie McEnroe, Bruce McGill, Viveca Lindfors, Rosemary Murphy, Oliver Stone

Director: Oliver Stone

Rated: R

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Doing this series of 31 Days to Scare every October for quite some time now, I’ve been able to offer up some of my favorite suggestions of popular and lesser-known films/documentaries/tv shows to consider as the days get shorter, and temps get colder.  There comes a point when even I need to get some new material and that’s where movies like The Hand come in…and where I can sometimes run into a bit of a conundrum in how to present the work to you, dear reader.  You see, while my normal reviews are my unvarnished takes on new releases, I always try to feature movies that are worth in this special series between October 1 and October 31.  Setting out to experience the new, watching these older titles leaves me open to run across a stinker or two and while 1981’s The Hand is no outright turkey, it’s starts to grow more than a few feathers of bad taste as it starts to gobble up what made the first half so good.

Directed by then recent Oscar-winner Oliver Stone (this was Stone pre-Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, Scarface, and more recently Savages) who was given near carte blanche by a studio eager to get into business with the red hot screenwriter/director, The Hand is an adaptation of Marc Brandel’s 1979 novel “The Lizard’s Tail”. Springing from the author’s mind as he was going through a divorce, the novel turned the strain of matrimony coming apart at the seams into scary stuff.  Stone keeps most of the novel intact, following a comic book artist (Michael Caine, JAWS: The Revenge) living in New England with his unhappy wife (Andrea Marcovicci, The Stuff) and young daughter who loses his drawing hand in a freak accident and then is unable to find his missing appendage. 

As he adjusts to life without his instrument to create, his marriage takes a turn, and he opts for a job at a college in California so he and his wife can have time apart.  It’s here that he becomes friendly with a fellow teacher (Bruce McGill, The Best of Enemies) and meets an attractive student in his class, a relationship that becomes something more.  When his wife and daughter visit for the Christmas holiday, several unexplained events happen which suggests violence has followed the artist from one coast to another.  Is it his missing hand which we’ve seen creeping around on the ground and randomly hopping onto the necks of various supporting characters?  Or is this all in the head of a man slowly losing grasp on reality and retreating into a fictionalized world to avoid dealing with his formerly stable life which is now crumbling around him?

That’s the psychological thriller of a movie Stone set out to make and is pretty much the way Brandel’s book flows, sidetracks to spirituality and metaphysical journeys with the wife aside, but it sounds like the studio wasn’t happy with what was delivered and made major changes.  These changes, clearly evident in the choppy and scatter-brained final act, rob the characters of much subtly and instead crank their dials up past 11 and hope for the best.  Without much room to breathe or act rationally, everything becomes fever-pitched to the back of the theater wall or your living room. If the hand was originally meant as metaphor it devolves into just another crawling creepy crafted by a legend of cinema, Carlo Rambaldi who had just come off of the far more successful 1976 retelling of King Kong for which he had won an Oscar.

The shift in Stone’s tone is fairly jarring, but then again if you are familiar with Stone’s later work you can see his natural inclination to not want to make your traditional thriller or a simple horror film – he likes playing the subtext and the exploration of that is here.  Going back later and claiming studio interference is easy and while I believe some of it was there, I also feel like The Hand maybe wasn’t even destined to be great in the first place. 

Where that leaves us is to count on the performances to help ground a series of late breaking events (and an entire epilogue of sorts) that threatens to carry the entire film right up, up, and away.  You can believe Caine when he says in interviews that the The Hand was one of a series of films he made in the ‘80s that were his “paycheck” movies, but it doesn’t register like that onscreen.  His performance is never anything less than totally committed and at times even giving more to the role than it may have deserved.  Stone’s cast the rest of the picture amicably too, with Marcovicci chilly as the not quite supportive wife and Annie McEnroe (Beetlejuice) playing the aggressive co-ed.  I’ll always be up for a McGill appearance and he’s nice here as Caine’s colleague in California.  What a surprise to see Stone cast himself as a indigent that becomes one of the first victims of the often well designed terror-hand.

I won’t even bother reviewing the severed hand because it was new to the business at the time and just getting its digits wet when it starred in this picture.  I’m not sure how it managed to get enough leverage to do the kind of deeds it does but if you’re delving too deep into the logic of it all you may have strayed too far away from the mindset required to take this in with the most open of minds.  I did hear that the hand received its training with Thing from The Addams Family so the skill was clearly there.  Aside from its tendency to glide on the ground when it should be crawling, it’s rather convincing.

Is The Hand a good movie?  Not really, but it’s never boring or so silly that you aren’t willing to stay invested to find out how it all turns out.  True, a rather strange coda leaves a bland taste in the mouth, and not just for the way it wastes a valued star like Viveca Lindfors (Creepshow). Then again, even that is written with such a bizarre bravado you almost have to applaud its audacity to send the audience out of the theaters like it does.  Caine is awfully good at selling what the role requires and Stone has gotten The Hand off to a mighty fine start.  It’s just those last 40 minutes of so when The Hand gets the thumbs down for grasping at air when trying to hold on to its message.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Stuff

The Facts:

Synopsis: A delicious mysterious goo that oozes from the Earth is marketed as the newest dessert sensation. But the sugary treat rots more than teeth when zombie-like snackers begin infesting the world.

Stars: Michael Moriarty, Andrea Marcovicci, Garrett Morris, Paul Sorvino, Scott Bloom, Danny Aiello

Director: Larry Cohen

Rated: R

Running Length: 86 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: When schlock director Larry Cohen passed away in March of 2019, he left behind a legacy of campy horror films that ran the gamut in tone and style.  He was comfortable with tightly paced Hollywood fare like Cellular and Phone Booth, likely because he was used to filming quick and fast having cut his teeth in low-budget horror films It’s Alive and God Told Me To.  Though his movies were amusing in a throwback sort of way (I dare you not to watch the ‘80s monster movie Q: The Winged Serpent and not have just a little bit of fun) they often were one joke/concepts that didn’t always have a resolution to their rather fantastical set-ups.  Good starts, bad endings.

Never is that more apparent than in The Stuff, Cohen’s 1985 sci-fi horror satire about a tasty substance that becomes everyone’s favorite snack.  Obviously commenting on the yogurt craze that was happening around that period of time, Cohen spends the first half hour or so of the film nicely structuring a framework of a society eager to jump on the bandwagon of the latest craze.  Marketed as The Stuff, every supermarket has a healthy stock and nearly all American households have one or more cartons in their refrigerators waiting to be consumed.  The advertising parodies Cohen has dreamed up are a riot, with commercials and jingles for The Stuff providing some decent laughs in their ridiculous earnestness.

There’s something bad about The Stuff, though, and we know it early on.  Suburban boy Jason (Scott Bloom) wakes in the middle of the night looking for a midnight treat and when he opens the fridge he sees The Stuff moving…crawling back into its carton.  His parents and brother don’t believe him, likely because they have been eating The Stuff on the regular and soon are trying to get him to eat it as well.  At the same time, a private investigator (Michael Moriarty) is hired by a rival corporation interested in stealing The Stuff’s formula and he begins to suspect the food may not exactly have the full support of the FDA.  Teaming up with an ad exec (Andrea Marcovicci) who had been working on The Stuff’s campaign, the investigator uncovers more than he bargained for and is soon on the run with Jason joining their ranks.  Can they stop the spread of The Stuff?

Cohen wastes no time diving headfirst into the action.  Literally, within the first moments of the film we see the goo bubbling out of the ground where an old man finds it, samples it, and thinks it could be something the entire world would want.  This all in the span of, oh, twenty seconds.  The first half of the movie is so front loaded with information and action that Cohen runs of interesting developments before the film has reached the sixty-minute mark.  That’s when he brings in Paul Sorvino (The Gambler) who has been waiting in the wings and, let me tell you, he is hungry to nosh on some scenery.  Sorvino’s military figure battling The Stuff like he’s going to war with the communists is a tired old cliché and only shows you how little the finale was truly thought out.

The concept of The Stuff is intriguing but Cohen did not fill the rest of the movie with anyone we remotely want to root for.  As Jason, Bloom is a total dud lacking conviction in any of his line readings and Marcovicci might have made for an interesting female lead playing a powerful businesswoman of the ‘80s…if Cohen didn’t have her jump into bed with Moriarty immediately when she thought he was a headhunter for another account she wanted.  As for Moriarty, he’s the lead and is truly, truly, atrocious.  A longtime Cohen favorite, Moriarty is going for some slick kind of character with, I’m guessing from his accent, some kind of bayou roots but winds up giving a bad performance for the history books.  Sporting a hideous toupee and laughing at the material almost as much as the audience is laughing at how bad he is in the movie, Moriarty pretty much ruins the movie.

When The Stuff starts to take on a life of its own, there are some decent special effects but it too often reminded me of The Blob (the original and the fun ‘80s remake), reminding me it had been a while since I’d fired one of those films up.  When you spend more time thinking of when you can start another movie you know the one you’re watching isn’t filling you up.  The Stuff isn’t a feast, just an interesting first taste.