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.

Mid-Day Mini ~ The Joy Luck Club

The Facts:

Synopsis: The life histories of four Asian women and their daughters reflect and guide each other.

Stars: Tamlyn Tomita, Rosalind Chao, Tsai Chin, France Nuyen, Lisa Lu, Ming-Na, Lauren Tom

Director: Wayne Wang

Rated: R

Running Length: 139 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  This adaptation of Amy Tan’s celebrated 1989 novel had the great fortune of falling into the right hands.  In addition to Oscar winning producer Oliver Stone and Oscar winning screenwriter Ronald Bass (who collaborated on the script with Tan), director Wang was at the helm overseeing this drama that looked into the lives of a quartet of women and their daughters.

Tan’s novel weaved together the past and the present to form a rich tapestry of insights into cultures and customs and the movie followed well in its footsteps.  I remember reading the novel before I saw the movie and finding it very cinematic in its conception.  It was a joy to see that Bass and Tan managed to skillfully bring to life eight vastly different women with divergent stories, binding them together in a fantastic package.

Though the story is solid, the acting can run the gamut…mostly in the modern day daughters of these women.  All the mothers have a noble story, some tragic, some humorous…but all with a definite impact.  Chin makes the best impression as a feisty tiger mother that expects the best from her daughter.  As the movie unfolds we see why she takes such pride in success and the sacrifices she made to provide the life her family enjoys. 

It’s a handsomely made film that only gets more rewarding with each viewing as you can focus on another storyline.  It’s also one of those tearjerkers that come from situations that we can relate to…especially for anyone (male or female) that gets that guilty pit in their stomach after responding in anger to a parent just trying to help or realizing too late you didn’t appreciate the unspoken gifts they gave you.  Brace yourself for a heartbreaking scene set in a salon and a Kleenex box emptying reunion as the film draws to a close.