Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Phantom Feelings

There’s a type of thriller that seemed to exist when I was growing up and I almost can’t put into words what the subgenre would be. Dark tales of modest ambitions featuring stars in the lead roles, many set in rural aeas, some about people who have come there from the city. I imagine many of these films beginning with the Avco-Embassy logo as well. I’m not sure I understand what this phantom sort of movie is, but that’s what memory does to you.

Oliver Stone’s THE HAND (featuring an Orion logo at the start, not Avco-Embassy) is one of those movies and yet it isn’t. It’s a straightforward horror thriller, yet it isn’t. It has a performance by an actor who goes over the top, yet he doesn’t. It’s about a killer hand, but no, that’s not really what its about at all.

Michael Caine is comic book artist Joe Landsdale. During a car ride he is having an argument with wife Anne (Andrea Marcovicci, also of THE STUFF and THE CONCORDE: AIRPORT ’79) about the state of their marriage. In the middle of the fight, the two are nearly in an accident and while Caine is waving for a car to get out of the way, it is sliced clean off by the truck who is closely driving in front of them. Robbed of his creativity, Landsdale tries to put his life back together as his marriage crumbles, but he begins to have visions of his hand which was never located after the accident. And what about these visions of violence that he is having? Is he going mad or is the hand simply causing what he wants to happen to certain people?

Made after his Oscar win for the screenplay of MIDNIGHT EXPRESS and his first attempt to film BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (with Al Pacino) had failed, THE HAND is Stone’s second directing effort after the little-seen 1974 horror film SEIZURE. That first film is not particularly good, but it is interesting (the presence of Martine Beswick in the lead role certainly helps). THE HAND is interesting as well, but it never fully works because it seems unsure where to go with its basic idea and how far to take it.

The film’s basic theme of an artist losing control of his creativity is a powerful one but THE HAND seems to take even more interest in portraying the collapse of this marriage. As an exploration of the themes of fidelity and trust, I was strongly reminded of some of David Cronenberg’s THE BROOD, made two years before this. But that film is a good example of Cronenberg’s strengths, while THE HAND plays like the work of a director who is unsure of how to handle the genre. In fact, Stone makes a comment on his enjoyably earnest DVD commentary for the film that he doesn’t think he has the “horror gene”. The sequence where the hand is severed is bloody and effective, no question about that, but it’s clear that Stone would figure out the right path for his directing career soon enough.

The performance of Michael Caine falls somewhere in between his over-the-top rantings in things like THE SWARM and his more acclaimed work from around this time such as DRESSED TO KILL. At first he seems a little too strait-laced to me as this comic-book artist and the main argument at the beginning features him yelling just a little too much. (It frankly plays like Caine overacting as opposed to the character overreacting) On the other hand, when he simply expresses himself and his anger with looks he is very strong (Caine has such great eyes for that sort of thing) and he also seems much more believable, chillingly so, late in the film when he really starts to go over the edge. As his wife, Marcovicci is very good, as well as fetching, and the movie’s portrayal of her never seems to tip in one direction or the other too much. It’s too bad that she never became a more familiar face, though she has achieved a more successful career as a cabaret singer.

Ultimately, Oliver Stone as the director of THE HAND is more interested in the exploration of a character’s descent into madness and the destruction of a marriage than he is in making a movie about a killer hand. That’s all well and good—hey, it’s what I’d be more interested in as well. But he doesn’t seem to know how to use the genre to make those two separate things play off each other. And, as he would probably admit, he doesn’t seem interested in figuring out how he would do that. That’s why I dislike the ending so much, one which screams “let’s reshoot so we can play up the horror angle and go out on an illogical scare” just about more than any other bad horror movie ending I’ve ever seen. Sometimes a director makes a certain movie to find out that he doesn’t want to make that movie. So maybe the best way to look at THE HAND is as a short detour in the path of Oliver Stone’s evolution.


Mapeel said...

This reminds me that I was positively giddy to find that the Criterion Collection has Carnival of Souls, which I just bought to give to my brother for his birthday. I think it was on the 4:30 movie for several years in the seventies, because we saw it enough times to be a great, creepy, childhood memory.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Mrs. Peel--

I love CARNIVAL OF SOULS! And the Criterion DVD of it is amazing. Now I'm going to have the 4:30 movie theme in my head for the rest of the day. Not that I mind--it's a beautiful piece of music.

--Mr. Peel

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

I remember really liking this film but I haven't seen it in many years. You should have joined in Stacie's film club over at Final Girl since a bunch of bloggers just shared posts about the film here. Maybe you still can?

I hope to check out the new DVD soon since I want to revisit the movie and see if it still scares me, but my favorite severed hand movie will always be The Beast with Five Fingers with the always amazing Peter Lorre.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I just posted it over there. Even if it's late, I guess it's the thought that counts, right? And check out the DVD. Oliver Stone usually has very interesting things to say in his commentaries and this one is no exception. Thanks very much for stopping by, Kimberly.