“You can’t cut the balls off Superman!”
Well no, not if you don’t want to see him really angry. So screams a cartoonist railing against his life’s work being neutered. If an artist’s superpower lies in creative expression, then removing the ability can turn a hero into a villain.
Such is the transformation Jon Lansdale (Michael Caine) undergoes after losing his drawing fingers in a car accident. Stripped of his ability to create, artistic impotence manifests itself into a literal rogue killer hand in writer-director Oliver Stone’s sophomore ‘B-movie on an A-budget’ horror romp.
Jon is a writer/artist enjoying success with his Conan the Barbarianesque newspaper strip, a beautiful wife, happy daughter and lakeside studio. Soft-focus domestic bliss isn’t all it’s cracked up to be however, with a wife straining for independence and her own apartment in New York awakening jealousy and paranoia where a muse should be.
The daughter’s discovery of a dismembered snake’s tail in the grass, still twitching in reflexive imitation of life, foreshadows the separation to come. Making the elementary passenger error of waving at other motorists while arguing with his other half, Jon’s hand is severed off by a truck and lost in the roadside shrubbery.
If the control freak artist’s anger was simmering before, then boiling point comes with the loss of his money-making ‘manhood’. Meanwhile, the littlest hobo hand reappears, ironically sharing his previous owner’s grievances and vengeful rage-lust, so beginning a crazed spiral into madness, murder and batshit illogicality as those that irritate Jon soon feel the touch of rotting fingers…
Caine’s central performance anchors the movie despite itself. This is an acting masterclass – resentment simmering behind lizard eyes, seesawing between bursts of caustic anger and endearing sympathy. He often got pretty shouty in pulpier ‘for the cheque’ 70s/80s roles (see The Swarm, or don’t), but he brings the value here – watching his killer cogs turn is crazy enjoyable.
He’s often fighting against his own boss in maintaining credibility. Stone throws in a series of sledgehammer directorial choices that frequently bring guffaws. The camera assumes the crawling hand’s point-of-view (like, how?!); lightning flashes signal Caine’s rising temper; the blackouts/murder scenes are filmed in black and white, although even some of these merge into cheat dream sequences.
The biggest jump shocks come from a black cat leaping into frame. The same pussy also crashes through a glass window leaving Caine and the audience scratching their heads at such what-the-fuckery. The first victim is a hobo played by Stone himself, meta-killing his own career.
It’d be easy to claim Stone tired of these pulp shenanigans, turning to ‘serious’ cinema to make his name five years later with the double header of semi-biographical Oscar-winner Platoon and furious political masterpiece Salvador, both in 1986.
But the angry auteur often dipped his toe into camp over a colourful career, from the cartoon chainsaw of Natural Born Killers, through producing bad taste classic Freeway, to slapstick noir U-Turn. He’s not a clean boy guv’nor, but he knows how to wear a suit, as Mr Caine might say.
This is still a personal work, channelling the raging egotistical artist schtick into schlock fun. Jon Lansdale’s frustration over the dilution of his work are a reflection of Stone’s own experiences struggling to get his megaphone voice heard across Hollywood static.
The Hand remains a curio, teetering between psychological thriller and horror hokum, being way better than you expect but not half as good as it could have been – an entertaining sidenote in the margins of two spectacularly illustrious careers. Nevertheless, the base theme of creative emasculation serves as a fun warning to aspiring artists everywhere.
Along with watching out for that darn cat.