Release Date: April 24, 1981
Starring: Michael Caine, Andrea Marcovicci, Annie McEnroe, Bruce McGill, Rosemary Murphy, Mara Hobel
Written and Directed by Oliver Stone based on the novel The Lizard’s Tail by Marc Brandel
The horror genre is one that I seem to have under-represented in my film reviews and retrospectives over the years. Nothing against the genre itself, I’ve just never felt the need to revisit any of the classics later in life, particularly slasher films. Sure they were fun to watch the first time around, but for every Halloween and Friday the 13th, I preferred more psychological/supernatural films like Poltergeist. But there was something about Oliver Stone’s 1981 film The Hand starring Michael Caine that grabbed me (no pun intended, I swear!) when I saw it was available for rent on Amazon this past weekend. I vaguely remember watching it on cable in he early 80s, and over time I’ve associated The Hand with one of Michael Caine’s more questionable films. But this time around I was interested to see if the overall film matched the level of talent associated with the production, namely Michael Caine’s acting, Oliver Stone’s direction and James Horner’s score.
Jonathan Lansdale (played by Michael Caine) is a successful cartoonist of the daily newspaper comic strip Mandro, a Conan the Barbarian style character. He lives a quiet life in Vermont with his wife Anne (Andrea Marcovicci) and daughter Lizzie (Mara Hobel), but their life is too tranquil for Anne, who pushes Jonathan for a move to New York City. He suspect she has other motives for the move, and when she drives him to the post office to mail the week’s Mandro comic strips to the syndicate she admits to him that her preference is that he stays in Vermont while she pursues her interests in New York. An argument ensues and in the heat of emotion Anne makes an ill-timed attempt to pass a slow moving truck on a blind curve. A car speeds towards them in the oncoming lane, but they are unable to merge back behind the truck due to an impatient driver behind them. Jonathan sticks his arm out the passenger side window to get the driver to slow down and let them merge back behind the truck, but their car sideswipes the truck, severing Jonathan’s drawing hand.
Their attempt to find the severed hand in a field proves fruitless and Jonathan must make due with a prosthetic, his drawing career over. Despite his inability to draw, Jonathan takes the change better than expected. Late one night, unable to sleep, Jonathan sits at his drawing desk trying to draw Mandro with his left hand. His concentration is broken when his cat goes berserk and jumps through a pane of glass. Jonathan sees something busting in a pile of wood but takes it as something harmless. In an act of closure, Jonathan visits the scene of the accident and walks through the field where his severed hand would have landed. He finds his gold signet ring but not the remains of his hand, which is alive and hiding in the tall grass watching Jonathan.
For the moment Anne seems recommitted to him and they move to a SoHo loft in Manhattan. When Jonathan meets with his agent Karen (Rosemary Murphy) to discuss the future of Mandro, she suggests taking on another artist to draw the strip while Jonathan continues to plot and write it. He resists the idea at first, and tells her about an offer he received to teach at a community college in California. Karen is skeptical, not only because she wants the strip to continue but because she knows once he is back on his feet Anne will leave him. She’s become more involved in a New Age type group, and her yoga instructor/counselor Bill (Nicholas Hormann) takes up more time in her life to Jonathan’s suspicion. With every moment of anger or emotional pain, he begins to have hallucinations and dreams of his severed hand.
The sample strips by the new artist don’t meet Jonathan’s standards for Mandro. When he complains to Anne that his plot and script for the samples were completely ignored by the new artist, she encourages him to give up some of the creative control in order to have income so they can survive past the end of the year. When Jonathan meets with Karen and new artist David Maddow (Charles Fleischer) to voice his disapproval, he’s surprised to hear that Karen actually agrees with David’s ideas to make Mandro more accessible to a contemporary audience. When she opens the portfolio to edit the sample strips, they find them splashed with black ink supposedly in an act of sabotage. They accuse Jonathan but he suspects his daughter ruined the panels. Returning home, Jonathan is accosted by a belligerent homeless man (played by the film’s writer/director Oliver Stone), but while he encounter is over as quickly as it started, Jonathan’s severed hand follows the homeless man into an alley and strangles him to death.
He tells Anne that he is canceling Mandro rather than have his creation changed. It’s unlikely Karen will work with him again so he decides to take the teaching position to Anne’s disappointment. He makes the move to California with the belief that Anne will follow him there with Lizzie soon after. Jonathan moves into a run down cabin owned by the college and quickly strikes up a friendship with philosophy teacher Brian Ferguson (played by Bruce McGill). When Jonathan begins to question Anne’s intention to reunite, his slow descent begins. In the middle of one night as he gets up to investigate a strange sound, he finds his signet ring, lost after their move to Manhattan, placed in the center of his pillow.
On his first day of classes he realizes that most of his students are simply there for an easy grade rather than an interest in cartooning. One student, townie Stella Roche (played by Annie McEnroe) catches his eye. One night, she stops by his cabin to drop off her sketch book which quickly leads to a sexual encounter. After she leaves, he looks through Stella’s sketchbook of amateurish drawings and finds a highly detailed sketch of her nude with a severed hand that was clearly not drawn by her. The drawing is in his style and the signature at the bottom of the page is his own, but he has no recollection of drawing it when grading her work. Over beers at the local bar, Brian tells Jonathan that the unconscious is capable of anything, and it’s possible he’s blacking out and his prosthetic hand is receiving impulses to draw from his brain. As Jonathan’s emotional state spirals downward, he becomes more suspicious of his blackouts, even sequestering himself one night to protect Stella. But despite his efforts, his severed hand has followed him to California and continues to strike the people around him.
No spoilers here. Oliver Stone’s The Hand is an entertaining film that I would recommend, though it is classified as a horror film almost in spite of itself. It falls short as a horror film (slasher film fans will be disappointed at the lack of gore and sparse action), but makes up for it by hitting the right notes with drama, character development and a strong cast. It’s also brought down by the lack of quality special effects (even by early 80’s standards the special effects for the severed hand and the bloody accident sequence are relatively crude, though masked effectively by Richard Marks’ editing) and the distracting choice to film several sequences involving the severed hand in black and white. While Jonathan’s severed hand is supposed to be the focal point of the film, Stone’s screenplay short changes the audience by keeping its screen time a minimum, making its role in the story ambiguous and it’s “payoff” moments in the film lacking weight. But overall The Hand is still a solid film as a psychological thriller, elevated even more by Caine’s performance.