The Hand (1981)

screenshot from The Hand

Directed by: Oliver Stone
Screenwriter(s): Oliver Stone (from the novel by Marc Brandel)
Starring: Michael Caine, Andrea Marcovicci, Annie McEnroe, Bruce McGill, Viveca Lindfors
Genre: Horror
Country: USA
Running time: 1h 44m
Rating: 1 out of 10

The Hand is written and directed by Oliver Stone and stars Sir Michael Caine. It’s a nasty, misogynist little 1980s horror which isn’t out of place in the canon of either Annie McEnroe or Bruce McGill (a fine actor who toiled away in many crappy outings which weren’t really worth his talent), but which doesn’t have an obvious reason to have involved Stone or Caine.

The film is based on a Marc Brandel novel, The Lizard’s Tail, in which a famous cartoonist, Jonathan Lansdale, loses his hand. The novel’s title and some seriously heavy-handed (pun intended) foreshadowing is crowbarred into the first scene. Lansdale’s daughter, Lizzie, has found a lizard’s tail outside their house (it’s quite clear that their cat has eaten the poor thing’s body) and is poking it with a stick. She asks how the lizard’s tail can still be moving when it’s been dislocated from its body. Jonathan replies that it’s not alive in any real sense, because it’s just a series of nerve endings twitching. But the contemplative look on his face seems to wonder, ‘Is it really not sentient, Jonathan? Is it?’

Lansdale (Caine) is unhappily married and his wife (Marcovicci, not a strong screen presence but given nothing to work with by the script) wants them to move to New York. She’s unhappy in rural Vermont, with her not-busy life of doing yoga in the living room of their massive house overlooking a lake. It becomes clear that she means that she wants to move to New York with their daughter, leaving Jonathan in Vermont alone to work on his Mandro series, a superhero comic in the Thor vein which fairly rakes in the cash which pays for her yoga attire. They’re having a fight about the issue when there is a contrived car crash in which Jonathan loses his hand. This is both unnecessarily gory and also not frightening at all, because the stump looks terrible and the blood looks exactly like red sugar water.

When he gets out of hospital, he shows his daughter his stump and she asks why the severed appendage wasn’t just sewn back on. He says that ‘Mummy went to look for it, but it ran away’ and he appears to be joking. But did it actually run away, Jonathan? Did it?

He must have second thoughts because he goes searching for his severed hand in a cornfield (as you do), but only finds his signet ring. Jonathan’s missing hand gets replaced by a mechanical one, over which he wears a leather glove, a notoriously cheaper prop than either a prosthesis or visual effect.

In quick succession, the family moves to New York, Jonathan hands over (the puns are unavoidable) the Mandro comic to another artist, and the wife starts finding herself and a new lover among some stereotypical early 1980s self-help groups. When the new storyboards from his replacement artist are defaced, Jonathan gets fired from his publisher. On his way home, an aggressive homeless man (Stone himself) accosts Jonathan about his deformity. We are then ‘treated’ to a hand’s eye view of his death by strangulation.

At home, Jonathan grills his daughter about whether she defaced the storyboards, but the audience is left to assume that it was The Hand itself, which is seen scurrying underneath a dresser in their New York loft. It is already getting mouldy.

Lansdale takes a job at a community college in rural California where he strikes up a friendship with another professor (McGill) and an affair with a student (McEnroe, who is given little to do except whine and offer gratuitous nudity). The Hand starts drawing pornographic pictures of Stella, the student, and Jonathan starts having blackouts. But are you, Jonathan, are you?

Everything goes even more to hell, as Jonathan becomes increasingly unhinged and The Hand, which is far too frequently seen on screen considering it’s a cheap piece of rubber with no scare factor, gets increasingly mouldy and bloodthirsty. Bodies accumulate.

There is nothing about this film which sets it apart from any other cheap 1980s horror. Its two main female characters are mean-spirited stereotypes (nagging wife and cheap trash) who seem to exist only to add to the lead’s man-pain. The film is not a metaphor for anything. It doesn’t bother to explore any potentially interesting themes, like the complete loss of identity which surely follows from an artist losing a hand or even, to widen the point, what happens to middle-aged men who’re thrown on the jobs scrap heap.

You’re given no reason to side with Lansdale, who is pretty much shown as a blank canvas to whom things just happen. The frequent appearances of The Hand itself make everything just a little bit more ludicrous and cut across any potential mystery as to whether everything is in Jonathan’s mind (only the audience sees it, not Jonathan himself). There’s not a single relatable character in the piece, and Viveca Lindfors is wasted in a cameo near the end.

The film is neither fun-trashy or enjoyably bad. It’s just tasteless.