Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Oliver Stone's The Hand (1981)

Title: The Hand (1981)

Director/Writer: Oliver Stone (based on the novel by Marc Brandell)

Cast: Michael Caine


I was under the impression (as Im sure many of you are) that Oliver Stone's The Hand was Oliver Stone’s first feature film. It wasnt. Before making The Hand, he had directed yet another horror film about a horror writer who's stories come to life entitled Seizure. He'd also directed another Vietnam themed film called Last Year in Vietman, which was truly his first film ever. Unfortunately, neither of those films is available on DVD. But by this time, Oliver Stone was more of a writer. A writer who'd written a successful and award winning screenplay called Midnight Express (1978). But apparently his thirst for directing films never died. And as is the case with many directors who are just starting out in the business of making movies, he went with making horror films. I have to admit, I was extremely curious to see Oliver Stone handling a horror film since the guy is primarily known for making films dealing with political/social issues. But hey, Kubrick did a horror film. Heck, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg all took at stab at horror as well. And strange as it is to say it, Oliver Stone did a couple of horror films as well. I find it kind of odd because horror is not the first word that comes to mind when you think of an Oliver Stone film, he tends to focus more on real life terrors then the kind of things we see in most horror films. But still, I was intrigued. How did The Hand turn out?

Stan Winston handled the special effects of the disembodied hand moving about

The Hand is about a cartoonist named Jonathan Lansdale. He has a very successful cartoon strip on various news papers around the world. He is very full of himself, he has a beautiful house, a daughter, a beautiful wife who by the way is bored with their relationship. She wants a breath of fresh air in her life, basically, she wants to go out on her own in the world and be her own person, independent of her husband which of course is something completely understandable. Lansdale on the other hand does not take these news very well, in fact, he takes it as if his wife is trying to get rid of him. As if she doesn’t love him anymore. In the middle of the discussion (which they are having while driving a car) the wife doesn’t see a truck coming along and she swerves the wrong way and Lansdale’s hand gets chopped off by the passing car! Unfortunately, that was his drawing hand! So now he can no longer draw his comic strip! Basically, he has been stripped of his talent! Of what he uses to pay the bills! What’s Lansdale to do now?

Stone going over a scene with Caine and the child actress who played his daughter

I expect good things from Oliver Stone every time I go into one of his films. Every now and then we get the odd film (like U-Turn) but most of the time, he doesn’t disappoint, which is why I went in with a positive attitude towards this film. But with a title like “The Hand” one tends to think this will be a silly horror film about a hand that kills, which couldn’t be further from the truth! Images of Bruce Campbell battling his own hand in Evil Dead II will no doubt pop to mind. But The Hand is actually an extremely satisfying psychological thriller. The themes at the core of the film are very interesting ones, and perhaps not exactly the kind of themes we’d expect from a horror film. But there they are. Essentially, the film deals with the power struggle between men and women in relationships.

Should men dominate women’s lives and treat them like their own personal slaves? Should a woman simply be a house wife and nothing else? I found it very interesting that the filmmakers chose the theme of “the hand” to tell this kind of story because the hand is often times a symbol of power, of control. When we hold something in our grasp, we tend to think of the thing as ours, and that’s basically how Lansdale saw his wife on this film. As a pretty object that he could control, a beautiful thing he could look at after long hours of work. What we have on this film is a character that is full of himself; he thinks life revolves around him and his work, and his wife is simply around for the ride. But what happens when the wife wants to take her own ride?

Electro schock therapy will do strange things to a mans hair

It’s interesting that I decided to watch this film and Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road (2008) one after another because they both deal with the exact same subject matter. Women who are dissatisfied and bored with their role as housewife. They want to live their lives and be free as opposed to staying home, and keeping everything nice and tidy for her hubby. Pampering the male; doing everything for him. Same as Revolutionary Road, this movie criticizes that type of life style and essentially says: if you are not happy that way, then don’t be that way! If that is not what you want, then do make your life into that. Go out there and live your life. I am not against the idea of a housewife, I mean, there are people who are happy living that way. Once they get there, they are happy to take care of the house hold while the husband is in charge of bringing home the bacon so to speak. I mean, some people are happy with that life. But others simply aren’t, other women want more out of life then that, and unfortunately they discover it once they are already living it. In my opinion we should all be free to choose the path our lives go, including women. And the man who can’t understand that, well, he is simply wrong. We all have the right to live our lives and do as we please with it. If we want to see more, then it’s entirely within our rights to do so.

I have to say that The Hand is one of Oliver Stone’s most underrated films. It’s extremely well shot (as are most of Oliver Stone’s films) and actually manages to capture a dreadful atmosphere in some areas. Especially when Lansdale decides to live isolated in a Cabin in the middle of nowhere. Speaking of isolation, this movie has a lot in common with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shinning (1980) which came out just one year before The Hand, Oliver Stone himself compares his film with Kubrick’s during the films audio commentary which I urge any of you out there to listen to if your interested in hearing how the mind of one of our generations greatest filmmakers works. We have a crazy dad, starting to hate his life. He has a daughter, scares his wife with his violent outbursts and ends up isolated in the middle of nowhere, going completely bonkers. I myself couldn’t help and think of Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall while watching The Hand.

Kudo’s go out to Michael Caine who plays his character with amazing intensity and insanity. Caine has said that he simply made this movie so he could give a down payment for his new home, or something along those lines, but you’d never know it by watching this movie! To me it was an excellent performance from Caine. It didn’t seem to me like he was phoning this performance in at all. He plays a possessive man, who doesn’t know how to deal with the fact that you cannot control women like a puppet, women are meant to be free, same as everyone. He learns this on various occasions during the film, and on both occasions he reacts violently. Where is the horror in this film you say? Well, the horror comes when Lansdale looses his hand! They try to recover it after the accident, but the hand is simply nowhere to be seen! Is Lansdale’s hand mysteriously possessed by some supernatural force that motivates it to kill people? Not gonna say anymore because I don’t want to spoil it for you guys who haven’t seen it. I was surprised by this film and would definitely recommend it to any fan of Oliver Stone films, and to fans of a good suspense, a good thriller, cause this one my friends is a very well crafted one.

Rating: 5 out of 5

The Hand (1981)


Fritz "Doc" Freakenstein said...

I'm starting to feel like the grumpy old film Freak, Francisco. I saw The Hand at the theater way back in 1981, when I didn't know who Oliver Stone was and was looking forward to a good horror film, starring one of my favorite actors, Michael Cane. I was very disappointed at that time and I've never watched the film again for several reasons.

The first reason is that I am not a fan if Oliver Stone's style of film-making - if you can call it a style. To me, Stone's films feel more like documentaries dressed up as fiction. The second and most important reason I dislike this film, is that it is not a horror film. You very accurately describe it later in your review as a "psychological thriller", because for those that have watched The Hand to the end credits know *SPOILER* his severed hand is not moving about killing people... it's all in his head!

Unlike Stephen King, I do like Kubrick's The Shining as both a horror film and as a psychological thriller. Although both Nicholson and Caine are at the top of their game in their respective films, I think Kubrick's The Shining is far more effective using visual cues to stimulate elevating fear and terror.

You finish by saying that "the horror comes when Lansdale looses his hand! They try to recover it after the accident, but the hand is simply nowhere to be seen!". That is The Hand's most powerful scene, but it still isn't horrifying. I'm sure if I watched this film again I would upgrade my opinion of it somewhat, but I'm positive I wouldn't appreciate it nearly as much as you did, Francisco.

Are you going to review Revolutionary Road (which I haven't seen) as well? Keep up the intelligent and thoughtful reviews!

Franco Macabro said...

Hey Friz, dont feel that old! The only reason I had not watched this one myself is because I underestimated it, I thought it would be a silly horror film about a killer hand, I finally decided to give it a watch after having aquired the Oliver Stone box set. I enjoyed all his other films, but was curious to see where he had started as a filmmaker, so I finally decided to give this one a watch. I'm glad I did!

Michael Caine is a great actor, one of my favorites as well, I was very pleased with his performance on this one, it's not everyday you get to see Caine play a maniac!

I know what you mean about Stones films being like documentaries, most of the time they are based on real life events, but this one I found very cinematic, actually, The Hand doesnt resemble any of Stones later films. Its completely based on a fictional novel called "The Lizard's Tail".

Hey Friz, for me, the way the film ends does not take away the horror element of the film, I called it a "psychological thriller" but we all know thats a nice way of saying that this is a horror film. Also, the ending of the movie is very ambiguous, its never really clear what is going on [SPOILER AHEAD] I thought the film was very ambiguous about him doing the killings himself or the hand doing the killings. Even till the very end its not clearly stated, I thought it was all in his head, but someone could equally argue that it was the hand itself doing everything. [END SPOILERS]

The element of the disembodied hand adds the horror element to the film, seeing it walking around on its own, through the shadows, I loved that scene with Caine fighting off his own hand in one scene...as if he was struggling with his own dark side! Awesome scene!

If you saw this movie way back in 81 when it first came out, maybe you were expecting something else from it, maybe upon re-watching it now, all these years laters, you might see it from a totally different perspective, and might even appreciate it more. It's happened to me in the past, I saw some films as a kid that I didnt like that I now love as an adult.

Thanks for reading and commenting Fritz!

Ivan said...

There I was, expecting you to mock this flick, but your review was a pleasant and insightful surprise.

Franco Macabro said...

Thanks for commenting Ivan, I really enjoyed this movie what can I say?

Mark Hodgson said...

I think it's a film that was treated unfairly when it was released. I enjoyed it much more on a recent viewing.

It's a strange start to his career, but he had already written and directed another feature, also a horror film - SEIZURE!

Franco Macabro said...

Yeah, I read a bit about Seizure, but its not out on dvd. Was it a full length feature film? I dont know much about Seizure, but I have read that it's a horror film about a horror writer who's creations come to life, or something like that.

It is considered a "lost" Oliver Stone film, but it did get a small theatrical release, and was released on VHS during the 80s, but I have never had the chance to see it. I think Oliver Stone himself doesnt like for people to see this one, like Kubrick, apparently Stone doesnt want people seeing his early cinematic experiments.

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

This is Oliver Stone's best film, with 'Seizure' a respectable second place. I'd watch this any day of the week over 'Wall Street' or JFK'. Stone obviously didnt feel the need to preach at this point in his career, and this film feels far more genuine than his later films. Despite this, he clearly hasnt got a clue how to make an effective horror film...but that is part of 'The Hand's' appeal.

Franco Macabro said...

Glad you like this one Shaun, and consider it one of his best, cause honestly I feel the same way! It almost didnt feel like an Oliver Stone film because he wasnt talking about a political issue at all, but rather just exploring human nature.

But I did find some moments pretty tense...like that scene where they are just about to open the trunk of the car...intense stuff right there. Or when he is sitting on chair, with his therapist asking all these questions to him...and the last frame of the film awesome!

But it is light on the horror I guess, its a slow burner thats for sure!

I Like Horror Movies said...

Excellent timing Franco, I just watched this one for myself about a month ago and I thoroughly enjoyed it! Caine truly was fantastic, and each of the actors handled the subject matter completely straight despite the silly B-movie concept. Gave a lot of strength to the film. Im not very well read on Stone's other films, but this was definitely a solid first effort.

Franco Macabro said...

Thanks for the comments Carl! I think that was the trick to this movie being so good even though its premise is well within B-Movie territory. The actors all played it seriously. They gave it their best to make things believable, this is especially true of Caine who at one point has to fight his own hand!

Hey Carl, I have found out recently that this was not in fact Oliver Stones first film, he directed to films prior to this one. They are just not that well known, and are not available on dvd or blue ray. And one of the is a horror film!

The horror film is called SEIZURE, which I have never seen, but I hear is about a horror writer who's stories come to life, and the other one (his real first film) was called Last Year in Vietnam. I guess we learn something new every day, I need to watch SEIZURE as soon as possible.



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