*. Let’s face it, if you’re interested in seeing this movie today it’s because of two names in the credits: Oliver Stone and Michael Caine.
*. Caine hands in a professional performance, despite playing a psycho with Gene Wilder hair. He was, by his own admission, simply in it to get a paycheque so he could make a down payment on a new garage he was having built. Which is weird because (a) that must have been some garage; and (b) I didn’t think Caine drove. At least I remember some discussion on the commentary for Get Carter about how he couldn’t drive and those scenes had to be fudged.
*. Which brings us to Oliver Stone, whose first studio feature this was. He had already won an Academy Award (for writing Midnight Express) and had written the screenplays for Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. It’s hard to see what attracted him to this project aside from the chance to make a big commercial score. 1981 was the year of the slasher film and studios were seeing huge returns on minimal investments. If that was the plan, however, it failed miserably. The Hand bombed and probably set Stone’s career back a couple of years.
*. As usual with Stone, there’s a lot of casual misogyny. Here, however, much of it came from the source, a novel by Marc Brandel written as Brandel was apparently coming out of a messy divorce. And so we have Anne (Andrea Marcovicci), one of the most unlikeable film wives of all time. She wants a divorce and is, as you might guess, totally unreasonable about it. She spends a lot of time whining to her soon-to-be-ex-husband about what “we’re” going to do for money but never suggests getting a job herself or scaling back her lifestyle. She’d rather indulge in the faux spirituality of the “Me generation” that Stone heartily despises, doing yoga with a fey-looking instructor who we can be sure “understands” her and reading Carlos Castaneda (Stone: “I met him, he wrote some great stuff, took us to the edge of consciousness in our generation”). At one point she even tells Caine that it’s none of his business if she’s fucking somebody else on the side. This while they’re still married and he’s supporting her!
*. Anne is, in short, a ball-breaking modern bitch. This is the symbolism of the hand, the loss of which is a kind of castration. The artist can no longer draw his popular Mandro (get it?) comic strip. The young gun hired to keep Mandro going is “cutting the balls off Superman.” The hand, an unrestrained id, will have its revenge.
*. That’s Mara Hobel playing the daughter Lizzie. You may recognize her from having played the young Christina in Mommie Dearest (released the same year as this film). For some reason, on the commentary Stone twice refers to Hobel as having been in Annie, which came out the next year and which I don’t think she was in.
*. I like James Horner’s clanging score. Stone thought it “a very large and bold score a la Bernard Hermann” but didn’t think it succeeded. I think large and bold was just what the film needed. They could have used more of it. Why underplay such a preposterous premise?
*. The basic problem, which Stone was conscious of, was “How do you make a small thing scary?” A hand jumping on people and strangling them recalls nothing so much as the killer bunny in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s laughable. And indeed in Evil Dead 2 the possessed hand was played for laughs. Looking back on the results achieved here, Stone comments that there were too many shots of the hand and “less could have been more.” Nevertheless, the studio wanted more scary stuff and he had to go back and add scenes at their insistence.
*. How do you make a small thing scary? I don’t think it’s impossible. There have been lots of scary spiders, ants, and parasites in horror movies. I think the key has to be to exploit our sense of where we are vulnerable to such threats. For what it’s worth, Stone says on the commentary that the question was answered by “Chucky and the doll,” which is presumably a reference to Child’s Play.
*. Why does the hand kill the bum (Stone himself in a cameo)? Or does it? I don’t know.
*. In 1981 yoga was in decline. Think middle-aged women in black leotards. It was a workout for moms. It’s amazing how it managed to re-invent itself into something sexy in the twenty-first century. I think it probably had something to do with all the new gear.
*. I can’t see any point in switching to black-and-white. It doesn’t (always) signal a fantasy or that something violent is about to happen. Later in his career Stone would switch to black-and-white and other types of film just to set up a jumpy visual rhythm, but that’s not the case here.
*. It probably shouldn’t bother me so much, but it’s obvious that Caine is just wearing a sock over his hand in the scenes where he isn’t shown with a prosthesis, You can tell because his arms are still both the same length.
*. The ending is ridiculous. Stone likens it to the end of JFK, where Costner presents his case. I wonder if that means he thought Garrison was mad too. In any event, the real comparison is to the coda at the end of Psycho, where the psychiatrist is brought in to explain what’s been happening and what’s wrong with Norman Bates. It probably wasn’t necessary in Psycho, and it’s certainly overdone here. This is, however, a problem that all psycho-thrillers have to deal with. How much explanation is really necessary? How much is too much? Whatever the answer, I think it’s best to do it quick and get it over with. Here it goes on much too long, and still manages to avoid any sense of closure.