Michael Caine builds a garage (and we all suffer for it): “The Hand”

October 27, 2012

What we have here is another installment in the subgenre of films I like to call “Michael Caine will appear in anything.” Because he pretty much will. His multiple Oscar wins and recent work with Christopher Nolan may have distracted the movie going public from this fact, but let’s us not forget this is a man who appeared in Blame It on Rio—a movie that makes Jaws: The Revenge look like a thoughtful and considered career decision. But, here’s the thing about Michael Caine: he’s working actor, and by that I mean he acts to make money. He famously explained his reasons for making Jaws: The Revenge, saying, “I haven’t seen it—by all accounts it’s terrible. But I have the seen the house it  built, and it is terrific.” So, what was his reason for making a killer amputated-hand movie in 1981? Supposedly, he needed a new garage. Man, I hope it was a nice garage.

Okay, long story short: The Hand is about a cartoonist who has his right hand traumatically amputated in a car accident, only to have said extremity develop a life of its own and kill people that have pissed-off its former owner. It’s a surprisingly-long list. You know, for a cartoonist—something that’s gotten be the lowest-stress job in the world—Caine is a simmering cauldron of suppressed rage.

Okay, well not really Michael Caine, but Jonathan Lansdale. Lansdale is the author of a massively-popular daily comic strip called “Mandro” (or something). How successful is he? Well, he has a palatial home in the Hamptons, and still has enough scratch to buy his wife an apartment in Manhattan. I know rents were lower in 1981, but still…Newspaper cartoonists cannot be hauling in this much cash. Still, I kinda dig the mental image of the guy who wrote Mark Trail living in that house from Body Double and throwing coke parties, where the dude who wrote Mary Worth brought the high-priced escorts.

“It’s just a flesh wound!” Ha! You know I just couldn’t resist.

Anyway, even prior to his impromptu handectomy, Lansdale’s life is getting pretty rocky. His wife is one of those late-‘70s neo-hippies that’s all into yoga and pop-spirituality and past-life regression and crap. Basically, the stuff John Milius was railing against with his character of Thulsa Doom in Conan the Barbarian. She wants the apartment in the city for herself, so she can shack up with her spiritual guru, and channel her inner-consciousness (read: bone a lot). And she pretty much expects Lansdale to go along with it, because, well, why wouldn’t he want her to follow her bliss?

After a car accident (caused, tellingly, by the fact that Lansdale and the wife were fighting in the car), poor Lansdale has to learn how to live without his drawing hand. The hospital gives him a Doctor No-like claw thingee, but that thing’s really only good for torturing James Bond, so his career has pretty much hit the skids. His publisher (wait, cartoonists have these?) wants to hire a young artist to ghost-draw “Mandro,” but Lansdale doesn’t like the direction he’s taking the character. Also, he’s being a real dick now, so he puts the kibosh on that.

“Well my new cyborg claw still works for drinkin’, so…”

Then the hand crawls out of the field where it was thrown in the accident and kills a vagrant (played by Oliver Stone). Can’t say as I blame it.

Eventually, Lansdale moves to a small northern California town and takes a job as an adjunct professor teaching art at a community college. This manages to make his life even more complicated, as he falls into a friendship with a burly psychology professor (Bruce McGill) and a casual sexual relationship with a sad coed who takes his class. All in all his life is pretty depressing.

I’m thinking the psychology department relies heavily on grants.

Well, things go south with his wife, and at almost the same time, he ends up in a love triangle with McGill and the chick. His makes the hand go all kill-crazy, and it starts offing, like, everybody who’s looked at Lansdale sideways. Eventually, the cops show up (as you’d expect when the bodies are stacking up like firewood), and pin the murders on Lansdale. The film ends with him in a mental hospital, where a psychiatrist explains to him that the avenging hand was just a manifestation of his suppressed rage. And the hand kills her too. Lansdale just gets up and leaves, presumably to go on the road with the hand as his companion. You know, it can navigate while he drives or something.

Yeah, this movie will do that to you…

Make no mistake; The Hand is not a good movie. Its premise is flat-out ridiculous, and it’s not all that scary. I mean, it should be. In theory, a disembodied limb crawling around killing people seems spooky enough, but you know, when you actually see a hand jump on someone’s neck you can’t really take it seriously, no matter how many beers you’ve shotgunned.

Still The Hand is an interesting footnote in Oliver Stone’s career. It was one of his earliest films, and as such you can see the development of his decidedly misanthropic worldview. The women are all either sluts or airheads or airheaded sluts, and the men are mostly salt-of-the-earth types whose lives are made miserable by these women. It’s a theme that would run through pretty much everything he would make until he became the toothless lion he is today (see Savages or Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), incapable of mustering a coherent opinion about anything.

Also there’s a scene where Michael Caine fights his own hand. Ash did it better.

Caine is good as he always is, but he’s such an angry self-defeating character in this, you really don’t want to spend any time with him. McGill is fun for a few scenes, but when he goes on a misogynistic rant about the coed, the character pretty much burns any sympathy you might feel for a drugstore cowboy who’s due to get killed by a severed hand.

Anyway, that’s The Hand. Moral of the story? Uh…I dunno. Try to recover any body parts you lose in an accident. You know, maybe you wanna carry a note on your person for the EMTs or something.

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