Saturday, October 22, 2011

31 Days of '81 Horror: The Hand (Oliver Stone)

Jon Lansdale (Michael Caine) appears to have it all: a successful comic strip, a beautiful wife, a devoted child, a beautiful home in Vermont, all of his appendages. Jon’s comic strip is a Robert E. Howard Conan like barbarian, with a very maculine world view, which is obviously how Jon views himself. However, the cracks in that veneer are quickly exposed when his wife reveals she wants to move back to New York, to you know, find herself. Jon’s not having any of it, and in a tense car ride home in a swerving one lane highway, a heated argument leads to an auto accident that finds him quickly separated from his “drawing” hand. The hand is never actually found, and immediately, his life begins to fall apart, despite getting a cool new robotic hand. He can no longer produce his beloved strip and his agent wants to replace him with an arty intellectual (Charles Fleischer, Roger Rabbit himself) who wants to make his hero more introspective and weak, his wife is having an affair with her yoga instructor and the only job he can procure is at a City college in a small mountain town in California where not one of his students can name a comic strip they actually read.

He also begins to have visions of his missing hand-shot in eerie black and white which has a gothic Universal horror look, a Grand Guignol style that is a nice contrast to the more basic visual style of the rest of the film, haunting his dreams, and making him lose control of his emotions. Soon his enemies: a homeless man (played by director Oliver Stone) who assaults him, the cute co-ed who is having an non-exclusive affair with him and a psychology professor at the school who is on to him, are dispersed one by one in gorier and gorier fashion. Has his haunted appendage taken a life of his own that manifest itself into action at the darker impulses of Jon? Or is Jon really off his rocker?

Michael Caine, his hair curly and long, which causes him to resemble Gene Wilder when his character gets more ragged, is an interesting choice as the modern man with a more Neanderthal view of himself which is nowhere close to the reality. One would think someone like Burt Reynolds or Clint Eastwood would have been the obvious choice over the more cerebral Brit actor, but the choice of Caine is intriguing because it takes little convincing that he’s really cuckolded. This was filmed during a streak of two other horror films for the actor (1980’s The Island and Dressed to Kill) and at a point where Caine was freely admitting to doing work for the pay (and additions to his house) more than for their quality, although Dressed to Kill is awesome (and my 4th favorite film of 1980). Caine seems a bit bored during the more melodramatic moments, but fully embraces Jon’s descent into madness.

Never one to be fond of subtlety, even when he became the premier director of hot button issue dramas that were Academy Award fodder in the latter half of the decade (Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July) director Oliver Stone feels a bit constrained here. Sure just reading the plot synopsis gives you a sense that everything is pretty off-the-wall, and Stone is not afraid to embrace some of the more fantastic elements of the script, it’s just missing an extra oomph, as if Stone struggled whether to explore the project from a serious minded or exploitative vantage point. The result is in someone in the middle, making for an enjoyable, if overlong, film with some salient thematic depth, but one that had the making of something more insane, and intriguing, lurking in its, pardon the pun, grasp.

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