Friday, December 02, 2016

123. Hands of a Stranger and 124. House of the Living Dead

Jump to House of the Living Dead (1974)

123. Hands of a Stranger (1962)
Director: Newt Arnold
Writer: Newt Arnold
From: Chilling
Watch: archive.org

A concert pianist loses his hands in a car accident, but has new hands transplanted from an unknown man. As he tries to heal, he finds himself slowly heading down the path of madness.

This is one of the early movies to explore the tropes of the “bad body,” most ably parodied in The Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror IX” segment, “Hell Toupée.” There, Homer gets a scalp transplant from Snake and ends up being possessed. Here, that threat is raised, but doesn’t quite manifest.

We open with a man getting gunned down in the street. Who he is or why he’s targeted is never made clear, but his hands won’t quit. Even after getting shot, they climb up the lamppost and won’t let go. All the surgeons trying to save his life and even the cop assigned to the case note how strong his hands are. Despite their best efforts, though, he dies.

Meanwhile, across town, piano virtuoso Vernon Paris is finishing his most important concert to date. He takes a cab to the afterparty, but there’s an accident while the driver is trying to show Vernon a picture of his kid. Vernon ends up at the same hospital as the first victim, but his hands are completely destroyed. The head surgeon, Dr. Gil, decides to attempt a radical hand transplant.

The surgery’s a success, they wait a long time before telling Vernon what happened, and he’s outraged once he learns the truth. His hands work as well as can be expected, but he’s no longer the brilliant pianist he once was (almost as though he hasn’t moved his hands for 8 weeks and still needs to undergo physical therapy. Oh wait, that’s literally his situation).

Things proceed. The doctor and Vernon’s sister start falling in love, Vernon visits people he knew before the accident and people he blames for the accident, accidentally killing people both times. The doctor and sister try to convince him to accept his situation—namely that he’s healing and will be able to play again if he’s patient—and he instead accepts a sociopathic desire to kill. He takes out the two doctors who assisted Dr. Gil and then tries to kill Gil at the concert hall where he played his final show. As he’s choking the doctor, the cop who’s been checking in with Gil throughout the movie pops up out of nowhere and shoots Vernon in the back.

All in all, the movie’s pretty all right, not great, but not terrible either. It walks that fine line of being appreciable on its own merits and on purely camp grounds. The movie has the elements of a thriller, but is played like a melodrama with every actor giving broad performances and shouting out exclamatory dialogue about! how! they! feel! It’s delicious.

As I said, though, it stands on its own merits as well. The movie is tightly plotted, manages to keep all characters present, and is pretty well-composed. It even invokes the trope of the over-ambitious surgeon pushing the bounds of medical science a la The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, but paints that as a noble pursuit. It also sidestepped the cheap plot of him being possessed by his hands and instead played it as him being a narcissist sliding into depravity. The tipping point happens at a carnival in a sequence that is both unintentionally funny and legitimately well-composed.

So this is a recommend, almost just on the level of being a curiosity. It’s okay as a movie with some obvious artistic touches as well as being a riffable campy delight. What makes it curious is that it manages both at the same time—I was constantly laughing while thinking, Well done.

This movie is in the public domain and I’ve added an MPEG-2 version to archive.org here.



124. House of the Living Dead aka Curse of the Dead (1974)
Director: Ray Austin
Writers: Marc Marais from a story by John Brason
From: Cult Cinema

A young woman travels to her fiancé's plantation in colonial South Africa only to find herself trapped in a Gothic nightmare including a mad scientist hiding in the attic.

The movie starts promisingly enough, for those seeking campy pleasures, with good old-fashioned monkey torture. A man in a black robe, in broad daylight, in the middle of a vineyard, has trapped a monkey and is forcing it into a bag. He ducks behind one of the plants (which doesn’t hide him at all) as someone rides by on a horse. He then runs off with the monkey. Cut to the monkey on a table having experiments done on its brain. I was anticipating the most delicious trash at this point, but the movie’s all downhill from there.

The house is run by the final members of the Brattling family: Michael who runs the plantation, his brother Breck conducting unholy experiments, and their mother who is encouraging Michael to break off his engagement with Mary Anne so that the family line and all its evil can finally die. That, by the way, is an interesting element. Oftentimes these faux-Gothic pieces will have the evil mother disapproving of a match because of greed or some Oedipal element. Here, she says the family is evil and needs to die.

No matter, though, because six weeks later Mary Anne arrives. She learns from a doctor who traveled with her that Breck had a terrible accident with a horse and is now an invalid. Also, that he was exploring a theory that the soul could be isolated from the body and contained. My suspicion at this point: Breck has swapped bodies with Michael.

Anyway, this is thirty minutes into the movie. Up to this point, Michael had been the central character. Now it’s Mary Anne being frightened by seeing Breck prowling the grounds at night even though he’s confined to his room in the attic. There are some pretensions to Gothic tropes—hooded figures walking around, spooky music, rioting townspeople, but nothing that builds to anything or carries any weight.

In the final half-hour, the doctor becomes the main protagonist investigating the goings-on at the house. He realizes that Breck is still alive and rushes back to the house to warn Mary Anne. Mary Anne, though, is already being attacked by Breck. Turns out he and Michael were identical twins and it’s been Breck she’s been talking to the whole time—Michael died in the horse accident six weeks prior. Breck has sucked Michael’s soul into a bottle and is planning to add Mary Anne’s to it. After he’s strapped her to the table, the doctor arrives, Breck tries to attack him, but accidentally breaks the bottles holding souls. The newly-released spirits attack Breck and drive him over a balcony where he dies. The End.

There’s no mystery, tension, or invention to the piece so there’s nothing engaging about it. The big problem is that the story’s about Mary Anne who doesn’t appear until the film’s 1/3 of the way done. So the movie spends thirty minutes setting up its story, and then basically resets to do all that work again. In the end, it’s dull, uninspired, and trying to jump on the “Living Dead” bandwagon because, why not? It’s not like there’s anything else at play in the piece. This appears to have a valid copyright, but it’s not worth hunting down regardless, so no big loss.

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