The Hand (1981)
It's not hard to have low expectations of an eighties horror film titled simply The Hand. Add in names like director Oliver Stone and actor Michael Caine, however, and one begins to expect a little more. When it comes to quality, The Hand is carried completely on the weight of Caine's shoulders. Lots of the tropes of the film are familiar to the horror fan, but the performance of this masterful actor helps breathe life into what could have been just another schlock film. We are not disappointed, nor left scoffing about the plot. We feel satisfied and satiated, having enjoyed ourselves thoroughly for the past hundred minutes.
The Hand is about, unsurprisingly, a hand. Jonathan Lansdale (Caine), a comic strip artist, is in the middle of an argument with his wife when a near-collision with a large truck violently severs his drawing hand. Several creepy events later -- a replacement artist's drawings are mysterious defaced and Jonathan has visions of his severed hand laying claim to his signet ring -- and Jonathan's marriage is completely on the rocks. He moves off to teach a comic art class in a rural area, where he soon is having an affair with a beautiful young student, Stella. Jonathan begins having blackouts, where he’ll create great art (like he used to with his severed hand) but be totally unaware of doing it. Christmas approaches, and the severed hand creeps its evil way back into Jonathan's life, just as his wife and child appear to be coming for a visit. Jonathan is forced to try and get a grip on his life again and accept the reality of the strangeness around him.
The story, obviously, isn't all that original. The hand that kills on its own is nothing that hasn't been done before. The descent of an artist down his tortured slope to madness is a plot point we saw a year earlier in The Shining. While we don't get anything particularly special in The Hand’s scenario, we don't get anything that doesn't work, either. While we may laugh at what Oliver Stone must have thought was the horror film's requisite sex scene, when Stella strips in front of Jonathan in a successful attempt to seduce him, it is not so jarring as to ruin the film. Add on a wonderfully inventive ending, which twists audience expectation but still plays out without feeling like a ridiculous surprise twist, and the film works rather well.
The Hand is, therefore, more about how things happen than what actually occurs. Michael Caine delves deeply into the role of Jonathan, and he performs in a way only he could. He starts with that sort of simple, smarmy Englishman charm; even while arguing with his wife, he seems to be a likable fellow. Caine plays the character with total believability, from the shock and horror of the hand severing accident, to the cold paranoia of witnessing his marriage falls apart. It's hard to describe in great detail all the finer parts of Caine's acting, but the raw emotion he portrays with his eyes and the gentle differences in the inflection of his nuanced voice play to the film's benefit. Without Caine, the film wouldn't spring to the same sort of life.
While I wouldn't bandy about the term 'tour de force' to label The Hand, I would say that Caine's Jonathan Lansdale is one of the fine horror protagonists of its day. The story around him is nothing very special, but the character, combined with the film's ending, provide a wonderful one-two punch that make the film a fine and fun experience for the viewer.