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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Hand of Death

This bit of digression is for a movie once deemed a "lost": Hand of Death (HoD). It developed more cache for being "lost" than it otherwise could on its own merits. It is really quite an ordinary film.Twentieth Century Fox produced this ultra-low-budget formula film in 1962 as an almost generic B-feature product. HoD starred John Agar, who had some marquee reputation among horror and sci-fi fans. The story (sometimes titled "Five Fingers of Death") is the usual rehash of hubris-dooms-scientist tale and ugly-monster-gets-hunted-down. Imagine a mash-up of Hideous Sun Demon ('59), First Man in Space ('59) and The Invisible Ray ('36).

Quick Plot Synopsis
A rural postman sees a bunch of dead sheep at a remote house, so stops to investigate. He drops over too. He and the sheep revive later. Scientist Alex Marsh (Agar) has been working on a special knock-out gas. Delighted that his unintended human test was a success, Alex goes to Los Angeles to talk his boss into funding more research on his knock-out-hypno-gas as an ├╝ber weapon. Alex's girlfriend Carol laments at the lack of romance. Alex resumes work in the desert, but progress is slow. An accidentally spilled beaker exposes Alex to a deadly nerve gas mixture. He swoons and dreams of swirling beakers but does not die. He awakens, but finds out that his touch kills. His lab assistant is the first of many accidental victims. Alex covers his act with arson and flees to LA. Terrified at the thought of incarceration or hospitalization, Alex pleads with his boss to find a cure for him. After a few days, Alex puffs up to a crusty black-skinned hulk. At the sight of crusty Alex, his boss tries to get out of his wheel chair. When he falls, Alex tries to catch him. Boss dies and turns into a black crust. So Alex flees. While fleeing, he unintentionally kills a gas station attendant and a cab driver. Alex stumbles across Carol in a beach house. She keeps him there and quiet while the police arrive. In the beach showdown, Alex makes a move towards Carol, so the police shoot him dead. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
HoD has a retro feel, so it has some nostalgic appeal. While not a deep movie, it has several little points of interest. (see below)

Cold War Angle
Grafted into the conventional dangers-of-science story is the notion that Alex's gas would render nuclear weapons obsolete. His idea was a knock-out gas mixed with a hypnotic drug. Knock out the enemy, then persuade them be friendly. Cold War solved! Unless, the Russians are planning to do the same.

Customary Hubris -- As with many of the traditional science-gone-wrong tales, the star scientist smugly thinks he has things all figured out. Poetic justice has them fall victim to their hubris. Carol worries about Alex's work with deadly nerve gas. Alex assures her that scientists are all smarter now and take very precaution, etc. etc. Yet, what does he do? Set a beaker of deadly toxins next to his elbow on the table, and fall asleep. What could happen?

Make Suggestions, Not War -- Alex's brainstorm is bizarre at best. Mix a mild nerve gas (just enough to temporarily knock people out) with hallucinogens that will render the targets open to suggestion -- a drug-induced hypnosis state. Then, tell all those would-be enemies to be friendly...or whatever. The 'whatever' is the bizarre part. The only way his gas-drug weapon would be better than nukes, is that it would leave the buildings standing. There would still be a gas-based Cold War with each side trying to have more gas bombs than the other. A world in which the regime in power can gas and reprogram its opponents is too much like Orwell's 1984. Far from utopia. This reprogramming-gas world would make a good sci-fi movie plot.

Touch of Death -- In 1936, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff starred (together!) in a film called The Invisible Ray. In it, Karloff is exposed to an unknown isotope in a meteorite. Thus infected, he glows in the dark, but more saliently, whomever he touches dies (of radiation poisoning). It is a bit surprising that this touch-of-death trope wasn't used again until 25 years later.

The 3rd Third Stooge -- Watch for Joe Besser in a small role as the gas station attendant. Besser became the 3rd third stooge in 1955 after Shemp's death. His tenure with the Three Stooges was not a comfortable fit, so was short. Curly Joe replaced him by 1960, being then the 4th third stooge.

Bottom line? HoD is too much a rehash of well-worn plots and tropes to be of much interest to anyone beyond avid 50s sci-fi buffs. It can still be hard to track down a copy, but only diehard hubris-monster fans, or John Agar fans, may feel it is worth the effort.

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