Oliver stone’s sophomore feature ‘the hand’ (1981) is a supervillain origin story.

Oliver Stone had two filmmaking failures before his first success as a director with the film Salvador (1986). Surprisingly, they were both horror films: Seizure (1974) and The Hand (1981). In further commonalities, they both involved characters who become a product of their own creation. Seizure was about a horror novelist who has reoccurring nightmares about torturous characters in his story that end up coming to life, and The Hand was about a professional comic book artist who loses his drawing hand only to have it come back and haunt him. The latter was much more psychological and could have resulted as a successful picture, had it emphasized on the comic book elements more than it did with its drama. Nonetheless, a story about a successful cartoonist losing his hand in a car wreck and having that hand eventually come back on a murderous rampage proved to be Oliver Stone’s promising sophomore feature, and considering his first two films were in the horror genre, one wonders how the career of a prominent director turned heavily political, when it seems his earliest stages were rooted in making horror films.

Orion Pictures | 1981

Hollywood didn’t believe in Oliver Stone as a director after his first two films, and it wasn’t until the year 1986 where he would change their beliefs, and the course of his future, forever. Without the backing of any studio and merely the support of two British independent producers, Oliver Stone set out to Mexico to make a film about an American photojournalist who gets caught amid political turmoil in El Salvador. Oliver Stone considers Salvador his first true film; the one where he renounced his status as a failed filmmaker in Hollywood. Salvador garnered Stone a Best Screenplay nomination at the Oscars. The year of 1986 would prove to be revolutionary for his career with the making of Platoon – a Vietnam War epic which won Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards. “A new filmmaker was being discovered, supposedly repudiating the previous version of himself.” Oliver Stone said, in his book “Chasing the Light”.

Orion Pictures | 1981

Oliver Stone’s 2nd film, The Hand (1981), spends far too much time on conveying drama, and not enough on the comic backstory of Jonathan Lansdale (Michael Caine). His wife Anne (Andrea Marcovicci) wants to spend the winter in New York in order to get an apartment where they have to put down a hefty financial deposit. We see some foreshadowing when Jonathan’s daughter finds a lizard in the woods with its tail cut off; she wonders why it still has reflexes when it’s fiddled with. A black cat bites the lizard in Stephen King/Pet Sematary fashion, and the musical score has remnants of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1976). The dramatic elements of the opening sequences lead up to a gruesome and graphic moment where Jonathan loses his hand from waving it out of the car window amid a heated argument with his wife about moving to New York. A freak accident, nonetheless, and the aftermath of it is wholly unrealistic at first; Anne’s mind is still on the loft In New York and it’s as if nothing drastic has happened to her husband.

THE HAND, Michael Caine (right), 1981, (c) Orion

Oliver Stone cuts to small flashbacks amid scenes, like Jonathan placing a ring he discovered in the woods from the finger on his lost hand into his desk drawer. The “hand” has a mind of its own; it’s the antagonist of the film – the villain. But the “hand” is only a metaphor for the greater villain – Jonathan’s mind. The “hand” crawls through the woods and shrubs where it was lost, and Oliver Stone creatively places the camera at a low angle/POV shot, as Jonathan realizes the ring he placed into his drawer has now disappeared. Did his daughter take it? Or is the “hand” alive? Anne becomes concerned for Jonathan’s mental state and suggests he seek psychological therapy, since he’s unable to draw his comic strips, causing post-traumatic stress and depression. “If you think I’m going to pay some parasite $100 an hour, you’re crazy. After $10,000, they’ll tell me I’m sane again. After all, we’re all crazy in some way, that doesn’t mean we have to go parading about our psychosis, to some other psychotic, who wears a white coat and has a degree.” At this point, Jonathan provides a worthy argument as he denounces the profession of psychological therapy, but it isn’t until the film’s climax and ending where we realize the importance of this scene; Jonathan’s argument loses its validity once we realize that he was insane all along.

Essentially, The Hand is a comic book origin story about the rise of a villain with a mechanical hand. When Jonathan gets a wired mechanical prosthetic, he’s able to clinch his fingers with might, like a superhero; except he’s a villain. This film could have taken another direction had Oliver Stone emphasized more on the comic book elements. Jonathan disagrees with the illustrations proposed by the new artist his company hired to take his place over the duties of completing a comic book strip he’d spent 10 years of his life creating. The “hand” returning with a life of its own and going on a murderous spree is only a ridiculous concept until we arrive to the film’s ending. And if one is cognizant of the fact that this is a supervillain origin story, it will all make perfect sense once the curtains close.

One can’t help but be reminded of Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019) where Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) sits with a psychologist in the ending, only to run down the hall in an attempt to escape with bloody feet pounding the linoleum floors. Did he kill the psychologist? Todd Phillips ingeniously leaves it open for interpretation. Jonathan in The Hand similarly sits with a psychologist, and the film ends with his startling demonic laughter as he sits across a suffocating shrink in an electrical room with black & white vinyl flooring. Did Jonathan kill the psychologist, or was it the “hand”? Or was it all figments of his imagination? For what it’s worth at a $6 million budget, The Hand is an impressive sophomore feature from Oliver Stone and Michael Caine’s performance is fully fledged with great effort. Although, the film has yet to be remastered in high-definition and its currently only available in standard-definition at 280p. Perhaps, Oliver Stone can dig up some long-lost footage and release a director’s cut in high-definition and new marketing one-sheets to revitalize the film as what it truly is, a supervillain origin story. Perhaps, The Hand could cause a resurgence and find a new audience in the contemporary megalomaniac superhero universe.

The Hand is available for streaming with Video On Demand.

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