Monday, September 19, 2011

Hand of Death (1961)

Directed by:
Gene Nelson

A mailman stumbles out of his car and collapses, and as the camera cleverly pans back we see discover he's not the only one to have fallen, but so have a couple of sheep. Seems he's stumbled onto a small government facility (located in the desert) where scientist Dr. Alex Marsh (John Agar, from TARANTULA, THE MOLE PEOPLE and lots more) and his college-aged assistant Carlos (John A. Alonzo) are conducting some kind of top secret experiment. What starts as an attempt to create a "spray anathyesia" that can be absorbed through the skin turns into a nerve gas that has the potential to be combined with another drug to create a substance capable of putting people into a hypnotic state for days or even weeks at a time. Alex wants to go forward with the experiment in the belief that it could obliterate the threat of nuclear war, but his finanacier, wheelchair-bound Dr. Frederick Ramsey (Roy Gordon, from the cult classic ATTACK OF THE 50 FT. WOMAN and others) of the Los Angeles Research Facility, warns of possible "frightening consequences" if he's not careful. And he should know, he was crippled for life while trying to find a cure for polio years earlier. Still, Dr. Ramsey agrees to let Alex continue on in his experiments.

After a month passes, a very dedicated (to the point of obsessive) Alex is still busy at work trying to perfect his formula. In fact he's been working so hard, he's barely been sleeping and accidentally nods off at his desk, knocks over one of his test formulas and gets some of the liquid on both of his hands. He then passes out, has a nightmare of beakers, syringes and mice floating around his head and then awakens with both a darker complexion and (he thinks) possibly an immunity to the chemical substance he's just created. When Carlos returns to the lab and attempts to touch some contaminated mice, Alex grabs his arm and instantly kills his young assistant. Yes, Alex has somehow acquired the literal touch of death and with just flesh-to-flesh contact victims are transformed into a charred, unidentifiable mass. Alex promptly splashes some chemicals around and then burns down the lab, then retreats to Dr. Ramsey's in hopes that he or his smarmy colleague (and romantic rival) Dr. Tom Holland (Stephen Dunne) can come up with a serum to help. By the it's too late and our hapless scientist turns into a monstrous, bloated, wrinkly creature.

Paula Raymond (previously in the classic THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and later in the silly BLOOD OF DRACULA'S CASTLE) co-stars as Alex's neglected girlfriend Carol, who works as Dr. Ramsey's secretary and is upset her man gets more excited about scientific breakthroughs than he does her. Joe Besser (who had replaced the deceased Shemp Howard in The Three Stooges comedy team in 1956) appears in one scene as a chatty gas station attendant who gets a little too touchy with Alex and Butch Patrick (who'd go on to play Eddie on the The Munsters) makes his film debut as a little boy playing on the beach who almost touches the creature. Director Nelson was then best-known as an actor (he'd even won a "Most Promising Newcomer" Golden Globe back in the early 50s) and went on to become a prolific TV director. Co-star Alonzo went on to a respected career as a cinematographer and received an Oscar nomination for shooting CHINATOWN (1974).

It's a pretty cut-and-dry low-budget quickie that doesn't offer much in the way or originality or technical innovation, but is a sufficient way to kill a little time, I suppose. Strangely, the build-up portion is stronger than the second, rushed monster rampage portion, and since the film clocks in at just 58 minutes, one gets the impression that they either didn't shoot enough material or the filmmakers ran out of time and / or money. The theremin heavy score is from Sonny Burke (the music supervisor on the classic western THE WILD BUNCH) and it was shot by Floyd Crosby (D.O.P. on many Corman films). One other interesting tid-bit; when Alex / Agar (in creature form) tries to head out into public incognito, he wears a top hat and trench-coat; the same exact get-up the similarly-malformed Ben Grimm / The Thing wears. Hand of Death was filmed in May 1961, the same year The Fantastic Four comic debuted.

Hand was thought lost for over forty years until a copy recently surfaced. It has never been officially released to VHS or DVD, though several grey market dealers offer the title (the one I viewed was from some outlet called Retro Entertainment Sinema). It also sometimes shows up on American Movie Classics or the Fox Movie Channel. The print quality isn't very good, making it a bit difficult to see the monster.


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