I needed the obscure 60s remake of THE HANDS OF ORLAC, since it appears in Denis Gifford’s big green book of horror movies, and you know what that means. Sending off for an out-of-print VHS, I awaited the thing’s arrival with a certain lack of enthusiasm — I had actually seen bits of it years ago, and found it, well, terribly boring.
It’s amazing the difference a few years can make. But, on the other hand, THE HANDS OF ORLAC is still just as boring as it always was. Director Edmond T Greville was responsible for BEAT GIRL the previous year, which is eighteen separate kinds of HOOT, but how much of its unquestionably mad merits can be credited to the director? OK, he wrote the story too, and he must get credit for wrestling Gillian Hills, David Farrar, Christopher Lee, Oliver Reed and Adam Faith into the one movie. But his visual style is often pretty flat, his control of pace sometimes flaccid, and those negative qualities are allowed to dominate ORLAC.
You know the story — concert pianist Stephen Orlac (gangling meerkat Mel Ferrer) suffers horrific injuries to his hands in an accident, and a brilliant surgeon repairs the damage — but has he done so by transplanting the hands of a murderer? And will those hands resume their homicidal career from the ends of their new wrists?
No, and no. But getting to that answer is a protracted and largely tension-free drag, enlivened only by the appearance or lovely couple Chris Lee and Dany Carrel. Lee is a criminally inclined stage magician and Carrel his chanteuse squeeze, whom he persuades to seduce the fugitive Ferrer. Chris and Dany have a genuinely warm and delightful relationship:
“You made me into a slut, ” she accuses. Lee counters that she didn’t need much pushing. Charming.
Dany gets Mel’s interest by blundering into his room and having the front of her dress collapse in his face. This is typical behaviour of the rather adorable Ms. Carrel, who spent her career popping out, as in this perverse moment from MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN, a colourful yet turgid French horror —
It’s a strain, but she manages it. As early as 1957, in Duvivier’s POT-BOUILLE, she was bursting her bodice in Gerard Philippe’s direction (her co-star was Danielle Darrieux: Dany might not be able to out-act this living legend, but she could beat her in the random nudity department), and you can see her in archive footage in the new documentary about Henri-Georges Clouzot’s L’ENFER, again managing a nip-slip, I believe it’s called, setting off a chain of reactions in a lakeside restaurant. It’s a cheesy idea, one would think, but Clouzot gets some simply incredible stuff out of it, his camera gliding decisively from one glance to another. Vulgarity + excellence = Clouzot.
Sexy bad guys Chris and Dany are so much more exciting than protags Ferrer and Lucile Saint-Simon that one wishes for a whole other movie centering on the bad guys. Greville’s screenplay doesn’t provide this, of course, and it short-changes us out of the expected pleasure of an ORLAC movie also, wasting the great moment where the villain dresses up as an executed killer, brought back from the dead and demanding the return of his hands. Lee pops up in a crappy rubber mask, sporting a pair of hooks, then whips the disguise off within seconds.
But then, the movie’s explicit demonstration that Ferrer’s idée fixe (having the hands of murderer) is only a delusion has already spoiled the plot, and without really getting inside the hero’s disturbed mind, or turning him full-on psycho and letting him kill someone, the movie has no actual narrative resources to scare us with.
An intriguing image NOT present in my VHS copy. There’s a separate, uncensored French cut? What’s he going to write? Is that the first downstroke of the letter “B”, as in “BREASTS” — is he teaching her English?
So the whole mess is a valuable example of the fabled Million Dollar Mistake, or False Good Idea, in action — exposing the twist before the climax leaves the film without a motor to drive it forward, since we can assume a happy ending for the nice, middle-class hero and heroine, and a less-than happy one for the declassé du of Lee and Carrel. And we get both… eventually.