Friday, August 10, 2012

#19: The Devil's Hand

Drive In Movie Classics
Disc 5: Side B

The upbeat surf guitar that plays over the opening credits of The Devil’s Hand bring to mind images of bikini-clad teenagers being stalked by seaweed-covered monsters--something along the lines of, say, 1964’s The Horror of Party Beach. Instead, we get swarthy-looking, sleep-deprived Rick Turner (played by Alan Alda’s dad Robert), who’s kept awake by visions of a mysterious woman swaying rhythmically in the clouds. So troubled is Rick, he takes to wandering the streets at night in an insomniac’s haze. What could these visions mean?

“How could I explain when I myself couldn’t understand?” he asks in jarring voiceover narration that will soon be dropped as abruptly as it appears. “I dream about a woman night after night. A woman I’ve never met, never seen before. And with each dream she becomes more real, more alive, until it seemed if my hand reached out I could’ve touched her.” Suddenly, Rick finds himself in front of a doll shop. “Some will stronger than my own brought me here,” his voiceover helpfully explains. Through the store window he sees a doll bearing an uncanny resemblance to the dream woman.

The next day he brings his fiancé Donna Trent (Ariadna Welter) to the shop and shows her the doll in the window. “Darling, it‘s probably just a coincidence,” Donna tells him. “That’s she alright,” says Rick in a grammatically-correct, though awkwardly-constructed sentence. Inside, the shopkeeper Francis Lamont (Neil Hamilton, later of Commissioner Gordon semi-fame in the 1960s Batman TV series) claims Rick brought him a photograph of the woman and requested a doll be made in her image. Rick has no memory of this. Just when it seems things can’t get any stranger--or more derivative of The Twilight Zone--Donna spots a doll on the shelf that looks like her.

Insisting there’s been a misunderstanding, Rick and Donna leave the shop. The second they‘re out the door, the shopkeeper is donning a massive rob, climbing atop an altar and thrusting a pin through the doll made in Donna’s likeness. Out on the sidewalk, Donna collapses in pain and is brought to the hospital. That night, Rick has another vision of the mystery woman hovering in the clouds. “What do you want?” he grumbles at her. She tells him to pick up her doll from the shop and deliver it to the address on the box. The next day he does just that.

“Mr. Turner,” says the mystery woman--Bianca Milan (Linda Christian)--upon opening the door. “I’ve been expecting you.”

“You know about the dreams?” asks Rick.

“Certainly,” says Bianca and invites him in for dinner.

“What are you?” he asks, after the meal.

“Don’t you know?” says Bianca.

“You’re a she-devil,” cries Rick, then adds, “You’re beautiful. Fascinating.” Turns out, Bianca belongs to a cult that worships the devil-god Gamba and she wants Rick, for no discernible reason, to join. Rick is so enamored of Bianca--and so totally over his hospitalized fiancé--that he agrees. Cut to the doll shop. The ritual is already underway. Voodoo drums are thumping. Women in robes are swaying, as if in a trance. The shopkeeper is at his altar. Seated on the floor before him are Gamba’s disciples, most of whom are sweaty, thick-necked men in business suits. Rick is called to the altar.

“Will you swear absolute allegiance to the great devil-god Gamba?” asks the shopkeeper. 

“I will,” mumbles Rick and--just like that, no indoctrination necessary, no breaking down of psychological barriers--he’s a full-fledged member of the cult. What follows is a long, aimless middle act, during which Rick uses his newfound voodoo powers to play the stock market and place winning bets at the local racetrack. Then, for no apparent reason, he comes to regret abandoning his fiancé and pledging his loyalty to the devil-god--a complex, emotional transformation represented here by Rick staring somewhat mournfully at an old photograph of Donna for a couple seconds. The following night he sneaks into the doll shop, finds the Donna doll and pulls the needle out of it. Donna is cured, but is immediately kidnapped by the cult and placed on the altar to be sacrificed to Gamba. Will Rick swoop in and save her in time? Yes, of course he will.

That the cult is populated almost exclusively by seemingly upstanding, middle-class, middle-aged citizens is The Devil’s Hand’s only twist. The notion that witchcraft is alive and well in modern day society, that a select few are secretly using the powers of Satan for their own ill-gotten gain, wouldn’t become a staple of the horror genre for another few years, when Rosemary’s Baby did it far more convincingly. Too bad then that The Devil’s Hand is otherwise so clunky and old-fashioned--and worse, dull. It strives for the impact of an episode of The Twilight Zone, yet lacks the sharp characterization, tight plotting and hardboiled dialogue with which Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont and the show’s other writers were able to imbue even the most far-fetched premise.

Really, the only scene of any note is towards the end, when Rick is sitting in a bar, contemplating the mess he’s made of his life. Blaring out of the nearby jukebox is the surf guitar music--performed by Baker Knight and the Knightmares--from the opening credits. Rick rubs his temples. He takes an angry swig of his drink. It's too much. He needs peace and quiet to think. “Shut that music off!” he yells. The music stops. It’s a strange, almost self-aware moment, as if the film itself were acknowledging the unfulfilled expectations of its rollicking theme song and its own dreary reality. 


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