Hands. Where would we be without them? Without them, old people couldn’t clap relentlessly out of time during dodgy seaside talent contests in which 55 year old Doreen Smedley gets her false teeth round a rousing rendition of “Stand By Your Man”. Without them, wanking would become an infuriating calamity-waiting-to-happen as men all around the world attempt to do a Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot and pleasure themselves via alternate appendages. And without them, dropping those Ro-Hypnol doses in your lovely young “date”’s drink would take a perilously long time. All told, hands are useful.
The mutilation of the human body and the loss of its significant parts are, naturally, a recurring feature of horror stories. Early horror cinema offered countless variations on “The Hands Of Orlac” theme in which some poor sap receives the hands of a murderer and finds him/herself with sudden aggressive tendencies as a result (this theme continues to be a popular one - The Eye is just an ocular variation on same). The concept of being at the mercy of alien body parts is a potent one, with the natural extension being a scenario in which disembodied parts turn against either their original owners or a string of luckless victims.
While this top ten is preoccupied with movies in which at least one freshly severed hand goes on some kind of rampage, spare a thought also for those movies featuring unforgettable hand-severing. High on the list would be the harrowing mutilation in Haute Tension, watched by the (literally and figuratively) closeted final girl. John Carpenter’s peerless remake of The Thing (1982) has its own show-stopping bout of (double) hand severance and a less bloody but still memorable dual lopping occurs in Amicus anthology Vault Of Horror (1973). Elsewhere, notable instances of hand severing can be found in movies as diverse as Wild At Heart , Island Of Terror and The Children.
For now let us concern ourselves with those movies in which disembodied hands develop the ability to wreak terror by themselves. Do you think “Thing” from “The Addams Family” wears a glove in the winter?
10 .Severed Ties (1992) Laced with enough KNB gore money shots to provide illustration for a magazine feature, this Fangoria-backed flick is a satisfyingly wet Re-Animator wannabe with plentiful odes to the Evil Dead trilogy. A dweebish variant on Herbert West experiments with regenerating human organs but loses an arm during a tussle with incestuous mom Elke Sommer and her scheming lover (Oliver Reed). He gets a scaly replacement limb, falls in love with a tongue-less girl nick-named “Eve” and joins up with a small army of vagrants led by a paranoid WW1 veteran with a false leg.
The gang of well meaning disfigured misfits echoes Basket Case 2, while scenes of the central protagonist battling against his own uncontrollable, punching regenerated arm inevitably resemble Bruce Campbell’s antics in Evil Dead II. Still, this splatter-era variation on Hands Of Orlac has fun with its mutant limbs (some of which sport snappy teeth and eyes) and is especially worth a look on a slow night to see an uber-hammy Sommer and, in one of his final genre appearances, a hilarious Ollie Reed, who maniacally cleans her shoes and wrestles with rubbery severed limbs (choice line : “You and your fucking arms!”).
9 .And Now the Screaming Starts (1973) Aka “And Now The Creaming Tarts…” Stephanie Beacham, her breasts engaged in a movie-length battle to escape the tyranny of her dress, does the screaming and fainting in one of several Amicus productions to feature a malevolent, active severed hand. (We’re assuming the same hand appears in all these movies and had a very unadventurous agent). Set in the 17th century in and around Ian Ogilvy’s grandiose ancestral home, the movie finds his new bride (Beacham) swiftly losing it as she’s confronted by the aforementioned hand, whose presence may or may not be connected to a scarred local woodsman, a series of throttlings in the area and a mysterious madman who assaults Beacham as she sleeps.
This marvellously OTT Gothic horror piles up the melodrama and EC comics imagery, with creepy paintings, vicious rottweilers and cameos from a grinning, eyeless ghoul with a bloody dripping stump where his hand should be. Boobs, bums and a surprisingly unpleasant virgin-defiling flashback set piece make this a more adult affair than most of the Amicus oeuvre, and the simultaneously queasy / amusing movie highlight involves Beacham (believing that she’s carrying the child of a ghost) striving to stab herself in the belly but getting interrupted by that pesky, omnipresent severed hand.
8 .Quicksilver Highway (1997) A mini-anthology flick framed by travelling showman Christopher Lloyd and adapted from two stories by Stephen King and Clive Barker. The opening King-inspired entry “Chattery Teeth” is about as frightening as you might expect from a horror story based around a set of chattering novelty gnashers. What next? Stephen King’s “Curse of the Fake Dog Turd”?! The second half, however, from Barker’s “The Body Politic”, is a diverting tale of body parts taking on a life of their own.
Matt Frewer is typically off the chain as a plastic surgeon whose precious hands suddenly gain a life and mind of their own, desiring to free themselves from the “tyranny” of the body. They succeed in “persuading” him to chop off one hand and, when he’s taken to hospital, incite a hand-liberating revolution amongst the other patients.
The centre-piece scene of Frewer being beaten up by his own, uncontrollable hand is, of course, a direct reprise of the zestier Evil Dead II set piece, and the core theme of “The Body Politic” is slim even at this pared-down length. Still, Frewer and director Garris have fun with it, and the hand FX are cute.
7 .The Crawling Hand (1963) Made about ten years too late to cash in on the trend of cheap n cheerful drive-in monster movies, this no-budget A.I.P. effort is a riotously funny variation on The Quatermass Xperiment that didn’t need its later reincarnation as a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode to make it a hilarious view.
Possessed by a mysterious force during a space mission to the moon, a hapless astronaut is blown to smithereens while heading back to Earth, but his hand not only survives the explosion and endures re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere…it also goes on rampage after crash-landing on a California beach!
Wilfully absurd in its plotting (geeky science student Rod Lauren finds the hand and takes it home to the chagrin of his girlfriend and the bemusement of the entire audience), this surrealistically bad but loveable movie is often intentionally funny (check out the insensitive paramedics who get sidetracked from dealing with a fresh hand-victim by a search for a cold beer) and full of priceless moments. Highlight of the movie’s notably off-the-wall death scenes is the demise of the hand itself : savaged by cats in a salvage yard. Sniff!
6 .Addams Family Values (1993) Since “Thing” is arguably the silver screen’s best known disembodied living hand, we had to include some Addams Family element in this countdown. The selection of Addams Family Values is purely because it is the sharpest, most inventive and blackest-humoured representation of the family to date - a whole lot funnier than the original TV show and much wittier than the underwhelming initial 1991 feature.
This deliciously grim sequel largely focuses on the failed baby-murdering antics of Wednesday and Pugsley, as they attempt to overcome their jealousy of their new-born sibling in the most severe way. The movie is at its best when mocking middle America’s horrifyingly chipper kids’ summer camps, and Christina Ricci’s unsmiling, scathingly funny Wednesday gets all the best lines, though there are scores of great gags, including the best Michael Jackson-related visual joke of the 90’s.
As for “Thing” - though updated somewhat with the best of 90’s visual FX, the character remains oddly expressive despite being nothing more than a silent hand that moves of its own volition. The actor behind the hand is Christopher Hart, who has made an unusual career out of such roles ; it’s his hand you see in Idle Hands (though he missed out on grabbing Jessica Alba’s bum), Quicksilver Highway and a notable episode of Angel called “I Fall To Pieces” that wouldn’t be totally out of place in this top ten. Our bet is that he does a mean hand job.
5 .Idle Hands (1990) A feature-length extension of the farcical severed hand interlude of Evil Dead II, this is an underrated teen horror comedy literalising the old adage “idle hands are the devil’s playground”. Drop-out stoner teen Devon Sawa finds that, while his right hand is kept consistently busy with wanking and using the TV remote control, his idle leftie ends up taken over by an evil, sacrifice-seeking force. His undead buddies - they couldn’t be bothered to walk into the “light” so spend their afterlife getting stoned and watching TV - assist in tracking the out of control hand when it flees after being hacked off.
Typical of late-90’s genre fare, the movie is stacked with pop-culture references, including on-screen homages to Re-Animator, Dawn of the Dead and Glen Or Glenda. It also has a series of consistently funny gore gags, a lot of sympathy for its amusing central deadbeats and a marvellous finale featuring perhaps the finest single of dialogue in 1990’s mainstream cinema : “As usual, marijuana saves an otherwise disastrous day…”. Funny and true.
4 .Dr Terrors House of Horrors (1966) Tarot card reading oddball Peter Cushing - all scary eyebrows and German accent - foretells the fates of five rail commuters in this trend-setting, rather marvellous Amicus anthology pic. While the movie never quite tops its jaw-dropping early episode in which semi-legendary BBC Radio DJ Alan Freeman wrestles with a deadly vine with world-domination plans, it comes close with the episode “Disembodied Hand”.
Christopher Lee, who usually comes across as a pompous, pretentious arse in interviews, is perfectly cast as a pompous, pretentious art critic, particularly fond of lambasting the work of artist Michael Gough. The story has lots of fun puncturing the self-important world of art criticism (and, indeed, critics in general) and Lee’s inevitable, EC Comics-style comeuppance begins when he’s humiliated after lavishing praise on a work that turns out to be the haphazard daubings of a chimp. Subsequently he’s hounded by Gough, even after he runs him over and causes the artist to lose a hand.
From this point on, the episode becomes a spry, amusing variant on The Beast With Five Fingers, complete with a very persistent, living severed hand that survives being burned and dumped in the river, and delivers Lee his just desserts in a relishable poetic-justice twist ending.
3 .The Hand (1981) Here’s a fascinating curio that divides itself between gaudy crawling-hand antics and a sincere attempt at a straight, psychological approach to its story of an anguished hero striving to cope with his mutilation and its aftermath. It’s worth noting that this consciously “smart” genre flick still feels the need to gratuitously throw a cat into the frame for the sake of a cheap scare early on.
Vermont cartoonist Michael Caine loses his hand while arguing with his wife in a well staged, bloody freak road accident worthy of The Omen franchise. Soon after he suffers hallucinations of the never-found disembodied hand at dinner and in the shower while surrealistic monochrome attack scenes (including the demise of a hobo played by director Stone) suggest the hand is on a murder rampage.
Despite its negative reputation, The Hand is neither an embarrassment nor an anomaly in Stone’s career. His later, somewhat more respected Born On The Fourth Of July was also concerned with the theme of a maimed, emasculated hero struggling to accept a debilitating injury while the regular shifts from colour to black and white prefigures similar technical experimentation in later Stone flicks.
Caine is superb as a stubborn, often unlikeable accident victim descending into madness, and his strong presence saves the inevitably absurd climactic scene in which he wrestles with his own disembodied hand. The movie’s main twist subverts the crawling-hand elements in a fashion that’s now common in the post-Shyamalan movie world, though a then-fashionable shock coda suggests the hand (explained away as a delusion in Caine’s warped, murderous mind) really is on the loose.
2 .The Beast With Five Fingers (1946) A prominent influence on all subsequent crawling-severed-hand movies and a clear inspiration for the entire character of Thing in The Addams Family, this memorable black and white shocker has a typically marvellous Peter Lorre - characteristically neurotic, bug-eyed and eccentric - as the secretary of a renowned pianist whose disembodied hand appears to be on a post-mortem rampage in his sumptuous Italian villa.
Rich in Gothic trappings and making the most of its lush backdrop, this Bunuel-inspired flick really comes to life during the scenes in which Lorre engages in battle with the mischievous hand, preceding the amped up similar set piece in Evil Dead II by a good four decades. Brought to life by remarkably good special effects for the time, this hand scampers around like a persistent spider, routinely strangling women, bashing out tunes on a piano, playfully knocking books off shelves and, on occasion, getting nailed in a box and set on fire.
The hand scenes are so good that it’s too bad the movie - like The Hand - ultimately reveals its presence to be purely in the imagination of the protagonist. Worse still, Beast wraps up by turning the whole plot into a joke, with a key character openly taking the piss out of the very concept of a living disembodied hand. Hey, that’s what we paid our money for, you bastards!
1 .Evil Dead 2 (1987) “Give me back my hand!”
Deservedly beloved by genre fans and ordinary folk alike, Raimi’s 100mph reboot of his own cult-classic The Evil Dead is a tour de force of splatter-laced slapstick and tongue in cheek protracted cruelty. Flying eyeballs, insanely laughing deer heads and a staggering comic performance by Bruce Campbell enhance the sustained lunacy, though its Campbell’s encounter with his own mean-spirited, relentless severed hand, that forms the movie’s most memorable set piece, and almost plays like a self-contained movie in its own right.
At the point in the movie where hapless hero Ash has already gone through the mill, the revelation that his hand has also become possessed takes the movie’s hysteria-level to fresh new heights. The giggling, malevolent hand brutally beats up its owner, smashing crockery over his head, punching him in the face and throwing him round the room with intense enthusiasm. The answer? Chainsaw it off, of course, which Ash does in a stand-out moment of gory madness(“Who’s laughing now?!”) though the hand lives on to terrorise him further, casually giving him the finger while evading shotgun blasts at every turn. In a gag typical of the juvenile, throwaway nature of Raimi’s sense of humour during this trilogy, the hand is eventually trapped with the help of an old copy of “Farewell To Arms” (“Here’s your new home…”)
Always a riotously fun flick to return to, Evil Dead II continues to represent a benchmark for horror comedies and only a Deadite fool wouldn’t rank it as the ultimate in evil severed hand movies.