Following on from his on “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and May, and his “31 Days of American Horror” in August and October, Jules is fixing to round out 2018 with 31 more days of classic American Horror movies.
So brace yourself, folks. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Director: Robert Florey
Starring: Robert Alda, Andrea King, Peter Lorre
By 1946, American horror was, to put not too fine a point on it, dying on its arse. There was still some Poverty Row films holding on for dear life, but by the end of the year, that would pretty much be it for the genre until the beginnings of the next decade.
Maybe it was that people who had just lived through the nightmare of World War 2 had seen enough of real-life horror for a while and either didn’t want it in their escapism or maybe it was that it felt irrelevant when compared to such a massively traumatic event? Certainly Universal hadn’t helped by consistently defanging and belittling their star turns with a succession of monster mash-ups, the last of which being 1948’s final insult (but massively enjoyable) Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein.
The Beast With Five Fingers then, feels like the end of an era, an attempt to do a proper horror film in a time where nobody seemed to care that much. Does it work? Some of it, yes. Very much so. The rest? No. No, it does not.
After suffering a stroke that paralysed his entire right side leaning him in a wheelchair, celebrated pianist Francis Ingram (Victor Francen) has retired to his mansion on the outskirts of a remote Italian village. A virtual recluse, he only had contact with a select few people – his nurse, Julie Holden (Andrea King); his secretary, a musicologist cum amateur astrologist/occult student in Hillary Cummins (Peter Lorre), his good friend and charming con-man Bruce Conrad (Robert Alda) and his sister’s son, Donald Arlington (John Alvin).
Falling in love with Julie, Ingram has changed his will to entirely benefit her, while leaving out his friends and family, but the nurse is secretly in love with Conrad. When Ingram is found dead at the bottom of the stairs, suspicions begin to fall on who, if anyone, was responsible, but worse is to come when it’s discovered his left hand has later been severed from his corpse and is now missing.
It doesn’t appear to be missing for long though, as a disembodied hand starts to scuttle around the house with death following in its wake…
This a strange film. There’s some wonderfully creepy scenes, no small amount of great set-pieces, more than one excellent performance and a surprisingly effective special effect of the titular disembodied digits running around the place.
But…there’s also a ludicrous plot, some rotten comic relief and an ending the writers of Scooby Doo would have felt was anti-climactic. Seriously, it’s bloody awful.
Peter Lorre is on magnificent form though, playing the jerky, nervous madman at the centre of the story. They’re something unsettling about him at the best of times, but here he’s positively disturbing here. He’s a complex man, happy to be ignored enough to be allowed to follow his interest in the occult, but jealous and spiteful enough to deliberately hurt Ingram with the revelation that Julie doesn’t love him.
On the other hand, Robert Alda as the roguish hero Conrad fails on all fronts to actually win you over with his charms, while the comedy policeman stylish of J. Carroll Naish just jars every time he’s on screen.
Those hand effects though? Considering the year, they’re remarkably good. Director Robert Florey manages to imbue a fair bit of menace into its movements, making it a maniacal, angry and driven thing that rightly scares the bejesus out of everyone unlucky enough to come across it. The vengeful severed hand is an old trope, but it works so, so well here, making it one of the definitive uses of the idea in cinema.
It’s all the more tragic then that they go and absolutely destroy all that great work with the worst ending possible. Why writer Robert Siodmak (The Wolf Man/I Walked With A Zombie) thought a “oh, there was a rational explanation all along” number was the way to go is baffling. It’s really, really not and is one of the most groan-inducing ways to close a film you’ll ever see, with them jumping through all manner of narrative hoops to justify its lameness. Urgh.
The Beast With Five Fingers is an oddity. It’s nearly a classic, but it’s nearly a donkey too.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy