Hands of a Stranger (1962) DVD Review: Different Take, Same Ol’ Story

From the opening shot of Hands of a Stranger, one gets the distinct impression that the director of this low-budget fiasco was intent on doing things differently. And, when you stop to consider that the inspiration of this horror flick – Maurice Renard’s 1920 classic novel, Les Mains d’Orlac (The Hands of Orlac) had already been filmed at least sixty or seventy-thousand times prior in the 1930s alone, with another adaptation having been made only two short years before this mess premiered, you really can’t blame the director for wanting to take a different approach to it all. Of course, when said director not only happens to be the screenwriter but also bears the unenviable name Newt Arnold, you can pretty much expect the end result to be somewhat odd.

And odd, it is. As with most of the earlier film adaptations, Hands of a Stranger finds a concert pianist (James Noah, aka James Stapleton) having his hands brutally mangled in a cruel act of fate (this time, a negligent cabbie causes a car crash) – giving a brilliant surgeon (top-billed Paul Lukather) with an overinflated ego (gee, fancy that!) the opportunity to transplant the hands of a recently murdered John Doe onto the accident victim (whom the ad campaign for the movie claimed was a killer, although the film itself never bothers to investigate such).

Unable to really get a grip on his new set of extremities (heh, pun), the artist actually does go out and kill in this version – as opposed to the red herring cliché commonly used in the previous incarnations. Meanwhile, the doctor responsible for setting a newfound murderer out upon the world (who isn’t a madman per se here, unlike, say Peter Lorre’s crazed surgeon in 1935’s Mad Love) has hooked up with the former ivory tickler’s screaming sister (portrayed by a terrible actress calling herself Joan Harvey, and who – for some bizarre reason – never appeared onscreen again after this) – after having introduced himself to the woman in question by administering a cool, calm bitch slap to her kisser. In fact, the doc seems to enjoy slapping people as much as the new killer enjoys killing, and the new killer’s sister enjoys staring into the camera and shouting.

Add a fast-talking police detective (Larry Haddon) who is more concerned with where the corpse in the morgue’s hands went instead of who’s killing the children of cabbies and the physician’s assistants (you know, things that are actually linked to something of importance) and you have a really silly movie all-in-all, kids. I’ll give Newt some credit, though: he did know how to setup a shot fairly well. Sadly, his selection of performers are either inexperienced (Ms. Harvey, will you please stand up?) or over-practiced to the point where they get the lines out without so much as a hint of emotion (witness the rapid-fire delivery between Lukather and Haddon and try to get a breath in). Michael Rye, George Sawaya, and younger versions of Barry Gordon and Sally Kellerman (her first feature film role) also star. She Demons co-star Irish McCalla, already out of work after her short-lived stint as Sheena: Queen of the Jungle on the airwaves ended several years before, has a brief bit as the doomed pianist’s equally ill-fated mistress in this entertainingly-bad b-movie.

Duplicated onto videocassettes and digital versatile discs galore since the VHS boom of the ’80s, Hands is no stranger to home video – but the Warner Archive Collection’s unwrapping of this accident victim has revealed something I never saw in any release before: quality. Yes, for the first time, Newt’s previously barely-perceptible artistic flair can be seen in this rather stunning transfer – which presents the flick in an anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio with a mono soundtrack so clear and precise, you’ll catch every wavelength of Joan Harvey’s ear-piercing yelling and Paul Lukather/Larry Haddon’s witty exchanges in crystal clear puredom.

Although I’m not entirely sure if that’s a good thing at this point. Oh, well, it’s a fun dumb movie anyway.

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Luigi Bastardo

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