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Of mad love, alien hands and the film under your skin
Some further meditations on the horror of identity
Ruth Goldberg looks at possessed hands in film versions of the "Hands of Orlac" story and traces the origins through cinema history and back to grisly medical reality.
Horror returns to preliterate, somatic ways of knowing... Sitting in the darkened theater, which replicates the den or campfire, we re-encounter our earliest dreams.—Linda Badley
I have elsewhere written about films in which hands are severed from the body but continue to act with diabolical will; about hands in surreal film; and about films in which the hands of monsters serve an uncanny cinematic function. What has been left (relatively) unexplored is the familiar narrative in which the hands of an executed killer are grafted onto the arms of an innocent man and assume a life of their own, faithful to the murderous inclinations of their previous owner and impervious to the will of their new master.
|Orlac's story in a|
failed slacker flick
A substantial number of films follow the formula of this grisly subgenre of a subgenre, beginning with Robert Weine's early Weimar standard Orlacs Hände (The Hands of Orlac, Austria/Germany, 1924), based on the novel Les Mains d'Orlac by Maurice Renard and retold through the years in any number of remakes, including the classic Mad Love (Karl Freund, 1935), The Hands of Orlac (Edmond T Gréville, France / UK, 1961) and Hands of a Stranger (Newt Arnold, 1962). Later, the story mutated in narrative content, serving as the basis of such films as Body Parts (Eric Red, 1991), the teen gore comedy Severed Ties (Damon Santostefano, 1992) and the recent slacker/slasher bomb Idle Hands (Rodman Flender, 1999).
The recurrence of the narrative raises several troubling questions. What does the trope mean? What function does it serve? What is the underlying dynamic at play here that so resonates across generations? Speculation has arisen as to its origins, and the nearest attempt at a genealogy has located an early version in "The Tale of the Three Army Surgeons" by the Brothers Grimm, in which the surgeons in question have the power to reattach severed limbs, and accidentally attach the arm of a thief to the body of an innocent man, with predictably disturbing results.
That this story might find its roots in German folklore begins to explain why all of the Orlac remakes have fallen somewhat short of the (original) mark. As William K Everson notes in his chapter on Mad Love in Classics of the Horror Film: "Its plot, originating with a French author, is so bizarre and out of touch with its contemporary locale as to more properly belong in the more fanciful silent German films of legend." A viewing of Weine's 1924 version of the story brings this point home, the film's use of German expressionistic technique rendering an ideally dreamlike vision of the tale. Conrad Veidt in the original title role "dances a kind of expressionist ballet, bending and twisting extravagantly, simultaneously drawn and repelled by the murderous dagger held by hands which do not seem to belong to him."
All of Orlac's internal anguish is revealed in this dance, true to the expressionist creed that "the rules established by the expressionist artist for the formation of space must be equally valid for the use of the human body: the passion in a situation must be expressed by an intense mobility, and abnormal and excessive movements must be invented. For the inner rhythm of a character's life is transposed into his gestures." One could of course speculate as to the significance of the story in that particular place and time, as a metaphor for the internalization of conflict in Weimar society perhaps, but such speculation would not account for the enduring appeal of the trope, nor for its insistent recurrence.
New-found identity in a pair of hands
The vampire, the hulk-with-no-name and the transformation monster have all slithered up from the myth pool to become staple images on the dry land of popular culture because we want, and need, them around.—James Twitchell
So what does the trope mean? Like so many enduring tales of horror, the frisson occurs in the context of a monstrous transformation. Freund's 1935 Mad Love is in many respects the standard Hollywood version of this story, and so calls for further meditation:
Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive) is a famous pianist, married to Yvonne (Frances Drake), a leading lady in the Théâtre du Grand Guignol—the theatre of horror. Yvonne is coveted by Grand Guignol patron and renowned surgeon Dr Gogol (Peter Lorre), who has come to see her tortured on stage forty-seven performances in a row. Rejecting his advances, Yvonne is later forced to turn to Gogol for help when her husband's hands are crushed in a train wreck. Gogol secretly replaces Orlac's crushed hands with the hands of a recently guillotined knife-thrower named Rollo (Edward Brophy), who was put to death for murdering his own father in a crime of passion. The ghoulish tragedy unfolds from there, as Orlac awakes from the anesthesia transformed: a changed man, with none of his former skill as a pianist but with an alarming newfound talent for throwing knives.
Clive plays his part "to hysterical perfection," and, as has been observed by more than one reviewer in the past, it is a kind of poetic justice to see the man who played Dr. Frankenstein himself become the victim of a mad doctor's hubris. This brings us to the conflict inherent in viewing Mad Love as a "hand film": there are two monsters here, Orlac and Gogol, and because Lorre plays Gogol to such maniacal effect (and because, as Steven Thornton has noted, despite Gogol's utter depravity "the sympathy of the audience never completely deserts this lamentable creature"), Orlac's hands are almost overshadowed in the lead role. Gogol's descent into madness is truly unsettling, Lorre's compelling and nuanced performance perhaps best summarized by Graham Greene in his review of the film for The Spectator:
Mr Lorre, with every physical handicap, can convince you of the goodness, the starved tenderness, of his vice-entangled soul. Those marbly pupils in the pasty spherical face are like the eye-pieces of a microscope through which you can see laid flat on the slide the entangled mind of a man: love and lust, nobility and perversity, hatred of itself and despair, jumping out at you from the jelly.
The obvious sexual symbolism in the film's action makes the temptation to submit Mad Love to a Freudian analysis almost irresistible, for on the surface this is a story about being robbed of one's identity, emasculated by a rival, trapped in an Oedipal nightmare. What do the hands do? They kill, they embarrass, they indict. They expose the internal conflict and guilt of the pianist for all the world to see. But ultimately, the enduring resonance of this particular transformation narrative lies in its exploration of how we become monstrous to ourselves: how the ambiguous self is revealed to be more monstrous than any external horror, and how true horror is rooted in the vulnerability of our physical form. It is a transformation which makes manifest the unreliable nature of both body and mind, as Orlac is left unsure of who he is or what evil he is capable of.
A hand with a mind of its own
Where does evil live? Does it live in the soul? In the mind... Maybe it lives in the flesh... Maybe evil lives in the skin. I don't know.—Bill Chrushank (Jeff Fahey), Body Parts
In her 1995 study, Film, Horror and the Body Fantastic, Linda Badley places the Orlac narrative ("the evil transplant cliché") within the Frankenstein lineage, yet another tale of manmade bodies gone wrong, and one which raises the uneasy question of the exact location of the self. It is worth adding here that Orlac certainly owes just as large a debt to the influence of Jekyll and Hyde as it does to Frankenstein, for this is an interior drama—a meditation on the possible division of identity. Can the self fracture and yet be restored to integrity?
Clearly, at the time of Mad Love's release a hand transplant was purely the stuff of fantasy, a mythological operation. In our own age, however, such an operation is performed successfully, and with increasing frequency. That technology has caught up to the myth doesn't lessen the film's uncanny impact in any way, perhaps indicating that the belief that personality is invested in the body—or a deep-rooted uncertainty as to the location of the self—is alive and well.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks explores exactly this abject horror implicit in an altered sense of proprioception in his memoir A Leg To Stand On, recalling Freud's insight that "the Ego is, first and foremost, a Body Ego," and that betrayal by the body goes to the heart of the question of identity. "Proprioception…implies a sense of what is "proper'—that by which the body knows itself, and has itself as "property." One may be said to "own" or "possess" one's body—at least its limbs and moveable parts—by virtue of a constant flow of information, arising ceaselessly, throughout life… One has oneself, one is oneself, because the body knows itself, confirms itself at all times by this sixth sense."
Truth being ever stranger than the films, the bizarre set of circumstances depicted in Mad Love—a hand acting with diabolical agency in contrast to the wishes of the body it stems from, and the accompanying query about the location of the self—isn't just the stuff of drive-in legend. This exact set of circumstances has a real-life counterpart in one of the strangest conditions recorded in the annals of medicine: the Alien Hand Syndrome (AHS).
This is the name given to a syndrome in which, as a result of the separation of the two hemispheres of the brain, one hand of the affected person literally "goes rogue" and secedes from the conscious control of the body and mind of its owner, acting as a free agent in a completely unpredictable way. A growing body of literature exists on this condition, originally attributed to demonic possession, which, if truth be told, delights neurologists to talk about just as much as it upsets the unlucky afflicted.
In a chapter on the disorder, neurologist Todd Feinberg points out that in case the resemblance between AHS and the recurrent hand narrative in horror cinema weren't bizarre enough, "attempts to restrain the hand are... a characteristic feature of the disorder. It has been dubbed the 'Dr Strangelove effect.' This appellation derives from the character in the movie of the same name, vividly portrayed by Peter Sellers, who feels compelled to make a Nazi salute (with one hand) while the other limb attempts to restrain it."
The real-life syndrome follows a course which will be familiar to any experienced viewer of the horror genre. The patient first feels estranged from the alien hand, protesting that it isn't even familiar, isn't theirs at all really, that it must belong to someone else, and then later comes to personify it, treating the hand as an independent being with its own authority rather than as one of their own limbs at all. The patient often ends up ascribing a name, even an entire complex personality, to the affected hand.
Because films alter consciousness in a hallucinatory way, they possess the capacity to threaten one's sense of self, one's sense of integrity—and the sensation is realized in the body of the viewer of the horror film, which frequently tenses up as if in defense from an attack. This is the potential risk of submitting to a film, that you might be permanently altered by the altered state, unable to return to who you previously were and trapped in a nightmare of revealed horror. For films truly are an attack on the body—as Buñuel revealed with that visceral slash of the razor in Un Chien Andalou (1929)—fully as much as they are an attack on our consciousness. Defined by the experience of being human and trapped in a body that can revolt against us, the underlying dynamic at the heart of the alien hand narrative becomes clearer. The question that arises with the onset of AHS is the same question that lies at the core of the many remakes of the Hands of Orlac narrative: "Will I still be me?," you ask as you exit the theatre, a foreigner in your own body, with no respite, the horror of identity revealed, finally, in the film under your skin.
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About the author
Ruth Goldberg is a member of the faculty at SUNY/Empire State College where she teaches film history with an emphasis on the subjects of horror film and Latin American film. She also currently teaches adult education courses at New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies. She has conducted workshops at the Escuela Internacional de Cine e TV, San Antonio de los Banos, Cuba, and at El Taller Latino Americano/The Latin American Workshop in New York City. She is working on a book on the subject of disembodied hands in film.
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1. A much earlier version of this essay appeared in the festival catalogue of the second annual TALIFF (The Academic Look International Film Festival) in Lisbon, Portugal, May 2001.
2. Linda Badley, Film, Horror and the Body Fantastic (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995).
3. See Stephen Thorpe, "The Grimm Roots of Horror," in Horrorwood Webzine 2.13, December 1998:
4. William K Everson, Classics of the Horror Film: From the Days of Silent Film to The Exorcist (New York: Citadel Press, 1974): 131.
5. Lotte Eisner, The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt, trans Roger Greaves (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969): 145..
6. Ibid, p 145..
7. James B Twitchell, Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).
8. Midnight Marquee Actors Series: Peter Lorre, ed Gary Svehla (Baltimore, MD: Midnight Marquee Press, 1999)
9. Steven Thornton, "Mad Love," in Midnight Marquee Actors Series: Peter Lorre, ed Gary Svehla (Baltimore, MD: Midnight Marquee Press, 1999): 46.
10. Graham Greene quoted in Midnight Marquee Actors Series: Peter Lorre, ed Gary Svehla (Baltimore, MD: Midnight Marquee Press, 1999).
11. Sigmund Freud quoted in Oliver Sacks, A Leg To Stand On (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1984).
12. Oliver Sacks, A Leg To Stand On (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1984): 71.
13. Todd E Feinberg, Altered Egos: How the Brain Creates the Self (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001): 99.
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