Released in 1962 when 20th Century-Fox was still churning out one B movie after the other, HAND OF DEATH has to be one of the most rarely seen "creature feature" flicks of the Famous Monsters era. It seemed to never play on television back in the day, and only in recent years has it shown up on AMC and Fox Movie Channel, and it now finally makes its home video debut via Fox Home Video’s “Cinema Archives” MOD line.
Determined government scientist Alex Marsh (John Agar, CURSE OF THE SWAMP CREATURE) has been conducting experiments with a nerve gas which will temporarily paralyze its victims and leave them in a state of hypnosis. Its purpose is to do away with germ warfare, but the formula has is far from perfected. Burning the midnight oil at his secluded desert research lab, Alex accidentally spills some of the formula, as it touches his hands with painful results. Hallucinating about floating glass beakers and white lab mice to the sounds of some aggressive jazz music, he attempts to sleep off his agony. The following Monday morning, lab assistant Julio (John Alonzo, TERROR AT BLACK FALLS) discovers Alex with a tan deeper than George Hamilton’s, and when he’s touched by him, his arm is cindered as he drops dead. Now that something has gone terribly wrong and he’s responsible for his assistant’s accidental murder, Alex packs a suitcase, sets fire to the lab and heads to the home of wheelchair-bound scientist mentor Dr. Frederick Ramsay (Roy Gordon, ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN), but not before he claims another life.
Realizing his touch is fatal to anyone who comes in contact with him and become increasingly hot-tempered, Alex refuses to tell the authorities of his condition or go into a medical facility, demanding (or rather threatening) that Dr. Ramsay finds a cure as he hides out in a bedroom in the house. With a strange poison taking over his entire body, Alex suddenly emerges as a completely swollen hulk with cracked, charcoaled skin, and his touch leaves anyone encounters in the same state, albeit dead as a doornail. Grabbing a fedora and trenchcoat from the closet with his pudgy mitts, monstrous Mark desperately disguises himself and takes off in station wagon, only to crash it and take off on foot. Wandering around Malibu, he terrorizes more folk including a cabbie (Fred Krone, HELL’S BELLES) who refuses to give him a ride based on his appearance and calls him a screwball! Alex takes off with the cab and eventually arrives at the beach house where Dr. Ramsay’s assistant Carol Wilson (Paula Raymond, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS), also the woman he was courting, is hiding it out from her mutated and mad former beau. Demanding she persuade his colleague (and competing suitor for her attentions) Tom (television actor Stephen Dunne) to provide the anecdote for his strange disease, with the trigger happy patrolmen surrounding him, it might be too late!
HAND OF DEATH’s short running time surely indicates that Fox intended to throw it on the bottom of multi-feature bills at the drive-in, and the film pretty much recycles the format of their recent hit, THE FLY; a well-meaning scientist’s intent to unleash an innovation upon the world, only to become his own guinea pig and transform himself into a horrific mutation. Over the years, it seemed very few monster movie addicts were able to catch this one, and the lack of television airings or a home video release gave it a sort of notoriety (stills of Agar’s monster did end up in a number of books and monster movie magazines). And that notoriety lied in the belief that HAND OF DEATH was not only “lost” but a terrible movie, but let's say it falls into the “so bad it’s good” category. This spin on the scientist-turned-madman has a fairly unique monster to its credit (which likely scared the bejesus out of any kid who saw this at a Saturday matinee and could very well have been an inspiration for “The Thing” from “The Fantastic Four”) even though the mask appliance is quite obvious, especially when Agar moves around too much or when his character attempts speech. Since he was already a staple in 1950s sci-fi movies (and even by 1962 standards, this feels like a throwback to the previous decade), casting Agar here can be appreciated in a self conscious B-grade way, and he actually plays the character very well, being appropriately animated as the once kind researcher who becomes increasingly mad, and later as the lurking monster which he seems to be having fun with behind all that get-up (as witnessed from the later Larry Buchanan films, the actor can sleepwalk through a performance if he’s disinterested with the material).
HAND OF DEATH was the first feature directed by veteran actor Gene Nelson, who would soon become a busy TV director and ended up doing HARUM SCARUM with Elvis Presley and THE COOL ONES with Roddy McDowall. Nelson does a decent job with the undemanding subject matter and the one-hour allotted running time, but his direction is certainly outshined by the unforgettable monster, the familiar cast, the wild conga and piano infused score by Sonny Burke and the widescreen cinematography by Floyd Crosby, who around the same time did the same for a number of Roger Corman’s Poe films over at American International Pictures. Three Stooges fans take note: former “Third Stooge” Joe Besser appears as an overzealous gas station attendant who ends up with a three-dimensional handprint on his face, and you can’t help but picture him as being in a late 1950s Stooges short. A pre-THE MUNSTERS Butch Patrick appears as a boy who almost puts his tiny fingers on the deadly monster before being called away by his mom, Norman Burton (from PLANET OF THE APES and DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER) is the homicide detective on the case, and Jerry Warren regular Chuck Niles (TEENAGE ZOMBIES) can be seen as a reporter.
With the recent cable TV airings of HAND OF DEATH being broadcast from a horrible dark pan and scan transfer, it’s great to see that Fox was able to present the film here in its correct aspect ratio, even if it just a made-on-demand DVD-R on their Cinema Archives series. Presented in the original 2.35:1 CinemaScope aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, the black and white image looks like it’s going to be a tad soft from the onset, but once the opening credits conclude, the picture is sharp and well detailed, with very little picture noise or blemishes, and just the right amount of grain. Black levels are good and white levels are solid without being overblown. The mono English audio sounds fine, with no noticeable hiss or distortion. (George R. Reis)
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