The screen dares explore the realm of "TRANSPLANT SURGERY"! in HANDS OF A STRANGER, out in widescreen manufactured-on-demand DVD-R from Warner Archive.
Young virtuoso concert pianist Vernon Paris (James Stapleton, THE KILLING JAR) is on top of the world until his cab is in a terrible traffic accident that mangles his hands. While Vernon is unconscious, his doctor Harding (Paul Lukather, FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER) proposes to his agent George (voice actor Michael Rye) and his protective sister Dina (Joan Harvey, PRETTY BOY FLOYD) an experimental surgery which will replace Vernon’s damaged hands with the “powerful yet sensitive” hands of a bullet-riddled John Doe that came in before him. The illegal transplant is successful in so much as Vernon's body accepts the transplant and his nerves respond; however, when he learns that the hands are not his own (a fact held back from him during the six weeks when they were bandaged and immobilized), he becomes convinced that he will never play again. Although Harding assures him that his talent is in his head and his hands just have to catch up, Vernon is unable or unwilling to play. Vernon seeks comfort from his glamorous on-again-off-again girlfriend Eileen (Elaine Martone, WALK OF THE WILD SIDE) and accidentally kills her when he she is unwilling to understand his crisis. Vernon soon resolves to kill all of those who were involved in the transplant, including Harding who has begun courting his sister.
Directed by Newt Arnold (BLOODSPORT), HANDS OF A STRANGER boasts some wonderfully expressionistic photography and opticals (in fact, one of the film’s first striking images was mislabeled in Phil Hardy’s ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE HORROR MOVIES as being from the Anglo-British adaptation) including a trip to the carnival where a montage depicts Vernon's torment and jealousy at the dexterity of other carnival-goers and performers. Nevertheless, it is a severely flawed (and uncredited) adaptation of Maurice Renard’s “The Hands of Orlac”. Previously adapted in 1924 in Germany with Conrad Veidt, in 1935 in Hollwyood as MAD LOVE with Peter Lorre and Colin Clive, and 1960 in simultaneously filmed French and British versions with Mel Ferrer and Christopher Lee (with the English version directed by BEAT GIRL’s Edmond T. Greville), Arnold’s version is both innovative (if the only other version you’ve seen is MAD LOVE as I have) and hackneyed. The film emphasizes how delicate Vernon’s ego is, and how insulated he is due to Dina and George (both likened to the velvet gloves he wears to protect his hands when not playing), and how shallow he was even before the crash (after the accident, he wonders why his hands were injured rather than the driver’s [George Sawaya, PRIVATE DUTY NURSES] whose hands he deemed less important). He takes no time to try to play, convinced from the start that his career is over, and immediately starts taking out his anger on others. That makes for an okay drama, but the puzzling over the identity of the hand donor and his possible criminal or psychopathic proclivities is forgotten very early on. This would still be okay for the dramatic aspect of the story had the film not begun with the donor’s murder and if Lt. Syms (Laurence Haddon, TORN CURTAIN) – from “the department of bullets and bodies” – were not so concerned about finding out the corpse’s identity (he’s smart enough to know just how the fingerprints are showing up at the crime scenes but not the identity of the recipient of the hands).
Although the film doesn’t flinch at showing a victim burning to death (although rather quickly) or the violent death of a child (TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLE voice actor Barry Gordon), it downplays any suggestion of incestuous possessiveness by either Dina or Vernon; as such, Harding isn’t a manipulative villain playing upon Vernon’s fears to get his girl. Instead, Lukather comes off as a cold fish romantic lead uttering melodramatic lines to an equally over-the-top Harvey. Stapleton is uneven, but his alternately bland and sullen turns actually suit the character until the end where he gone completely off the bend. Michael Du Pont – who would later produce Arnold’s Filipino-lensed BLOOD THIRST – plays Harding’s young protégé while Irish McCalla (SHE DEMONS) plays the young nurse also targeted for death (fortunately, they are both in the same place for the sake of the running time). MASH’s Sally Kellerman has a smaller role as another nurse.
Like their disc of TORMENTED, Warner Archive’s single-layer manufactured DVD-R features a straight 16:9 crop of the fullscreen framing familiar from the various PD editions. Also like TORMENTED, it’s the best this film has looked in the digital format (previous PD DVD releases sourced somewhere down the line from gray market transfers). The film gains a slickness it doesn’t really deserve, and the Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is clean. There are no extras, and the sole menu screen is a generic background of the Warner studio water tower with a single “Play” option. (Eric Cotenas)
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