HAND OF DEATH : "Scream But Don't Touch"

By Dr. Abner Mality

Nothing gives me greater pleasure than finding a vintage horror flick that I've never clapped bloodshot eyes on before. Only finding the perfect dead body or curvaceous female to experiment on comes close! After decades of cinematic debauchery, there are very few monster films from the "Golden Age" that I haven't seen. Chief amongst these has been the ultra-obscure 1962 movie "Hand of Death". Long has this one evaded my grasp. Until now! So it is time to give this the Mality treatment!

My first encounter with "Hand of Death" came when I saw it mentioned in that incredibly entertaining and vastly useful tome, "The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film" by Michael Weldon. That book turned me on to literally hundreds of crazy films and set my feet more firmly upon the psychotronic path. I've read it so many times that it has literally split into two pieces and pages are starting to fly out of it. But never will I part with it.

My attention was drawn to a stark black and white picture of a most peculiar monster. It was a blackened, bloated thing dressed in a trench coat and wearing a hat. This weird creature was laying on the ground and reaching with one oversized paw towards a young boy of early "Jerry Mathers" mode. The caption announced the pic as being from 1962's "Hand of Death", starring B-film veteran John Agar as a monster whose touch brought instant death! I was super-intrigued by the picture and by Weldon's brief synopsis of the film. But that was literally all I saw of "Hand of Death" for years and years. I wondered if the film really had ever existed at all.

It did. When I found the massive movie database known as the IMDB in the early 2000's, I again found mention of it.  At that point, though, the movie was still not available on VHS or DVD. It was produced by 20th Century Fox, given a brief release in 1962 and then some sort of legal foul-up kept in the vaults for 40 years. I'm still not exactly clear on what the holdup was, but sometime in the early 2000's, the fog lifted and some versions of the movie began to appear. It was also shown on one of AMC's old Halloween Monsterfests before that channel degenerated into total crap. But it hasn't been seen there since.

Thanks to the modern wonder known as YouTube, I have finally managed to see a complete and uninterrupted version of this long-lost flick, which has become something of a "Holy Grail" to fans of 50's/early 60's SF films. Does it live up to that expectation? Well, I didn't strain any muscles doing cartwheels after I saw it, but I did enjoy seeing this oddity. Don't get your expectations real high and you will probably do the same.

The late 50's/early 60's was the great heyday of "man-into-monster" films and "Hand of Death" falls into that category solidly. Many think this was the era of giant insects and alien invaders, but there were tons of movies like "The Manster", "The Werewolf", "Monster on the Campus" and "The Hideous Sun Demon". In "Hand of Death", as these other movies, an innocent man, usually a scientist, becomes transformed into a bloodthirsty creature. In "Hand of Death", the danger is magnified because the monster can kill with just a touch of his hand. Even if he doesn't become a homicidal maniac, he is still a deadly danger to all around him. This concept of "death with a touch" was explored in the classic 1930's sci-fi flick "The Invisible Ray", where Boris Karloff was infected with space radium that drove him crazy and gave him a fatal touch. "Hand of Death" is not quite on that fact, it's short and cheap...but it is more graphic and in its way, much creepier.

They sure didn't make an epic out of this one. The length of the movie is only 58 minutes...not even an hour. I'm sure AMC could drag it out to a three hour length with the commercials they usually infest their features with. It hails back to the day of B-features that were nice and compact and made for double features. It almost could have been an episode of "Outer Limits"...well, no. It's nowhere near that brainy. But the Black Death (as I call the monster) sure looks like he might have escaped from that ground-breaking TV show.

Well, freak fans, let us now dive into the plot and substance of the movie itself. WARNING: THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD! But if you've seen this kind of film, believe me, the ending is not gonna be a shock for you...

The opening scenes are quite striking. A woefully old-fashioned pickup truck chugs up a lonely rural road and stops at an isolated ranch-house. It's apparently some kind of mail delivery truck. The mailman, a scruffy old customer, parks the truck and makes his way past the gate towards the house. Suddenly he grabs his throat, chokes, stumbles and falls upon the ground. The camera pulls back and we see what look like dead sheep littering the ground. Two men dressed in haz-mat suits leave the house and retrieve the postman's body.

While this is going on, we hear the "Hand of Death" theme song blasting in the background as credits roll. Now this is a perfect time to tell you humanoids how much the soundtrack for this movie ROCKS! This main theme combines beatnik-style bongo drums and saxophone with that great innovation of old school spook movies, the theremin! This theme is played constantly during the movie and I for one never get tired of it. It seems to fit almost ever scene, from the monster staggering around killing people to images of vintage early 60's cars driving down the California highway to even some of the lab scenes. It's the creation of one Sonny Burke, who is to be congratulated.

The scene shifts to inside the house and things are not quite what they seem. For example, Mike the mailman is far from dead...he's revived by the two men once they get out of their hazmat suits. These two are Dr. Alex Marsh, the protagonist of our tale, and his young assistant Carlos. The two are working on highly classified nerve gas experiments. Not only is Mike just temporarily knocked out, but so are the sheep out on the lawn. Mike blundered into an experiment when he wasn't supposed to.

Dr. Marsh is working on a project from the U.S. military. He is on the verge of discovering a form of nerve gas that allows its victims to become susceptible to hypnotic suggestion. Once enemy soldiers wake up after being gassed, they can simply be told to drop their weapons and surrender! Imagine all the trouble we would have avoided in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan if this gas worked! Then again, after seeing what happened to Dr. Marsh, maybe we're better off anyway...

The plot device of scientists working on secret gas projects for the government kind of puts "Hand of Death" ahead of the curve. Not many movies in this period were dealing with the ramifications of military experiments. In just 5 years, that would no longer be the case.

Alex and Carlos ( a student from a nearby university working part-time) are not having a lot of success with their gas experiments so far. The hypnotic part ot it is a complete bust, but Alex is determined to forge ahead. He has an involved argument with his semi-main squeeze, Carol Wilson (Paula Raymond, who was in "Beast From 20,000 Fathoms). She is a devoted peacenik who is repelled by chemical weapons experiments, while Marsh fervently believes that the gas he is working on will stop war for good. Carol thinks working with the gas is extremely dangerous, but Alex tells her non-chalantly "things are a lot safer now...they're different." Oh, if only he knew!

The first 20 minutes of the movie is rather tame domestic stuff that introduces the movie's characters. Carol's boss is kindly wheelchair-bound Dr. Ramsey, a kind of mentor to Alex, crippled long ago by his own failed experiments. Alex also has a rival for Carol's attentions, the unbelievably stiff Tom Holland. Played by Stephen Dunne, Tom seems to have starch instead of blood.

OK, the obligatory scene-setting is done, now time to get down to business. A burned out but determined Alex is ready to spend a sleepless all-night session brainstorming by himself on the nerve gas formula. Carlos warns him to be careful and get some rest, but in good obsessed scientist tradition, Marsh pays no heed. In a haze of exhaustion, he accidentally gets some fluid on his skin and then, even worse, knocks over a beaker, igniting a burst of noxious gas that he breathes in. Yessir, he's screwed now! He gets control of everything but is soon convulsed by paroxysms of pain. Our suffering doctor friend manages to stagger over to a cot, where he collapses and has a screwball dream full of dancing beakers and scurrying white mice.

The next day finds Alex waking up and still feeling none too good. He notices several of the lab mice that breathed in the fumes from the spill have died. Not a very good sign. Carlos arrives back at the lab and immediately knows something is wrong. He wants to alert Carol and Dr. Ramsey to what is going on, but Alex is dead set against it. Things get physical and Alex grabs Carlos by the arm. The result? Carlos gives a blood curdling scream, holds up an arm that has suddenly become black and swollen and falls to the ground...dead!

Dr. Alex Marsh has now developed the world's most lethal touch. He truly has the "Hand of Death"!

His reaction to Carlos' death is extraordinary and seems to indicate his mind is as damaged as his body. He calls Dr. Ramsey and frantically tells him he is on the way to him, but Carol can't know anything about it. He then douses the entire lab in gasoline and sets it on fire, including Carlos' body! That gas was bad stuff indeed! He jumps into his car and tears off to the city like a bat out of hell!

During this scene, we notice that Alex's skin has subtly turned a shade darker than usual. This darkening of the skin will continue until he's as black and crisp as a marshmallow left in a campfire. The unfortunate and hopefully unintended side of this is that the blacker Alex gets, the more of a monster he becomes and the more people fear him...which could sure be interpreted in a racial way. That lends some pretty "dark" humor to "Hand of Death".

Dr. Marsh's mind has got to be unbalanced but not so much that he can't stop at a gas station to fill 'er up. Boy, it really takes you back in time to see an old style gas station with an attendant that pumps gas. Well, guess who the attendant is this time around? None other than Joe Besser, the least successful of the Three Stooges and one-time foil for Abbott and Costello! For some crazy reason, when people remembered "Hand of Death" after years in the vaults, they always remember Joe's appearance in this movie. To say that he has a bad day here is an understatement!
After dealing with one nasty customer, which leads him to sniff in true Joe Besser style "It just doesn't pay to get out of bed some days!", he then has the lethal Dr. Alex Marsh arrive at his station in a foul mood.

That's not good news for our chubby friend Joe. After another frantic call to Dr. Ramsey, a terse Alex brushes Joe off after a fill up and prepares to take off. "Just a minute, sir!" Joe tells him. "You forgot your change!" He grabs a hold of Alex...and promptly lets out a scream. Turning to the camera, we see the poor attendant's face has become black and warped as charcoal! He drops dead promptly and Alex once again rips out of there. The shock of seeing a cheerful comic character like Joe Besser fried alive after just a touch is pretty strong.

An almost incoherent Alex arrives at Dr. Ramsey's house and immediately holes up in a lab with him, explaining that a terrible accident has happened. Ramsey wants to alert authorities, but Alex begs him not to. He feels if he can have a few hours in a lab, he might be able to come up with a cure. Never mind the two innocent people he's already turned into ebony lumps of human coal. He also demands that Carol not be told about what has happened. "Tell her I'm sick! If she touches me, she'll die!" Ramsey reluctantly gives in and a sick and exhausted Marsh collapses.

Time passes. Ramsey tries to hold Carol off but finds it difficult to do. He decides to check in on his beleagured colleague and enters the room, where he sees a prone figure slumped over a work table. He prods Alex to wake up and slowly the figure raises its head and turns reveal utter horror! "My God, Alex, my God!" cries wheelchair-bound Dr. Ramsey. The hideous figure moans and mumbles incoherently.

Now Dr. Alex Marsh's transformation is complete. To say the monster he has become has a "unique" look is an understatement. There's never been a makeup job quite like this in the history of horror and it makes this pathetic man-monster something you'll never forget. Marsh's facial appearance has been described as a cross between "The Thing" from the Fantastic Four comic book and a bloated Dizzy Gillespie. The color switch is complete and Marsh is now black as pitch. His skin is cracked and wrinkled like sun-baked mud and has swollen up like a balloon. Again, the racial caricature of this make-up was hopefully unintended, but with his thick lips, wide nose and blackened skin, you just can't ignore that aspect of the creature. There is something mildly comic but also extremely creepy about this warped monstrosity. We know it was formerly a handsome man whose skin has been distorted past any semblance of humanity.

And Alex still has the "Hand of Death". Two of them, as a matter of fact, and those hands are just as black, cracked and bloated as his face. Dr. Ramsey finds that out to his sorrow as the now-monstrous Alex grabs his mentor...not out of rage, but from sheer panic. The result is the same. Ramsey's  dead body becomes even more hideously disfigured than the gas station attendant's. The makeup jobs on the victims are effective and disturbing.

It's a pretty bad time for Carol to come home and blunder into the wide open lab, but that's what happens. Hats off to Paula Raymond here...her screaming, wide-eyed reaction upon seeing the new "Dr. Marsh" is mighty authentic. She puts two and two together immediately and knows that this blackened "thing" is the same guy she had dinner with a couple of nights before. Shrieking, she runs away, which causes poor Alex even more grief. In his fractured mind, Carol is now the only person in the world who can help and understand him. He grabs a trench coat and a fedora hat, neither of which do much to conceal the monster wearing them, and staggers out into the street. The mutant whose very touch means death is now loose on the California coast!

While this is all going on, that awesome sax and theremin theme is going into overdrive and I'm digging it! Carol runs to dull Tom and they return with the police to Dr. Ramsey's lab. One look at the doc's horrible corpse convinces the police that something is going on. In a refreshing change of pace, they don't sit around and debate whether the monster is real...they get right on the case right away!

The rest of the film is the monsterized Alex staggering through a picture-perfect historical representation of early 60's seaside California. Two scenes stand out as classic. In one of the goofiest segments I've ever seen in any horror movie, the black and bloated Alex gets into the back seat of a cab. In typical cabbie fashion, the driver asks "Where to, Mac?", which the monster replies to with something that sounds a lot like "Carrrufff! Muh gurfrennn Carruff!". The cabbie turns around and barely bats an eye as he gets a load of the freak in his back seat. "Mac, I'm gonna have to ask you to leave..." An angered Alex responds with more gibberish...this conversation is NUTS! Unfortunately, for the cabbie, it results with him looking a lot like Dr. Ramsey and the gas station attendant...

The other notable scene takes place on the beach. A weakening and delirious Alex is wandering up the coast, trying to reach Carol's beachside house. Wracked by pain and likely dying from the poison his body is saturated with, he lies down by a rocky outcropping to rest. In the immediate area, a young boy, likely no older than five or six, is playing. For your information, the lad is played by none other than Butch Patrick, who in a few years would find some fame as a monster himself. He played werewolf kid Eddie on "The Munsters"! Perhaps some vision of the future draws him close to the slumbering Dr. Marsh. The boy reaches out to touch the hideous thing, who feebly wakes and moans and holds out a deadly hand. But just as the child reaches out, his mother's voice calls him away from the pathetic monstrosity. For some reason, this scene is both disturbing and full of pathos. We feel some horror not only at the possibility that the innocent boy might become a well-done piece of human meat, but also at the state to which Dr. Marsh has fallen. In the tradition of most great monsters, we feel pity for this twisted being.

The conclusion I will leave for you to discover yourself. A link to the Youtube version of the movie is provided at the end of my little diatribe here. As I said before, you're not gonna be too surprised by the ending. Once again, man pays the price for meddling in things he should not know!

"Hand of Death" just about brought to a close the era of "man into monster" films. Sure, there would still continue to be some, but the tone and flavor would be different. In a lot of ways, "Hand of Death" is the last gasp of the 50's monster movie...with just a few hints of horrors to come.

It's easy to make this movie into more than it is, simply because of its "lost" status. The hard truth is,  it's a short, predictable B-movie that doesn't  really excel in much besides the weird make-up and the killer musical score. But it evokes a feeling of nostalgia that makes this here horror fiend feel very warm and fuzzy. This is the sort of thing that monster memories are made of! For that reason more than any other, I am more than happy that "Hand of Death" is back among the living.

Poor Dr. Alex Marsh may have wound up a horrible mess but his experiments were not totally in vain. "Hand of Death" will live on as his testament!

Watch "Hand of Death" here: