LA MANO DE UN HOMBRE MUERTO
HAND OF THE DEAD MAN
Director: Jess Franco
Thoughts inspired by watching the Image DVD of THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS:
LA MANO DE UN HOMBRE MUERTO/THE HAND OF THE DEAD MAN (1962) was the "blanco y negro" horror follow-up to Franco's landmark GRITOS EN LA NOCHE/CRIES IN THE NIGHT (1961). The Spanish title and poster art may bring to mind THE HANDS OF ORLAC, but the film's Orlacian borrowings, linked craftily on-screen and off by the piano score of Franco composer Daniel White, are bastardized and kept simmering in the background except for a stronger emphasis or two. The French title of the film, LE SADIQUE BARON VON KLAUS, was undoubtedly born out of the French title of Franco's earlier shocker: L'HORRIBLE DR. ORLOF/THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF. Translated into English and onto the new Image DVD as THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS, this title is more true to the film's immediate mood and focus.
LA MANO DE UN HOMBRE MUERTO centers on the mutilation crimes occurring around Holfen, an Austrian town of Franco's creation and used as a locale in a number of Franco horrors. The atmospheric set-up, chiefly attained through the spoken word (and finely translated from the French in the English DVD subtitles), is courtesy of the local poachers--Hanzel and his "personal assistant"," Theo. They talk up some stirring macabre imagery to a crime writer who chooses the youthful animation of an inn for his creative environment. The Holfen region, they relate, was once lorded over by the Von Klaus family, and now their descendents remain in a castle near a swamp full of treacherous quagmires and the nocturnal flight of thousands of bats. Five hundred years ago, the legend goes, a girl was kidnapped and abuse by the then Baron Von Klaus. The girl died after the atrocities committed on her, provoking the victim's father to put a curse on the evil baron. Since that time, the baron's soul must wander eternally without rest, his ghost rising at night from the swamps in search of more female victims to mutilate and possibly rape. Until about the middle of the film, the most obvious non-supernatural based suspicion for the current murders rests on one of two Von Klauses: the reserved Max ("Dr. Olof" himself, Howard Vernon) and the woeful younger Ludwig (played by Marlon Brando look-alike and future Spaghetti western mini-star, Hugo Blanco). Both Von Klauses have a twinkle of madness and desperation in their eyes, both actors elicit sympathetic portrayals.
It is Ludwig who is the most curious of the two, however, and he takes us on a delectable search through the basement of the family house, a basement which, judging by the rusty implements inside, once served (and could perhaps still serve) as a torture chamber. With a hanging skeleton witnessing his immersion, Ludwig reads by candelabra light the Sadian memoirs of the old baron and this glorious introductory summons to all male Von Klauses: "I hope these memoirs will be used by my descendents as a guide. It's an initiation into a passionate world of rare and unknown sensations, a seductive and tragic world bred in pain and blood, the tragic eroticism of all the senses, finally ending in death." This poetic summons could well describe an entry into Franco's horror films in general: Franco reveals his cinematic destiny as he invites us within.
Had Franco worked in silent cinema, he would have been considered a genius among many and not just Francophiles. His shots, regardless of the cinematographer working with him, are photographed with an instinctual sensibility to space and the lonely figures who inhabit that space. The void, fragility or ache in the human soul is made manifest through Franco's lens in these types of cinematic reflections. But there is more to Franco than just a skilled photographer. In LA MANO DE UN HOMBRE MUERTO the chase of the murderer through the night streets and into the forest is a wonder of directorial finesse and intelligent planning, with its brisk expressionistic tangle of running shadows, stick figures, gloomy archways and gleaming pavements sounded by the incessant staccato beat of everyone's speeding footsteps. It is in scenes like this, and the one in which Ludwig's girlfriend is frightened into hysteria by the strident ticking of a clock and her own imagination, that show how good of a director Jess Franco can be when he tries and when the cash is flowing.
But other celluloid moments always become the best known in the world of Jess Franco. These moments, of course, have to do with sleazy sex. Absent in most prints, the Image DVD finally offers up with all the fuss, and excision, was about. The notorious scene takes place in, where else, but the antique torture chamber seen before. (Can't let a good torture chamber go to waste.) In the safety and secrecy of this chamber, a sweat-and-blood drenched stage for man's darkest desires, the murderer undresses and makes love to a new female victim, her bare breasts offered up as dessert to the male viewer. For 1962, this would have been enough, but Franco shockingly shows the murderer going down on his victim and apparently performing cunnilingus, as she smiles her delight amid her general fright and incomprehension as to her ultimate fate. The subsequent whipping of the woman's body and the clear jiggle of her behind from one stroke launch us, however briefly, into the excess of masturbatory images that Franco fully gave into later in his career when cinema became more sexually unrestrained, thanks in part to pioneers like himself. Franco only capitulates to less liberated times by moving away and then turning off his camera from the tortures that follow.
While there is much in this film that must have seemed sentimental in script form, the coolness of Daniel White's jazz-textured piano score works against the build-up of forceful emotion, and Franco's playful nature underlines his lack of commitment to tell a solidly teary, and perhaps more memorable, tale.
The film was screened with nudity intact at least one period in France, but not so in Franco's home country of Spain. The Spanish version, however, contains a pre-credit scene missing from the French print and, thus, the Image release. A pity this absence, as word has it that the pre-credit murder scene of two girls by a masked killer clearly anticipates the brutal "womanhandling" employed by Mario Bava a year later in BLOOD AND BLACK LACE and is, besides, a highlight in what has been regarded critically as an over-talky and slow film. We are not denied a glimpse of such misogynistic savagery, however, for there is another scene, the attack on Max's girlfriend, that justifies a debate as to the film's possible influence on the great Italian director and cinematographer. Another element was far less noteworthy as a future inspiration: Daniel White's accordion music for the street scenes of Hoflen anticipates a similar "um-pa-pa" beer-drinking joviality that composer Carmelo Bernaola employed for similar scenes in EL JOROBADO DE LA MORGUE/THE HUNCHBACK OF THE MORGUE (1972). Hell must be cued to accordion music like this.
Though touched by fleeting and trivial damage, Image's otherwise excellent source print from Eurocine is a delightful revelation of an important work in Franco's filmography, and makes one look forward to their upcoming release of EL SECRETO DEL DR. ORLOFF (USA title: DR. ORLOFF'S MONSTER), the next in Franco's early black-and-white visions of a "seductive and tragic world bred in pain and blood."
-- Reviewed by Mirek
(Review first appeared on the Mobius Euro-Cult Board)
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