When I was a kid growing up in Chicago, local TV station WGN aired scary movies late Saturday nights as part of their “Creature Feature” series. Right from the unforgettable opening montage with the whispered voiceover and twangy guitar riff, you knew some good scares were to follow.
For the most part, the films were spinoffs of the “big four” of monsterdom: Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Wolfman, and Dracula. They generally followed a formula that was comforting and predictable and in the end, were more amusing than scary.
On one fateful Saturday night, however, after the WGN vaults had been mined for every standard monster movie and their sequels, they aired a little known film called “The Beast With Five Fingers”. I rolled my eyes at the title, expecting a cheesy burlap covered sci-fi creature or poorly made up B-list actor, but instead what followed was the most terrifying adventure ever hurled from the screen. What? Don’t believe me?:
I wasn’t easily frightened and until that moment, wasn’t prone to sleeplessness or fear of monsters, but for whatever reason, this flick scared the hell out of me. So what was it about the film that caused me to lie awake that night? The plot of the movie was pretty simple: A classical pianist living in a big gothic mansion falls/is pushed downstairs and dies. His hotly disputed will threatens to cut his musicologist/secretary (Peter Lorre) out of any entitlements. After a houseguest is choked to death, it’s discovered that one of the dead pianist’s hands has been severed and can’t be found. The dismembered hand is subsequently the top suspect in a series of strangulation murders.
What made the movie so disturbing to me at the time was the fact that the “monster” in this case was something so familiar and yet possessed of a mind of it’s own: truly a “phantom limb”. Add to that the creepy performance by Peter Lorre, who is at his snivelly and sinister best.
As it turns out, “The Beast with Five Fingers”, made in 1946, was just the first of the infamous “crawling hand” movies. There’s even a blog post featuring the “Top 10 severed hand movies”, which includes 1963’s “The Crawling Hand” and 1981’s “The Hand” starring Michael Caine and directed by Oliver Stone. “Thing” from The Addams Family TV show and films was also clearly inspired by “The Beast With Five Fingers”.
Sadly, this horror semi-classic is rarely seen on TV these days, even in the cable TV Halloween listings. I can only assume that it’s considered too traumatizing for broadcast standards, though I think it may be available on Netflix.
Happy Halloween and BEWARE THE HORRIBLE HAND!