Rick Turner (Robert Alda), is, by all appearances, in a happy relationship with Donna Trent (Ariadne Welter). The two of them are clean-cut, 1950s wholesome, and engaged to be married. But, a mysterious, beautiful woman has been appearing to Rick in his dreams. One day, as he and Donna are walking about, Rick sees a doll in the display window of a dollmaker’s shop that has an uncanny resemblance to the woman in his dreams. He goes inside, and sets in motion a tale of evil and death.
Such is the setup to The Devil’s Hand, a kitschy 1961 horror flick from writer Jo Heims and director William J. Hole, Jr. By kitschy, I mean that this film has the look and feel of Ed Wood. I don’t mean a film directed by Ed Wood. I mean the Tim Burton biopic. I have no idea what exact sources Burton found for inspiration. Perhaps this flick was on the list.
It all starts at the dollmaker’s. The dollmaker is a dour, middle-aged man named Francis Lamont (Neil ‘Commissioner Gordon’ Hamilton). He’s as stiff as a banker, yet he surrounds himself with dolls, making a living by special commission. Francis claims, in fact, that the doll Rick sees in the window was ordered by Rick, himself, from a photograph he brought into the store. Rick has no recollection of this, but things get creepy when Rick and Donna spy a doll on a shelf that looks like Donna. It gets creepier still when Francis claims that this second doll was ordered by the person whose appearance was used to create the first doll, a woman by the name of Bianca Milan (Linda Christian). How could this be? Has Rick been in a trance? Has he been carrying on with some trollop from his dreams?
Not yet. However, it turns out that Bianca lives in the apartment next door to Rick’s. She meets him in the hallway, invites him in for a drink, then convinces Rick to pledge eternal fealty to a secret death cult that worships a god called Gamba, or he won’t get laid. Wait, what?
Yep, the dolls were all a ruse. They are an essential element of the cult, which happens to be led by Francis, but Rick never ordered any doll. The early stuff at the dollmaker’s was just an icebreaker on the part of Hole and company. It’s what happens in the back of the shop that really matters.
Back there, a robed Francis leads a kind of black mass to Gamba, complete with African drummers and dancers. This is where the kitsch shines the most. It’s not Rick’s swinging bachelor pad, or the gin & tonic living room at Bianca’s, or the table lighters and endless amounts of cigarettes, or even Bianca’s wardrobe of many-layered nightwear. It’s the black mass. There’s something about black & white photography and a soundtrack of bongo drums that evokes the absurd. And Gamba! What a name for a pagan deity. Worship Gamba, and one will be richly rewarded. However, Gamba demands absolute loyalty, and will kill any member of the cult who is insufficiently faithful. None of this stops Rick from not only joining the cult, but ruthlessly abandoning all his future plans with Donna. He drops her without a second’s thought, leaving her, by the way, as she lies invalid in a hospital bed. What a cad.
Kitsch. There’s that word again. And cliché. There’s plenty of both in this film. For a film that’s as paint-by-numbers as this is, The Devil’s Hand had moments where it was quite engaging. This was despite Heims’s screenplay. The screenplay is uneven, as witnessed early on with the clumsy attempt at psychological trickery with the dolls. Still, Hole was able to reign in the story by the second act. There, the challenge became greater, as the lack of things happening in the plot threatened to slow the film to a crawl. Maintaining a decent pace in the middle of this film must have been a challenge, yet Hole did just that.
Still, this is a shitty movie. Nothing this cheap or silly really has a shot at escaping the Watchability Index. The praise I give this film is more a product of it beating my very low expectations than its objective quality. This was a Crown International Pictures release, and I have yet to see anything from them that isn’t shitty. So, I was expecting a real bottom-feeding flick, not something with steady performances and flashes of competence.
I’ve seen worse, but I’ve also seen a lot better. The Devil’s Hand lands in the middle of the Index, displacing Resident Evil at #159. Sure, that film is flashier and moves much quicker, but The Devil’s Hand hates its audience less.