Thursday, July 28, 2011

Review: 'The Beast with Five Fingers'

Spoilers ahead…

American horror spent the ‘40s running on fumes. In the wake of The Wolf Man and the 1935 departure of monster-champion and production-chief Carl Laemmle, Jr., Universal Pictures put less stock in its horror films, churning out a succession of increasingly half-hearted sequels. The films by the genre’s new golden boy, producer Val Lewton of RKO, were atmospheric and cerebral but shied away from the paranormal. The supernatural spook pictures emerging elsewhere were either tempered with humor (Paramount’s The Uninvited) or sheer lethargy (MGM’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). All of these problems are grasped in the disembodied paw of Warner Bros.’ The Beast with Five Fingers. Had it been produced in the previous decade, this adaptation of W.F. Harvey’s short story might have been a first-rate chiller. It certainly has a lot going for it: stylish direction from Robert Florey (Murders in the Rue Morgue), a script by Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man), a lush score by Max Steiner (King Kong), and meaty lead parts for Peter Lorre and J. Carrol Naish (doing an Italian caricature worthy of Chef Boyardee).

The glitch is that The Beast with Five Fingers isn’t quite sure if it’s man or beast. After a long, long lead up to the death of a crusty pianist (Victor Francen), his personal secretary Hilary (Lorre) starts seeing the dead man’s disembodied hand scurrying all over the place and people start getting choked. Although the hour preceding the hand’s appearance receives able support from fine performances by Francen, the ever-clammy Lorre, Robert Alda (Alan’s dad) as a wisenheimer musician, and Naish as a cop, it drags badly. Those who came to the picture for horror will note a decided reluctance to leap into those waters, possibly because the genre was such a pariah at the time. When the hand finally crawls out of a box like Thing, the terrific visual effects (which recall The Invisible Man) render the previous, humdrum 60 minutes irrelevant and the fun begins.

"You rang?"

But even now it’s difficult to suss where the filmmakers were aiming. The hand’s exploits are played dead-seriously, yet the sight of it tapping out a Bach partita on a grand piano is pretty silly. The ultimate cop-out arrives when we learn that the five-fingered beasty was nothing more than a psychotic hallucination of Hilary, who’d been committing the killings he attributed to the pianist’s nefarious mitt. As if tasked with helping us decide whether we should laugh, shriek, or shrug, Naish turns to the camera and drops a few creaky one-liners in his “that’s a spicy meat-a-ball!” accent. So it’s a comedy after all? Were the filmmakers shoehorning in jokes at the last minute to deflate the potentially heart attack-inducing horrors we just witnessed? Or were they working overtime to avoid having their picture filed in the career-killing horror drawer? Shrug. One thing is for sure: it’s a good thing the Brits were on the verge of taking horror seriously. Otherwise the genre may not have survived beyond the ‘40s.
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