The amiable, Irish comedian Dave Allen had the top of his left forefinger missing. As part of his act, he would tell various amusing and often macabre tales as to how he came to lose it: his brother bit it off; it was dissolved by whisky; he cut it off to avoid conscription to the army; his father chopped it off with an ax. Of course, these stories were all untrue—Allen had lost the top of his finger when he was child playing with an old machine cog.
However, my favorite story that Allen told about his missing digit was the one he told on his hit TV show, in a darkened studio, with only a single light illuminating his face. Allen had been traveling by car across desolate moor in the north of England. A storm (thunder, lightning) had waylaid him en route to his destination, and he had to overnight at an old, rundown hotel, miles from anywhere.
Lightning had downed the power, and the hotel was lit by flickering candles. As he was shown to his room, his host asked the comedian if he believed in ghosts. Allen told him no, he was an atheist, thank God. The manager smiled, and replied that was all well and good, as sadly, the hotel rarely received any guests as the house was said to be haunted by an evil spirit.
Allen thought little more of the conversation, and prepared for bed. But as he slowly drifted off to sleep, he began to dream about an evil, brooding presence that lurked down in the basement. In his dream he could see the pitch black of the basement room, and in that darkness he saw something move, something slowly writhing towards him, a thick, oily darkness. Allen moved away, back up the stairs to his room. It followed.
The corridor was swallowed by damp, creeping shadows. The evil was moving nearer. Allen woke and found he was lying in bed. The room was silent. He felt the pin prick of sweat on his neck. He knew there something with him in the room, waiting.
Allen felt the evil move slowly up the bed covers. Its legs dimpling his flesh, dragging its body behind. As it crawled nearer, Allen knew he was going to die, would die, if he didn’t do something. The creature, heavier now, moved ever closer. One hard limb at a time, dragging its fleshy body nearer, nearer, until it would have him by the throat. That was when Allen struck. He grabbed the beast, and bit hard into what he thought was its neck and head. He tasted blood, felt pain. And then he screamed, spitting the top of his finger out of his mouth.
The idea of hands having an evil will of their own was first put to paper by author Maurice Renard in his novel Les Mains d’Orlac (The Hands of Orlac). This was later made into the German Expressionist film Orlac’s Hände starring Conrad Veidt, in 1924. A Hollywood version Mad Love, with Colin Clive and Peter Lorre, came along in 1935, and was remade again, this time as The Hands of Orlac with Mel Ferrer and Christopher Lee in 1962.
Les Mains d’Orlac tells the story of a concert pianist, who loses his hands in an accident, and receives the transplanted hands of a murderer. These new hands possess him and he becomes a killer. It’s good story and the nearly forgotten Renard wrote some highly original and influential tales, which are well worth checking out.
Another author who wrote about disembodied hands was W. F. Harvey, who is one of my favorite horror writers and wrote “The Beast With Five Fingers.” This classic tale deals with the life and death of Adrian Borlsover who “was exceedingly clever with his hands.” When Borlsover goes blind, he adapts by using his supple fingers to read Braille, and explore the world by touch alone. His fingers are so delicate that he can identify flowers by just the feel of their petals.
Towards the close of his life Adrian Borlsover was credited with powers of touch that seemed almost uncanny. It had been said that he could tell at once the colour of ribbon placed between his fingers.
When he dies, Adrian apparently bequeaths his nephew Eustice a strange gift—his severed hand.
This story inspired Curt Siodmak to write a jumbled screenplay that mixed elements of Renard’s Orlac with Harvey’s Beast, for the movie version The Beast With Five Fingers, which starred Peter Lorre (again). Harvey was a much better writer than Siodmak, and his tale is far superior to the film, and more memorable.
However, the disembodied hand didn’t stop with The Beast With Five Fingers, it would reappear most successfully in Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors, where artist Michael Gough’s severed hand claims gory vengeance on Christopher Lee’s jealous critic; and then in Oliver Stone’s B-movie The Hand, starring Michael Caine, which is definitely one to miss.
An interesting addition to this collection is Ed Foley’s Super-8 home movie version, which he made in 1947 when he was an eighteen-year-old high school student. Foley’s film owes more to Siodmak’s screenplay, but it is a well-made, impressive and delightful short film for a kid to have made, especially at that time. Check out his amateur special effects!