Monday, June 3, 2024

"Throw Out the Logic Pill When You Swallow It" - The Crawling Hand (1963)

As everybody knows, the 1960s were a fertile period full of creative science fiction, horror, and the melding of both. The Crawling Hand (1963) is an excellent example of both. It features not only murders by a crawling hand (actually a crawling arm), but attempted murders by a teenager possessed by said crawling hand/arm, and a performance by the always-welcome Alan Hale, Jr.

Of course, some of your universe's critics fail to appreciate The Crawling Hand. For example, reviewer lee_eisenberg writes about Alan Hale, "Before he got the role of a certain short-tempered sea captain with a dim-witted first mate, he was stuck in grade-Z movies. An example is the idiotic stinker 'The Crawling Hand'." Reviewer wierzbowskie writes, "Don't go near this at all!" And reviewer bkoganbing writes, "It's not even funny bad, just bad."

Read on for the truth about The Crawling Hand...

After an imaginative title sequence in which credits are revealed from bursting fireworks through the view screen of a traveling spaceship, the film cuts to a space agency office in Florida, where Donna receives a phone call. “It’s the press,” she tells Steve, who grudgingly says, “Tell them we sent our second man to the moon and it looks like he’s not coming back either.” (He quickly apologizes, as Donna was in a relationship with the second man.)

Then Donna receives a call from the White House, but he waves it off and Donna tells them there is no hope for the latest astronaut, Captain Lockhart.

On an office wide intercom, a voice counts down the oxygen Lockhart has left. As it reaches zero, Steve and his friend Doc Weitzberg argue with his boss about how to run the space program. Instead of sending individual astronauts to the moon, his boss argues, they need to send a mass of ships so the astronauts do not feel isolated. Steve, who believes something other than panic due to isolation caused the first two astronauts’ deaths, bangs the table, disagreeing. The boss leaves.

Suddenly, an audio message from Lockhart bursts from a speaker. Doc turns on a TV and it shows Captain Lockhart, who appears to be a zombie.

Lockhart keeps repeating, “Kill! Kill!” but he is also somewhat lucid. “Something…makes my arm move…makes me do things! Kill! Kill!”

Steve reveals Lockhart is over a populated area of California on his way back to earth. Lockhart begs them to push the red button, which will destroy the craft. After much soul-searching, Steve pushes the button and we hear an explosion.

Doc theorizes that something must have kept Lockhart going for at least twenty minutes after his oxygen ran out. “I don’t think Lockhart was alone on his return flight,” Doc says. He adds, “I’m not talking about little green men. As a matter of fact, I may not talk at all about this thing without encouragement.” Doc needs time to prove that a life form infiltrated the space capsule, though he seems to have developed the theory extensively: “You see, Steve, we don’t just send a man in a rocket. We send up living cells, molecules, bacteria, germs.” (It must be noted that Doc Weismann creatively pronounces the first syllable of molecule “mole.”) “We throw in radioactivity. We introduce all these to cosmic rays. Do we upset this balance? Do we start a cycle? Does a living cell from Earth romance a cosmic ray and give birth to an illegitimate monster?” (A question that must be asked, and asked frequently.)

“Quite a chunk,” Steve responds, a little incomprehensibly.

Doc goes on: “Throw out the logic pill when you swallow it. This theory can’t be measured by anything we already know.”

“Sounds like a good case,” Steve concluded, also a little incomprehensibly.

The film cuts to a humorous scene in a diner where teenagers are dancing to upbeat music while the elderly proprietor keeps repeating, “No dancing, no dancing, not allowed.” He also wanders to a table occupied by two young women, Marta and Patsy (the sheriff’s daughter). On the table rests a cage with rats. Of course, the proprietor tells them, “No rats. Not allowed.”

In response, Marta simply puts the rat cage on a chair.

When the proprietor brings them food, he tells them about a fireball in the sky last night, causing him to phone Patsy’s father. He thinks it signals the end of the world. “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die!”

The young woman laugh hysterically at such an absurd thought.

Later, Patsy and her boyfriend Paul (played, intensely, by young actor Rod Lauren) drop off the rats at her grandfather the biologist’s house before the head to the ocean to swim. They chase each other into the ankle-deep water, splash water on each other, then run back to the beach and dry off, discussing Paul’s desire to marry Marta even though she is an independent Swedish exchange student. As they play on the beach, they discover something shocking — a severed arm!

As one might expect, Marta runs away from the grotesque arm but Paul, a pre-med student, wants to examine it. Unlike in some less realistic films, however, Paul decides to leave with Marta, choosing his girlfriend over a severed arm.

However, late at night, Paul returns to the beach and retrieves the arm. Creepily, we see the hand twitching, though Paul does not. He brings it back home and puts it in the refrigerator.

In a suspenseful sequence later at night, Steve’s landlady Miss Hotchkiss is awakened by a noise. Fortunately for her, she sleeps with a massive firearm under her pillow, so she gets up to investigate, armed (if one will excuse the pun) with her husband’s old handgun.

Meanwhile, the severed and radiation-burned astronaut’s hand crawls into Miss Hotchkiss’s bed. She returns to bed and the filmmakers present an amusing fake-out in which we see a hand creep over her pillow, only to be revealed as her own hand scratching her head. However, she is soon assaulted by the severed hand, strangled to death.

Paul discovers Miss Hotchkiss on the floor and searches for the severed arm, only to find it missing. He calls the sheriff, played by the great Alan Hale, Jr. Sheriff Hale arrives to investigate, concluding immediately that Miss Hotchkiss was strangled and offering Paul a place to stay overnight if he feels uncomfortable in Miss Hotchkiss’s house. Paul refuses. 

After the police leave, Paul looks at his textbook Space Medicine, written by the expert Dr. Weitzberg. He attempts to phone Doc long distance. Suspensefully, the hand creeps toward him as he is on the phone with the operator. It suddenly attacks him.

Minutes later, two men arrive to collect Miss Hotchkiss’s body. After depositing her on a stretcher and pulling a sheet over her body, they look, inappropriately, for beer in her refrigerator. While stealing the dead woman’s alcohol, they stumble across Paul’s body. “He might still be alive,” says one of the men.

“With a face like that and those marks on his throat?” the other man replies. “Listen, buddy, we were supposed to collect the dame and that’s all. This guy is on his own.”

The other, presumably more compassionate man, says, “He is alive. Let’s get him out of here.”

In the ambulance carrying the two bodies, Paul wakes up and screams when he sees Miss Hotchkiss’s dead body. The driver stops, then Paul jumps out of the ambulance and runs away.

After various plot mechanics establish the necessity of Steve and Doc traveling (gleefully) to California to investigate the fingerprints of the missing astronauts, Sheriff Alan Hale, who does not suspect Paul of any wrongdoing despite his proximity to murder, tells Paul to go upstairs and get some sleep.

Paul does indeed go to his room, and then he helpfully turns on a reel-to-reel tape recorder to record a message to Marta and her scientist grandfather. He recounts the story of finding the arm on the beach, but as he does so, he becomes possessed and smashes the tape recorder. He buries his face in a pillow, then looks up — and he has the same zombie eyes as the astronaut in space!

Back at the sheriff’s station, Alan Hale explains to his deputy both that investigators from Washington are coming to look into the fingerprints and that he is about to arrest Paul, the only possible suspect in the Hotchkiss murder. “I’ll tell you what’s happened,” Sheriff Hale theorizes. “They’ve got so many fingerprints in Washington, they’ve got ‘em all mixed up.”

Steve and Doc arrive in town, but Sheriff Hale refuses to let them investigate the murder scene once they admit they are from Space Operations and not the FBI. Nevertheless, they arrange a meeting with (now back to normal) Paul, who signals them to meet him in the back of the house later at night because the deputy is guarding the front of the house. When Marta tries to see Paul, he yells at her to go away, presumably frightened he will do something in his possessed condition. (Paul’s performance here is particularly intense and subtly effective, falling somewhere between James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Isabelle Adjani in Possession).

Despite the sheriff’s warnings, Steve and Doc visit the mortuary to check out Miss Hotchkiss’s body. Doc uses a meter to measure radioactivity near her throat (Steve amusingly tells the mortician the device wards off evil spirits), and then they visit Paul’s house at night. Unfortunately for them, Paul is possessed again. He attacks them and runs out of the house. He escapes, but the deputy holds Steve and Doc at gunpoint. 

In a remarkably modern scene, Paul breaks into the local drugstore and attacks the proprietor, who stumbles against a light switch, submerging the place in darkness, and also stumbles against a jukebox, turning on The Rivingtons’ “The Bird’s the Word” as Paul strangles the man.

The proprietor survives and Paul returns to his normal state. He runs to Marta’s house to tell her he’s running away. He gives a fantastic speech describing what is happening to him: “Listen, I can’t explain it, but I’m all mixed up. And there’s something terrible that’s happened to me. I…I…There’s only one person that I could have relied on in this world, and I almost killed him a few minutes ago.” [This person is either Steve, Doc, or the drugstore proprietor; the film does not give the audience enough context to know who it is.] “There are times when I’m all right and then I’m not and then I’m myself and I’m not, and the periods when I’m myself are getting shorter and shorter. Do you understand?”

Marta says, justifiably, “No.”

“Well then, don’t try!” Paul replies angrily. “I gotta get out of here. Leave me alone.”

He pushes her away and transforms. Marta screams, though he just looks like Paul with slightly darker eye makeup. He tries to strangle her but her grandfather and her friend enter the room. Paul climbs out the window and runs away again.

Paul returns to his house, finds the arm, wraps it in a picnic blanket, and drives it out of town. He drives to a junkyard but the hand escapes. It trips Paul, so naturally he picks up an old bottle and smashes it for a weapon, as if he is in a bar fight. He hacks at the hand, stunning it, as Sheriff Hale arrives in the town police car with Steve and Doc. Alan Hale pulls his gun.

In a fine bit of social commentary, Steve tries to stop him. “You aren’t going to gun him down, are you?”

“He’s a killer,” replies Sheriff Hale. “If he doesn’t come quietly, I’ll have to shoot him.”

“But he’s just a kid,” Steve protests.

“Sure he’s just a kid. I know all about kids like him. The county jail is full of them.”

In the end, Paul simply faints. They carry him to the hospital, but not before Steve notices the bloody hand on the ground—grotesquely being eaten by two junkyard cats.

In the hospital, Doc concludes that Paul’s fever (never mentioned previously) killed the alien organism.  Paul kisses Marta and she says she will stay in California with him.

Meanwhile, the two men assigned to transport the hand in a locked box to the airport foolishly unlock the box. Inside is just darkness, but the words “The End” fly out onto the screen.

 Although Alan Hale does not get to fume at the camera in The Crawling Hand, he at least has the opportunity to throw some paper onto a desk in frustration, so his casting is not wasted in this film. In fact, all the actors, most of them well known (Peter Breck, Kent Taylor, Allison Hayes, Ross Elliott), turn in good performances. Perhaps the finest performance, however, is given by Rod Lauren as Paul, who recalls James Dean in many of his scenes. Mr. Lauren contributed greatly to cinema in films such as The Crawling Hand, Terrified (1962), and Black Zoo (1963), but his real life ended tragically in suicide several years after the murder of his wife, a movie star in the Philippines. 

Alongside the acting, the film's cinematography is also top-notch. Cinematographer Willard Van Der Veer, whose last film this was, began in silent film and contributed to the Oscar-winning photography in With Byrd at the South Pole (1930). He makes excellent use of black and white photography in The Crawling Hand. Director Herbert L. Strock, too, does as professional a job here as he did on other classics like I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957) and Blood of Dracula (also 1957). Rounding out the crew, future prolific comedy writer Bill Idelson contributed the story. Clearly, The Crawling Hand is another example of the old adage that if a film is made by talented people, it will be remembered as a classic.