The 1920s sci-fi horror The Hands of Orclac holds quite an impressive pedigree. Directed by Austrian filmmaker Robert Wierne, who also helmed the infamous silent era classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and starring Conrad Veidt, whose visage in The Man Who Laughs partly inspired the DC Comics villain The Joker, this modest silent horror has spawned two separate remakes & nearly a century of admiration. You can see The Hands of Orclac‘s imprint on schlocky titles like Idle Hands & Manos: The Hands of Fate as well as more prestigious horror milestones like the way Bela Lugosi manually hypnotizes women in the 1930s Dracula. The movie has a challenging runtime in terms of ancient feature lengths (a lot of the silent horrors I’ve watched recently have been barely over an hour; this one doubles it) and a lot of what makes its special is unfortunately undone in its closing minutes, but I still found it fascinating as an old world relic & there were some really strong, dreamlike images that made the experience memorable even if it couldn’t quite stick the landing.
Much like with the 1940s cheapie The Monster Maker, The Hands of Orlac centers on a concert pianist who suddenly, horrifically finds himself unable to use his hands. Instead of being maliciously inflicted with a glandular disorder by a mad scientist, however, our man Orlac loses his money-makers in a near-fatal train wreck. Because of the special effects limitations of the time the train wreck occurs off-screen, a necessary choice that pays off nicely as the audience watches Orlac’s wife stumble into the chaos of the wreckage in search of her beloved. While Orlac is recovering she begs for the surgeons to save his precious ivory-ticklers and they reluctantly oblige . . . sort of. Orlac’s hands are replaced with those of a convicted killer who is to be hung that same day. He can feel the murderous hatred shooting up his arms & into his very soul as he winds up walking around with his arms stretched out like a zombie, doing his hands’ evil bidding. Casting must’ve been essential in selling the horror of this scenario onscreen, as Verdt’s huge, veiny hands really do look like they’re controlling his body & bending his will for malicious purpose.
Like I said, a lot of what makes The Hands of Orlac special is retroactively undone by a lackluster finish involving a police procedural and a criminal caricature that plays about as broad & goofy as a Bobby Moynihan sketch. The film finds a lot to work with before it allows itself to unravel, though. It has a The Red Shoes quality in its fantastical ideas on how an object or a body part can possess you to act or hallucinate. There’s also impressive attention paid to the romantic falling out of such a bizarre situation. Because Orlac cannot play piano, the married couple suffers newfound debt & subsequent crisis. Also, Orlac refuses to touch his wife with his new murder hands, but the hands themselves have no qualms with seducing/being seduced by other women, which leads to one strikingly odd, fetishistic exchange with a maid. There’s a lot of great, weird imagery & ideas that top even that moment of bizarre seduction, including a giant, God-like hand descending from the ceiling over a hospital bed, a reference to head transplant experiment, and an army of wicked bankers mechanically shaking their heads no while Orlac’s wife begs for an extension on their debts. The Hands of Orlac also makes great use out of what’s becoming one of my favorite silent era tropes: impossibly enormous, bare interior spaces that feel like something out of a dream. I don’t think the film is anywhere near wholly successful, especially in light of its total cop out ending, but The Hands of Orlac is still fascinating in it smaller moments & details.