Cowards Bend the Knee (2003)

In retrospect, I was being redundant when I described last year’s The Twentieth Century as feeling like “watching Guy Maddin direct an especially kinky Kids in the Hall sketch that stumbles out into feature length in a dreamlike stupor.”  That assessment still rings true, but I could’ve lightened my wordcount by just saying it felt like “watching a Guy Maddin movie”.  I’m used to seeing playful flashes of violence & vulgarity in Guy Maddin’s work, but something about Matthew Rankin’s kink-soaked debut doubled down on both in a way that really spoke to my juvenile sensibilities.  It turns out my oversight was in comparing The Twentieth Century to the statelier, well-respected Maddin of recent years, the one who’ll interject a Sparks music video about a man’s addiction to “derrieres” in the middle of his narratives but will stop short of fixing his camera on an ejaculating cactus for a minutes-long visual gag.  Guy Maddin was once a young button-pusher himself, though, something that should have been obvious to me even before I made the time to watch his own early-career kink comedy Cowards Bend the Knee.  It turns out I was just a few years too late in my Guy Maddin appreciation to catch him in his prime as a juvenile provocateur.

In Cowards Bend the Knee (or The Blue Hands), Guy Maddin reimagines (and improves!) the silent horror classic The Hands of Orlac as a kinky sex comedy about hairdressers, prostitution, abortion, hockey, and revenge.  Instead of a morally simplistic body horror about a concert pianist who becomes murderous when his hands are surgically replaced with a serial killer’s, Maddin abstracts his version in a Russian nesting doll story structure that’s long been familiar to his features.  We start with scientists examining a sperm specimen under a microscope, revealing in close-up that the sperm cells are hockey players competing on ice.  The star player is Guy Maddin as “Guy Maddin,” the team captain and son of the distinguished announcer who calls the games.  He’s pulled aside from his championship victory celebrations by a distraught girlfriend who’s just discovered she’s pregnant, which leads the couple to a hair salon & brothel that triples as an illegal backroom abortion clinic.  Maddin leaves his girlfriend mid-abortion for the madame’s beautiful daughter, who will not let him touch her body until her father’s death is avenged.  Her plan for retribution, of course, involves her father’s severed hands being surgically attached to her new lover’s body to guide his way.  Also, his old girlfriend is now a ghost who works at the salon.

Like all of Guy Maddin’s movies, Cowards Bend the Knee is deliberately aged & battered to look like an authentic curio from the earliest years of silent cinema.  Images often stutter & repeat in harsh jags as if the projector is struggling to feed the deteriorating film from reel to reel.  That antiqued image quality offers a great contrast to the shameless sexual fetishism of the film’s winding Greek tragedy plot.  Despite its title’s mention of legs, this is a film that’s fixated on the perversity of hands in particular.  From the more obvious kink acts like incest, fisting, and female-dominant wrestling to the unexpected eroticism of a haircut, the film presents the shape & use of hands as if they were the filthiest appendages on our bodies.  And maybe they are.  Maddin even accentuated the film’s sexual transgressions by premiering it as an art instillation where viewers watched each six-minute chapter as individual vignettes through key holes, as if peering into a bedroom (or a sex dungeon).  It’s all very silly and tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also surprisingly thoughtful & genuine in its presentation of sexual fetishism and the way its magnetic pull can lead you to making desperate, self-destructive decisions.

The Saddest Music in the World taught me that Guy Maddin is a goofball prankster despite his work’s formalist exterior.  Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary taught me that he’s a bit of a luddite with a loving eye for the tones & textures of German Expressionist horror.  The Forbidden Room taught me that he works best in short-form vignettes that pulls the audience deeper into exponentially smaller worlds.  All of those aspects of his work were already firmly set in stone as early as Cowards Bend the Knee, but that one still taught me something about him that made me fall even further in love with his art: he’s also a filthy pervert.

-Brandon Ledet

The Hands of Orlac (1924)


three star

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.

-Brandon Ledet