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Hand of Death (1962)

Kickstarting his acting career in a trio of top tier John Wayne movies of the late 1940’s, John Agar, seemed destined to fill the casting for the “B” unit at Universal-International once the fifties hit. A favorite among cult fans for his participation in films like The Mole People, Tarantula and Revenge of the Creature, Agar’s trajectory continued downward in the sixties but don’t let that stop you from enjoying this monster on the loose thriller that clocks in at a fast paced 60 minutes in length.

Moving right along we’ll quickly learn that Agar is a scientist in the country outside of L.A. working on a nerve gas that enters the body thorough the skin and leaves the victim temporarily paralyzed and subject to hypnosis. Imagine the power of just such a weapon for the military.

If he’s to continue his research he’ll need the approval of Roy Gordon who is in charge of the operation. Yes he’ll give it but that won’t sit well with secretary, Paula Raymond, who wants to rope Agar in for good at the altar. For his part, Agar, is receptive to her charms yet he’s far too engrossed in his research to surrender his bachelorhood just yet.

Unfortunately Agar isn’t as close to perfecting his nerve gas discovery as he had initially hoped. Frustration and carelessness quickly set in. A chemical spill and leaking vapors in the lab combined with Agar drifting off to sleep at his desk will lead to the film’s title.

Agar is to soon realize he has a Hand of Death.

When his lab assistant turns up for work in the morning he’ll observe that Agar’s skin has taken on a darker tone and when Agar grabs the young man’s arm to prevent him from touching a dead lab rat, the man screams and falls to the floor dead. His arm blackened and charred where Agar had held him. Now it’s here that Agar will have to make a key decision that will effect the direction the film will take. No he doesn’t call the police or his boss to report the incident. At least not initially. No like a common thief he fleas but not before burning the building to the ground.

What’s the first thing you need when on the run? How about gas for the getaway car. On that topic why not pull into the nearest filling station for some “super service.” At least that’s the thought that came to mind when one time Stooge, Joe Besser, comes out to pump the gas. I half expected Moe and Larry to enter the frame and pretty much ruin Agar’s car. Sadly for Besser, he too will encounter the touch of Agar’s deadly Midas. Sadly for us, Moe and Larry are nowhere in sight.

Agar will seek refuge with Gordon and soon after Miss Raymond will learn of Agar’s predicament. By the way, while Agar has been working in the lab, his girlfriend has been fending off the advances of Agar’s pal, Steve Dunne, who seems to have channeled Gig Young for his performance as a light hearted pal always joking with Paula in hopes that his not so subtle courting might pay dividends.

Now for the biggest obstacle Agar must face. The poison that has entered his body has caused him to take on a monstrous appearance. A charred bloated look with hands as big as a Gorilla’s. So now he can not just kill with a single touch but one look could cause the faintest of heart to collapse from fright. Not surprisingly the effects of the illness have clearly affected Agar’s sanity which only adds to his growing list of problems.

Like The Hideous Sun Demon, which this film reminds me of, Agar’s monster is on the run from friends and police for the balance of the film. As he runs amok he’ll even encounter a little boy on the beaches of Malibu. Shades of Frankenstein? Well, not quite but trivia buffs take note that the little fellah who encounters the man in the oversized mask is Butch Patrick who in short time would be cast as Eddie Munster in the cult favorite Munsters television show.

Hand of Death was the feature film debut directing effort for actor Gene Nelson. In the years ahead he’d direct a few films but work mainly in television. Among his big screen credits are Kissin’ Cousins and Your Cheating Heart. TV credits include Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeannie and Starsky and Hutch.

While this is a definite drive-in feature, Nelson, does a really nice job behind the camera. Plenty of outdoor location work is a major asset for the film and the soundtrack elicits fond memories of Ed Wood’s classic Plan Nine From Outer Space and by extension Tim Burton’s bio film on the infamous low budget specialist.

When watching the latter portion of the film and the “change” upon Agar has clearly taken place I wondered aloud if the actor was even in the oversized monster suit. According to an interview he did with Tom Weaver published in McFarland’s Return of the Science Fiction and Horror Heroes, he was indeed.

Still to come in the 60’s for Agar were low budget westerns for producer A.C. Lyles, Law of the Lawless among them and ultra low budget affairs for Larry Buchanan. Zontar : The Thing From Venus a standout among those ill fated productions. Still, the actor had some TV appearances to come in the 70’s and even some minor roles opposite the Duke once again in Chisum and Big Jake. In a return to big screen monster movies he turned up for a cameo in the 1976 edition of King Kong. He’d continue to act sporadically through the 80’s and 90’s before passing away in 2002 at the age of 81.

Nice to see Hand of Death make an appearance on DVD thanks to the made on demand division at Fox if you’re hoping to get a look at this fun curio meant for the drive-in circuit and by extension the cult film fans.

9 Comments »

  1. This sounds very interesting. Especially to me as it is the 1960s. The nifty running time would help it get showings. It was a low-budget Lippert number. But it had been sitting on the shelf for over a year before 20th Century Fox put it out in a double bill with a remake of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (also Lippert). Although it was drive-in material, it notched up a surprising number of bookings in mainstream houses. The duo – with Caligari top billed – played first run houses in New York, LA, Detroit, Buffalo, Portland and Kansas City, for example. The only time Hand of Death was billed first, in a drive-in in Cincinnati, it was rated “hotsy” at the box office. Elsewhere, the duo were rated mostly “dull” or “dismal” with a couple of “modest” and “fair” thrown in, plus “good” on Broadway. However, Hand of Death switched playing partners in Denver (second billed to Lisa), San Francisco (support to Cape Fear) and LA (Phantom of the Opera was top billed).

    • Thanks for the background. Caligari had a short running time as well so a good match. According to the IMDB, this was thought a lost film for a number of years. Not sure how accurate that is. I did see it years ago on late night TV I think or perhaps a VHS rental. Memory a bit foggy on that. Overall it’s surprisingly well made and an easy watch.

  2. As a John Agar fan, I’d been wanting to see Hand of Death for a long time, but it didn’t seem to be available anywhere. I finally got my hands on a DVD-R copy and was pleasantly surprised at how entertaining it was. Usually, obscure movies are that way for a reason — they’re not very good, and even tax the patience of fans who are ready to make allowances. Logic, as usual, goes out the window, but the monster make-up is very inventive and Paula Raymond is very good, especially in the scene where her boyfriend-turned-monster is trying to get at her at the beach house. Marsh’s lab accident giving him a special “power” is the stuff of comic book origin stories, but in this case, a hand of death is supervillain territory. In make-up, he does look a lot like The Thing from the Fantastic Four! : )

  3. In 1988, Agar had a nice part in an excellent science fiction film, Miracle Mile. He appeared to be channeling Henry Fonda from On Golden Pond.

  4. Oh man, this one sounds right up my alley…and I just found a copy! How can you go wrong with a ‘rock man’ in a hat and trench coat running around LA streets in the middle of the day? You can’t! And that photo of the costume/make-up job looks really good! And how cool that John Wayne offered a few parts to Agar later in their careers…always good to hear things like that in the movie world.

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