Fists of fear: severed hands in films – ranked!

With the imminent release of the French animation J’ai Perdu Mon Corps – in which a hand tries to reconnect (literally) with its body – we hail some of the great severed appendages of cinema

10. And Now the Screaming Starts! (1973)

The year is 1795 (mobcap alert!), and newlywed Stephanie Beacham finds herself at the business end of the Fengriffen family curse in a full-length feature from Amicus Productions, better known for its portmanteau horrors. No sooner have servants or doctors (Patrick Magee among them) announced their intention to tell us about the curse, than they are throttled by the lopped-off hand of an unfairly treated woodsman.

9. Demonoid (1981)

Samantha Eggar’s husband gets possessed by a severed hand from a Guanajuato mine in this Mexican/US Z-movie by Alfredo Zacarías. The appendage travels back with them to the US, where it jumps like a virus from one host to another, leaving a trail of carnage as possessees keep slicing off their own hands in failed attempts to stop its scuttling, throttling, deadly face-palming rampage.

8. Idle Hands (1999)

Devon Sawa is so stoned he doesn’t realise his demonically possessed hand has murdered his parents in this splatter comedy. After it kills his two stoner friends as well, they return from the dead to help him chop it off. But not even a microwave oven can stop the hand from going on a scuttling, throttling rampage at a Halloween dance and somehow getting Jessica Alba tied to a car in her undies.

7. The Exterminating Angel (1962)

Mexican toffs find themselves trapped at a dinner party, where their fancy upper-class manners degenerate into squabbling, hysteria, peeing into urns and other manifestations of societal breakdown. One woman nearly gets throttled by a severed hand, which may be imaginary, but it’s a film by the arch-surrealist Luis Buñuel, so you never know. Fun fact: Buñuel had severed-hand experience, having briefly worked with Robert Florey on The Beast with Five Fingers (see below).

Christopher Lee in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors.
Christopher Lee in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

6. Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

Five blokes on a train get their futures told by mysterious Peter Cushing and his tarot cards in this Amicus portmanteau movie. One is a pompous art critic, played by Christopher Lee, who dismembers a disrespectful artist with his car before being haunted by the man’s severed hand. Lee’s attempts to burn it come to nothing, and the hand engineers a car accident by clinging to his windscreen wipers.

5. The Addams Family (1991)

In the 1960s TV show, the hand (called Thing) was limited to periodically emerging from boxes. Special-effects advances enabled Barry Sonnenfeld’s comedy to let Thing off the leash to scuttle along hallways, give Gomez a head massage and get a job delivering packages. Thing is played by the Canadian magician Christopher Hart, whose film CV (which also includes Idle Hands, see above) consists exclusively of disembodied-hand roles.

Michael Caine in The Hand.
Michael Caine in The Hand. Photograph: Allstar/Sportsphoto

4. The Hand (1981)

Oliver Stone’s second feature as director stars Michael Caine as a cartoonist who loses his hand in a freak accident, after which his rocky marriage gets even rockier when he refuses to let his wife touch his stump. It’s basically Scenes from a Marriage, Oliver Stone-style. Caine’s severed extremity goes on the obligatory throttling rampage, as well as scuttling up his trouser-leg to attack his private parts. It’s all very symbolic.

3. The Devil’s Hand (1943)

While the French director Jacques Tourneur was making Cat People (1942) in Hollywood, his father, Maurice, was directing this creepy French fable about an impoverished artist (Pierre Fresnay) whose purchase of a finger-waggling hand in a casket brings him fame, fortune and the ability to roll cigarettes one-handed. Alas, he forgets to sell it on to the next sucker, leading to expressionist encounters with the talisman’s previous owners and the devil popping up to claim his soul.

2. The Beast With Five Fingers (1946)

Having already attached a murderer’s hands to a maimed pianist’s stumps in Mad Love (1935), Peter Lorre is stalked by another pianist’s hand, which plays one-armed Bach, scuttles around the library and won’t let up, even when Lorre hammers nails through it and throws it into the fire. The effects hold up well, but the best effect of all is Lorre’s face – he really makes you believe a severed hand can scuttle.

Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead II.
Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead II. Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy

1. Evil Dead II (1987)

In the acme of horror-comedy slapstick (or “splatstick”, if you will), the peerless Bruce Campbell chainsaws off his own demonically possessed hand in Sam Raimi’s remake/sequel, before blasting away at the severed extremity with a shotgun while it scuttles around behind the skirting board and gives him the finger. Extra points for gibbering hand noises, strategic employment of a mousetrap and a cameo by Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

•J’ai Perdu Mon Corps (I Lost My Body) is released in the UK on 22 November and on Netflix on 29 November.


Anne Billson

The GuardianTramp

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