April 3, 2012

The Fine Line Between Superhero and Monster

Hand of Death (1962)

Sci-fi, Horror, Tragic Lab Accident
If myths can tell us a lot about the people and cultures that created them, and comic books are a form of myth-making, then can we better understand ourselves by reading comic books? (Okay, even if you concede that comic books themselves aren't quite as big as they used to be, you also have to concede that they are still enormously influential in our popular culture-- witness all the recent movies and video games based on comics or graphic novels.)

To me, superhero comics (and by extension, the movies based on them) are the purest form of contemporary myth. The superhero presents us with the ultimate self-revealing question:  if you had the power (super strength, super speed, you name it), what would you do with it? Who would you be then? What kinds of wrongs would you right? Would you be in the service of the 1%, or the 99%? Or would you just use your powers for your own benefit, and start down the road into supervillain territory?

Just like real life, some heroes are made (Captain America in a wartime experimental lab), some are self-made (Batman), some are born that way (the X-Men), and some stumble into it by accident (Spiderman from a radioactive spider bite; the Flash from lightning striking lab chemicals).

Movie poster
Scientist Alex Marsh's fate in Hand of Death is the stuff of superhero legend, but the decisions he makes once he acquires his power turn him into a monster instead. Right from the very start, we know that somebody's gonna get hurt. A farmer pulls up to a remote country cabin in his pick-up to investigate what looks like a couple of dead sheep. Pretty soon, he slumps over next to the animals. In long shot, a couple of men in hazmat suits come out and carry the limp body into the cabin.

We quickly find out that neither the sheep or the man are dead, but temporarily paralyzed. Alex Marsh (John Agar) and his assistant Carlos (John Alonzo) quickly revive the farmer, who seems pretty good natured considering his close call. He tells them that he was fully conscious, but couldn't move a muscle. Naturally curious, he asks Dr. Marsh what's going on. Marsh brushes him off with the standard "it's classified government work" line.

Oh well, all's well that ends well. Uh huh. I realize it's 1962 and all that, but Marsh seems pretty cavalier about security and accident precautions at his lab. Back at the Research Institute in L.A., we're introduced to the head honcho, elderly, wheelchair-bound Dr. Ramsey (Roy Gordon), and the other two members of an awkward love triangle, Ramsey's attractive assistant Carol Wilson (Paula Raymond), and researcher Tom Holland (Stephen Dunne), who is competing with Marsh for Carol's affections.

After the accident with the farmer, Carol is worried about her boyfriend (and rightly so). But like all obsessed B movie scientists, Marsh is way too involved in his work to see the warning signs. He breathlessly tells his colleagues that he's on the verge of a breakthrough that will tip the balance of world power and potentially make nuclear war obsolete. He's almost perfected combining an hypnotic agent with a paralyzing nerve gas. Even after the armies and population of the enemy country recover from the gas, they'll still be in an hypnotic state that the occupiers can take advantage of.

Carol protests that Alex's work is immoral and dangerous. She cautions him that his mentor Dr. Ramsey ended up in a wheelchair by not taking sufficient precautions in his work. "That was years ago, they weren't as careful back then," Alex responds glibly. Famous last words!

After his accident, Dr. Marsh passes out and has nightmares
Those aren't visions of sugarplums dancing
in Alex Marsh's head.
Back at the remote desert location, Marsh's assistant is worried too. The mice they work with keep ending up dead. Obsessed with creating a weapon that might put an end to war, he dismisses Carlos' concerns just as casually. The good doctor should have listened to Carol and Carlos, or at least called in OSHA to inspect his lab, because that night, tragedy strikes. Exhausted by all the long days he's put in, Marsh falls asleep at a table. As he wakes up and stretches out his arm, he accidentally knocks a beaker over, and some of the gas escapes. Choking, he tries to stop it up, but it's too late.

He collapses on a cot with images of lab equipment swirling around his head (we see this through a simple double exposure process). When he wakes up, he has a huge hangover. Carlos shows up at the lab, remarking how it looks like Marsh has been out in the sun all weekend. Marsh tells him about the accident, and speculates that he's not dead because of the immunity he's built up by being exposed to very low doses over months of work. Carlos is adamant that they report the accident. When the obsessed Alex grabs his assistant by the arm, he discovers a new "superpower" -- the ability to kill by mere touch (aka "Hand of Death").

Comparison of Alex Marsh and The Fantastic Four's Thing
Pop quiz: which is Dr. Marsh after the accident,
and which is The Thing from the Fantastic Four?
Dr. Alex Marsh stands at that crucial juncture that all potential superheroes and supervillains face-- do I use my powers for good or evil? This being a very low budget sci-fi movie from the early '60s, he takes a third path-- that of a B movie monster. The death of his assistant was clearly an accident, and there's still time to redeem himself, but Marsh's brain must have also been affected, because he proceeds to soak the lab and body with gasoline and light a match to it all. He drives off as the lab goes up in flames. (Okay, so I acknowledge that using this particular power for good might present challenges, but considering that everything that he touches blackens and dies, he might at least be fun at barbecues!)

Over the course of next 40 minutes or so, a desperate Marsh inadvertently kills some innocent bystanders, seeks an antidote from his colleagues at the Institute, swells up to hideous proportions (with his skin turning black and cracked like a man covered by cooling lava), terrorizes his girlfriend Carol, and generally makes a mess of things. (The next victim after Carlos is a gas attendant played by Joe Besser, whose biggest claim to fame was joining the Three Stooges for a number of shorts in the late '50s.)

Two scenes particularly stand out. In one scene Marsh, now bloated and hideous, stumbles along a beach just outside of Los Angeles. In the foreground we see a little boy playing, as the creature comes ever closer. Marsh topples over in a faint, and the boy (played by Butch Patrick, who would later earn notoriety as Eddie in The Munsters TV show) ambles over to see what's going on. More curious than frightened, the boy tentatively reaches out to the unconscious thing, but is called home by his mother just in the nick of time (see the clip below). (The scene is reminiscent of the innocent girl playing with Karloff's monster in the original Frankenstein, although the outcome is happier in Hand of Death.)

Carol is confronted by a monstrous thing that was once her beau
A frightened Carol (Paula Raymond) tries to calm down
the monstrous thing that her boyfriend has become.
In the other effective scene, Marsh finds the beach house of his colleague and romantic rival Tom, where Carol just happens to be staying. Terrified, she hides in a closet as the grunting, moaning monster-man pounds at the door. After a few seconds, a misshapen silhouette appears at one window, and then another.

Here's something else that's amazing-- after doing this blog for over a year and a half (and posting dozens of times), this is the first time I've mentioned the sturdy, dependable B movie actor John Agar. In my post on The Colossus of New York I wrote that it seemed like supporting actor Robert Hutton was in half of all the B sci-fi movies made in the '50s and early '60s. If Hutton was in half of all those films, Agar was in the other half. John's short marriage to Shirley Temple after WWII earned him a quick contract with David O. Selznick. He started out playing supporting roles in a number of A-list John Wayne movies, then quickly settled into B westerns and sci-fi programmers (and of course TV).

Genial and unassuming, John is the face of '50s sci-fi for many fans like me. In the '60s and '70s, he showed up again and again on TV courtesy of the various "Creature Feature"-type movie packages, and provided hours of good, cheap thrills:  Revenge of the Creature (1955), Tarantula (1955), The Mole People (1956), The Brain from Planet Arous (1957), Attack of the Puppet People (1958), Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962)… and the list goes on.

John was one of those rare actors who didn't mind being associated with low-budget sci-fi:
I don't resent being identified with B science fiction movies at all. Why should I? Even though they were not considered top of the line, for those people that like sci-fi, I guess they were fun. My whole feeling about working as an actor is, if I give anybody any enjoyment, I'm doing my job, and that's what counts.  (IMDb.)
Beautiful Paula Raymond had a long and rewarding career, mainly in TV. Her biggest sci-fi role was in one of my all-time favorites, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), playing a typical role for the time, an attractive female scientist / assistant.

Director Gene Nelson enjoyed a very interesting career in front of as well as behind the camera. I cover him in more depth in my post on The Atomic Man (1955).

Once thought to be lost, Hand of Death was unavailable for decades on TV or video. It shows its ultra-low budget in more ways than one, but it's interesting for a couple of well-staged scenes, the effective monster makeup, and some "cameos" by folks like Joe Besser and Butch Patrick. It's available on DVD-R from a number of sites specializing in hard-to-find horror and sci-fi-- here's one.

Davey (Butch Patrick) has a close encounter with the thing that used to be Alex Marsh (John Agar):


  1. John Agar was THE man. This is one of his films that I have never been able to see. I might have to buy a copy.

  2. I got my copy from Creepy Classics some time ago, and only watched it for the first time a couple of days ago. I'd read bad things about it, but was surprised at how effective it was, all things considered.