GORE IN THE STORE
THE HANDS OF ORLAC ****
Directed by Robert Wiene.
Starring Conrad Veidt, Aleaxandra Sorina, Fritz Strassny.
Horror, Austria, 1924, Cert PG.
Released in the UK on Blu-ray June 14th by Masters Of Cinema.
Making its UK debut on home video THE HANDS OF ORLAC (ORLAC’S HANDÉ) is a piece of silent horror expressionism that still carries a certain occult energy ninety-seven years after it made its bow on cinema screens. This is mainly due to the wide-eyed, near maniacal performance of Conrad Veidt, reuniting here with director Robert Wiene after their genre defining DER CABINET DES DR. CALIGARI. Whilst this film may lack the surreal, angular sets that defined the template for silent expressionistic horror that was to follow that film, ORLAC has gone on to influence a large number of other works across a number of mediums with its tale of madness brought on by medical meddling.
The titular Orlac is a concert pianist who has had his hands amputated after a train crash. Thanks to his ingenious surgeon, Orlac finds himself the recipient of a hand transplant, a piece of surgery that was the stuff of science-fiction back in 1924. Unfortunately, this pair of hands have recently been separated from Vasseur, a just executed murderer and thief. Upon learning of his hand’s previous owner, Orlac descends into madness and murder as his fiancée can do nothing but watch in horror and sympathy.
At just over an hour and a half the story here may feel stretched out, maybe even further with the alternative version included here in the discs extras that clocks in at twenty minutes longer, especially for those who may just be dipping into silent expressionistic cinema for the first time. What may come across as over the top and histrionic to newcomers is part of the pleasure for long-time fans of the genre, along with the exaggerated sets for the madness to play out across. Wiene introduces other elements into the mix; hallucinatory sequences sit along set pieces such as the aftermath of the train crash impressively lit mainly by flood and torchlight. Veidt also delivers a performance that impresses with its physicality, even his hands come across as expressionistic with their pulsing veins and tensed, curled up fingers looking to curl around a knife or someone’s throat.
A cacophonous score recently composed by Johannes Kalitzke aids the melodrama nicely. The remastered HD picture on this disc is stunning, highlighting the long and deep focus taking in the vast sets in their shadowy glory. The original title cards are included here in the main presentation capturing the heightened emotion of its unstable characters: “I feel it rising from you, along the arms, into the soul, cold terrible, relentless… Damned, cursed hands!” By the time it reaches its nicely convoluted conclusion it may have gained some new converts seduced by the grandiosity on display here while those with more experience will be ecstatic with such a beautifully presented slice of influential cinema.
Those influences, that range from the Peter Lorre 1935 feature MAD LOVE to 1991’s BODY PARTS are looked at in a 30-minute visual essay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson that explains and nicely contextualises the film and its reception. It is packed with interesting trivia and theory about Wiene and Veidt’s approach to his performance and zips by in an entertaining and informative fashion. Kim Newman and Stephen Jones compliment this essay with their enthusiastic audio commentary while the package is completed by a feature comparing the differences between the two cuts included on the disc and a booklet with more essays by Tim Lucas and Philip Kemp. For a film that is approaching the end of its first century it still stands out and thanks to this presentation it still stands tall in the shadows as it creeps into its next century.