November is Mystery Science Theatre 3000 remake month for Lost in Translation, where the column looks at some of the movies featured on MST3K and see where they failed and how to remake better. This week, The Crawling Hand, featured during MST3K‘s first season on Comedy Channel.
Originally released in 1963, during the Space Race portion of the Cold War between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Horror movies look at what’s happening and make events go wrong on the worst way possible. The first lunar landing, the Apollo 11 mission, was still six years away, so no one knew what could happen on the moon’s surface. This opens the door for horror movies to imagine whatever they want happening in the cold, dark depths of space.
The Crawling Hand begins with a lunar mission going wrong in the worst way possible. The astronaut on board the returning capsule has been out of communications for far too long with dwindling oxygen. When he finally does appear, looking gaunt and haunted, he begs mission control Steve Curan (Peter Breck) to hit the rocket’s self-destruct. With great reluctance, Curan does so.
When a rocket is blown to bits, bits of rocket tends to land on the ground. A young couple, Paul Lawrence (Rod Lauren) and foreign student Marta Farnstrom (Sirry Steffen) are at a secluded beach and spot one of those bits, the astronaut’s arm. With the romantic interlude shattered, the two leave, but Paul, being a medical student, notes the arm. As the young lovers drive away, the arm twitches.
Paul returns later to retrieve the arm and take it to the room he rents from Mrs. Hotchkiss. When no one is looking, the arm starts crawling around, the hand dragging the rest of the appendage. The hand is possessed by a murderous alien, somehow, and finds its first victim, Mrs. Hotchkiss. Paul discovers the body and calls for the police. Sheriff Townsend (Alan Hale, Jr, a year before landing the role of the Skipper on Gilligan’s Island) arrives to take notes, examine the crime scene, and start the investigation. After calling the coroner, he leaves to follow up on his questioning.
The hand is not satisfied with just one victim. Paul nearly becomes the next and is strangled, but instead of killing him, the hand infects him with the murderous spirit. The coroner arrives and finds the pick up to be a two-fer. Paul recovers in the coroner’s wagon beside Mrs. Hotchkiss’ body. He escapes and returns to his room.
The film becomes a fight between Paul and the alien within on controlling or succumbing to the murderous impulses. Paul becomes the Sheriff’s prime suspect after several attempted murders. Curan and his colleague, Dr. Weitzberg (Kent Taylor), arrive after hearing of some of goings on and tracking debris from the rocket’s explosion. The scientists have made the connection but, in order to prevent a panic in the general public, are keeping their hypothesis to themselves.
Paul has also come to a similar conclusion. He grabs the arm and makes a run to the town’s junkyard. The police are hot on his heels, but arrive too late to see the hand disappear into the piles of junk after it escapes Paul. The danger of the hand ends by the paws of two hungry cats, releasing Paul from the alien’s influence.
The biggest issue the movie has is budget. To quote Joel, “You can tell it’s a low budget movie because they can’t wreck the cars.” Throwing money at a problem isn’t always a solution, unless the problem is insufficient money. The Crawling Hand is a B-movie. There is potential, but budget limitations creates restrictions. The biggest restriction is special effects. Mission control is a meeting room, not the banks of computers and operators monitoring 24/7 that NASA regularly shows. The crawling hand is closer to Thing from The Addams Family than a creeping threat. Jump scares and hands pulling open gates and doors get used to build tension.
The start of the movie lingers on mission control longer than needed, especially considering the 89 minute running time. A shorter introduction at mission control, done by actually showing what’s going on, gives more time to the rest of the movie’s run time to build up tension. Again, part of this is budget; if the movie can’t damage a car, forget about blowing up a (model) rocket. The scientists are almost in their own movie, separate from Paul’s problems until they come in to save Paul’s bacon.
The ending has a serious problem. Cats eat away the muscle of the hand. That’s more, “We’re running out of budget,” than a proper ending. It takes away from the characters the audience has been following from the beginning. A Deus ex cattus that comes from nowhere. It’s not satisfying. Paul, Sheriff Townsend, Curan, any of these three stopping the hand would make the ending decent. A random cat that was never shown before? That’s more an ass-pull.
The general plot works, though. Something in space causing people to re-enact The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. While the film doesn’t reference the Robert Louis Stevenson story at all, and has its own approach, the two are similar. The main difference is that the change is caused by an external stimulus. For a horror movie, the key will be the build up to Paul’s first on-screen murder attempt. The hand needs to be a factor, being the title character. The effects budget for the hand needs to allow for it to lurk in scenes.
As for characters, the scientists need to either be limited to the initial scene setting up the arrival of the hand on the beach or be a presence throughout. They can’t disappear for half of the movie and reappear out of nowhere. Paul and Sheriff Townsend are needed. Paul’s love interest is almost an afterthought, used to show how far gone Paul is and what makes him fight back. A trope for the era, it won’t fly today.
The Crawling Hand has potential, but to fulfill the potential, it needs a proper budget, some adjustment in focus, and a far more satisfying ending. It did deserve its time in the MST3K spotlight, but only because it could have been much more than it was.