Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Hands of Blood (1974)

aka Stepsisters

A small town in Texas. Diana (Bond Gideon) returns home to live with her stepsister Norma (Sharyn Talbert) and Norma's husband Thorpe (Hal Fletcher) after a stint in Dallas hasn't turned out too well for her.

Norma and Thorpe really hate each other's guts. Thorpe mostly seems to have married Norma for her land, yet is irrationally jealous of her supposed affairs with random men, while Norma leaves out no possibility when it comes to berating her husband. Thorpe wants Norma to sell the mansion they are living in, because the oil on the grounds whose existence he's trying to keep a secret from her in vain should make quite a fine profit for him to buy more whiskey from, but Norma doesn't want to. She even (and how shocking is that!) refuses his marital right to intercourse!

What can a real Texan example of manliness like Thorpe do? Oh, yes, start an affair with Diana by trying to rape her and then try to talk her into helping her to murder her stepsister in a plan that can only work in a state where killing your wife when she's in bed with another man is no big deal at all, which Texas seems to be - hopefully only in the mind of the script writer.

Alas, Thorpe has bit off more than he can chew. There is another killer making his rounds and he has already killed and hidden away another lover of Diana's and this other killer has quite different plans from our would-be wife killer.

Hands of Blood is another one of those films I absolutely wouldn't recommend to anyone with "normal" tastes, yet that I nonetheless find quite compelling.

It's certainly not a "good" film - the script is limp, the acting amateurish and mostly more than a little off, the sound recorded so badly that it's often difficult to understand what anyone's talking about and director Perry Tong obviously doesn't know what he's doing.

But it is exactly the combination of these factors with some lucky breaks in form of moody rural decay (Texas style) and beautiful early 70s film grain that make the film worth the time spent on it.

The script has a randomness about it which makes the predictable thriller plot more interesting than it should be. You never know in which way the film will get its plot beats wrong, and I was absolutely delighted by the sudden jolt caused by the few times it gets them right. There's also a wonderfully strange little country ditty that explains the plot right at the end of the movie, just in case you couldn't follow.

The same can be said about the acting - it's all wrong, but it is wrong in unpredictable and fascinating  ways. It's as if you are watching people trying to imitate an alien imitation of the way people act in real life.

But best of all - and chiefly responsible for the film's magic - is Tong's direction. He is using weird angles, subjective camera, illogical editing. He is framing the important parts of his scenes somewhere in the background. If you'd let him, he'd probably even sing and dance for you, all in a desperate attempt to keep his film as far away from being static or normal as possible.

And it is true that much of this just doesn't work, or just makes scenes that should be simple obtuse and hardly to follow instead, that it breaks most rules of good filmmaking for no discernible reason.

But it also creates something special and very dear to my heart, not a tight and clever thriller ("a good film"), instead a film that is more like a state of mind you as the viewer can share with the people making it for a little while; or a world of its own - a little like Texas, yet much more like a dream-state Tong is gracious enough to pull us into for a moment or two.

There are a few times during Hands of Blood's running time when Tong's frankly absurd style and the basic acid rock (courtesy of one Sandy Pinkard) that makes up about half of the soundtrack combine and transform what should be a shabby backyard low budget film into about the closest thing to transcendence I know. If that's not what filmmaking is all about, I don't know what.


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