Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Hand of Night (1968)

aka Beast of Morocco

After the death of his wife and children in a car accident that left him unscathed, architect Paul Carver (William Sylvester) has fallen into a deep depression. Carver now sees himself as someone "standing between life and death, light and darkness" and craves death, but doesn't seem ready to take the obvious step.

Instead, he travels to Morocco to distract himself. A rather mean-spirited destiny has other ideas for him, though. A dream of a Moroccan crypt, very Western coffins, a "bearded Arab" and Gunther (Edward Underdown), a German archaeologist sitting next to him on the plane into the country, is the first prophetic warning for the American that he will soon enough encounter actual darkness.

Once arrived in Morocco, Carver learns that the friend (colleague?) he was planning to stay with has suddenly died. For Carver, that's as good a reason for a drinking spree as any, but he still has a certain craving to be saved from himself, it seems, and decides to take an invitation of Gunther's to come visit him that very same night.

At Gunther's house, where a party is held, Paul meets Marisa (Aliza Gur), a mysterious beauty who likes disappearing at will, discussions about the nature of light and darkness and being a vampire. Paul is fascinated by the woman, even obsessed, just as if the part of him that craves death and the dark side of life had just waited for her to appear. From the moment of their meeting, Paul is stumbling between Marisa's world and ours. The situation is further complicated by Chantal (Diane Clare), Gunther's non-biological daughter who'd very much like to save Paul from himself.

The Hand of Night is one of those films that have some generally interesting ideas and some atmospheric scenes, but have to fight with the indifference of their execution. Somewhere inside Hand, there's a fantastic film about depression, a death wish and how to escape it, and a peculiar interpretation of the vampire myth, but neither writer Bruce Stewart nor director Frederic Goode seem to know how to make that film and instead like to hide the actually interesting elements behind melodramatic dialogue and drab direction.

Goode often even manages to waste the mood-enhancing powers of the actual Moroccan landscape this was filmed in, as if he were actively trying to let Morocco look as quotidian to the British eye as possible; the film's more effective scenes seem to exist despite Goode's efforts and not because of them, for sometimes, the dream-like strangeness of the desert is too strong for him to make boring, like the call of Marisa's "darkness" is for Paul. It is, as a matter of fact, quite ironic.

Where - after a cheap yet impressive dream sequence right at the film's beginning - director Goode is just not very good (sorry), writer Stewart isn't able to get a grip on a fantastic basic set-up. The film's beginning is an up and down of (sometimes clever) pseudo-philosophical discussions, symbolic psychology of the workable sort, dialogue written as if it were 1938 and not 1968 (and, by the way, spoken by actors acting like it's 1938 by using a cartload of bad fake accents, too), and a few choice moments where the "darkness" the characters talk so much about actually shows in subtle ways. That's nearly enough to satisfy me in a film so clearly trying to be profound instead of just going for the easiest thrills, however, in its final half hour The Hand of Night wastes all this potential on a particularly long-winded and boring finale, turning out like a Hammer Dracula movie made by people who have heard about drama, but don't know how to execute a dramatic finale.

It's a bit of a shame, really, for it's not every cheap little horror movie that shows as much ambition and willingness to build its own strange little mythology as The Hand does. As it stands, this is a film I find impossibly to actually recommend to anyone not highly interested in off-beat independent horror films, yet too interesting to rue having watched it.


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