Demonoid (1981)

I really have to hand it to the artist, that movie poster is so much better than the actual film. I mean, I think I can finger a detail or two in there which isn’t in the film itself, but with so much going on, I bet you can put your thumb on it too. Don’t palm off this kind of movie material, folks. Really, the artist deserves a fist bump, a high five, just don’t be getting handsy with them or else you might eat a knuckle sandwich.

If you haven’t guessed yet, this movie is about a killer demon hand.

Jennifer Baines, a white lady from Los Angeles, comes down to Guanajuato, Mexico, to visit her husband, Mark, at the mine he runs there. While discounting local superstitious belief, the two end up finding a Satanic cult room and remove a silver case. Mark later opens the case to reveal dust, which then turns into a demon hand and possesses him. Jennifer pursues Mark back to the US, where the hand repeatedly gets itself cut off to then go on and possess its next victim, all with Jennifer as the intended ultimate target. To fight the hand, Jennifer ends up enlisting the help of Father Cunningham, a Catholic priest who faces his own doubts with God but eventually comes to grips with his faith just in time for Satan’s left hand to come to grips with him. Long story short, you can beat Satan’s hand in the occasional tug of war, but you can’t escape once he gets his mitts into you.

Yes, it’s a killer hand movie. While director Alfredo Zacarías is said to have instead taken inspiration from a discussion on split-personality syndrome, there is a long cinematic tradition of murderous hands, dating back to the silent film era with such classics as the 1924 Austrian film Orlacs Hände. While that specific story was later remade directly as Mad Love with Peter Lorre, The Hands of Orlac with Mel Ferrer, and the low budget Hands of a Stranger, the idea of a killer hand was infectious; movies such as The Beast with Five Fingers, The Crawling Hand, And Now the Screaming Starts, and more all feature a killer disembodied hand. We also saw it as a piece of a much larger horror whole in Evil Dead II, and the character Thing T. Thing was reworked to solely be a disembodied hand in both The Addams Family movies. We have a thing about our hands, folks, and the idea of one that could come alive and carry out murderous intent on its own is something that has served as a recurring motif in horror. Even Oliver Stone has gotten in on the fun with his 1981 film The Hand.

But what about the Satanic possession aspect? Most of what I’ve mentioned had to do with a revenge aspect, with the killer hand wanting payback or to continue a killing spree, though yes, Evil Dead II did involve a form of possession. Well, even the idea of Satan taking over a hand and using a small coffin to contain it actually isn’t that original. Maurice Tourneur did it back in 1943 in La Main du diable, a film about an artist who accepts a hand talisman that leads to his own hand being possessed. And the idea did not stop with Zacarías, either, as the 1999 comedy horror film Idle Hands again revisits hand possession. If this sort of thing appeals to you, hey, you have a ton of things to watch!

Yet let’s step away from that and refocus on the crew. Director Alfredo Zacarías is a Mexican director, producer, screenwriter, and songwriter who is probably more notable for his numerous comedy films, including several done with the famous comedian Gaspar Henaine’s character Capulina. But Zacarías had some experience with horror, having directed films such as Un extraño en la casa in the late 1960s and The Bees during the eco-terror heyday of the late 1970s. He even got in on comedy horror with Capulina in Capulina vs. The Mummies. All of this prepped him for his work on a religious horror film that pulls not only from classic killer hand movies but also 1970s religious horror in the style of The Exorcist. Zacarías’ work wears its inspiration on its sleeve, though it’s often hokey, and the critical response to Demonoid was largely negative.

Still, you can’t say he did it without pedigree. Demonoid stars the great Samantha Eggar, who was a horror film veteran by the end of the 1970s. In one decade, she managed to start with a giallo in The Dead Are Alive, pull off a hippie art house horror in A Name for Evil, fight killer kids in the made-for-TV All the Kind Strangers, face off against a killer cat in the portmanteau horror The Uncanny, and even give birth to her own terrifying children in David Cronenberg’s The Brood. Following Demonoid, she then did a straight up slasher film, Curtains. That’s a roughly 11-year span of just her horror work, and then there are the exploitative likes of The Exterminator, the Weird Western Welcome to Blood City, and an Umberto Lenzi war movie, The Greatest Battle. As lovers of cult cinema, we should be worshiping the ground Eggar walked on, because her career is solid gold!

And so who better to pair her with than Stuart Whitman, star of Night of the Lepus. Oh yeah, the killer giant bunny movie. Imagine, if you will, a priest deeply intelligent but also deep in the throes of doubt; that is Whitman’s Father Cunningham, and he more than bares a subtle likeness to Father Karras of The Exorcist. Demonoid is a religious horror at its core, in which Eggar’s non-religious is faced with a supernatural evil which proves a form of Christian belief, while Whitman is the doubting priest who tries to be the voice of reason, only to realize that things are much bigger. In the process, he manages to lose part of his body but recovers his faith, while she believes she succeeds in finding salvation only to realize in the final shot that she cannot be saved.

This is the message that appears at the core of Zacarías’ film: the people in authority do not receive salvation; it is only found in faith. The hand possesses a mine owner, a cop, a doctor, and a priest, all of whom represent a kind of authority, but only the priest manages to survive the encounter, and only through a restoration of belief and subservience to God. That lesson of loss of faith and eventual restoration is found in numerous religious horror films, and there is always a kind of sacrifice. In some cases it’s the loss of life, in others the loss of sight or free will. Here, it’s a hand. And in some religious horrors, no sacrifice is sufficient, and even faith will not restore.

It’s such a hopeful subgenre.

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