Whether they’re on film or in real life, cults are scary things. A group of people brainwashed to worship a deity and commit heinous acts in its name is a frightening thing, whether it’s the devil worshipping coven in Rosemary’s Baby or the murderous teenagers who pay tribute to He Who Walks Behind the Rows in Children of the Corn. In 1962, television director William J. Hole, Jr. (who worked on both “The Bionic Woman” and “Peyton Place”) teamed up with screenwriter Jo Heims (Play Misty for Me) and legendary B-movie producer Rex Carlton (Nightmare in Wax, Blood of Dracula’s Castle) to unleash The Devil’s Hand on an unsuspecting world, and subsequently gave another meaning to the term “cult movie.”
Robert Alda (who played Gershwin in Rhapsody in Blue) is Rick Turner, a young man who, although engaged to the lovely Donna Trent (Ariadna Welter from Untouched), is haunted by nightmares of a beautiful woman beckoning to him. One day, while out with his fiancée, Rick sees a doll in the window of a shop that looks exactly like the woman in his dreams. They go inside the shop and the shopkeeper, a man named Frank Lamont (Neil Hamilton, better known as Commissioner Gordon on “Batman”), informs Rick that he is the one who ordered the doll. While Rick swears he has never been in the shop, Lamont tells the confused man that the doll was made from a picture of a woman named Bianca Milan (Linda Christian from The Moment of Truth), a picture that Rick supplied. While in the shop, Donna sees a doll that looks exactly like her. When Rick asks to buy the doll that looks like Donna, Lamont refuses to sell it. Rick and Donna leave the store, and Lamont takes the Donna doll into a back room and sticks a hot pin in it, causing pain in the real Donna that is so severe that she has to be hospitalized. While she is bedridden, Rick continues to dream of Bianca, and, in his dreams, she tells him how he can find her. He does, and Bianca immediately seduces him and indoctrinates him into a strange voodoo cult, one that is led by Frank Lamont and worships a “Devil-God of Evil” named Gamba. Rick is completely under the spell of Bianca and the cult, and only the love he has in his heart for Donna can save him…if there’s any left.
For a low budget horror film, The Devil’s Hand is intensely creative. Heims’ story is both dreamlike and ordinary, using Rick’s nightmares to bridge the gap between his fantasies and his everyday life. Veteran television cinematographer Meredith Nicholson (who was the director of photography on such surreal classics as “Batman” and “Get Smart”) puts his stamp all over the film, using light and shadows to give the film an air of fantasy without leaning too far away from reality. And the actors, though wooden at times, breathe life into sometimes corny dialogue so that the film is more creepy than campy.
The Devil’s Hand is a marvel of low budget filmmaking. In typical Rex Carlton fashion, the film is simultaneously hackneyed and captivating, but does not come off as intentionally silly like other Carlton productions. Instead, The Devil’s Hand feels like an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” scary in a very subliminal way. While the visible villain in the film is the cult itself, the unseen enemy is Gamba, making the terror much more psychological than physical, and making the film subtle and suspenseful instead of in-your-face horrifying.
One of the elements in The Devil’s Hand that is memorably eerie is the presence of the dolls. Every member of the cult has a doppelganger doll that sits on a mantle behind Lamont during their ceremonies, and the dolls bear such uncanny relations to their subjects that the viewer can’t help but get a little creeped out. The dolls add a touch of voodoo to the already mysterious practices of the strange group.
Another frightening aspect of the picture is a test of loyalty and commitment that is performed during the cult meetings. In the test, the subject in question lays flat on a table with a circular chandelier above them. The chandelier is equipped with several hanging swords, only one of them being real, and it is lowered slowly down upon the would-be victim until he or she is hit by one of the blades. If they are loyal, one of the false blades will hit them and bend, if not, the real sword will impale them through the heart, killing them instantly. A tense game of Russian roulette, the victim is spared only if it is “Gamba’s will.” It’s a terrifying torture device, and an even scarier plot device.
Although seen mostly as a footnote in B-movie history nowadays, The Devil’s Hand helped pave the way for the frightening devil-worshipping cult films that followed. While some of the later “cult movies” are more shocking in a visceral way, they still owe a debt of gratitude to Rex Carlton and Gamba, the “Devil-God of Evil.”