The Bad Touch
Mystery Science Theater 3000, Season 1, Episode 6: "The Crawling Hand"
The 1950s and 1960s sure seem like a weird time, at least when we go back and look at the sci-fi produced during that era. A certain amount of the paranoia and fear presents in the films makes sense -- the world has just recovered from two World Wars, was plunged deep into a Cold War, and was on the brink of nuclear destruction. While there were some productions to that seemed hopeful for our future, more often than not the media was full of fear, that somehow some force (outside "our country") would come to try and kill us.
It's interesting that during the height of the space race, as the U.S. and the Soviets were locked in a battle to see who could dominate the great beyond, a film like The Crawling Hand came out. This film takes a dim view of the potential of the race to the Moon, expecting ruin around every corner, although not from exploding ships or lost astronauts. No, somehow a manned mission to the Moon will lead to diseased humans coming back like zombies, and even when the explode over the planet somehow their limbs (or, really, one limb) will go on living infecting others. It's mind boggling in a way, and fails to pay attention to any of the science of space flight.
But then wasn't that the way with basically all the sci-fi that came out during this era? Sure, there were hard sci-fi novels but more of the media cranked out by Hollywood went for spectacle over substance, things that made sense in the guts of audiences because no one had the time to learn all that scummy "science". It leaves a bonkers movie like The Crawling Hand feeling like a relic from an era, like we can look at these shows and movies and say, "we, Americans, really thought this was plausible? Really?"
That does give The Crawling Hand more credit than it's due and certainly makes it sound much more interesting than it actually is. Despite it's out-there concept -- an astronaut comes back to earth from the moon, kills himself in orbit causing his ship to explode, and then his arm lives on, infecting a beach-goer so that the dumb kid wants to kill -- this is a dull and leaden film with very little to actually recommend about it. This is the kind of film you expect to show up as a Mystery Science Theater 3000First aired on the independent TV network KTMA, Mystery Science Theater 3000 grew in popularity when it moved to Comedy Central. Spoofing bad movies, the gang on the show watch the flicks and make jokes about them, entertaining its audience with the same kind of shtick many movies watchers provided on their own (just usually not as funny as the MST3K guys could provide). It became an indelible part of the entertainment landscape from there, and lives on today on Netflix. episode because its just so bad.
In the film we're introduced to mission control leads watching as their latest astronaut comes hurtling back to Earth. Instead of being in high spirits, though, the looks pale and ashen, about ready to croak. He complains about his arm, making him... "do things..." and then the ship explodes. As we learn, this isn't the first time the ships have mysteriously vanished, but this is the first time one of the astronauts from the moon missions have returned at all to send back a message. The NASA heads, suffice it to say, or displeased.
Meanwhile, Paul (Rod Lauren) and his lady-friend Donna (Allison Hayes), discover the wreckage of the ship on a beach. They're horrified to find an arm among the debris, and Donna begs to go home. Paul returns later to get the arm so he can return it to the authorities. But then the arm comes back to life and kills Paul's landlady. Then it starts to take over Paul's mind, forcing him to do things, to want to kill. The authorities come into play, suspecting that Paul may be a psychopath, but it's not Paul, its the terror of the crawling hand.
I feel like, despite the two films being made by different groups and twenty years apart, there's a bit of connective tissue (no medical pun intended) between this week's film, The Crawling Hand, and the first official MST3K episode, The Crawling Eye. Both of these films concerned mysterious happenings from space, and a body part that simply won't die (although in the case of Eye, it's at least a bigger body part).
Thing is, for both of these films, the "monster" at the center of the movie is a dud. A good movie monster has personality and, like with the Crawling Eye, it's hard to find personality here in a hand. It doesn't help that the actor who plays Paul, Rod Lauren, is as interesting an an animate brick. The man has no charisma, lacking the ability to sell the conflict within him as an alien mind (we assume) takes him over. It's hard to know if it's really taking him over, of course, because the actor gives us nothing to focus on. He's terrible.
He's also in basically every scene once he's introduced. Paul is supposed to be our protagonist and conflicted hero, and the movie gives him all the time in the world to convey that. Paul never does, mind you (and it's not like his girlfriend, Donna, is any better, frankly). This is just a poorly paced, poorly acted, poorly filmed movie. The best thing about it is the title which at least conveys some idea of horror, a hand that wouldn't die (although, come to think of it, I think that's actually a different movie). This film, though, doesn't know how to use that concept to tell anything even remotely compelling. It's just bad.
Of course, a movie like this seems like perfect MST3K fodder, and it's not bad for it. The guys are able to get in a few solid jokes and have fun poking at the flat pacing and long pauses. That said, this episode has a lot of repetitive jokes, with the guys beating the same line over and over again. I think that's probably due, in large part, to the fact that they aren't given a ton to work on, but their shtick really does wear thin here after a while. It's not a bad episode, but certainly not anywhere near the classics of this series, to be sure.