The Devil’s Hand / Devil’s Doll / Live to Love / The Naked Goddess (1959/1961) -**
I’ve remarked before that it wasn’t until the 1960’s that Satanic cults and devil worship became an accepted topic for horror films. That decade saw an explosion of Satanically-themed movies, ranging from prestigious big-studio fare like Rosemary’s Baby all the way down to cheap-jack phony Mondo documentaries about the modern practice of witchcraft. But the movie we’re talking about right now might be situated at an even lower stratum than that. With The Devil’s Hand, which appears to have been shot between 1958 and 1959 but did not see release until two years later, we can see just what an inauspicious start the US contribution to the great international Satan-boom of the 60’s got off to.
It all begins with a recurring dream. (Well, really I suppose it begins with some seriously out-of-place surf rock on the soundtrack, but you know what I mean, right?) Each night, professional time-killer Rick Turner (Robert Alda, of The House of Exorcism and The Beast with Five Fingers) dreams of a beautiful woman (Linda Christian, from Slaves of Babylon) whom he has never seen anywhere but in his dreams, dancing on thin air during a nocturnal thunderstorm. The movie is a little unclear on this point, but it seems that Turner’s dreams have something to do with his persistent reluctance to tie the knot with his financee, Donna Trent (Ariadna Welter, from The Vampire and The Brainiac). Whether that’s true or not, a discovery related to these nightly visions is about to destroy the couple’s relationship completely. One night, a sleepless Turner goes for a walk, and winds up standing before the window of a small shop downtown. The primary merchandise in this shop is what looks to be a collection of handmade dolls, and among those on display in the window is one which looks exactly like Turner’s dream-woman. The next day, he takes Donna to see the curious shop, and the two of them are awed to discover a second doll which bears an uncanny resemblance to Donna. Stranger still, Francis Lamont, the proprietor of the shop (Neil Hamilton, of The Cat Creeps and Terror Aboard), calls Turner by name, and seems to be under the impression that Rick himself commissioned the doll in the image of the mystery woman, whom Lamont identifies as one Bianca Milan. Bianca, meanwhile, is evidently the one who ordered the doll in Donna’s image. Rick doesn’t know what to make of any of it, but he thinks he knows how to find the answers he seeks. Since the Bianca doll has already been paid for, Turner takes it with him to the address where Lamont said Miss Milan lived.
As you probably already suspect, Bianca Milan is a witch. Not only that, she is a worshipper of Gamba, “Great Devil-God of Evil!” (Bianca always says it with an exclamation point, even in the middle of a sentence), and the head of her coven of fellow devotees is none other than Francis Lamont. Bianca must have seen Rick on the street somewhere, because she’s got a doll of her own that looks just like him, which she uses to focus her concentration whenever she mentally projects herself into his subconscious. Her aim, naturally, is to win Rick away from Donna, and she is more than willing to use any sorcerous means at her disposal to do it. Truth be told, though, just putting herself into his dreams seems to have been enough. By the end of the scene, Rick is rolling around on the floor with her, proclaiming his love and vowing to renounce virtue and join with her in the veneration of evil.
The way is smoothed for Rick and Bianca when Francis uses his effigy of Donna like a voodoo doll to put her in the hospital with a chronic and debilitating cardiovascular condition. With her out of circulation, Rick is able to spend as much time as he pleases with his sinister new girlfriend, whether that means getting drunk with her in her apartment or attending services to Gamba (Great Devil-God of Evil!) in the hidden chapel behind Lamont’s doll shop. And as his ties to the forces of darkness grow stronger, Tucker begins to see real results in his everyday life. He starts winning scads of money at the racetrack, and is able to get himself an equally lucrative job as a stockbroker— after all, who on the Wall Street scene could resist the appeal of a broker who has the devil picking his stocks for him?
There are signs of trouble ahead, however. For one thing, Gamba (Great Devil-God of Evil!) demands unwavering devotion from his worshipers, and is every bit as neurotic as Joseph Stalin when it comes to the subject of testing their loyalty. Hanging above the altar in Lamont’s chapel is this wonderfully cheap Russian-roulette-with-swords contraption, which the cult uses for trials by ordeal; anybody whose commitment to the faith is called into question can rest assured of finding themselves stretched out beneath it sooner or later. Meanwhile, we also learn that Bianca’s relationship with Rick is merely yet another of her frequent affairs, and that she’s really attached to Francis Lamont! Finally, there’s the inconvenient point that Rick hasn’t really severed all of his ties to Donna. As soon as he figures out that Lamont used the doll to give Donna her illness, he stops by her hospital room to tell her that she will be cured come midnight, and then surreptitiously removes the needle from the doll’s chest. I don’t know about you, but I’d be hard pressed to think of a behavior more likely than that to raise questions regarding Tucker’s loyalty to both Bianca and Gamba (Great Devil-God of Evil!). Looks like Rick will be getting his date with the Sword-o-Matic sooner rather than later.
The overwhelming impression given off by The Devil’s Hand is that everybody concerned— characters and filmmakers both— was a little unclear on the concept regarding the whole “evil” thing. When Rick first comes over to Bianca’s place and agrees to “renounce virtue,” he moseys into this presumably life-changing undertaking with no more seriousness than might attend a decision to join the local chapter of the Kiwanis club. Bianca, though she talks a great game, never commits any misdeed worthy of a devil-worshiping witch; apart from that mental projection business, she’s just a run-of-the-mill femme fatale, and not even an especially fatale one at that. The other members of the Gamba (Great Devil-God of Evil!) cult, meanwhile, seem less like a circle of dangerous mystical evildoers than a bunch of urban, middle-class losers who have become terminally bored with their day-to-day lives. And I’ve personally had junior high school principals far more evil than Francis Lamont. The funniest thing of all, though, has to be the disconnect between the rules of the cult and the professed aims of its members. I don’t know about you, but if I were in Tucker’s shoes, I’d have an ironclad counterargument ready for the day when Lamont came after me. “Frank, Bianca— look,” I’d say, “Of course I’ve been going behind your backs, lying to your faces, two-timing you, and generally pursuing my own agenda at your expense. I’m evil now, remember?! You know— renouncing virtue, embracing the hellfire, turning my back on God and all his works— that sort of thing? Like in that oath we all took right when we joined this stupid cult? I swear, folks, if you can’t handle a little bit of lying, cheating, and stealing around here, I’m going to go off and find myself a devil-cult that takes its evil seriously!”