Color, 1980, 79/90m.
Directed by Alfredo Zacarias
Starring Samantha Eggar, Stuart Whitman, Roy Jenson, Lew Saunders, Narciso Busquets
Vinegar Syndrome / Exploitation.tv (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
The timing couldn't have been stranger for this bizarre Mexican/U.S. co-production about a killer hand possessing people and causing gory mayhem south of the border. The slasher craze was just starting to get off the ground in 1980, Mexican horror was in a downswing, and the public appetite for seeing veteran character actors on the big screen was fading in favor of fresh, young teenaged faces. So what we have here is Samantha Eggar (fresh off of The Brood) and Stuart Whitman as a sorrowful Irish priest doing battle against a demonic Mexican force while the rest of the cast hacks off its hands in gory fashion.
Plucky Jennifer Baines (Eggar) heads to the Mexican town of La Quiemada to check up on her husband, Mark (Jenson), who's busy overseeing a mining project. The workers warn her that a women going down into the mine is bad luck, but she throws on a hard hat anyway and goes inside, only to stumble against some rocks and uncover a mummified corpse missing its left hand. She and Mark decide to take in the sights at a local museum and see plenty more preserved bodies, all missing their left hands as well, while the locals warn them about going any deeper into the mine due to a curse involving "the devil's hand." Jennifer brushes off their concerns and accompanies her husband to an unexplored area where he plunges through the ground into a tunnel and ends up in a hidden catacomb, apparently the domain of a secret sect. They discover a metallic hand and bring it back to the surface, only to frighten off all the employees. That night the dusty contents inside the metal case coalesce into a creepy, crawling hand that makes it way up Jennifer's leg, only for Mark to grab it and instantly become possessed by an ancient force. The next day he rounds up all the men and promptly blows them up inside the man, then takes off to go gambling back in America. Jennifer pursues him only to find that he's been killed after a violent encounter with another gambler and his frizzy-haired groupie (a cameo by Russ Meyer legend Haji!). Now Mark's body has been shipped off to Inglewood, California, so it's up to Jennifer to track him down since his hand is still alive and bent on separating from its owner. Along the way she teams up with Father Cunningham (Whitman) as they dodge a string of characters who go berserk and chop off their hands to keep the curse alive and well in the modern world.
It's impossible to talk about this film any further without going into the fact that there are actually two distinctly different versions, both prepared by director Alfredo Zacarias for the short-lived indie distributor he co-founded, American Panorama. An American version called Demonoid was prepared with a fast pace, choppy story, and brief running time of 79 minutes, complete with a sleazy medieval opening in which a bunch of white-hooded cultists chop off a topless woman's hand in gory detail. Meanwhile an international version called Macabra was prepared at 90 minutes, though it drops the outrageous opening scene and features much more character detail (including Whitman's first scene, dropped entirely in the American cut). This cut drops the kitschy closing two shots of the U.S. version (a table-crashing gag blatantly cribbed from The Fury) and features a completely different, bloodless take of Haji's death scene, and the two versions also sport completely different music scores. Demonoid's soundtrack is an effective patchwork of library music, much of it pulled from '70s AIP films, while Macabra has a superior, surprisingly catchy original score complete with plentiful choral chanting and funky disco beats. In short, Demonoid is the junkier trash cinema option (complete with extra flourishes like negative flash cuts of people's hands and occasional cutaways to an Exorcist-inspired, sword-wielding demon), while Macabra is a more traditional, coherent supernatural yarn and a more accomplished, atmospheric piece of work.
Both versions certainly have a right to exist and are preserved in shockingly pristine condition in the 2015 Exploitation.tv/Vinegar Syndrome edition, a dual format Blu-ray and DVD release. Image quality is essentially identical on both since they've been given 2K scans from the original negatives; there's really nothing to complain about here at all. Anyone who suffered through Media's very murky, fuzzy VHS release should definitely consider revisiting this one as it's actually a far more accomplished film that most people realize. The underground scenes are skillfully shot, Eggar gives an energetic performance, and the action scenes are pulled off with plenty of gusto, including a fun car chase and a standout bit involving a freshly severed hand going ballistic in an examination room. The DTS-HD mono tracks sound great for both, and it's nice to finally have the Macabra cut with its original English-language track instead of the fan-subbed underground version that's been floating around for a while.
The main extra here is "The Devil's Hand," a new 14-minute interview with Zacarias about his work on the film including the early involvement of Roger Corman, the pie-in-the-sky casting of Eggar, and the creation of the dual versions. His accent's extremely thick but it's a fun watch that adds some welcome context to the film. Also included are the theatrical trailers under both titles, a Macabra TV spot, and a gallery of posters, video sleeves, and German lobby cards.