The 1924 psychological horror silent The Hands of Orlac isn't director Robert Weine and actor Conrad Veidt's best known collaboration -- that honor belongs to their pioneering piece of film history, 1920's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari -- but it's a classic nonetheless.
The story is familiar: A young, gifted concert pianist is tragically maimed in a train accident and loses his prized hands. But his surgeon has a plan -- use hands severed from the corpse of an executed murderer as substitutes for the lost appendages. The kid will never know! The procedure works, but things are amiss. The ivory tickler's new digits don't work quite right, disturbing visions plague his sleep and he has an odd urge to kill his young fiancée. Are the murderer's hands taking over? Or is he simply going insane? The answers are stranger than the questions. Orlac lacks the immediate visual impact of its famous cousin Caligari's angled, nightmare wonder-sets and inventive camerawork, but it shares the overwhelming sense of dread definitive of German Expressionism. Orlac oozes it, particularly in the iconic scene that finds the tall, lanky Veidt stalking his bride-to-be. Lurching towards the camera, wide-eyed and consciously out of control, Veidt is a scenery-chewing vision of terror. Such exaggerations would prove hammy in lesser hands, but handled by Veidt they make the skin crawl. As with most of their releases, Kino packages Orlac with the cinephile in mind. Among the bonuses are a fascinating scene comparison featurette showcasing the restoration work and, for completists, the trailer for Mad Love, the great Karl Freund's superior 1935 Orlac remake starring Peter Lorre, which twists the tale for the warped surgeon's perspective. (Phil Morehart) Grade: B