“Do you believe there is a Hand?”
Like Maria Von Trapp, the Devil’s got a lot of favorite things. Snakes; goats; pitchforks; any number of geographical formations named after the guy. Most of his cinematic depictions don’t stray far from the standard model of Satanic iconography. But the 1981 Mexican-American film Demonoid: Messenger of Death casts the Devil as a much more specific figure: an angry demon amputee who wants his damn hand back.
Originally titled Macabra: La Mano del Diablo, or Macabre: Hand of the Devil, Demonoid opens three hundred years ago with some bugnuts weirdness right from minute one. A woman flees from some white-hooded cultists in a series of caves. We don’t know her, or why she’s trying to escape, though the cultists probably have something to do with it. She’s soon chained up, her top inexplicably ripped open, and her hand cut off (negating the effects of being chained up somewhat). These cultists, it becomes clear, offer a peculiar sacrifice to the Devil: left hands. We only see the big guy in strobe-cut glimpses, but he’s a horned figure missing its left hand and carrying a sword in its right.
But for budgetary reasons, the whole movie can’t take place in a period setting, so we’re transported to modern-day Guanajuato, Mexico, known for its mines and its mummies. Despite the horror potential in the mummies, it’s the mines our story cares about. Our protagonist, Englishwoman Jennifer Baines (The Brood’s Samantha Eggar), pays a visit to her mine-worker husband Mark (Chinatown’s Roy Jenson), who’s just stumbled upon a centuries-old torture chamber and cultist temple. They descend into the mine alone by night, raising the ire of health-and-safety officers everywhere, and retrieve a little casket containing the legendary, mummified Devil’s Hand. From there, Mark becomes possessed by the hand, blows up the mine and flees to Las Vegas, where the rest of the deranged hand-centric possession action takes place.
A key part of Demonoid’s unique approach to possession is that it’s entirely focused on left hands. The Devil figure’s missing left hand is never referred to, but it’s the left hand the cultists at the beginning offer up in sacrifice. It’s always the left hand -- the Devil’s Hand -- that becomes possessed and dominant. The violence against left hands in Demonoid is specific and brutal to an uncomfortable degree. Over the course of the story, various left hands get severed by a machete, a car door, a train, a blowtorch and a plastic surgeon’s tools. And because the hands subsequently become animated of their own accord, they also get smashed and stabbed in a variety of ways.
As it turns out, Demonoid’s hatred of left hands could actually have its roots in a range of religious and superstitious beliefs. There’s a long-standing tradition of demonising the left-handed, either figuratively or -- in this case -- literally.
The Bible, for example, contains mostly positive references to the right hand (“The right hand of the Lord doeth valiantly”), and mostly negative references to the left hand (“Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels”). Favorable Biblical characters sit at “the right hand of God.” Superstition has us throw a pinch of salt over our left shoulders to, supposedly, appease the Devil, who watches us from that position. In the Middle Ages, left-handedness was sometimes seen as a sign of demonic possession or of witchcraft. Even the French word for left, “gauche,” has a whole range of negative connotations that have spread to other languages.
Why is all of this the case? Like most irrational hatreds, it’s probably based on left-handers being a minority, and thus considered “abnormal.” Superstitions tend to be rooted in the distant past, when misunderstood or unusual people were witches or abominations, and when omens and portents were heeded zealously. It’s a testament to the power of cultural capital and social reproduction that such beliefs persist to today.
I don’t know why Demonoid is so left-hand-obsessed. It could be based in folklore and religion. It could well be a reference to Carnival of Sinners (aka La Main du Diable, or The Devil’s Hand), a 1943 French film centering around a similarly possessed disembodied left hand in a tiny casket. It could simply be a cost-cutting measure employed by the filmmakers to get a creature into the movie without needing an actual creature. Whatever the reason, it makes for a pretty strange movie -- one that has you watching every character’s hands for signs of demonic influence.
Director Alfredo Zacarias (credited here as Alfred Zacharias) made his career in Mexico directing the Laurel and Hardyesque double act Viruta and Capulina. Demonoid was one of his few attempts to break into the American market, and not a particularly successful one. Leonard Maltin, whom I cannot imagine watching Demonoid, gave it a 1.5 out of 4. But the movie lives on, its minor cult status fueled by its kick-ass title, its strange, intriguing concept and its almost sketch show-like structure. One thing’s for sure: it’s opened my eyes to the innate evil of lefties. May they be purged of their evil.