The Best Horror Movie of 1946: The Beast with Five Fingers

Movies Features horror movies
Share Tweet Submit Pin
The Best Horror Movie of 1946: The Beast with Five Fingers

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

The horror boom that has been in pretty constant, self-sustaining motion since 1931 (with the exception of 1937-1938) is beginning to wind down here. There are still plenty of options in 1946 to choose from, but this will be the last year with a large horror crop for quite a while—until the mid-1950s, in fact. We’ve got to enjoy the good stuff here while we can—in a few years time, horror is going to become very hard to come by.

1946 is notably home to another classic chiller from producer (and screenwriter, in this case) Val Lewton, which saw his story paired up with none other than the hardest working man in horror, Boris Karloff. Bedlam is a psychological, period piece horror film about a despotic insane asylum director, played by Karloff with just enough aristocratic glee that you manage to both be drawn to the guy and hate his guts. The film isn’t quite so stylishly shot as Lewton’s collaborations with Jacques Tourneur, such as Cat People or I Walked With a Zombie, and it doesn’t really have the budget to make its 1700s setting seem believable and not contrived, but it’s a great excuse to see the master chew some amusingly anachronistic scenery.

The year is also home to some other pop-culture films of note, such as the Bugs Bunny short Hair-Raising Hare, featuring the furry, red, sneakers-wearing monster recognized by decades of children who saw these films in syndication ad nauseum, and two different horror films starring the uniquely disproportionate face of character actor Rondo Hatton. Sadly, Hatton suffered from acromegaly, which caused the ghoulish facial features that made him a Universal horror bit player. Fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 will no doubt remember him from this year’s film, The Brute Man, in which he plays a misunderstood, back-breaking killer known as “The Creeper.” His memory survives on through The Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award, an online awards show currently in its 18th year, which awards busts of Hatton’s particularly recognizable head as a sort of macabre Oscar statuette for the horror community.

1946 Honorable Mentions: Bedlam, Hair-Raising Hare, Shock, Strangler of the Swamp, House of Horrors, The Brute Man

The Film: The Beast with Five Fingers
Director: Robert Florey

To look at The Beast with Five Fingers from afar, one might think it was another remake of The Hands of Orlac, but although this film does concern itself with the wickedness that might be contained within man’s most precious digits, it isn’t about a man questioning whether his body (and will) are still his own. Rather, this film is more interested in sensation and shock than psychological winnowing, presenting the possibility of its hand as a disembodied one, returned from the grave to seek revenge on the men and women who cursed its owner to an early end.

One part murder mystery, one part Old Dark House film and one part pre-giallo, The Beast with Five Fingers is a smooth-running and reasonably well-polished thriller. An ensemble cast is gathered to be menaced by the possibility of the severed hand on the loose, but it’s Peter Lorre’s “musicologist” character, Hilary Cummins, who is best remembered. Featuring crisp, deep-focus B&W cinematography that pairs nicely with moody, noir-influenced lighting effects and a creaky Victorian manor house that wouldn’t be out of place in The Cat and the Canary, it’s a blending of horror sub-genres that seem to fit together in natural, organic ways.

Lorre, as expected, is excellent here, imbuing Cummins with his usual combination of guile, sleaziness, paranoia and sleepy-eyed humor. He has a unique way of couching his characters in a neutral space between “despicable” and “wounded and sympathetic” that is on full display here, amplified by the fact that the audience isn’t quite sure if he’s meant to be a figure of suspicion or an unlikely protagonist. Is Lorre our unreliable narrator? Or merely a pawn in some greater mastermind’s game? Constant misdirection keeps the audience guessing through a breezy, 88-minute runtime.

One final note: The “disembodied hand” FX used throughout this film are fairly simple in technique, but perfectly executed. The fact that a Warner Bros. “B” horror picture from the mid-1940s managed the effect so consistently, 50 years before “Thing” was scurrying around as a centerpiece of the first Addams Family movie, is worthy of praise.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.