Jerry Warren honestly didn't care. He said so himself1: the only reason he was involved with the motion picture industry was to make a fast buck. What's more, he never extended himself any further than he needed to to make that fast buck — even if a little minimal effort could have returned him a buck fifty. He was far more interested in producing than directing, and made a bigger name for himself re-editing and releasing other people's movies than for making his own (although the resulting messes always had that certain Warren miasma to them).
The name of Warren's company was American Distributors Productions, Inc. (just try to say that name out loud — it's awkward; it fits badly in the mouth; and it really doesn't make much sense [distributors' productions?]... in other words, it's the perfect name for a Jerry Warren enterprise, because his scripts were all equally awkward and senseless). Warren started ADP in the late 1950's with his own ultra-low-budget movies, like Man Beast and The Incredible Petrified World; but he soon discovered that he could get a much better return on his investment, for a lot less effort, by buying the rights to foreign movies and releasing them as his own productions.
Warren was not content simply to dub the movies into English and release them more-or-less intact. First, he would cut them into pieces and re-assemble them... in some order that made sense to him, and to nobody else but him. This cutting and pasting sometimes left Warren with a movie that wasn't long enough to be sold as a feature. To fix this, he would intercut stock footage, or even footage from other movies, to pad out the film. Some times, almost at random — perhaps when the directing bug bit him — Warren would decide he needed to shoot some new footage of his own... so he'd call up Katherine Victor, John Carradine, and Bruno veSota, put them in front of a static camera, and shoot them speaking endless nonsense to each other until the film ran out. None of this footage ever added any kind of sense to the resulting picture, but it did add screen time.
But then, once the "editing" was done, Warren still didn't dub the films into English. He translated them into Warrenese.
Nobody — nobody in the history of film — has ever said so little while saying so much as Jerry Warren. Here was a man who could make a Satanic orgy sound like a particularly dry passage of contract law:
This is a sample taken from Warren's footage for Blood of the Man-Devil (1965), also known as House of the Black Death. Blood of the Man-Devil was a lousy little movie begun by Harold Daniels and Reginald LeBorg, which Warren was asked to pad out to feature length. You can see from this example how Warren killed time: not only by having his actors recite page after page of stilted, party-of-the-first-part verbiage, but by having the poor initiate repeat it all, until it was the audience, rather than the drink, that was "completely expired".HIGH PRIESTESS (Katherine Victor): Drink, and repeat after me. Miss no words, nor the meaning of words, in their complete and absolute sense. Upon each segment of your initiation, drink of the glass slowly; drink of it until it is completely expired.
But "Warrenese" isn't just dry, wordy and repetitive: it's also sloppy. Warren had a fondness for run-on sentences, which often run on so long they get lost in the middle and go wandering in circles. He was never particularly careful about his grammar, either: WHAT LURID SECRET -- Lied [sic] Behind That Hidden Door! shouted the poster for Curse of the Stone Hand, not forgetting to end its question with an exclamation point. The narrator of the film repeats the error: "The house lied [sic] empty and still for the rest of that summer," he says.
Warren's releases are all filled with this kind of babble — not just in the inserts, and not just in the passages of translated dialog, but in practically every moment of screen time. Rather than match new dialog to the lip-movements of the foreign actors, Warren found it was cheapest and easiest to replace almost all the dialog with endless voice-over narration. If the narration tended to have less and less to do with the actual movie the longer it went on, well... what did that matter? There was still some sort of sound to go with the picture all the way through, and that (in Warren's mind) was all that was needed to make a movie releasable.
Some of the worst of Warren's hack-jobs have acquired a cult reputation. They're legendary endurance tests for the most seasoned of bad movie aficionados. For instance, I dare you to sit all the way through Invasion of the Animal People — I dare you! But Curse of the Stone Hand is one of Warren's least-celebrated films (if celebrated is the right word), and for a peculiar reason: it's one of his most successful, most respectful attempts at re-editing foreign originals. Make no mistake, it's still a mess, and it still stinks of Warren's interference. But unlike the most famous of Warren's Frankenfilms, this one actually resembles its source material, and shows a surprising amount of care in its re-editing. And that's the problem. Movies like Face of the Screaming Werewolf or Invasion of the Animal People make so little sense that they act on the viewer's imagination like a hallucinogenic drug — you're unlikely to be quite the same after experiencing them. But Curse of the Stone Hand actually makes sense, and Warren's shuffling of the scenes simplifies the stories instead of adding unnecessary complications. The result is a very boring movie.
Now, there are certain bad-movie reference books that claim Curse of the Stone Hand was pieced together from two Mexican movies. This is incorrect. It's easy to see why so many people have assumed this over the years, since Warren did use many Mexican films in his fiendish experiments. Churubusco-Azteca Studios had an office in Los Angeles, where Warren lived and worked, and Warren claimed to know the president of the company; so Mexican monster films were an obvious target for Warren to pillage. Fred Olen Ray, in his book The New Poverty Row, surmises that the films were Swedish, and dated from the mid-1950's — and this, too, is a good guess, since two of Warren's other releases (Invasion of the Animal People and No Time to Kill) were taken from Swedish originals. But with the coming of the Internet, it's become possible to identify and even track down the real sources of Curse of the Stone Hand. It turns out that they are both Chilean films, made by Argentine directors and crew.
So without further delay, here is more than you ever wanted to know about Curse of the Stone Hand and its relationship to its sources...
I. La casa está vacíaThe earliest of the two films Warren butchered is La casa está vacía (The House is Empty), a 1945 film directed by Carlos Schlieper.
Schlieper is known as one of the finest directors of comedy in Latin American film history. His masters were Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges; using their work as his models, he developed his own brand of "screwball" comedy. His films were notable not only for their fast, frenetic pace, but also for their strong, independent and sexually liberated heroines. As a modern critic puts it, "[His] first films suggest that the director was a specialist in films for women, but Schlieper was much more than that. His outlook on women was revolutionary, and unique in Argentine cinema."2
But although his comedies moved with effortless speed and high spirits, Schlieper himself was an intensely serious technician. "... it is more difficult [to make comedies] than to make drama," he said, "and I like difficult things." In fact, he liked difficult things a bit too much, and worked himself to death by age 55.
In addition to the comedies which made him famous throught Latin America, Schlieper also made a number of melodramas early in his career. Though these were mostly works for hire, the movies (according to the same critic) continued Schlieper's thematic concern with women and sex — most notably in his adaptation of Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1947). La casa está vacía, based on a novel ("Die Geschichte der stille Mühle", or "[The Tale of] The Silent Mill") by Hermann Sudermann, is one of these films made under contract outside of Argentina. Though it too deals with infidelity and sexual frustration, it's hard to see Schlieper's "revolutionary" outlook in the earlier film: its female characters aren't particularly interesting or well-drawn (and perhaps this is why La casa... is not even mentioned in the essay I've quoted).
La casa está vacía begins with an artist painting a landscape that features a large, ruined house. An old man approaches the artist and begins to tell him something of the house's tragic history. A storm breaks out, and the two men take shelter in the ruin. As the old man continues with his story, the house seems to come alive again around them.
We're shown a reasonably happy family: a father, a mother and three children. Carlos is the eldest child, a strong young man even at an early age. His father is proud of his son's fiery attitude, though it makes his mother nervous. Of his daughter, Elisa, the father has only the hope that she'll grow into a woman that will keep her husband happy (again, the mother's brow furrows). The third child, Jorge, has only recently been born. The old man of the prologue, now seen as a young man, arrives to give his congratulations on Jorge's birth. He has only one child, a very young daughter named Maria Cristina, whom he is raising alone (the old man's name is Daniel, but because of the complications raised by Warren's re-editing of the film, I'm just going to refer to him as "the narrator" or "the old man").
At the same time our narrator has arrived at the house, Carlos and Elisa are out playing in the fields with their dog. The dog gets under Carlos's feet and knocks him the ground while they're playing, and Carlos becomes furious. He chases the dog with a large stick, fully intending to beat it to death when he catches it. The dog jumps into a horse-cart to get away; little Elisa jumps into the cart after it, hoping to shield it from Carlos. But the boy refuses to leave the animal alone. The terrified dog jumps out of the cart, and Carlos takes a swing at it. He misses the dog, and hits the horse instead. The panicked horse runs off across the fields with Elisa still in the cart. Soon, the cart overturns and falls to pieces, and the little girl is crushed in the wreckage.
Carlos is horrified by what he's accidentally done to his sister. We see him sitting at the foot of the poor girl's couch, playing with her little wind-up carousel... while she sits, deathly still, wrapped in blankets. When next we see Carlos, he is still sitting by the couch with the toy carousel — but the couch is empty.
The role of Little Elisa marks the only appearance of a
Supreme Court Justice in a Jerry Warren film.
The years pass, and Carlos (still guilty over his sister's death) becomes deeply attached to his little brother Jorge. Eventually, the narrator informs us, their mother dies ("gently, as she lived"), leaving with her last breath advice for her eldest son: that he should be the master of his heart. The father dies shortly thereafter, and Carlos becomes a sort of second father to Jorge. When Carlos offers to send Jorge off for apprenticeship (I think), Jorge is shocked at the idea of being separated from his beloved brother: no outsider, he promises, will ever come between them.
In the meantime, Maria Cristina, the narrator's daughter, has begun falling in love with her long-time playmate, Jorge; but Jorge doesn't consider her anything more than a slightly annoying friend. As for Carlos, he thinks that any union between Jorge and Maria Cristina is completely out of the question, to the point where he rushes out to separate them when he thinks they might be growing too close to one another. My Spanish is not good enough to have caught the details of his reason from the fuzzy soundtrack; but it appears he considers any sentimental attachment to a woman to be an invitation to misery.
So Jorge goes off for two years on his own. Unexpectedly, it's Carlos who suffers most from his brother's absence. He falls into a "dangerous state of melancholy", as the narrator describes it. Alone in the enormous, empty house, he spends a great deal of time hidden away in a basement room. Nobody knows what Carlos keeps in the room, and the door is always locked.
So deep is Carlos's funk that the old man and all Carlos's friends decide he must be cheered up — by force, if necessary. So they drag him off to a night of good food, good wine and dancing. As the men make their way home, all suitably buoyed by their night's entertainment, Carlos suddenly stops in the street: he's heard the sound of a music box coming from the open window of a nearby house. Enchanted, he demands to know where the music is coming from, and who could be listening to it.
We don't get to find out, at least not immediately. But we learn that the music box belongs to a woman — her name is Ruth — and that Carlos has impulsively decided to marry her. After all, why not? Carlos is a very eligible bachelor. The one thing that causes him grief (Carlos confesses) is that by marrying, he is allowing an outsider to come between him and his absent brother. Carlos feels that this is a kind of betrayal. Though the old man advises him to write and tell Jorge of his impending marriage — that Jorge will understand, and be delighted to hear it — Carlos decides to keep the news to himself until Jorge comes home.
Jorge does return, at Christmas. Before he goes home, he stops in the village church. A choir of children is singing "Silent Night" as Jorge bows his head to pray. All at once a clear, pure woman's voice begins singing a solo verse; one of the children steps aside, and Jorge gets his first look at the singer. It's a young, beautiful blonde girl, and the light shining through the church windows makes her look every bit as much an angel as her voice suggests. The two young people's eyes meet for a moment; and then Jorge, perhaps realizing he's in the house of God, drops his hungry gaze.
Jorge comes back home, expecting to find Carlos alone. Instead, la casa está vacía... but Jorge is a bit puzzled to see the house in such a festive state. There's a Christmas tree... and everything is in a state of highly un-bachelor-like tidiness. And — what's this? A sewing basket? Jorge waits in Carlos's room, smoking a cigarette, until he hears sounds from downstairs. From the top of the stairs, he sees a young woman adding decorations to the tree. "Maria Cristina!" he calls (after all, who else could it be?). But then the girl turns around — and Jorge is stunned to see it's the beautiful young girl he just saw in the church.
Yes — Jorge has just inadvertently fallen in love with his brother's wife.
And it gets worse. For Carlos, for all his early enthusiasm, is something less than a passionate husband. Like his father, he believes that a man needs a good wife to carry on his lineage, and to serve as a decoration for his home and hearth. But as for companionship? What need has a grown man for the companionship of a silly woman? It would be far better, he thinks, if young Jorge would keep his new wife Ruth amused — the two of them are much closer in age and temperament, after all. So Carlos makes sure his wife and his brother spend as much time together as possible... that is, as long as they stay away from that heavy, locked door in the cellar.
Naturally, it isn't long before the situation becomes unbearable. Jorge has not forgotten Carlos's attitude to Maria Cristina, even though that was a match Jorge didn't have any interest in. Eventually, Jorge begins to hate his brother, and to become less and less subtle about his attraction to Ruth. Aso for poor Ruth? She can't help but realize that she's mismatched with the distant, brooding Carlos. It takes her a while to realize that her brother-in-law is in love with her, and she is at first horrified. Gradually, she is even more horrified to discover she is equally drawn to him.
Things come to a head one night during a merry village party, when Carlos sends Ruth home with Jorge as her escort. Things happen... rather tame things by the standards of today's movies, but things nonetheless; and Ruth runs home in tears. A storm breaks out, echoing the storm in the hearts of the two young people. Jorge returns alone to the party, where Carlos gently suggests they go home together. Jorge erupts, much to Carlos's astonishment; he tells Carlos that he is no longer any brother of his, and runs off into the night.
That's the last anyone hears of Jorge for a long time.
Carlos, still completely in the dark, eventually tracks his brother down to the Posada "La Sirena" — actually a whorehouse — and arrives just in time to see Jorge one of the girls out of his room in a fury. Jorge at first wants nothing to do with Carlos, and spurns his brother's offers of comfort and even forgiveness (if only Jorge would tell him what he should forgive); but eventually, his undeniable love for his brother prompts Jorge to relent a bit. With a final, fraternal embrace, he tells Carlos that he must go away and never come home again. The mystefied Carlos is convinced that Jorge will return...
... but Jorge does not.
It isn't until a long time afterwards that a familiar figure comes back to town in the middle of the night. Jorge, now the master of his own heart, has come back to say a secret farewell to Ruth. Ruth begs him to stay for her brother's sake. But Jorge doesn't want to take the chance of betraying Carlos, even though he is no longer infatuated.
Unfortunately, things don't work out that simply. Maria Cristina has caught sight of Jorge coming home: once again, he'd stopped into the village church before coming home, and Maria Cristina had seen him just as he was on his way out. Jorge had disappeared into the night before Maria Cristina could catch up to him. At first, she runs home to see if he's come to see her father; when it becomes clear he has not, she runs off (with the old man struggling to catch up behind her)... to the worst place she could possibly go: Carlos's house. Naturally, Jorge is not there, either. But when Carlos finds his wife is not in her bed, suddenly everything becomes clear: he grabs his pistol and runs off with murder on his mind. He finds Jorge and Ruth together, and assuming the worst, shoots his brother dead — even as Ruth's explanation rings in his ears. As his brother dies in his arms, Carlos realizes he has been at least a step too late in everything, thwarted at every turn by the shadows of his past.
That was many years ago, explains the old man to the artist, once more in the ruins of the old house. But the house is not as deserted as people think. Carlos's shadow is still here, he insists: sometimes, at night, when there is nobody around, he... At this point, Maria Cristina, now grey-haired herself, appears at the door. The storm is over, and her father should be going home — not bothering people with his foolish ghost stories. There's nobody else here in the ruin, she says; "La casa está vacía."
As his daughter leads him off, the old man signals surreptitiously to the artist: look downstairs. Downstairs, where the locked room waits. There, behind the heavy door, perhaps he will find Carlos's secret.
So the artist pushes aside the debris and lets himself into the basement room. There he finds...
...nothing. Nothing at all.
He turns and leaves; and as the door swings shut behind him, a gust of wind slams the shutter of a window. The shock reverberates through the now-empty room... and on a neglected shelf, a carousel music box comes to life. It's the same music box Carlos held at the foot of his dying sister's bed, and it plays the same tune that first drew him to Ruth through an open window. We wonder what cold and bony hand last wound the spring.
II. La Dama de la muerteThe second film Warren used for Curse of the Stone Hand is La Dama de la muerte (1946) — loosely based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, and directed by Carlos Hugo Christensen.
Unlike Carlos Schlieper, Christensen had a phenomenally long career and directed movies of many different genres; but like Schlieper, he was interested in exploring the dynamics of sex in ways that were daring and controversial for their time. His attitude to sex attracted him a lot of attention, but in fact all aspects of human behavior were interesting to him; so his output not only includes the first nude scene in Argentine cinema, and a movie about gay Brazilian cowboys made decades before Brokeback Mountain, but also an adaptation of Cornell Woolrich's If I Should Die Before I Wake — a harrowing story about a child murderer — that is astonishingly contemporary in its tone.
Christensen's opposition to the Peron government forced him into exile in Brazil, where he spent the rest of his life. One of his first Brazilian films, Mãos Sangrentas ("Bloody Hands", 1955), was chosen as Brazil's official entry in the Venice International Film Festival; after winning critical acclaim, the movie somehow wound up in Jerry Warren's hands for its North American distribution (Warren retitled it The Violent and the Damned). It's funny how one of South America's most famous directors, though almost completely unknown in the US, was victimized twice by Jerry Warren.
Roberto Brown is only 24 years old, yet he has nothing left to live for. He's just gambled away the last of his money — except it wasn't really "his" money at all. In fact, it was money he'd stolen from the bank at which he had worked. His plan had been to use the money to recoup some of his earlier losses. But now even the stolen funds are gone, and without the money, Brown's reputation is ruined. It seems to him as though all eyes in the backroom casino are turned to him as he staggers from the room — as though everyone knows his guilty secret, and is judging him with their gaze. Maybe this is all in his panicked mind; but there is certainly one pair of eyes that follows him with a great deal of interest.
Brown trudges off into the 19th-century London fog, intending to throw himself into the Thames. But before he can drown himself, a hand falls on his shoulder: it's the watcher from the casino, a bearded man with a curiously haunted look. The watcher's name is Hugo Clifford, and he wants to know if young Brown is serious about doing away with himself. If he is, then perhaps... being a gambler at heart... he would like to take a chance on one final game?
Clifford takes Brown to a nearby pub. He then explains to Brown that there is a secret club in London, made up entirely of men without hope. He says, with an expression bordering on ecstasy, that the purpose of the club is to help people who are tired of life to find their way to the Ultimate Adventure. When Brown expresses a guarded interest in the club, Clifford advises him there is one additional requirement to enter: a small entry fee. It's merely to pay the expenses of the club, and to signify that the initiate is serious about his membership; nobody profits from it. But of course, Brown has no money left at all, so that seems to settle that.
As Brown rises to go, Clifford takes hold of his hand. There is a ring on his finger; could he not pawn it? Brown demurs. It was a memento of his late mother. But what's the point of a memento, insists Clifford — especially when he intends to be reunited with his mother shortly... in death?
Brown pawns the ring.
Clifford refuses to take the money himself, explaining that Brown must give the enrollment funds directly to the President of the Club when they meet. He takes Brown a short distance to a music shop (or what appears on the outside to be a music shop); after vouching for Brown with the doorman, Clifford brings the young man into a richly decorated room. There, behind a desk, sits a short, square, bald-headed man, beside a curiously disturbing bust of Erasmus. This is the President. The President is both amused and a little doubtful that someone as young as Brown should have acquired the necessary world-weariness to join the club. But Brown is insistent, and with Clifford's endorsement the President agrees to accept Brown's membership.
As Clifford goes to join the others in the club room, the President reveals of Brown the rules of the club. First, though, he takes the entrance fee — pausing before he does so to put on a pair of gloves, so that his hands will not be soiled by contact with money. It's not merely the microbes on the bills themselves (though this is a curiously modern notion for the time in which this story is supposed to be taking place), but the spiritual filth of money that the President wishes to avoid. "Money," he says, "is our siren, and our executioner."
Once the money is safely stowed in a box, the President goes on. At each meeting, he explains, once the food and drink and pleasantries are over, the members sit down at a table. The President then deals them each a single playing card. The member who draws the Queen of hearts — "la Dama de la muerte", they call it — will be the next to die. If noone draws the Queen on the first round, another card is dealt to each member... and so on, until the fatal card appears. Afterwards, the cards are dealt again to the remaining club members, though this time the cards are not revealed. The man who draws the ace of hearts is the one who must kill the member who has been chosen to die. His identity will remain secret, even from (especially from) his chosen victim.
And so, that night, Brown sits in on his first lethal game of cards. Around the table sits a curious group of individuals, including (in addition to Brown and Clifford) "the General", an ex-military man; a pianist driven mad by despair; a studious gentleman who never looks up from his book, even as he turns over the card that could mean the end of his life; and a weedy old man named Dr. Malthus, who has avoided the Queen of hearts for a remarkable two years. The first pass around the table results in noone drawing the fatal card. On the second pass, Dr. Malthus's luck comes to an end. A glass of champagne is placed by Malthus's hand, while the others take their cards to see who will be the old man's nemesis. Then, the evening's entertainment being finished, the members of the club converse among themselves as they don their hats and coats — when suddently there is the sound of a shot; in the drawing room, Malthus falls dead across the table, spilling his unfinished champagne. It's never made clear who has killed the Doctor, or if he has killed himself (though the possibility that he has killed himself seems unlikely).
Brown makes his way back home, being careful to avoid the policemen on their beat. When he gets home, he is surprised to find his grim-faced father waiting for him. He has heard of his son's... irregular business with the bank... and has paid the debt. But he has done so only to make sure the name of Brown remains untainted by scandal. He is unimpressed by his son's attempts at explanations and excuses: this is the last help he will ever receive from his family. The elder Brown stalks off into the night, leaving his son dizzy with despair.
At the next night's session of the club, the President accidentally deals two cards at once to Clifford. He and Brown must choose between them. Brown takes a card... and discovers that he has been dealt la Dama de la muerte. He sits ashen-faced as the other members of the club draw their cards to see who will kill him. The President smiles at Brown with his toad-like benificence, and congratulates him.
And then the waiting begins. Who is it who is going to do the deed? Is it the "General", who comes unexpectedly to see him in the morning? (No — or at least not yet. The "General" tells him to rest easy: he's only come with an offer — a very exceptional offer — from the President, to provide him a comfortable residence for the last days of his life [Brown declines]). Could it be the mad pianist? The fat man in spectacles? The timid little fellow, whose heistancy so exasperates the "General" that he always ends up turning his card for him? The old scholar, so preoccupied with his book that he doesn't even stop to examine his card? Perhaps even Clifford? Brown has no idea. Compounding his misery is a terrible irony: after receiving his death sentence, Brown had gone out to play baccarat with his last remaining pence... and won. He'd won enough to repay his father, pay his rent and even begin a new life... if his life weren't already scheduled to end.
What is it the President had said? "Money is our siren... and our executioner." How different everything looks now that Brown actually has money! But the one thing money can't be in this situation is his savior.
Or could it be?
Brown rushes out to the Atlantic Steam Navigation Company, to see if he can buy a ticket to America. But no sooner has he asked about the availability of the ticket, when a familiar figure appears at the counter: it's one of the members of the club. Brown stammers that the ticket is not for him. Of course it isn't, says the other man. Before Brown can say another word, the man has informed the agent that Mr. Brown's ticket will not be needed after all.
Well, then: the next obvious plan is to go to the police. Brown goes to Scotland Yard with his wild tale of a Suicide Club. The desk sergeant thinks he's drunk, but Brown offers to show the police the proof of his crazy story. He leads some men to the music shop... which, in the cold light of day, turns out to nothing more than a legitimate music shop. The club rooms are now filled with pianos and harps. Gone is the bust of Erasmus, replaced by a bust of Beethoven. When Brown thinks he hears the mad pianist playing his trademark Chopin &eacture;tude in a closed room, he barges in — only to find a young woman having a lesson.
Nevertheless, Brown insists on pressing his case all the way to the Superintendent of the Yard. Much to everyone's surprise, the Superintendent agrees to see him, and Brown is escorted into the great man's office. The Superintendent lowers his newspaper slowly... to reveal a very familiar face. And what was this young man's name again? asks the square, bald-headed man with the toad-like smile of self-satisfaction. Brown, was it?
The money gives Brown one last avenue of escape: drink. But even this fails. When Brown staggers home at night, every face he sees turns into that of a skeleton, or a grinning corpse. As if his hallucinations weren't bad enough, he also sees the members of the club staring back at him from the shadows — and they're no drunk-dreams. They know he's lost his nerve, and they're watching him... and any moment now, one of them is going to kill him.
Brown stumbles into one more tavern to avoid the eyes he knows are following him. A maudlin tenor is singing "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes"; Brown runs into a bar girl as he pushes by, and doesn't notice the flash of recognition in the girl's face. The girl follows him to his table. "Don't you recognize me?" she asks him. My Spanish isn't good enough to pick up all the details, but apparently — apparently — the girl was one of the companions on whom Brown spent all his money when he began his dissolute life in London. The girl was fond of him, though, and is distressed to see him in such despair. So she invites him back to her place, where the two young people begin to kindle a genuine flame from an old, neglected spark.
Naturally, a new love affair just gives Brown another reason to try to escape his doom. For a diversion, he takes the girl for a walk in the park; and there, a gypsy woman offers to read their cards. The last thing Brown wants is to have his future told, but the girl insists. Her future seems to be a very happy one — she's to have great success... in America! But what about her love, the girl asks? The old woman turns over one more card: it's the Queen of hearts. She can't understand why Brown turns pale when he sees it; after all, she say, the Queen of hearts represents "la felicidad más perfecta" — the most perfect happiness.
This is all more than poor Brown can bear. It suddenly occurs to him that the one man who might still be able to rescue him from the Suicide Club is the one who got him into it: Hugo Clifford. He goes to see Clifford and (dropping all pretense at dignity) begs him to save his life. Clifford insists coldly that if he is going to betray the club, there will be a price for his help. A very steep price. Brown is at first a little shocked by Clifford's mercenary attitude, but readily agrees to give him all his new-found wealth — if he will just help him get away. Clifford agrees, but refuses to dignify Brown with any further attention.
After this, there's nothing to do but say a poignant farewell to his new belovèd, whom he credits with having restored to him a new appreciation of life. It's strange how many strong emotions have been packed into these last few days of Brown's. An outsider might look at his experience in the face of death as... the Ultimate Adventure. It's a shame Brown doesn't notice the familiar playing card the girl holds in her hand, as the door swings shut behind him for the last time. Perhaps it's the same card the gypsy woman showed her in the park. Or perhaps it's from a different deck entirely. Or perhaps all the cards have been the same, dealt ultimately by the same hand... and perhaps la Dama de la muerte means many other things that it seems.
Brown sits in the tavern, waiting anxiously. He now has only a half-hour before Clifford arrives with a coach to speed him to safety. As the clock ticks away the final minute, a hand drops on his shoulder — it's one of his old "associates" from the club, expressing some surprise to see him here, looking so well. Brown bolts from the tavern. Perhaps he sees the "General" lurking in the shadows nearby; perhaps not. Clifford's coach pulls up, and Brown jumps in; his last nerve breaks, and he collapses in tears.
Clifford drives him far away from London, up past York to Durham, in the north of England. Brown can't help but think of the Girl He Left Behind Him; "A loved one?" asks Clifford. "She was my life," says Brown; "the life I must lose tomorrow."
Shortly before dawn, Clifford's coach pulls up beside a stretch of woods. Clifford leads Brown into the woods: beyond those trees, past a little clearing that's just discernable ahead, lies freedom... and a new life. Brown gives Clifford all his remaining bank notes, shakes his hand warmly, and thanks him for saving his life. As Brown walks toward the clearing, something falls from Clifford's hands — Brown's money is neither siren nor executioner now; just worthless leaves that rustle on the forest floor.
And then, Clifford pulls from his coat a pistol, which has been resting in his pocket... along with the ace of hearts...
La dama de la muerte is based on the first story of Stevenson's New Arabian Nights, a cycle of near-detective stories featuring a disguised aristocrat named Prince Florizel. In the story, Florizel finds a young man giving away pastries: any which are refused, he eats himself. This bizarre behavior suggests that there's a deeper motive behind it, and Florizel is determined to discover what it is. Through this seemingly-mad young man, the Prince finds out about the Suicide Club: an organization run by a master criminal specifically to prey on hopeless men. The Prince eventually manages to save the lives of the club's would-be victims; and at the conclusion of the cycle, after more adventures and some terrible tragedies, he dispatches the President of the Club in a duel.
Christensen's film goes to great lengths to subvert everything in Stevenson's story. There is no crusading adventurer to save Brown; and the members of the club, far from being misguided dupes, are in fact ardent proponents of its cause. This is especially true of Clifford, who embraces the Suicide Club with near-evangelical fervor — something that the young and inexperienced Brown overlooks when he goes to him (of all people) for help. Likewise, it's impossible that Brown can be saved, and the normal order of things restored... for in Christensen's film, the Suicide Club is the normal order of things. Its members are everywhere, carrying out Brown's death sentence with as much equanimity as they accept their own. The President of the Club is no furtive master criminal — he's the Superintendant of Police, the ultimate symbol of Law and Order, and Justice, and the integrity of the social system... all of which are now hopelessly corrupt.
And while we're thinking about it, Brown is not a terribly sympathetic hero. We may feel we can forgive him for his youthful indiscretions, the ones that land him so deeply in debt at the beginning of the film. But his surrender to the Suicide Club is a bad blunder, and it's difficult for us to feel too sorry for him when he begins to realize he's made a mistake. After all, anybody can come to that conclusion when he has the means to fill his belly. And as much as we may be inclined to sympathize with him in the face of such a terrifying fate as the club demands of him, just as we'd sympathize with anyone in that position, there is something unpleasant about his groveling as he pleads for Clifford to save him.
But the story really seems to be as much about Clifford and the club as it is about Brown. Christensen brings a great sense of atmosphere to the story, in which even the 19th-century London fog seems to be a co-conspirator of the club... surrounding Brown at every turn and cutting off his escape, rather than hiding him. Carlos Cores is adequate in the role of Roberto Brown, but Guillermo Battaglia shines as the sinister Clifford, by far the movie's most memorable character. Cores and Battaglia returned in Christensen's El ángel desnudo ("The Naked Angel", also 1946), the first Argentine film with nudity, but equally remarkable for reversing the two men's roles: this time it was Battaglia playing the bankrupt man who must make a deal with the devil — Cores as a decadent artist — to save himself.
I think you'll have noticed that neither of these movies can be considered a horror film. Schlieper's La casa está vacía is no more a true ghost story than, say Wuthering Heights or Rebecca — or even Citizen Kane, come to think of it; while in spite of the fatalistic tone of La Dama de la muerte, and Roberto Brown's grim hallucinations, Christensen's film is really just a particularly dark and death-obsessed melodrama. True, Christensen did make a number of thrillers and films noirs in the course of his career, including La muerte camina en la lluvia ("Death Walks in the Rain", 1948), No abras nunca esa puerta ("Don't Open The Door", 1952, a two-part anthology film based on stories by Cornell Woolrich) and A Mulher do deseo ("The Woman of Desire", 1975, a weird possession-horror film). La muerte camina en la lluvia is particularly interesting in that it seems to foreshadow the Italian giallo — not only in its title, but in its choice of a "detective" (a turbaned night-club knife thrower), its use of a masked black-gloved killer, and its bizarre climax... in which the heroine is chased through a darkened house by not one, but three identically-dressed "assassins". But by comparison to films like these, the moody, slowly-paced La Dama de la muerte is scarcely a thriller at all.
So it may seem a little odd that Warren would want to turn either of these movies into a horror film (a nominal horror film, at any rate). But horror films sold — so one way or another, Curse of the Stone Hand was going to be a horror film. It didn't seem to matter very much to Warren if there was no real horror in his "horror film", as long as it had a suitable title. After all, Warren was never particularly concerned with the quality of his results.
You'll also have noticed that neither Chilean film concerns a stone hand. That's OK: Warren's film isn't really about a stone hand, either. Oh, sure, there's some blather about a curse, and stone hands keep popping up now and again; but the stone hands are really nothing more than punctuation marks for Warren's story. They're less part of the plot than they are Burma Shave signs along the way ("Your brother dear / just took your life / You hadn't oughta / kissed his wife / Burma Shave"). Extraneous though they are, such things as curses and stone hands were necessary for Warren to turn these two Gothic melodramas into a single, marketable "horror film".
And this brings us to...
III. Curse of the Stone HandWarren's film begins with the old man approaching the artist, in scenes taken from Las casa está vacía. Actually, that's not strictly true: it begins with Warren's new credits, accompanied by the music from Schlieper's film. The action begins with the opening of La casa..., and Warren's version stays relatively true to Schlieper's... with one major exception. As the old man begins describing the history of the old house (now relocated to Kent, England), Warren has him inform the artist that for some unknown reason, the house's architect chose to put a stone hand in every room of the house. In fact, he continues, there are additional stone hands placed along the boundaries of the estate all the way to the sea. I guess he hired a "handyman" that took his work literally.
Now, "Curse of the Stone Hand" is an evocative title. Certainly the title, plus a TV commercial showing the sinister hand in the fog, sold me on the film when I was a kid. But when you start watching the film, and you realize that the supposedly-cursed house has not one Stone Hand, but dozens of them, some of the mystique begins to wear off. It's like realizing that all the members of the cursed family died in rooms with floors in them, on days that ended in a "y".
Now that we've had our first brush with banality, it's time to get to the first story in Warren's mini-anthology. Warren begins with La Dama de la muerte, and almost immediately starts to ruin it. Christensen's movie is cut down to a little less than half its original length, which would be bad enough if our Jerry had been content only to trim. In fact, the film is so scrambled and distorted that it loses most of its effectiveness.
To begin with, Warren's "Robert Brown" isn't a shiftless young man who's drifting aimlessly through London. Instead, he's a married man who should be settled with his wife at the mansion in Kent. It's a big difference to have Brown a married man, rather than a man who's barely got his start, and started badly. Brown's supposed blissful married life is shown through snippets taken from Brown's scenes with the girl, from the last half of the original. The good times come to an end with the arrival of a messenger, who brings with him the news that Brown is now bankrupt. The messenger's coach is actually Clifford's coach, seen speeding through York... on the way to Kent. Warren is clearly as hopeless at geography as he is at grammar.
Brown bids farewell to his wife, and the scene dissolves before we get to the playing card in her hand. Having no recourse, the ruined young man rides off (again using Clifford's coach ride at the end of the film), and goes to London — by way of Durham!
Once in London, Brown plans to make money by going to an illegal gambling club that his friend — yes, his friend, his dear old friend — Hugo Clifford has told him about. The scene between Brown and Clifford, originally the scene in which the older man first told Brown about the Suicide Club, has been recast, with Brown playing the part of a hardened and world-weary man, and Clifford his wide-eyed associate. Some of the footage added to this early scene comes from much later in the film, when Brown thinks he sees watchers all around him.
The strangest thing, though, is to see how very carefully Warren has matched the new dialog to the lip movements of the original actors. Clearly Warren could dub a film when he felt like it. The trouble is, it seems as though Warren is writing his new script to match the lip movements, rather than trying to find a way to compromise between the story and the actors' speech. The story is starting to tell him, rather than the other way around. Also, at a certain point, the actors' lip movements stop lining up so gratefully with Warren's new dialog, so Warren has to result to some jarring cuts to maintain continuity. The irony here is that Warren almost never used cuts in his own footage, and certainly never bothered with continuity.
Much of the rest of this scene between Brown and Clifford has been rendered extraneous. Forget rings, forget pawnbrokers; forget the menace of policemen in the London fog. Clifford simply takes Brown to the club, which is now first and foremost a den for gamblers. Brown places his bets — and here we're shown the opening of the original film, in which Brown loses the money that did not belong to him. Interspersed with the gamblers are faces from the Suicide Club, which makes sense in Warren't retelling; but Clifford's near-predatory interest in Brown's losses, which meant so much at the beginning of La Dama..., becomes in Warren's film mere concern for the poor guy's misfortune.
Soon we're introduced to the President of the Club, who reveals to Brown the other side of the gambling club. If any member becomes indebted to the club, he must either pay off his losses immedately, or... he must participate in a terrible lottery. First, life insurance policies are taken out on the members. Then, they must come together each night of their continued indebtedness. Playing cards are dealt to each of them, and the one who receives the Queen of hearts is doomed to die. The proceeds of the insurance are then used to pay off the debt. As in the original, a second round of cards decides who will do the killing.
Here once again, Warren lapses into the needless practicality that made him turn (e.g.) his Satanic pacts into boring legal documents. Warren feels compelled to explain that since the club is funded by the life insurance policies, each time a new debtor is added to the circle, not one but two people must be chosen to die.
Well, now. That's all very logical, and settles some financial details of the club that we'd probably never have wondered about. Except... ummm... if two must die for every one that comes in... wouldn't they have run out of victims early on?
In any case... now that Brown knows the rules of this club-within-a-club, he walks thoughtfully out of the President's office (in footage taken once again from the very beginning of the film, when Brown exits the casino after losing the bank's money). As he walks back to his hotel (the sign of which is shown in new footage shot by Warren), he finds himself watched by the members of the club (and this sequence is lifted from the very end of the film, moments before Brown's "escape" with Clifford). It's not clear why Brown would be followed by these men at this point in Warren's story: he hasn't even been marked for death yet.
Brown awakens in his hotel room, just as a similar Brown awakened in his own flat the day after his doom was announced... and the scene melts away just as the startled young man is about to discover the money he (that is, the 1946 Brown) had won at baccarat. Having no such winnings, the 1965 Brown goes to check the state of his bank account. Why he does this in a building clearly labeled Atlantic Steam Navigation Company, I don't know. He asks the teller (who looks very much like a ticket agent, for some reason) how much he has in savings. A man from the club suddenly appears at Brown's side. He arrives just in time to overhear that Brown is completely broke. What a shame, says the man; now Brown must play the game with the other members of the club.
(I'm not sure what's more disappointing about this version of things: that Brown's attempt at escape has been turned into a simple balance inquiry; or the thought that in this version of the story, a club member can simply pay his way out of his fate. There is no such possibility in the original.)
So Clifford and Brown go to the club, almost as though they were going for the first time (which, in the original, they were). Now Brown notices the macabre inscription at the club's entrance: "Cease to be — and have more power o'er self and all that is." Perhaps if he'd seen that, he wouldn't have been so eager to lose his last ha'penny.
Now, at least, we realize why Warren insisted (against logic) that two people die at every meeting. It's to condense the two card-playing sessions of Christensen's film into a single scene, and in so doing rob both of their power. Christensen created a great deal of tension from waiting to see who drew the death card, naturally; but one of the things that made both card-table sequences so interesting was to see how much they repeated each other. You got the weird feeling that this game of life and death, with its dreadful consequences for both the victim and the killer, had settled into a dull routine. What was dull for the participants seemed harrowing and unnatural to us in the audience. Warren's version has much the opposite effect.
So: Malthus draws the first Queen, to his horror. And Warren goes on to show us the second night's drawing, making it seem as though the wearying pattern was repeating itself in minutes rather than days. But he cuts out the crucial moment when the President accidentally deals two cards to Clifford — the moment when Brown makes his fatal choice. At this point, it could easily have been Clifford who drew the Queen, and it's this subliminal understanding that probably convinces Brown to go to Clifford for help when all else fails. The President then deals a single card for the assassin, and the meeting adjourns. BANG — Malthus exits immediately. Brown then walks home in the fog, showing a curious dread of policemen.
For some reason, Brown then decides to go for a walk with his wife (whom I thought was back in Kent, or Durham, or Yorkshire, or somewhere in this Escheresque England of Warren's). Let me quote you Warren's explanation:
(And if Robert Brown could hear the voice-over, he'd "decide to attempt to blow his own brains into a direction of out" — willingly — just to get the run-on sentences to stop.)NARRATOR (voice of Bruno veSota): In considering all possible consequences in going to the police with the entire story, he decided to attempt to turn his own fate into a direction for the better. The least that could be done would be to think things out in a clear manner. A much-needed perspective was the primary goal, and a day's relaxation in the proper environment would possibly do wonders in bringing about the channels of thought that were desperately needed if Robert Brown were to find the idea that would ultimately set him free...
It's here that Warren gives us the gypsy card-reader scene; though he cuts out the drawing of the Queen of hearts, and the gypsy's unwittingly barbed explanation.
Next, Brown goes to the police, and has both his fruitless trip to the music shop, and his unexpectedly brief interview with the Superintendant of Police. Disheartened, Robert drinks, and finds himself menaced by strange visions of death in the street. As he reels in horror at the sight of the things he's imagined, he suddenly comes face-to-face with real horror: the members of the club seem to surround him in the fog. All at once, a carriage pulls up, and Brown is invited in: it's Clifford, who has spontaneously decided to save Robert and take him home to Kent, or Yorkshire, or Durham, or Chandigarh, or Ross Ice Shelf, or wherever the hell Warren thinks home is.
It's a short trip, at any rate. Rather than carry him across the length of England (after Brown begs him, and promises him a fortune in cash), Clifford's just given a buddy a ride home. Remember, too, that Brown no longer has a farthing to his name. So tell me, then, as Brown walks through the woods to "sneak into my own home" (as he puts it): what could be the meaning of the banknotes Clifford drops, just before he kills his "old friend"?
You can see from this synopsis that La dama de la muerte's story has not only been shortened, but cheapened. All the details of character, all the plot points that gave the story its impact, have been excised. The only thing left of the original, besides the most basic outline of its plot, is a hint of its foggy, oppressive atmosphere. And what has Warren given us in exchange for most of the original movie's interest? Just one thing, really: a short new tracking shot that moves from "Clifford"'s feet, just after he's killed Brown... to a sinister STONE HAND.
If your heart can stand it, it's time to move on to Warren's version of La casa está vacía. If Christensen's film was shortened by about half, Schlieper's film has been mutilated: it's cut to a mere third of its original length.
In Warren's version of La casa..., young Carlos — excuse me, Charles — doesn't cause his sister's death. Instead, the little girl survives... and grows up to become Maria Cristina (Beth, in this version)! This robs Maria Cristina of her role as the girl Jorge (er, Jamie) should have married. But in this version, Charles isn't remorseful over what he's done to his sister. Instead, he feels a certain joy at having caused her suffering... what the film's poster calls his SADISTIC LUST! (twice).
As Charles grows to manhood, he falls under the unhealthy spell of those ubiquitous stone hands. We see random shots from various points in the film, as the narration tries to convince us Charles has turned into a monster. We cut from Charles/Carlos dancing at the village party, to the walk he takes with his friends just as he hears Ruth's music box for the first time; but instead of being hearing music, this time Carlos/Chalres hears Katherine Victor, screaming out the window from a different movie. She accuses him of having ravished and tortured her poor sister. As Warren's inserts go, this one is relatively good: it sort-of matches the action; it's intercut with reaction shots from the original movie (and Warren rarely bothered with reaction shots); and best of all, it's short & to the point.
Next, we see Charles and Jamie going off to church alone (though Charles doesn't actually enter the church). Jamie has a teary-eyed vision of Ruth seated at the organ, surrounded by singing children — a flashback that makes no sense, since in this version Jorge/Jamie never caught sight of his sister-in-law this way. We get the idea, though. Charles tells the narrator (in the scene that originally had him dismiss the idea of Jorge ever marrying Maria Cristina) that he's suspicious of the changes in Jamie since he's returned. Maria Cristina/sister Beth has been edited into the scene as though she were listening.
Ruth's gradual awareness of Jamie's feelings plays out like a condensed version of the original. But in Warren's version, Charles becomes wary early on. We see him brood (in shots taken from early in the original, when Carlos grieves for his absent brother). He goes down to his mysterious locked room. We wonder: since his sister didn't die in this version, and the carousel toy probably doesn't have any meaning for him, then what lurid secret lied — excuse me, lies — behind that hidden door?
The film now brings us back to the fatal party, where Jamie finally makes his move on his brother's wife. Ruth runs away in tears... but this time, somebody's seen them. It's none other than John Carradine, playing a drunken villager. The remainder of the party sequence is shot as though Jamie did not come back to confront his brother, and Charles' pursuit of Jamie is re-edited to suggest he's going out on his own, hoping to catch Ruth and Jamie together.
We cut from this to the longest of Warren's inserts for this movie, and the one most typical of his work: Carradine and Katherine Victor sit in a pub, drinking mugs of beer (probably the only enjoyable experience anybody ever had working with Warren; Carradine looks as though he's been "rehearsing" the beer-drinking all afternoon). The two of them spend a minute and a half telling the audience things they already know. Into the pub storms Charles, looking to vent his rage and frustration on Katherine Victor's unseen sister again (instead of looking for his brother in the Posada "La Sirena"). The working girl Jorge threw out of his room is now a concerned co-worker begging her friend "Connie" not to let Charles in. You remember: Charles is a fiend of SADISTIC LUST! SADISTIC LUST!
So Charles's eventual discovery of his wife in his brother's arms turns out not to be an ironic twist of fate: just the culmination of a sordid affair. His remorse over the killing is cut short, since it would only seem hollow in these circumstances. And then we find ourselves back in the wrapping story, as the narrator's daughter (Charles's sister!) comes to fetch him. Of course, if these are actually relatives of Charles's, it no longer makes sense that the mansion has been allowed to fall into such disrepair. After all, the line hasn't yet died out in this version!
This leaves only the discovery of — ahem — WHAT LURID SECRET -- lied behind that hidden door! It couldn't be the carousel, since the toy no longer figures in Warren's version of the film. The painter goes down into the basement and pries open the door. There, on the ground in front of him, he sees... a book. It's entitled "The Self-Portrait", and it appears to have been written by Rembrandt. Hmmmm... The camera pans along the wall of the hidden room. First, we see a portrait of Charles. Next, we see a similar portrait... but Charles's features have begun to wither and decay, Dorian Gray—style. In the last painting, he's little more than a grinning corpse. Seated at the table in front of this last portait is — a skeleton! Why, Charles must have locked himself in his secret room, and painted himself as he died! How terribly scary. And on the table next to the skeleton is... (wait for it:) A STONE HAND!
Umm... OK. They said there was a Lurid Secret. They lied.
This is what Charles kept in his hidden room? Really? Some paintings and his own skeleton? Somehow I find that difficult to believe. And as for the stone hand: I'll bet you'd almost forgotten about that, hadn't you?
Neither La casa está vacía nor La Dama de la muerte are particularly well known today, even in Argentina or Chile. Neither film is particularly characteristic of its director, nor is either among its director's very finest work. But they're both very well-made films, which use a great deal of technical skill to tell subtle, engrossing, tragic stories. Warren's version may be the least embarrassing of his cut-and-paste quasi-horrors, but it certainly ruined its source material: it turned the two Gothic melodramas into intolerably banal soap-operas, with minimal attempts at "horror" that wouldn't scare a first-time trick-or-treater.
The most interesting thing about Curse of the Stone Hand is what it reveals about Warren. It turns out he was capable of editing his material carefully and thoughtfully, when the mood struck him. It's just that his storytelling instincts were all wrong. His repeated insistence that he had no other aim than to make a quick buck may or may not have been the whole truth; but in this particular case, he would have been better off doing his usual hatchet job. At least a laughably bad film would have left us wondering if he was a talentless hack or a misunderstood genius, the way many still wonder about Ed Wood. Curse of the Stone Hand seems to prove pretty clearly which category Warren belonged in.
1. Tom Weaver, Interviews with B Science Fictions and Horror Movie Makers (McFarland, 1988); quoted in Fred Olen Ray, The New Poverty Row: Independent filmmakers as distributors (McFarland, 1991)
Consider this a footnote for most of the review. Anything in this review that sounds like it involved research on Jerry Warren is probably looted from Fred Olen Ray.
2. Santiago Garcia, Screwball: Argentina — El Toque Schlieper (El Amante 113)
Anything in this review that sounds like it involved research on Carlos Schlieper was probably looted from this article. And badly dubbed, too. I've learned quite a bit from Jerry Warren.