Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The Beast with Five Fingers

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As a Christmas gift, I’ve just received a copy of W.F. Harvey’s collection The Beast with Five Fingers, a massive volume featuring fifty odd-stories by this lesser known British practitioner of supernatural and horror fiction.

A Quaker, Harvey had a degree in medicine and had served as a surgeon during the Great War, and writing was not his main career until his early retirement in 1925, aged 40, due to ill health (his lungs had been damaged during a rescue operation at sea during the war). The Beast with Five Fingers is probably his best-known short story, it was originally pyblished in The New Decameron in 1919, and gave the title to the author’s second collection, published in 1928.
In case you are interested, you can read it in Famous Modern Ghost Stories, a fine collection from the ’20s you can download for free as an ebook on the Project Gutenberg (and that features also Algernon Blackwood, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert W. Chambers and Ambrose Bierce, among many others).

And while I am waiting to find the time to read this beauty, last night I went and watched the movie featuring Peter Lorre that in 1946 was based on the Harvey story, and on a script by Curt Siodmak. And here’s my impressions.

The story is set in the Italian village of Santo Stefano, at the turn of the century. Here, in an ancient villa, ailing pianist Francis Ingram (Victor Francen) is living in seclusion with his gorgeous nurse (Andrea King), his astrology-obsessed secretary (Peter Lorre) and a friend that happens to be a musicologist but is making a living selling fake antiques to the tourists (Robert Alda–Alan’s dad). After the untimely death of Ingram, while his heirs vie for control of the villa and its contents, the severed hand of the deceased owner starts committing a series of homicides.

The setting in Santo Stefano caused me a brief laugh–while the story is set in Lombardy, close to the Swiss border, I instantly thought of Santo Stefano Belbo, a few miles from where I sit. Now wouldn’t that be fun had they set the story here…?
Anyway, no matter its location, the movie Santo Stefano is the sort of place where mandolins are heard in the background, where there’s be-ribboned guitar players busking on street corners and a lot of the details seem to come from some place about 600 miles south of Lombardy. But it’s OK.

 The Beast with Five Fingers is a rather classic Gothic tale: you get the curse, the star-crossed lovers, the creepy guy obsessed with the supernatural, and a set of motives that make everybody both a suspect and a target in what turns out to be a series of homicides.

Is there really a severed hand running around strangling people?

There’s a nice tension developing, despite the comedy provided by the local police commissar–your typical funny Italian–and Peter Lorre is obviously quite effective in the role of the soft-spoken nut case obsessed with astrology and old books. But all the cast is quite fine, Andrea King is absolutely stunning, and there is a vein of cynicism running through the dialogues that is pleasantly refreshing.

The special effects I found particularly surprising–and the severed hand on rampage is quite effective (and is obviously the forefather of the Addams Family’s Thing).

Despite the bombastic tones of the trailer, The Beast with Five Fingers is not likely to cause you to loose sleep or anything like that. But it’s an interesting little movie, and a nice way to spend one hour and a half.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

4 thoughts on “The Beast with Five Fingers

  1. On the subject of the all-Italy-as-Naples trope: i stil remember fondly an hilarious “Murder,She Wrote” episode set in Venice , in wich the “local” extras were all speaking sicilian and the chief of the Venice police was a self-professed venician with the thickest neapolitan accent you could ever ear.

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  2. I do not know how (No, ok. I know the how in strict sense, just a flow of curiosity), but starting to look at the page of The Beast with Five Fingers in IMDB, passing to J. Carrol Naish’s career (Irish descendant but often interpreting latin and italian characters…and Charlie Chan) with a detour for “Buckaroo Banzai” I ended up to discover a deluge of Czech/Czechoslovak films, prominently those made by Lipský. Since one of the tags is called “Other People’s Pulp” I’m going to mentioning one of his movies: “Adele for Dinner”, a Nick Carter spoof adventure including a mad doctor and his carnivorous plant, (Italian title: Nick Carter quel pazzo di detective americano) winner of the Saturn Award. Jan Svankmajer contributed as animator and visual effects expert.

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