A nasty little female-driven slasher, “Hands of Hell” may have had a shoestring budget, but it runs loops around most films of its ilk.
Hands of Hell wastes no time showing its hand and making it perfectly clear just how nasty and mean-spirited it wants to be.
Brutally killing kids is considered taboo, even by hardcore horror movie standards. On the rare occasion when it happens, it’s always upsetting — and almost always offscreen. Hands of Hell doesn’t break that particular unspoken rule, but it gets as close as it can by having its two protagonists torture and slaughter the sweetest little old married couple who run a quaint, small-town marina motel.
They may not be kids, but they seem just as innocent and undeserving of the kind of hellfire that rains down upon them. It’s an effective way to quickly establish just how merciless and perverse our killing couple, Zeke (Adam Kitchen) and Bianca (writer and co-director Gianna Lutz), really are.
Reminding viewers of an even more sadistic version of Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers, Kitchen and Lutz play the barbarous Zeke and Bianca to fiendish perfection. Lutz is especially good as the more bloodthirsty and unhinged of the two, getting twisted pleasure from every act of extreme cruelty.
Hands of Hell is set in a small East Texas town.
As a Texas girl myself, I can assure you that most of the unflattering stereotypes associated with the Lone Star State come from this region, a place where you’d expect a film like Texas Chain Saw Massacre to be set (that film, interestingly, takes place in the civilized, surprisingly liberal crown jewel of Texas, my hometown of Austin, Texas).
An unsettling vibe in parts of this area screams outsiders are not welcome.
It’s a sense of unease that Erica (Abby Anderson) and Stacey (Arianna Camacho McPike) immediately recognize as they drive through the desolate backroads of the town on their way to a lakeside retreat at the Huxley Bay Marina — the same motel where the elderly owners recently met their demise at the hands of the two psychopaths we met in the opening scene.
The girls, like writer-director Lutz and director Andrew Evans, are well-versed in the language of horror.
As they drive through the foreboding town, Stacey exclaims, “What in the HILLS HAVE EYES?” It’s a funny easter egg for fans of backwoods horror who immediately understand what can happen to pretty young things from the big city who stumble into the wrong rural town. Not long after, Erica will reference the grandaddy of all backwoods slashers, Texas Chainsaw.
Before the girls can arrive at their destination, ahead of their expected boyfriends, another couple arrives at the motel, Marcus (Hondo Tey) and Brett (Antonio Neville), only to be greeted by a very unhospitable Bianca posing as the Marina owner.
As they get settled, with Brett expressing frustration that Marcus chose such a shady location for their romantic getaway, Stacey and Erica arrive. We know they are in for a hell of a time as Bianca makes it clear she plans to have fun with her new victims.
Before the boyfriends Blake (Brady Box) and Dylan (Chase Walker) arrive, we get a bit of backstory for Bianca and Zeke via a detective (Paul A. Rossi) trying to track down the escaped fugitives. It’s not much except to reinforce how absolutely demented and brutal the two are for no good reason at all; they aren’t broken, abused, or discarded… they just get off and killing.
The protagonists are just about exactly what you expect with this kind of meat-grinding slasher.
We have the stunning, sexually liberated blonde (lamb to slaughter), a sweet, bit too uptight damsel (she has final girl written all over her), an absolute cad of a boyfriend begging to be butchered, and another well-meaning but not particularly likable boyfriend trying to make amends for cheating on his girlfriend — which gives him a chance to become the unexpected hero in the finale.
I did appreciate having an enjoyable gay couple in the central cast, though one of the gay men is the first to be killed, and it’s a disappointing example of the Bury Your Gays trope.
Both men eventually meet their untimely demise, and I hated to see it. It’s not at all unexpected, but it would have been super fun to see at least one of them still standing at the end.
We also get a red herring in the form of a mentally challenged neighbor (Stephen Burnett) and an awful, stereotypically homophobic, bigoted redneck cop (Woody Wilson Hall) who could have easily been the hero but ended up a huge zero.
Even though we have a bunch of pretty young people and a horned-up killer couple who gets turned on every time someone dies in a horrific way, there is zero onscreen sex.
There’s not even any nudity and very little skin; we get one girl in a towel and another in a bikini.
I guess you can admire that level of restraint and subversion of slasher tropes, but I honestly think this film could have benefitted from leaning a bit harder into the stapes of the genre to make it a bit more campy and fun.
Other than this, it’s a pretty standard issue slasher. The addition of the batshit Bonnie and her lovelorn Clyde adds a nice bit of originality, but there’s not too much here that will surprise you.
It is, however, much better than you expect a microbudget 80s-style slasher throwback to be.
I could have certainly lived without the hazy, foggy camera effect used throughout the film, but I understand it was probably designed to hide the sins of ultra-low-budget filmmaking.
Though it isn’t particularly gruesome — most of the kills take place just outside the camera’s view so that you understand what is happening but don’t actually see much of it (props to the film’s sound team; those kill noises are gnarly) — the kills are well-executed and come at a steady clip.
I love that they didn’t save all the bloodshed until the last act, as is so typical of these kinds of films. Here, we get very little buildup and spend almost all of the focus on the psycho killer stalking and menacing their victims.
I also appreciated that the characters make mostly sensible decisions and fight back as much as they can. With one exception, you aren’t rooting for these characters to be killed and hope they make it out of this hellscape.
(Special shoutout to the filmmakers for giving the worst character the most unspeakably awful death. It may be implausible, but you won’t care as it’s delightfully demented and fun to watch.)
Hands of Hell may not be a game-changer, but it’s competently executed and entertaining enough for its brief runtime. The final scenes are relatively tense and well-shot, and I honestly didn’t expect it to end how it did; it’s always a treat to have my expectations challenged.
The use of a chainsaw in the finale is a nice touch and once again pays loving homage to one of the greatest rural nightmares in all of horror history.
I’m not going to call it a masterpiece, but it’s far from a disaster, and you could do a lot worse than Hands of Hell for fans of fast-pieced, intentionally unpleasant slashers looking for something a bit different.