The Hook
My favorite urban legend is the one about the Lovers Lane couple terrorized by the escaped lunatic with a hook for a hand. The myth has its roots in some heinous accounts of true crime but the hook add-on is more deeply rooted in a national revulsion to veterans returning from the war with limbs missing. The archetype of the repulsive villain with a hook for a hand percolated during the immediate post-war period to become a full-fledged entertainment epidemic during the Vietnam war. " /> The Hook
My favorite urban legend is the one about the Lovers Lane couple terrorized by the escaped lunatic with a hook for a hand. The myth has its roots in some heinous accounts of true crime but the hook add-on is more deeply rooted in a national revulsion to veterans returning from the war with limbs missing. The archetype of the repulsive villain with a hook for a hand percolated during the immediate post-war period to become a full-fledged entertainment epidemic during the Vietnam war. " /> The Hook
My favorite urban legend is the one about the Lovers Lane couple terrorized by the escaped lunatic with a hook for a hand. The myth has its roots in some heinous accounts of true crime but the hook add-on is more deeply rooted in a national revulsion to veterans returning from the war with limbs missing. The archetype of the repulsive villain with a hook for a hand percolated during the immediate post-war period to become a full-fledged entertainment epidemic during the Vietnam war. " />

The pull of The Hook

 

The Hook

One of my favorite urban legends, told to me countless times by my older sister Lisa after light’s out, is “The Hook”… the cautionary tale of a pair of young lovers terrorized in their parked car by an escaped lunatic with a hook for a hand. It’s a classic tale of suspense that has been told as far back as the 1950s, was published in a 1960 “Dear Abby” column as teach-your-children fact, and was retold by Bill Murray in the summer camp comedy Meatballs (1979). Although these things are difficult to pin down, “The Hook” is thought to originate in the unsolved murders of “The Phantom Killer,” who victimized parking teenagers in and around Texarkana, Arkansas in 1946 (inspiring the 1977 movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown) and “The Red Light Bandit,” a serial rapist who plagued Los Angeles Lover's Lanes until Caryl Chessman was arrested and ultimately executed (a protracted court case that inspired the 1955 film Cell 2455 Death Row and the 1977 TV movie Kill Me If You Can). Neither of the perpetrators of these crimes employed hook hands but the seed for that particular fetish had already been sown elsewhere.

The Best Years of Our LivesIn the Academy Award®-winning film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Harold Russell played a sailor attempting to return to a normal civilian life after the loss of both hands in combat. A real life double amputee, Russell was one of the first WWII veterans Americans saw with cable-driven prosthetic hands. The film deals with issues of prejudice and fear; at one point, Russell’s character, in frustration, thrusts his hooks through a glass window, frightening a child and no doubt many an unsuspecting moviegoer. It’s a powerful moment, evoking the gamut of emotions from sympathy to disgust to downright horror. As much as Harold Russell and The Best Years of Our Lives brought a measure of dignity and grace to the lives of amputees, the film probably fueled an unhealthy fascination with amputation and prosthetic augmentation, begetting the legend of “The Hook” and a veritable subgenre of exploitation films in which hooks (prosthetic and other) figure prominently as signifiers of evil. As early as 1947, the first modern day hook-handed villain debuted in RKO's Dick Tracy's Dilemma, which pitted Chester Gould's lantern-jawed lawman (Ralph Byrd) against ug-mug Jack Lambert's "The Claw."

Cranston Ritchie

In 1953, Walt Disney brought the Broadway hit Peter Pan to the big screen as an animated feature whose crippled villain, Captain Hook, traumatized a generation of kids. Between 1958 and 1960, neo-Surrealist photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard used his Lexington Camera Club colleague Cranston Ritchie as the subject of a pair of disturbing still lifes. Ritchie had lost his right arm to cancer and wore a prosthetic hook; Meatyard’s pictures juxtapose the man with department store mannequin parts to an eerie, unsettling effect. Though not widely seen, these pictures do fill a spot on the timeline of America’s fascination with hook hands. Over the ensuing years, hook-handers popped up in films and on television, from The Alligator People (1959), costarring Lon Chaney, Jr. as a handyman sporting a pirate hook, to Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963), in which George Kennedy plays an embittered war veteran who uses his prosthetic claw to menace Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. Made for television but released theatrically, Chamber of Horrors (1966) features Patrick O’Neal as a turn-of-the-century serial killer who cuts off his own hand to escape justice and returns to bedevil his accusers with a stump fitted for all manner of nasty attachments. (It’s worth mentioning that the Sixties’ most famous one-armed-man, the real killer seen in the first and last episodes of the weekly series The Fugitive, did not wear a prosthetic replacement.)

Julius HarrisIt was just after America’s military involvement in Vietnam that hook hands became a full fledged entertainment fetish. In Blacula (1972), Elisha Cook, Jr. plays a morgue attendant with (for no apparent reason) a prosthetic hook. In the no-budget oddment Scream Bloody Murder (1973), Fred Holbert is a disturbed young man who loses his hand in a farming accident and, after being equipped with a prosthetic claw and slaughtering his family, relocates to Venice Beach, where additional mayhem ensues; the film’s title was later changed to the crasser Claw of Terror to emphasize… well, the claw, of course. In Roger Moore’s first outing as James Bond in Live and Let Die (1973), 007 runs afoul of an evil henchman (Julius Harris) with an impressive set of hydraulic pincers where his right hand used to be. In John Frankenheimer’s Pop Art misfire 99 44/100% Dead (1974), Chuck Connors is a mobster’s right hand man whose left wrist has been retrofitted with various interchangeable cutting accessories. In 1975, The Best Years of Our Lives was remade for television as Returning Home, with real life bilateral amputee James R. Miller in the role Harold Russell originated. Episodes of Hawaii Five-O and Police Story dealt with handicapped men on both sides of the law; in the 1973 episode “Hookman,” McGarrett and the Five-O hunt an embittered double amputee (played by non-professional actor Jay J. Armes) out for revenge while the following year “Captain Hook” followed the progress of a uniformed cop (David Birney) following the work-related loss of a hand.

Jay J. Armes

More about Jay J. Armes: born Julian Armas in Ysleta, Texas, Armes lost both of his hands when he was twelve while playing with stolen railroad explosives. Undaunted by his handicap, Armes went on to found a profitable private detective agency and was responsible for the 1972 return of Marlon Brando’s son Christian, snatched as collateral damage from Brando’s acrimonious divorce from Anna Kashfi. Something of a celebrity by mid-decade, Armes appeared on the late night talk show Good Night, America in 1975, "shooting" unsuspecting host Geraldo Rivera with blanks fired from custom-designed derringers concealed within his prosthetics. In 1976, Macmillan published Jay J. Armes, Investigator: The World’s Most Successful Private Eye while the Ideal Toy Company released an Armes action figure (mobile investigation unit sold separately) whose “biokinetic hands” made him “the world’s greatest investigator.” Armes’ exploits may have been the inspiration for the Police Story episode as well as a 1977 action film that has become a cult classic.

Rolling Thunder PosterIn John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder, William Devane plays a Vietnam veteran and survivor of Viet Cong torture who returns Stateside only to be robbed by thugs, who not only kill his wife and son but shove his hand into a garbage disposal. Equipped with a transradial prosthesis (whose pincers he sharpens to a punishing point) and a trunk full of firearms (and with a young Tommy Lee Jones in tow as his wingman), Devane goes after the bad guys… and gets them good. It was great to finally see a handicapped person kicking some serious ass and doing his best to reverse a pernicious inclination to equate disability with evil. Rolling Thunder made such an impression on the young Quentin Tarantino that he took the title for the name of his film distribution company, whose logo employs the indelible image of a blood-letting prosthetic hook.

It would be nice to believe we could get beyond this juvenile (and likely guilt-driven) fascination and reach a true acceptance of anatomical handicaps but hook-handed baddies prevail, from the unidexter bogeys of Candyman and I Know What You Did Last Summer (and their various follow-ups) to the extended family of handicapped cannibals in the sundry sequels to and remakes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), as well as a recurring villain on the hit TV series The X-Files who became a (what else?) embittered amputee sporting a prosthetic left arm. Movies such as the 1996 Kingpin (which riffed off of Rolling Thunder) and TV shows like Arrested Development have made sport of people with prosthetic limbs while in real life two notable amputees have earned more than their fair share of press for all the wrong reasons. Maverick Democratic senatorial candidate Steve Novick was born without an arm and wears a stainless steel prosthetic in its place, which earned him the dubious sobriquet "Senator Hook" in a recent profile in Good magazine. Meanwhile, the British tabloids have had a field day with Muslim cleric Abu Hamsa, an amputee with suspected terrorist ties who has been the subject of endless poor taste puns. “Showing his prosthesis so prominently,” BBC writer Ian Cook has written about Hamsa, “makes him the perfect bad guy.”

The need to demonize the handicapped and to continue to find nothing but horror in anatomical difference is a shameful chapter in our national entertainment history but it's likely something we'll just have to learn to live with. Or maybe we just need Jay J. Armes to make a comeback and kick some serious ass.

7 Responses The pull of The Hook
Posted By Brent : February 16, 2008 1:19 am

When James Bond takes out Julius Harris in "Live and Let Die", the Bond Girl (Jane Seymour) asks what he was doing. "Just being disarming, Dear".    Ouch. 

Posted By Brent : February 16, 2008 1:19 am

When James Bond takes out Julius Harris in "Live and Let Die", the Bond Girl (Jane Seymour) asks what he was doing. "Just being disarming, Dear".    Ouch. 

Posted By Stan : February 16, 2008 10:45 am

Rolling Thunder is an extremely intense film and not the usual exploitation action feature. I can see how it would have made an impression on Tarantino. Devane and the rest of the cast are so believable in their roles that they ground the film in a reality that makes the gruesome scenes that much harder to bear. I still can't watch the scene where Devane's hand is forced into the kitchen sink garbage disposal and ground to mush. It's one of the less explicit scenes but the sound effects and his facial expressions make it too real.

Posted By Stan : February 16, 2008 10:45 am

Rolling Thunder is an extremely intense film and not the usual exploitation action feature. I can see how it would have made an impression on Tarantino. Devane and the rest of the cast are so believable in their roles that they ground the film in a reality that makes the gruesome scenes that much harder to bear. I still can't watch the scene where Devane's hand is forced into the kitchen sink garbage disposal and ground to mush. It's one of the less explicit scenes but the sound effects and his facial expressions make it too real.

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : March 19, 2010 11:00 am

[...] I enjoyed the urban legend tone of the film, which brought to mind such great tall tales as “The Hook.”  Bill Murray had retold that proverbial campfire tale for comic effect in the Canadian [...]

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : March 19, 2010 11:00 am

[...] I enjoyed the urban legend tone of the film, which brought to mind such great tall tales as “The Hook.”  Bill Murray had retold that proverbial campfire tale for comic effect in the Canadian [...]

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : March 19, 2010 11:00 am

[...] I enjoyed the urban legend tone of the film, which brought to mind such great tall tales as “The Hook.”  Bill Murray had retold that proverbial campfire tale for comic effect in the Canadian [...]

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