Mathew Dragna inherits an old run down casino from his deceased uncle and enlists the help of some of his friends to go and check the place out. It turns out that the casino is haunted by the ghosts of vicious Las Vegas mobster Roy ‘The Word’ Donahue and his henchmen. Dragna’s uncle owed Donahue a debt and he is here to collect it.
Charles Band has more of a reputation for producing low budget horror films based on ‘little things killing each other’ than he does anything else (see Puppet Master, Demonic Toys, Dollman, The Gingerdead Man, et al) so whenever you pick up one of his other horror films, it’s a bit hit-and-miss what you’re going to get. Well more so miss-and-miss-further! Unfortunately despite some earlier success in the low budget field, Band’s name has come to represent something of a benchmark of poor quality. With a motto of ‘shoot fast, don’t ask questions later’ it seems that his films have now come to rely on one or two gimmicks but with budgets that wouldn’t even cover the cost of a stamp, it’s hard to bring such gimmicks to life in such constrained shooting schedules (most of his films shoot in less than a week). The Band of old would at least make a go of it. It seems like now he’s just phoning it in.
Dead Man’s Hand is one such example of a gimmick story that doesn’t work very well despite the premise of a haunted casino sounding pretty cool. That being if you have seen any sort of teenagers-in-a-haunted-house type film of any kind then you’ll be familiar with how this will play out: main character and their girlfriend/boyfriend will be safe whilst his unfortunate friends will fall victim to the ghosts as they explore the haunting setting. Despite the lure of some decent casino-themed scares, the film is woefully short of any sort of boo moments. William Castle would be turning in his grave if he knew how ‘haunted house’ films have let themselves go.
The opening prologue involving an estate agent and an unlucky janitor going to check the place out gives hope that the rest of the film will be as gory and cheesy. But alas after the blood has dripped down the door frame and the title credits have hit, it’s another forty-fifty minutes before anything remotely exciting happens. It’s a real shame as the casino setting looks really good. The sets are full of cobwebs and dust and there is a nice antique feel to the place as though it really has been closed for some time. The lights are kept low to avoid revealing too much of the set and it all makes for a suitable place to throw in some ghosts and gore.
But whilst the setting is good, I don’t need to see the characters exploring it for nearly forty minutes before anything decent happens. It’s typical padding from Charles Band, a man who more or less invented the term for use in his films. If people are milling around talking, then it saves money on special effects, animatronics, latex effects or whatever else costs money. And the characters here do plenty of milling around and talking. As there is so little story to go on, there’s nothing else for the characters to do. It’s only with the introduction of the ghostly mobsters and their casino lackeys that the film finally looks like it has some meaning. Dead Man’s Hand could really have done with introducing them a lot earlier.
I don’t need to tell anyone that the presence of genre icons Sid Haig (House of 1,000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects) and Michael Berryman (the original The Hills Have Eyes) is merely a catch to lure in potential horror fans. I’ve been around the block too long to know that slapping star names on the front of DVD covers is merely a cheap marketing tactic. I know how slyly these films work, teasing the viewer with the promise of ‘big names’ and then giving them little more than glorified cameos to play with. At least Haig and Berryman are on the screen a fair amount of time from the half way point, even if their resultant screen time just sees them standing around in suits looking sinister (and Berryman just repeats whatever people say in typical “hired goon/yes man” fashion, but they still get to do more than I expected.
Their eventual introduction into the film gives rise to the film’s best moments, of which you could count on one hand, as the group of friends are pitted off against the ghostly blackjack dealer and roulette croupier in a bid to win or lose their souls. For some reason both of the ghostly figures transform into weird CGI-effect apparitions with weird-shaped heads and big bulging eyes. But it’s a little too late and the big pay-offs are weak and rushed. The overall story is wrapped up to quickly and with little real conviction and that’s your lot. Band wheels out another quickie and they just get worse. If he actually combined the budgets for a few of these smaller films, he might be able to do something worthwhile. But it’s a big ask now.
Dead Man’s Hand is one awful hand that you really wouldn’t want to get stuck with. Time to fold my friends! You’ll just lose everything.