The artistry and care that went into making this film is more than apparent, and absolutely a welcome breath of fresh air. It's also a huge testament to the talents of not only director Sumner, but multi-hyphenate indie wonder-dervish Alan Rowe Kelly, whose mere stamp on a project seems to raise its profile and caliber so much more than with practically anyone else in the indie horror realm. Here, Kelly co-produces with Sumner, who wrote the screenplay based on Douglas Smith's acclaimed short story.
The retro-but-recent feel gives it that "NIGHT GALLERY-ish" vibe that primes you with this kind of semi-anticipation: if Rod Serling had stepped out onto the pier in the opening shots to introduce the story, I don't think anyone would've been the least bit surprised. (It would've been quite a feat to pull off, though!) As it is, no setup is needed. The images, beautifully lensed by Sumner and Bart Mastronardi, and the acting are effective enough all on their own.
This is the story of Cath (exquisite Zoe Daelman Chlanda) and Joe (Jerry Murdock), a couple brought together by destiny and by a needful hunger. Cath is a vampire of sorts, very reminiscent of Catherine Deneuve's tragic immortal, Miriam, in Tony Scott's THE HUNGER. But where Miriam fed on human blood, Cath feeds on human energy via a ritual that involves sketching an eerily lifelike portrait of her victims, that enables her to then drain their essence into herself, slaking her hunger for at least a little while longer.
It's not clear exactly how their relationship came to be, but Joe is her protector and conscience of sorts, and obviously very much in love with her, but not with what she has to do to survive...even if he is complicit in the horror that results from it. As BY HER HAND unfolds, there is conflict between them as Cath dares to cross a certain moral line that she promised Joe she never would...but her need to feed has other plans. And that is one of the great things about the story and the way it's told. It's all about the relationship and the strain placed upon it by Joe's co-dependency on her, and Cath playing that card to get what she wants, what she needs. The energy vampirism could be replaced by drugs, alcohol, sex addiction, whatever...and the core of the story would still hold up well.
The conflict between them reaches critical mass, when what seems like an off-hand comment alerts Joe to the fact that they have now gone beyond the point of no return...that nothing is off-limits anymore to satisfy Cath's hunger for "food," regardless of who has to die to feed her. The agonizing decision Joe has to make leads to a tragic but inevitable ending.
Longtime Alan Rowe Kelly associates, Zoe Chlanda and Jerry Murdock have proved their versatility time and time again, handling everything from humor to horror with an almost scary ease. Though they have worked together before, the roles they portrayed were never quite this intimate. Zoe keeps her portrayal of Zoe tightly contained when other actors might've gone for histrionics, and her chilling moments of resigned stillness allow Jerry to use his potent combination of masculinity and vulnerability to convey Joe's dilemma. How do you let go of the one person you feel it's impossible to live without? In his own way, he is as addicted to Cath as she is to her 'drug.'
It's also a credit to Jerry's talent that he wears his unrequited love for Cath and the torment of her duality like a second skin. We never really see him break down and cry to express what he feels, but it's not necessary. The face and the eyes say it all.
BY HER HAND is a near-textbook example of subtlety that is missing in so many genre films today, and yet it's never yawn-inducingly boring, and avoids all the pitfalls that turned many of the original NIGHT GALLERY'S episodes into near unintentional farces.
Which is why I restate my bottom-line opinion: it stands as the best episode of that beloved series that you never saw. I do hope that Alan will see fit somehow to reassemble this same team to do more work of this caliber. I've no doubt that the results will still be as exceptional.