Shake Hands with Danger (1980)

While I can’t say with 100% certainty that I won’t stumble upon another safety film that features chest wounds, a man on fire, or a titular country song, chances are that 1980’s SHAKE HANDS WITH DANGER is the only one containing all three. Helmed by CARNIVAL OF SOULS director Herk Harvey and sponsored by Caterpillar Tractor Company, this film is among the more notable safety films ever produced (it was even given the Rifftrax treatment).

Years before his feature-film directorial debut with 1962’s CARNIVAL OF SOULS, Harvey worked as an actor, writer, producer, and director for Centron Corporation, a production company based in Lawrence, Kansas, that specialized in industrial and educational films. He took a break from this mode of filmmaking to try his hand at a horror film. Following that movie’s lack of commercial success, he quickly returned to the ranks of Centron, directing other films such as the secretarial-themed TAKE A LETTER… FROM A TO Z and PORK: THE MEAL WITH A SQUEAL. While his command of atmosphere and tension was apparent from CARNIVAL OF SOULS, Harvey was not so much a master visual stylist as he was an economical director who made clever use of his locations, performers, and the camera.

Fuck around and find out.

Given the nature of the industrial safety genre, the scenarios in SHAKE HANDS WITH DANGER are admittedly contrived but all have a consistent theme: shortcuts at the job site are a “road to trouble.” Distracted by his son’s pending knee surgery that afternoon, an aloof operator drives a tractor-scraper through the side of a cliff-side house because he pulled only one axle instead of two. Yet another lazy worker hasn’t read the manual for the brake chamber he just removed from a rotor, and the result is the spring-loaded destruction of a nearby truck’s back windshield. And these are the lucky ones! One poor sap falls 20 feet from an excavator boom onto the rocks below, and another is set aflame when some gasoline vaporizes and his careless co-worker lights up a cigarette and flicks the smoldering match. In this particular world of movers and shakers, the cost of negligence is sky-high.

Each depiction of carelessness required careful planning by professional stunt players working in concert with experienced equipment operators. Some viewers will deride the hokey pretext for each of the scenes but almost all of them were well-executed with believable (if grim) outcomes. A few scenes are also marked by solid make-up effects with the requisite spread (or spurts) of fake blood, a garish element that Harvey notably excluded from CARNIVAL OF SOULS.

According to various commenters on other media sites where this video can be viewed (e.g., YouTube and elsewhere), the film is still used in safety classes to guide the heavy machinery operators of the present day. After all, classics never die (but unsafe workers sometimes do, if they’re not careful).

This content was originally posted on Archival Eye

2 comments

  1. You mentioned Rifftrax, and that’s where I first saw this; it was during one of their live shows that were simulcast in movie theaters. It was lots of fun to watch while hearing both the Rifftrax audience and the audience at my showing react to the surprisingly harsh accidents.

    There’s another safety film Rifftrax covered once, a British production called “Play Safe” that was hosted by two cartoon birds and featured a scene where a child tries to pull his frisbee from a substation and we are treated to a shot of his legs catching on fire as his friend screams in absolute horror. It was hilarious.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. PLAY SAFE sounds incredible, I hope to stumble into it! I’m planning on doing a deep-dive on a railroad safety film at some point — they’re a real hoot — but I need to be picky to ensure I find the one with the most explosions.

      Liked by 1 person

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