Friday, December 26, 2014

Worth Mentioning - By Sword. By Pick. By Axe. Bye Bye.

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.


Cody finishes the year with a quadruple feature of slashers.


THE MUTILATOR (1985)

As the writer of a movie review column for his local newspaper in North Carolina, lawyer/motel manager/aspiring filmmaker Buddy Cooper had seen and enjoyed many of the films that made up the 1980s slasher boom. He knew the style, he knew the formula, and with a report saying that 30% of all movie tickets purchased in the United States were for horror movies, he gathered together some cash and embarked on making his own entry in the slasher subgenre.

Cooper's slasher The Mutilator was developed and filmed under the title Fall Break, with Cooper keeping the possibility in mind that he might someday make a sequel that he could call Spring Break. The title change to the much more striking Mutilator was made for marketing purposes in post-production.


Many slashers open with a scene set in the past that establishes the reason for the killings to follow. The Mutilator features one of the most tragic: a little boy named Ed Jr. wants to please his father on his birthday, and since Big Ed is a trophy hunter who likes to boast that he has hunted "everything but man", the little boy decides that his dad would really like to come home to find that his son has cleaned all of his hunting rifles. Unfortunately, one of the guns accidentally goes off as Ed Jr. is cleaning it, the shot striking and killing his mother, who was in the kitchen preparing Big Ed's cake.

When Big Ed comes home, he suffers a mental break when he sees his wife's dead body on the floor, and it's clear that he's not going to be forgiving to his son for this accident. Rather than comforting Ed Jr., he beats him.

Ed Jr. had a rough childhood being raised by his father, but the movie then jumps forward to find that he has made it to adulthood without any obvious ill effects, he's now a college student with a good group of friends. It's time for their fall break (Thanksgiving vacation) from school, and Ed Jr. and his pals don't have any solid plans for how to spend their time off.

A phone call from Big Ed provides them with an appealing option. Big Ed wants Ed Jr. to go to his oceanfront condo and close it up for the winter. Shut off the water and electricity, put some antifreeze in the plumbing. Ed Jr.'s friends see this as an opportunity to spend their fall break partying at an oceanfront condo.


The shooting location for the condo was in one of four oceanfront duplexes Cooper had built next to the motel he runs. Since he owned that property and had control over the motel next door, this gave him a lot of freedom in filming and the motel gave his cast and crew a place to stay during production.

Ed Jr., his virginal girlfriend Pam, and their friends Mike, Linda, Ralph, and Sue arrive at the condo and settle into vacation party mode, not knowing that Big Ed is at the condo himself, hiding, waiting, dreaming of killing his son and finally avenging the death of his wife. Big Ed only intended to kill Ed Jr., but he certainly doesn't hesitate to start picking off the rest of the group. This is finally his chance to hunt man, and he proves to be quite capable at it.

The story Cooper crafted is as simplistic and standard slasher as it gets, it's not breaking any new ground, it's simply attempting to give its audience another version of a scenario they've probably already seen and enjoyed before.


This was a low budget production, and that is very clear in the finished film. Cooper had originally set aside $84,000 to make the movie but blew threw that in the first week of filming, with costs ballooning to $450,000 by the time it was all done. It is hard to judge how the look of the film turned out, since it's only available on low grade VHS copies, but on that format most of the movie does look exceptionally low quality. There is one beautiful sequence set in a tented swimming pool. It'd be interesting to see how the movie looks upgraded to DVD, but unfortunately the materials don't exist to make that upgrade possible.

So The Mutilator isn't going to give you an original story or interesting characters, it's not that great to look at, but what it does have going for it is that it's a slasher with some spectacular, gruesome kills.


The special effects done for the kills look incredible, made all the more impressive by the low budget look of the movie around them. The kills shocked me, "They could afford to do that?" A person gets mauled with an outboard motor; a cop played by Ben Moore of "The Godfather of Gore" H.G. Lewis's 1964 film Two Thousand Maniacs! gets a machete jammed in his face and his head cut off with a battle axe; a pitchfork is put to use; an unlucky sap is cut in half; a girl is stuck with a fishing gaffe (a huge hook) in the most horrific way imaginable.

The Mutilator doesn't have a whole lot to offer, but it does supply its viewers with a straightforward slasher that features some jaw-dropping acts of violence, and for this type of movie, that's really all it needed to bring to the table. If you're a fan of slashers from the 1980s, The Mutilator is definitely one to catch.



STAGE FRIGHT (1987)

Italian filmmaker Michele Soavi's feature film directorial debut is a slasher movie set almost entirely within the confines of a theatre, where the cast and crew of a stage musical called The Night Owl regularly rehearse late into the night. On this particular dark and stormy night, the show's overzealous director has locked several members of the production inside the theatre, there is only one key that will let them out and it has been hidden. He wants their complete focus to be on perfecting The Night Owl, the story of an owl-masked killer and the female victim who rapes him.

The director doesn't realize that he has locked himself and everyone else inside a building with a homicidal maniac named Irving Wallace, who has escaped from the nearby mental hospital.


The theatre is a familiar environment for Wallace, who was once an actor himself, before he snapped and murdered sixteen people. Donning the show's prop owl mask, Wallace starts adding to his bodycount, whittling down the Night Owl production one person at a time. Actors who were supposed to get murdered as part of the show are now getting murdered for real.

After cutting the phone lines, Wallace makes his presence known early on by stabbing an actress to death on stage while everyone looks on... And since the dead actress was the one who hid the key for the director, everyone is trapped. The second half of the film is essentially one long chase sequence, going through the backstage area of the theatre and even up into the rafters.


As the characters desperately try to find a way to escape from the building, Wallace finds a great number of truly deadly weapons to use on them. A couple victims fall by butcher knife. A pickaxe is slammed through a woman's mouth. A power drill tears through flesh. Wallace totes an axe. In the best moment of the entire film, the owl-masked killer even wields a chainsaw while taking on some of the characters. A chainsaw can always be counted on to liven up any given movie.

The story of Stage Fright, written by genre regulars George Eastman (Anthropophagus, Absurd) and Sheila Goldberg (Body Count, Killing Birds) is as simple as it gets, but in true Italian fashion it is a prime example of style over substance.

With the aid of Renato Tafuri's wonderufl cinematography and a fantastic rock and synth score by Guido Anelli, Simon Boswell, and Stefano Mainetti, Soavi made his debut film a terrifically stylish one, the look and dreamy tone of the film making up for anything it make lack in the story and character departments.

I'm not generally a fan of most Italian contributions to the horror genre, but Stage Fright (which is sometimes presented with the subtitle Aquarius, and I have no idea why) is such a straightforward slasher movie that I can enjoy it on that level while appreciating the distinctly Italian stylistic touches along the way. It's often a lack of logic that puts me off from Italian movies, they take their dreamy qualities too far for my taste, but Stage Fright is simplistic enough that logic isn't an issue.


Irving Wallace looks simultaneously awesome and ridiculous in his owl mask. It has a great design, it's creepy, but it's so large that it's also amusing. According to the film's IMDb page, writer George Eastman, who was also an actor, portrayed Wallace for the scenes in which he's wearing the mask. Standing 6'9", Eastman had made for an effectively threatening presence at other points in his career, particularly as the cannibalistic killer in Anthropophagus. If Eastman did indeed wear the owl mask for at least some scenes, his size doesn't really come through in this film. Whoever played the killer, whether it be Eastman or Clain Parker, who was definitely the unmasked Irving Wallace, they did a great job in the role.

Recommended to fans of slashers and of Italian genre cinema alike, Stage Fright is another in the long line of entertaining 1980s slashfests.



WRONG TURN 4: BLOODY BEGINNINGS (2011)

By the end of Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead, the clan of cannibalistic, inbred, deformed, toxic mutants that inhabit West Virginia's Greenbrier Backcountry had seemingly been whittled down to just Three Finger, a killer who was the only character to be featured in all three movies. The members of Three Finger's family have a high tolerance for pain and thus can shake off sustaining more physical damage than the average person, but Three Finger survived something that should have been fatal even for him just to participate in that film's final scare.

When Wrong Turn 3 director Declan O'Brien was brought back to both direct and write the fourth installment in the series, he decided not to continue on with the solo adventures of Three Finger. Instead, O'Brien wound back the clock and added a new wrinkle to the backstory of the backwoods cannibals.

Wrong Turn 4 begins in 1974 at the Glenville Sanatorium, a mental institution packed with patients deformed by inbreeding. Among those patients are pre-teen versions of Three Finger, One Eye, and Saw Tooth, the trio of killers introduced in the original Wrong Turn film. O'Brien gives information on how the brothers got their defining characteristics - it was through self-cannibalism and self-mutilation. Three Finger gnawed off his other fingers, One Eye gouged out his own eye and ate it, Saw Tooth sharpened his teeth on the wall. The writer/director also gives them a last name - Hillicker. It's not their actual name, it was given to them because they were found in the woods by a woman named Hillicker, who discovered them feasting on the corpses of what was assumed to be their parents. (Their father was in the first two movies, so clearly that wasn't the case.)


The brothers don't remain in their cell for very long. Picking the door lock with a hairpin taken from a newly hired female therapist, they lead their fellow patients on a riot through the halls of the sanatorium, brutally killing any employees who get in their way. With these early kills, O'Brien shows that he wasn't content just to have your typical quick slasher murders this time around, the characters torture their victims to death and rig elaborate, painful demises for them. Personally, I'd much rather see a simple slashing than something like a guy getting his barbed wire-wrapped limbs slowly torn off.

As the subtitle Bloody Beginnings denotes, this entry is indeed a prequel, but only the opening sequence actually represents any sort of a "beginning" for the killers. The film then jumps from 1974 to 2003, the year of release for the first Wrong Turn, by which time the trio's murderous exploits were already very well established. This prequel is really set just a few months before the events of part 1, and it's only set in that time period as an excuse to have the original three killers back in place.

Other than "the original gang's all here", the primary selling point for Wrong Turn 4 is the fact that it's set in the winter. Fans of the Friday the 13th franchise have long hoped for a sequel that would see hockey masked slasher Jason Voorhees turning snowy environments red with blood, but as that series drags its heels getting around to that idea, movies like this are the closest things we have to tide us over.

O'Brien's story centers on a group of annoying college kids who get lost while snowmobiling their way to a friend's remote cabin. Stranded in the woods as a blizzard blows in, the unlucky knuckleheads seek shelter in a large building they spot in the distance. Glenville Sanatorium, twenty-nine years abandoned.

The shelter from the storm soon proves to be a death trap, as Three Finger, One Eye, and Saw Tooth arrive on the scene and begin picking off the interlopers one-by-one, proving that the urban legend of the Greenbrier hillbillies is completely true.


Wrong Turn 4 is a step up from Wrong Turn 3, both on O'Brien's end and for the franchise in general. Some of the more prolonged deaths may not be for me, but for the most part it is an effective, low rent slasher. Still, it feels lacking, and as with the troubles I had with the third film, I attribute a lot of this one's issues with the fact that O'Brien really doesn't seem into this type of movie. He admits on his commentary that he's not much of a horror fan because the movies get to him too much. He says he watched a lot of horror as research when he got the Wrong Turn job, but compare his work to how horror fan Joe Lynch handled the material with Wrong Turn 2: Dead End and it becomes clear that research can't replicate passion.

Instead, by basing his movie around what he assumes horror fans like to see, O'Brien ended up simply filling Bloody Beginnings with clich├ęs. The characters spent their time drinking, doing drugs, and being extremely lascivious. They're all blank slates with hardly anything done to differentiate them. One couple are lesbians, and that was all the character work that was done for them. With so many empty characters, it's hard to tell for a while which of them is supposed to be the standout hero or heroine. You just figure it out from watching the group get whittled down. The Friday the 13th series gets bashed a lot, but even at its lowest points it at least had characters with personality.

If you want to kill time watching a slasher movie, Wrong Turn 4 will fit the bill, but it's nothing special. Recommended only to viewers like me, who simply can't get enough of this sort of thing.



THE FINAL TERROR (1983)

There's a legend based around the Mill Creek area of heavily forested Redwood County. The tragic story of a 14-year-old girl driven insane by being raped and impregnated by her lumberjack uncle. She gave birth to a son while committed in the local mental institution. 19 years later, her son returned to visit her for the first time. Enraged by the condition of the place, the son checked his mother out of the institution... but had no way to properly care for a woman so out of her mind, so he decided to take her out into the wilderness, to live far away from civilization. Now she stalks the forest, a danger to anyone who dares hike out to Mill Creek.

When the leader of the Redwood County Youth Corps plans a work detail out around Mill Creek, transportation coordinator Eggar knows it's a very bad idea, especially since the plan is for a group of unexperienced young girls to join the young men in the corps for this particular job. Not only does Eggar not approve of what the mixed gender team will likely be getting up to out there in the woods, he's also clearly very nervous about taking them out to Mill Creek. He repeatedly warns them not to go there and tries to talk them out of it. If he weren't such a contemptible jerk, maybe they'd listen.

Instead, the Youth Corps and their female companions venture miles and miles out into the dark, dense forest, crossing into the booby-trapped territory of a feral maniac who proceeds to hunt them down and dispatch them in brutal ways.

The script for The Final Terror was a collaboration between Alien story co-writer Ronald Shusett and the screenwriting duo of Jon George and Neill D. Hicks. The movie was filmed in 1981, at the height of the slasher boom, but by the time it was completed distributors had already grown weary of the sub-genre. The film sat on the shelf for two years, until drawing interest because the careers of some of its stars were beginning to take off.

At the time of filming, the biggest name in the cast was Mark Metcalf, best known for his antagonistic role in Animal House. When the movie was picked up for a release in 1983, the cast was looking pretty impressive: Adrian Zmed was on T.J. Hooker, Daryl Hannah had just been in Blade Runner, Rachel Ward was starring in the TV miniseries The Thorn Birds, and Joe Pantoliano, the guy who played that creep Eggar, was menacing Tom Cruise in Risky Business.

Director Andrew Davis, who had previously worked primarily as a cinematographer and took that position for himself on The Final Terror as well, went on to have a notable career himself, making the 1993 film version of The Fugitive and a bunch of action movies starring the likes of Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Although it turned out to have quite a pedigree, The Final Terror certainly isn't the most entertaining or exciting of the '80s slashers. Not much happens, the woods it was filmed in were so thick that the picture is often incredibly dark, the characters aren't very interesting or fun, the kills are few and far between. It's really more of a subpar take on Deliverance than it is an attempt at replicating Friday the 13th.

That forest location does make the film effectively atmospheric, however, and watching the well-camouflaged killer stalk the characters through it provides a decent amount of suspense.

The cast, the director, Shusett, those are the things that truly make The Final Terror remarkable. Without those elements, the movie would have faded even further into obscurity than it already has. It's understandable why it took a while for it to get distribution even in the slasher heyday, because there's really nothing to it that makes it stand out from the pack... until the actors started getting famous.

It warrants a viewing or two from fans of the era and this type of movie, but it's not likely to blow anyone away. Running 82 minutes, at least it doesn't ask much of your time, and when it's done you can say, "I watched that slasher movie with Daryl Hannah and Joey Pants."

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