Written by: Keith Burns & Ray Atherton (screenplay), Miklos Gyulai & Steve Singer (additional material)
Directed by: Evan Lee & Ed Wood (uncredited)
Starring: Christopher Lee, Larry Justin, and J. Arthur Craig
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“He's just lying in that bed like a carrot...a big carrot!"
"I never did like carrots."
"I never did like carrots."
No meatcleavers are actually used in Meatcleaver Massacre (aka Hollywood Meatcleaver Massacre), but their reputations might be forever sullied by their association with the film—if it were ever seen by anyone but the staunchest supporters of junk cinema, of course. Indeed, this one’s a real obscure treat with a bizarre production history—you’ll notice that Ed Wood’s name pops up as a credited actor, but it turns out his participation was even more extensive than that (more on that ominous tidbit to come). Usually, it’s a bad sign when a film’s production threatens to overshadow the film itself, but Meatcleaver Massacre makes a good case for itself because it’s an unabashed sleaze show in the great, grimy 70s tradition that marries awkward sex and explicit gore with the most threadbare narrative imaginable.
In fact, the film was initially so thin that the producers had to bring Christopher Lee in to bookend the proceedings as its host. In that capacity, he rambles on about various myths and legends from history before finally (and vaguely) seguing into the main story, which finds Professor Cantrell (James Habif) lecturing a class about Morac, an ancient beast that can be summoned to exact revenge. Mason (Larry Justin) scoffs at the notion and retires to his apartment building, where he and his fellow classmates drink, smoke, and shoot the shit. When one of the guys (Doug Senior) makes an offhand comment about being a tough guy, Mason casually suggests that they stroll down Hollywood Boulevard and pay Professor Cantrell an unexpected visit. The burglary soon becomes even more violent, as Mason savagely murders Cantrell’s family (including his dog, inexplicably named Poopers) and leaves the professor for dead. Unfortunately for him, Cantrell is merely beaten to the edge of death before he lapses into a semi-unconscious state that still (somehow) allows him to conjure up Morac to claim vengeance on his behalf.
A title like Meatcleaver Massacre certainly anticipates the gratuitous slasher movies that would arrive in droves a decade later, and it plays very much like one of those films in that the splatter sequences serve as the center of gravity. Orbiting around them is a bunch of refuse—but it’s great refuse. One interlude finds one of the more conscious-ridden guys contemplating suicide in the most considerate way imaginable, as he ponders about the horrible mess he’ll leave behind for his landlord. Another scene suddenly turns the film into one of those great, seedy tours through the 70s urban underworld when another of the boys looks to get his rocks off at a whorehouse. Shots of him languidly strolling down the sleazy, neon-lit avenue are interrupted by a random scene featuring a priest looking for some action himself. Meatcleaver Massacre might be so much filler, but it’s stuffed with such an earnest, offbeat weirdness that I can’t fathom what was going through any of the four screenwriters’ minds when they wrote it (I also can’t believe that the largely amateur cast made it through with straight faces).
In fact, some of that filler might be more memorable than some of the death sequences. Credited (hint, hint) director Evan Lee hews to the monster movie formula by shrouding the demon and revealing it in increments, but some of the early sequences are unimpressive. The first murder simply involves a guy “hiking” through an arid landscape before he’s slashed by some unseen thing. Things improve the second time around, as the next victim works at a mechanic’s garage and winds up on the wrong end of the most impressive hood-melon smash this side of Madman. I feel like it’d be spoiling a bit too much if I went any further (the film only offers four such sequences), but, suffice to say, it’s decent stuff that even anticipates the contrived set-ups of Final Destination in some instances. Some don’t come without some semblance of artfulness, either; a classical painting of Morac figures heavily into one of the more frenzied sequences. However, it also serves as an unfortunate reminder of the film’s paltry budget: where the painting depicts Morac as an inhuman demon, the live-action one that eventually shows up looks like a cross between the Jolly Green Giant and Bigfoot.
Meatcleaver Massacre is definitely a warbler of a movie that’ll feel familiar to anyone well-acquainted with this particular brand of horror hailing from off the beaten path. Many stretches are indeed protracted beyond their effectiveness, including a nightmarish bit where the guys stumble around a mausoleum and discover the bodies of the slain family—it starts out eerie enough but soon grows a bit tedious. But even though the film sometimes drones, I’ll be damned if it doesn’t leave some sort of impression—again, it’s too kooky to dismiss, and most of the payoffs are grisly and demented (you’ve got blood-spattered bodies, ripped-out eyeballs, scalded faces, all brought to life by “disgusting makeups,” as the credits put it). Of course, it may also leave such an impression because it’s downright incomprehensible—the meat of the story is easy enough to follow as it unfolds, but it eventually turns on an inane twist that leaves just about all of it in doubt. Lee’s closing narration doesn’t help because he just starts to babble on about shamans before the film abruptly hits the closing credits, so Meatcleaver Massacre ends up feeling like an anthology film where the host simply recites most of the stories.
Such a fate isn’t surprising for a film fraught with so much production difficulty. The jumbled mess of a script certainly feels like the work of a discordant quartet, and Lee did it no favors when shepherding it to the screen. In fact, the director soon realized he was in over his head and bailed, leaving one of the producers to reach out to an old acquaintance to complete the film: Ed Wood, who was beyond slumming it at this point as a porn director. Even that wasn’t enough to rescue Meatcleaver Massacre (as you might imagine, Wood’s name was hardly a selling point), so the producers again had to reach out to a familiar face in Chris Lee. Legend has it that the stalwart actor was essentially tricked into filming the film’s bookending segments, as he was under the impression that he was actually shooting it for another movie altogether. His scenes certainly play that way since his long, airless narrations have little to do with the other proceedings; I’ve always thought that it would be interesting to even hear Lee recite pages from a phone book, but I’m not so sure anymore.
Of course, even Lee’s presence (as the top-billed actor!) wasn’t enough to save Meatcleaver Massacre from obscurity. The film never screened in theaters and only found life on television and video years after its completion (it was shot in ’75 but wasn’t shown until ’77). Only 35 years later did the film finally find an actual theatrical audience, as the Alamo Drafthouse recently uncovered an old, worn-out print and screened it as part of its Terror Tuesday series. It was a real lightning-in-a-bottle moment: here was Ed Wood’s final film being screened before an unwitting audience for the first time ever. I’ll grant that the relative enormity of that situation might be influencing my thoughts on the film itself—something tells me that it might not have had the same effect in solitude, but, when surrounded by dozens of like-minded nuts, it was a hoot. Plus, it features a pretty knee-slapping moment where a local cop (J. Arthur Craig)—who has spent the entire movie investigating the murder without crossing his suspects’ paths—casually divulges exactly what’s going on. I’d say it’s not every day you stumble onto a case involving a comatose professor summoning demons to kill his students, but maybe that’s why they call it Hollyweird after all. Buy it!
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