The Mutilator (1984)
Studio: Arrow Video
Release date: February 16th, 2016
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
When North Carolina native Buddy Cooper came into some money in the early 80s, he had two choices: either purchase a French vineyard or sink the cash into making a movie. Over 30 years later, he admits that the vineyard would have been a wiser investment, which is not to say he regrets his decision to direct The Mutilator. Far from it, in fact, as it has become a badge of honor for both Cooper and a crew that set out to add their piece to the decade’s slasher movie dialogue. Their pride comes with good reason: The Mutilator is one of the most eccentric voices in that conversation, one that’s endured if only because there’s nothing quite like its charming, down-home drawl.
That its existence was almost thwarted because its director almost bought a vineyard instead actually captures just how bizarre The Mutilator is. Once you’ve seen it, you realize that this is a perfect anecdote since it accurately reflects the film’s utter randomness. Within the space of about ten minutes, it breezes through an utterly deranged collage of violence, sleaze, and laid-back boozing: we watch young Ed Jr. accidentally blast a hole right through his mother with his father’s shotgun—on the latter’s birthday, no less. Unsettling strains of “Happy Birthday” bleed into the ominous score as Ed Sr. slaps his child around before cozying up to his wife’s corpse, beer in hand.
This is fucked—but not so fucked that the film can’t jump ahead ten years to reassure us that Junior (Matt Mitler) somehow turned out to be just fine. With his childhood trauma firmly in the rearview mirror, he bums around in a college town bar with his buddies, all of whom are dismayed to have no plans for Fall Break. Fate intervenes when Ed’s father calls up the bar (what does it say about Junior that his old man knows he’d be drinking?) to inform his son that his nearby beach condo needs to be closed up for the winter. It should be noted that, when recounting Ed’s tragic history, a friend notes that the incident drove his father insane, though apparently not enough to keep him from living successfully enough to afford an oceanfront condo.
Despite Ed Jr.’s reservations, his friends can’t ignore the serendipity. Suddenly, their holiday is settled: with the car packed and the course charted, the group heads for the dunes, their journey scored by “Fall Break,” the film’s deceptively carefree, toe-tapping title anthem. It’s the sort of jangly, piano-clanking tune made for shagging—and I don’t mean screwing, though that’s certainly on the horndogs’ agendas here.
It’s no surprise to discover that Cooper was weighing his options before settling on The Mutilator; even after he got started, it seems like he couldn’t decide if he wanted to make a slasher movie or a teen comedy, as hijinks typical of the latter abound throughout the credits. An attempt to snake a deal at a podunk gas station (where one of our very white protagonists dares to cry discrimination towards the black store owner when denied a senior discount) yields to the usual sex-and-booze shenanigans. Wondering how the film is titled The Mutilator is fair, though you’re not exactly bored to just hang out with these southern-fried numbskulls. Bumbling around with accents as thick as their heads, most of the group isn’t too fussed to discover that the condo looks to have been ransacked.
No worry, Ed reassures his friends—the old man just likes to party with his drinking buddies is all. They should pay no mind to the creepy assortment of mounted animal trophies crowding the walls, nor should they be all that worried that his dad has pointed hunted every animal but man. Maybe don’t read too much into the framed photo of the mangled corpse his dad left in the wake of a gruesome boating “accident.” The giant-battle axe conspicuously missing from the wall? Big Ed likes to take it with him sometimes, just because. Also, check out this cool and not-at-all-weird ancient hunting mask. Little Ed has a remarkable amount of reverence for an unhinged father that all but disowned him.
Unlike some slasher movie directors, Cooper is considerate enough to make this setup worthwhile with a slack-jawed charm reflecting the film’s homespun North Carolina roots. If slasher movies were presidential nominees, The Mutilator would be the proverbial candidate with which you’d like to have a drink. He’s your good-old-boy buddy who never left home, content to spend his Friday nights in the same old dive, drinking the same old beer. Maybe he’s a little weird sometimes, but you shrug it off: it’s just The Mutilator being The Mutilator.
This is to say you have to really go with it. Certainly anyone well-versed in the garbled cinematic language of slasher movies will recognize bizarre (if not hilarious) gaps in logic, the languid pacing, the general lack of plot beyond “dumb kids stumble around before their heads are impaled to a wall.” Even those well-acquainted with this decidedly acquired taste might find The Mutilator especially galling, though. To say that little exists beyond that general premise isn’t an exaggeration, as Cooper isn’t even interested in mounting any kind of a mystery.
Big Ed (Jack Chatham) is actually introduced with little fanfare; perhaps still recovering from a recent bender, he just sort of lurks and hangs out in an adjacent shed that houses the various sharp implements he’ll soon wield against his son’s friends. Essentially the abusive, alcoholic dad pushed to a logical extreme, Big Ed is the psychotic riff on the angry dad fumbling around in the basement, right down to his need to take a nap when his work exhausts him. The Mutilator is quite possibly the only movie where the killer takes what must be a hangover-fueled breather in the middle of his murder spree. Sometimes, you wonder if he even really cares that all these kids are slaughtered. Overcoming this booze-fog may be more pressing.
Granted, you certainly can’t argue that he doesn’t want to see them butchered in the most awful, grisly manner imaginable. While the film’s idiosyncratic asides and flourishes might guarantee some level of infamy, there’s another, more obvious reason a film called The Mutilator became a notorious video store staple. One of the more notable imports to an otherwise locally-flavored cast, Mark Shostrom arrived in North Carolina ready to do work. Having already cut his teeth on various Roger Corman productions, Shostrom cut loose on The Mutilator, gleefully devising all sorts of goopy carnage to bring Cooper’s ghastly screenplay to life.
By 1984, the slasher arms race had escalated to absurd levels, so it’s no surprise that Cooper feels compelled to resort to outlandish but absolutely heinous latex butchery. His eccentricity continues to shine through these over-the-top sequences, which find inventive uses for everything from fishing gaffs to outboard motors. A weird, almost atonal mean streak underlies these moments, even if viewers may find themselves hooting at many of the reaction shots, and this is not to mention just how far Cooper pushes the absurdity at times. Certainly, The Mutilator features one of the all-time great riffs on the slasher villain’s obligatory last gasp, a ludicrous grace note that confirms the film’s place as one of the era’s most outrageously entertaining goofball slashers.
It’s that willingness to embrace quirks that separates The Mutilator from the slasher movie horde. Despite operating within a rigidly formulaic genre, Cooper creates a singular experience with this specific strand of corn-syrup flavored inanity. Unfolding in the utter desolation of a sleepy, isolated seaside town, the film is remarkably—and perhaps surprisingly—atmospheric, bathed in blue, autumn moonlight that heightens the otherworldly quality of the mayhem. Between this and the homespun, almost backyard production feel, it’s fair to say that there’s almost nothing quite like The Mutilator. To find its closest cinematic cousin, you perhaps have to look as far as its “special guest appearance” by Bennie Moore. A veteran of a handful of Herschel Gordon Lewis films, Moore connects this effort to that legacy, and Cooper cements his place in the annals of peculiar, regional filmmaking.
That The Mutilator found its audience in the disreputable corners of video stores is apt: just as the Godfather of Gore gained notoriety from one drive-in screen to the next, so too did Cooper’s film thrive on word of mouth of enthusiasts willing to indulge the cheap, lurid thrill of watching a maniac eviscerate people. It is in this scene—and perhaps only this scene—that a film could have a psycho dad fillet his son’s friends, yet dare to end with a credits sequence that feels ripped from a 90s sitcom. It’s here that you’re especially grateful that Cooper weighed his options in favor of The Mutilator. After all, vineyards come and go, but fall break is forever.
The Mutilator’s journey to digital home video platforms has been nothing short of a saga. One of the most sought-after titles for well over a decade now, its release has been teased by a number of home video companies. At some point, Arrow Video untangled the various rights issues and managed to secure a completely uncut 35mm negative for their DVD/Blu-ray combo pack. The disc is nothing short of a revelation: The Mutilator has always ruled, but it turns out that it rules even more now that you can actually see everything that’s happening. Freed from the tyranny of murky, shadowy VHS transfers, the film certainly looks better than it has in over thirty years. Certain sequences—such as a game of Blind Man’s Bluff that sees the cast stumbling around in a decently lit room—might be even goofier now as a result, but it’s a fair trade-off, all things considered.
More than fair is the amount of supplements Arrow has lavished upon The Mutilator. Cooper and assistant editor Edmund Ferrell introduce the film with an explanation of the newly recovered uncut footage, and then go on to appear on various extras throughout the disc. Cooper appears on two separate commentaries: the first is alongside Ferrell, Mitler, assistant director John Douglass, and Arrow moderator Ewan Cant, while the second track joins the director with star Ruth Martinez.
Besides the commentaries, the centerpiece extra here is “Fall Breakers: The Story of The Mutilator,” a 75-minute¬ retrospective that charts the film’s development and enduring legacy. Similar in scope to the documentaries Scream Factory has produced, it features remembrances from all corners of the cast and crew, from Cooper all the way down to the guys who performed various on-set odd jobs. While the retrospective confirms your suspicions about the film’s homespun nature (at one point, Cooper jokes about running out of relatives to fill out scenes with extras), it also provides an insightful look into just how to mount such a production.
As tempting as it is to assume Cooper just rustled up friends and family to shoot a movie, there was actually quite a bit more to the process, including a nationwide call for cast and crew. What’s most impressive is the minutiae of what some of these folks can recall for a small, cult film that was shot over 30 years ago, and it’s rewarding to see everyone still shares a fondness for The Mutilator. To this day, it’s a source of pride, even for Martinez, who has since become a teacher who’s had to explain her turn in the film to her students. Hell, Cooper’s even got a wacky idea for a sequel kicking around in his head that may rival Blood Beat as the most random, outlandish premise for a slasher movie.
If the retrospective—which also features vintage behind-the-scenes footage and stills—weren’t enough, the disc features a handful of other supplements, including separate chats with Shostrom and composer Michael Minard (who obviously addresses the now infamous theme song). Even the original screen tests have survived, which is quite amazing when you consider how hard it was to find decent elements for the film itself. The usual assortment of promotional materials—a couple of trailers and TV/radio spots—round out the disc along with the alternate Mutilator title sequence (the film itself carries the original Fall Break branding—it’s easy to see why someone felt the need to retitle it for video store shelves).
It’s remarkable that The Mutilator has finally seen any sort of release at all, much less this unbelievable treatment. Between this and their recent Blood Rage release, Arrow has become the patron saint of slasher movie fans clamoring for obscure titles. Even if The Mutilator is hardly the last of such films (in case anyone at Arrow actually sees this, we still need Body Count, Fatal Games, and The Prey—thanks!), it’s one that counts as something of a holy grail. Best of all, it’s been released this early in the year, which means you have plenty of time to put it on tap for when "the leaves of summer turn red and gold." comments powered by Disqus Ratings: