Written by: Roy Koz, Wally Koz
Directed by: Wally Koz
Starring: Mara Lynn Bastian, Charles Fuller, and Greg Kerouac
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“We got a madman running around the city and you're talking to your wife about a fuckin' barbeque!"
The rise of consumer grade video equipment during the 80s was a boon for middle class families, who could now more easily document their lives, preserving their memories on fuzzy camcorder footage (if you were to scour some of my relatives’ houses, for example, you’d find a smattering of my childhood, mostly various Christmases). Especially now, it feels like a quaint, cozy way to reminisce about days—and perhaps even family members—now long gone. Chicago native Wally Koz had different ideas though: rather than simply grab a camcorder for some home footage, why not enlist your entire family in the production of a vaguely Satanic splatter movie. After all, many homespun, wannabe auteurs willed lo-fi efforts to video stores on the backs of contemporary audience’s insatiable appetite for blood and guts. We often joke about how the SOV scene often found people grabbing family, friends, and whatever video equipment they could in order to shoestring a movie together, and 555 boasts proof of that in its credits: no less than five members of the Koz clan appear, including, most noticeably, catering by mom. I wish my family had been so devoted to my obsessions; I could barely convince them to rent something like 555, much less talk them into actually producing it.
Hatched alongside Wally’s brother (and co-writer) Roy, 555 isn’t the most intricate murder mystery you’ve ever laid eyes on: in short, a killer dubbed The Lakefront Butcher is slaughtering couples mid-coitus, mutilating the bodies, and then having his way with the woman’s corpse. Authorities are befuddled, as their only lead is Peter Wayne (Charles Fuller), a retired colonel who witnessed one of the slayings from afar. His details are fuzzy, yet also suspicious, at least according to sergeant Connor (Greg Kerouac), the hotheaded cop assigned to the case. After all, just what was he doing walking on that beach alone at night? The colonel’s reasonable explanation that he does so every night to clear his head just doesn’t sit well with Connor, landing him squarely in the crosshairs of an investigation that also features hard-nosed reporter Susan Rather (Mara Lynn Bastian), who will stop at nothing (including a striptease) to stay in the loop.
555 is one of those movies where its VHS box art doubles as its mission statement: even the briefest glance at the crudely realized severed head would be enough to alert you that Koz is primarily concerned with gruesome effects work. Actually watching it bears that out: each murder sequence is prolonged for maximum grisliness, each of them executed with the same crudeness glimpsed on the aforementioned box art. His camera is unflinching, capturing each barbaric hack and every flailing slash: he rightfully recognizes that most of the budget went towards these effects, so he might as well show them off as much as possible. The prominently advertised decapitation best exemplifies this: not content to simply thrust a ramshackle prosthetic into the frame, Koz also lingers on the bloody stump, capturing a half dozen karo syrup spurts for good measure. You can practically see several dollars right there on screen. In fact, you can see them multiple times, as 555 is the only movie I can recall that replays every gore sequence as its killer bleeds to death: whether he’s fondly reminiscing about his carnage or simply watching his gore-soaked life flash before his eyes is up for debate.
Also debatable: are the ample gore displays really enough to separate 555 from the VHS splatter pack? The more I watch these homespun movies, the more I realize a strange paradox: while most of them were made with the tacit understanding that they’re mostly excuses to stage gore, such an approach means that nearly all of them meet the required splatter quotient. As a result, you’re sent looking for other eccentricities to really cull this particular herd: simply put, when gore isn’t enough, you hope to turn up some batshit crazy embellishments. 555 has a few, most of them in an unlikely place: usually, if you’re noting the acting in one of these things, it’s because they’re of the sub-abysmal sort. Here, though, the performances are nothing if not wildly spirited: everyone is super invested, to the point where it becomes kind of infectious. Kerouac is an absolute hoot as the loose cannon cop-on-the-edge, his every line of dialogue swelling with more and more pronounced aggression. His contentious relationship with his lone suspect makes for some great exchanges, as Fuller matches his co-star’s aggression with a hilariously inept sort of righteous indignity. It feels sort of like watching a grandpa attempt to get pissed, only you can’t take him seriously.
Both of them also have to contend with Bastian’s persistent reporter, too, which only leads to more hilarity. Watch as our ninja reporter stealthily stands outside the cops’ office to discover they barely tolerate her presence, with one of them admitting that he sleeps with her just to give the impression of keeping her in the loop. Witness as she tries to pry information out of Colonel Wayne by practically plopping her breast right out of her shirt, allowing him to grope it before cutting him off once she’s learned enough from him. I’m not sure how any of this is supposed to work, but I’m not sure anyone involved with 555 does either, which is just as well. Unfortunately, these outrageous moments are scattered about like unruly oases in the otherwise arid desert that is 555, which quickly becomes a bit too repetitive for its own good: we watch as our killer prepares for his next slayings, shrouded in shadows and vaguely resembling a hippy. He then slaughters his next victims, but not before we’re subjected to their awkward attempts at lovemaking.
The rest of our characters yell at each other a lot in the aftermath, all while the police are technically knee-deep in an investigation to discover this madman’s identity, a procedural that mostly amounts to Sergeant Connor taking calls from his supervisor (voiced by Wally Koz himself, naitch) that relay all the pertinent information. Given that he doesn’t actually uncover anything, it occurs to me now that Connor is actually a shit detective, despite his vociferous arguments to the contrary. As more backstory is unveiled by these voiceovers (I think the supervisor’s name is Captain Exposition), the audience also learns the origin of the film’s cryptic title. It turns out the Lakefront Butcher has a history that stretches back decades, with his M.O. staying consistent: every five years, he butchers five couples in five days. See, what sounds like an underwhelming play on the number of the beast (or a fake phone number, I guess) actually refers to the killer’s methods. Total nonsense either way, which is what you want here.
All told, 555 lands on the lower end of the SOV spectrum, mostly because it still feels too long and repetitive: some shots linger for too long, and several scenes drag and drone on past the point of tolerability. The eventual reveal of the killer’s identity underwhelms, though Koz does manage some nicely atmospheric flourishes during the climax that stand in stark contrast to the otherwise pallid video aesthetic. If nothing else, though, the Koz family at least has a wild tale that they’ll carry with them forever. You know what they say: the family that slays on SOV together, stays together—where you or I might pull out an ancient tape to recall family vacations or school plays, the Koz brood can fondly remember the time good old (and, sadly, dearly departed) Wally talked them all into producing a scummy slasher movie. I hope they also give a shout out to mom’s catering too while they’re at it.
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