Written and Directed by: Buddy Cooper
Starring: Matt Mitler, Ruth Martinez and Bill Hitchcock
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďThat's strange. My dad's battleaxe is missing."
In a genre full of homespun movies, Buddy Cooperís The Mutilator is among the most homespun of slasher flicks. While it doesnít have the camcorder charm of its shot-on-video brethren, itís about a half-step removed from that scene, particularly in spirit. Doused in regional dressing, it certainly has that backyard quality, as if Cooper gathered up a bunch of his buddies to make a slasher flick during a weekend beach retreat. Very little of its cast ever went on to do anything of note, and Ben Mooreís four screen credits (most of which came in Herschell Gordon Lewis joints two decades earlier) are enough to garner him a ďspecial appearanceĒ status here. Amateurism pervades The Mutilator, and, as it so often is for these types of films, itís both a blessing and a curse all at once since the film undoubtedly wouldnít be the same without it.
Like many slashers, The Mutilator begins with a fever-dreamy prologue that finds an idyllic family scene: little Ed Jr. has just polished off his fatherís gun collection while his mother prepares a cake for the patriarchís birthday. When Junior gets a curious with one of the shotguns, he ends up accidentally blowing his mom away, much to his fatherís dismay. A cut to the present day reveals that Ed (Matt Mitler) is now a well-adjusted, beer-nursing college student with nothing to do on Fall Break. Luckily, his estranged old man calls him up and insists that he needs to come out to the family condo and close it up for the winter, so Edís buddies decide to take an impromptu beach trip to help him out with the chore. Upon arrival, itís pretty clear they should have stayed home since this Fall Break will be their last if the homicidal maniac prowling the grounds has his way.
The Mutilator is one of those slashers that works despite itself. Dealing with this genre is often a crapshoot, and I tend to like those slashers that are a little wry and campy, but, every now and then, one of these amateurish cornballs slips past the goalie. Itís easy to mistake large stretches of The Mutilator for a beer commercial, particularly the early bar scene where the kids loll about making bad jokes. Then it careens into an opening credits montage scored by the filmís theme song, ďFall Break,Ē a finger-snapping, toe-tapper of a tune that encapsulates the utter cheesiness of The Mutilator, not to mention its tone deafness. After all, only a few minutes earlier, youíve just witnessed a little boy blowing a hole through his mom. Silliness continues to abound through the montage as the kids visit a podunk gas station and battle car trouble (foreshadowing!), and the whole thing feels more apt for a sitcom rather than a slasher.
Things donít get a whole lot better (or maybe they do, depending on your persuasion) once the kids arrive at the condo, where they do a bunch of poking around the house. And for a guy who has nightmarish visions involving his dad abusing him, Ed sure has a lot of reverence for the old man, as he proudly shows off all the hunting trophies he accumulated over the years. The guy even once framed a section of the wall where he and his buddies chucked junk into it, thus assuring us that he had more than a few screws loose and totally seems like the type of guy who would try to kill his son and his friends. All of this is done in an almost improvised manner, but thereís something wholly authentic about it all, from the slack-jawed, southern accents to the incredible earnestness of the cast, who just seem pretty happy to be there making a movie. As such, the film is watchable even when it shouldnít be--the first kill (opening scene excluded) comes a staggering 35 minutes into the movie, and thereís not a remarkably high body count anyway.
Typically, thatís a death knell for a slasher movie, particularly one that has almost no suspense like The Mutilator since thereís never any sense of mystery about the killerís identity or motives (surprise--itís the estranged, raging alcoholic dad). The characters are routinely dumb and say dumb things as they fill out the expected stereotypes: thereís the chaste, virginal girl who stymies Edís attempts at sex, while the more amorous couple look for any opportunity to bang, whether itís in a garage or an absurdly large pool. A red-headed goofball also accompanies the group, and he fails to really distinguish himself from most of his peers since heís also a sex-crazed beer-swiller. Even when the slashing starts, these guys are still just prowling around the house, unwittingly isolating themselves for the killer, who spends the movie lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce. While itís pretty repetitive, Cooper strikes gold in the setting, a moody, desolate beach whose autumnal isolation is an ideal slasher locale and tone-setter. Most of the movie is draped in deep blue moonlight and shadows, and the moodiness compensates for the various other shortcomings.
Cooper also gets the most important slasher element right in the form of the rad gore effects. The Mutilator is a rather savage entry in the 80s slasher canon, as it lives up to its name by showcasing some tremendously realistic and grisly gore effects. One of them is a bit undercut by the silly reaction of one of the victims, but, otherwise, The Mutilator is the real deal for gorehounds. While Cooper doesnít prove himself to be the most gifted of storytellers, he understands Chekovís gun pretty well, so when you see a giant fishing hook early in the film, you can rest assured it eventually serves as one of the filmís signature moments. In fact, the movie is ultimately so unflinchingly violent that the silly, light-hearted tone really betrays its eventual ruthlessness. When the theme song is reprised during the closing credits, the ďgonna have a good timeĒ refrain almost feels ironic since it's been washed away in bloodshed, decapitations, and bisections.
The Mutilator falls right in line with other slashers who unwittingly mix inanity and violence in a manner that impossibly works. Itís truly a spiritual successor to both The Prowler and Madman, a couple of other moody, moonlight-tinted slashers, only itís even more crude than those two. Despite its seemingly decent standing with slasher fans, The Mutilator remains without a DVD release*. Code Red has had it on its hit list for several years but has yet to deliver it. Given the companyís recent troubles, itís hard to say if theyíll ever get around to it (I believe the companyís president has cited a lack of usable 35mm elements as a hindrance). Failing this, thereís always the VHS release, but fans need to keep a sharp eye here since a cut version of the film was released on that format. A PAL DVD also surfaced a few years ago, but itís now so out of print that it commands almost as much as the VHS tapes. As much as I enjoy The Mutilator, itís a tough one to recommend at such prices; however, should it ever make its way to DVD, itíll make a fine addition to the shelves of splatter enthusiasts. Buy it!
*Good news--just moments before I posted this review, an outfit called Titan Video announced that it's set to bring The Mutilator to DVD and Blu-ray in the future. Keep an eye on their Facebook page for updates.
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