Written by: Claudio Fragasso
Directed by: Claudio Fragasso, Bruno Mattei
Starring: Peter Hooten, Tara Buckman, and Richard Foster
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“What the hell do you think you're doing?"
In 1982, Spanish filmmaker Juan Piquer Simón infamously insisted that you don’t have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre with Pieces, a zoned-out splatter movie that helped to herald the increasingly loopy output arriving from European shores throughout the 80s. As the calendar rolled over to the new decade, Italy sent a corresponding dispatch from the other end of this wormhole, one that went several light years further with Night Killer, a movie that suggests that, sometimes, you have to go to Virginia Beach to experience a Texas Chainsaw Massacre. If this sounds like some garbled nonsense, here’s the crucial decoder: both Claudio Fragasso and Bruno Mattei were involved, though neither is at fault for a movie with no chainsaws set 1500 miles away from Texas being rebranded as Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 upon release in its native Italy.
To make matters even more confusing, the masked maniac terrorizing Virginia Beach takes more cues from Freddy Krueger than he does from Leatherface. Donning a Halloween store monster mask and a rubbery claw apparatus, he targets unsuspecting women and rips their hearts out. Something goes awry, however, when he happens upon Melanie Beck (Tara Buckman), a neurotic divorcee prone to talking to herself in the mirror while she’s inexplicably topless. Not content to simply paint the walls red with Melanie’s heart, he orchestrates a marathon torture session that’s eventually interrupted by her good friend Sherman (Richard Foster). The killer flees the scene and leaves Melanie in a near-catatonic state: with her mind completely broken, she becomes suicidal husk who has to be pulled back from the brink by a enigmatic weirdo Axel (Peter Hooten) who forces her to vomit up a cocktail of pills by nearly drowning her in the ocean.
And that’s not the half of it—hell, it’s not a fourth of it since I dare not spoil how Melanie and Axel meet in the first place. Likewise, I’ll carefully tiptoe around the particulars of what these two are up to for the bulk of the movie, revealing only that it involves this increasingly unhinged lunatic keeping Melanie captive in a hotel room, toying with her sanity. She wants to die, but he’s not willing to oblige, and it’s implied that she’s had the misfortune of falling into the killer’s clutches all over again. Seeking revenge for his first botched attempt, he’s going to finish the job slowly, tormenting Melanie as he continues his murder spree across the city, much to the dismay of the local police force now under fire for failing to protect this poor woman. Maybe.
Let’s address the obvious elephant in the room: just what in the hell does this sweaty, psychosexual De Palma rip-off have to do with Texas Chainsaw Massacre? The answer is, of course, absolutely nothing. Night Killer is amongst that nominally confused bunch of movies that often defined this era of Eurohorror exploitation. Impressively, it may be the most haywire and scrambled of the lot. You might recall that Terminator 2 (aka Shocking Dark) might be more of an Aliens rip-off, but it at least comes around to something faintly resembling James Cameron’s time-travel cyborg epic. The various fake Demons sequels at least boast some demonic activity. Squint hard enough, and you can at least figure out how everything from Ghosthouse to Beyond Darkness to House II fall under the Evil Dead umbrella. Cruel Jaws definitely features a damn shark, even if it had to be stitched together with 3 other movies. And the propagator of this trend, Zombie 2, speaks for itself: no, it wasn’t officially a Dawn of the Dead sequel, but it indisputably features the undead. But Night Killer? Not a chainsaw to be found and set among the usually comfy confines of Virginia Beach. Shit, even the English language title isn’t that accurate considering the killer doesn’t operate exclusively at night.
But this is part of the charm, of course, and I don’t think it could really happen any other way for Night Killer. You see, something as completely unhinged as this practically demands that every facet of its existence is nonsensical, from its title all the way down to its behind-the-scenes drama (we’ll get to that). As it unfolds, you quickly come to the realization that nothing about it can really be accounted for. Like the best of these wackadoo “sequels,” the inexplicability is the draw, a sort of swirling vortex of nonsense that draws you in until you’re completely through the looking glass, capable only of approaching it on its own erratic terms. Night Killer is allegedly Italian, but it might as well have been beamed in from other dimension by Fragasso and company. You know that meme about forcing a bot to watch a 100 hours of programming and it creating a nonsense screenplay? Night Killer would be the actual result of such an experiment involving this particular era of Eurotrash filmmaking.
As such, it delivers a veritable checklist of the junk you’d expect to find from this sort of thing. Completely alien dialogue resembling nothing that people on earth would actually say. Melodramatic performances that transcend the space-time continuum, shattering conventional notions of “good” or “bad.” A plot whose twists and turns feel less scripted and more dictated by a fever dream. Completely gratuitous fits of violence that have little to no bearing on said plot. A downright gonzo coda that sends the audience into hysterics. Reader, I laughed harder at Night Killer than I have for many actual comedies, which might sound ridiculous, but remember that you have to recalibrate your brain for this specific kind of movie. The label might say “horror,” but that’s just a side effect of the trans-dimensional warp.
Night Killer is among the purest examples of how such crazy quilt filmmaking so often—and so impossibly—managed to spin gold out of absolute nonsense. These movies have no business being so entertaining, and I’m still not sure if it’s a result of the filmmakers being so lax or if they were actually calculating geniuses who stumbled upon a mystical formula. In this case, Fragasso finds goddamn magic in the performances from Buckman and Hooten, who are often paired during the film’s most memorable scenes. The duo tries to out-crazy each other at every turn: he walks into the room with a bucket of KFC, loudly singing about “chicken and friiiiiiies,” leading to the most uncomfortable scene involving a fried drumstick and a gun this side of Killer Joe, and she obliges by smearing “I kill you; kill me” on the mirror in lipstick. Whatever that means. Call it Stockholm Syndrome, call it Fragasso trying to squeeze another sub-genre into an already packed narrative, but it eventually leads to the two going through a half-assed Bonnie & Clyde routine before the script abruptly shifts gears for the unreal climax.
And to be completely fair to Bruckman, she doesn’t even need to play off of Hooten since she’s a hoot to watch from her first appearance, when she can barely dial a phone convincingly. Her every line-reading—hell, her every movement—is exaggerated to humorous effect; imagine the infamous Linda Day-George “bastard!” moment from Pieces stretched across an entire performance, and you start to arrive in the vicinity of the trash movie delirium on display here. It’s not just Bruckman, either: everyone’s treating this like it’s baby’s first movie and is committed to capital A Acting, leading to gut-busting exchanges for what should be mundane moments. I’m especially fond of the scene where the high-strung detective working the case (Mel Davis) learns that the killer has once again evaded capture; Fragasso’s camera dramatically zooms in just as he bellows a booming “fuck!,” a reaction that also adequately doubles as any sane person’s response after seeing Night Killer.
Night Killer was patchwork filmmaking in more ways than one. Apparently, Fragasso wanted to make a legitimately compelling drama about abuse and trauma, but the producers (who also insisted on putting it under the TCM label) thought it could use more graphic violence, so they tapped frequent collaborator Mattei to shoot some gory murder scenes. The violence is haphazardly sewn in, largely consisting of scenes involving characters who literally only appear to be butchered via obvious insert shots of chest-mangling carnage. Fragasso was none too pleased with the intrusion, leaving him disappointed in the final product and estranged from Mattei, effectively ending one of the most interesting filmmaking partnerships of all-time. It’s a bittersweet legacy for an otherwise incredible testament to the combined powers of these two, even if Night Killer wasn’t a proper collaboration.
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