Written by: Tom Alderman (screenplay), Larry Alexander (story), Kelly Estill (additional dialogue), Darrel Presnell (screenplay), Marc B. Ray (story)
Directed by: Tom Alderman
Starring: John Crawford, Deborah Walley, and Paul Carr
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"I asked you to wait... I begged you... I won't forget!"
The road to what we now call the American slasher film was a long, crooked path full of weird diversions and stray offshoots. Arguably the most exciting time during this formative period was the early-70s, when the Europeans had formulated the giallo but their American counterparts hadnít quite put a definitive stamp on this type of movie. There were plenty of hack-and-slash movies sprouting up from different regions across the country, but they were a far cry from the singular bloodbaths that come to mind today when discussing slashers (read: largely single-location massacres involving teens and young adults). Ironically, a genre that became synonymous with copycats and formulas has its roots in some bizarre, unconventional filmmaking that flourished with films like The Severed Arm, a strange, embryonic murder mystery that looks and feels an awful lot like the slashers that would dominate the landscape a decade later--if you squint hard enough, at least.
When Jeff Ashton (David G. Cannon) receives a severed arm in the mail, heís rightfully alarmed. But where most people would be completely bewildered and horrified by such a package, he takes it mostly in stride, summoning his close friends to inform them of this unconventional mail day. During the course of this conversation, a suspect emerges in the form of Ted Rogers (Ray Dannis), an old friend of the group who authorities recently discharged from a mental institution. A long flashback reveals he was committed following a harrowing ordeal that saw the group of friends trapped underground for two weeks after a cave-in. Left without food or water, the men grew desperate and nearly resorted to cannibalism by hacking Tedís arm off; just before they could chow down, however, a rescue team arrived, leaving the men scrambling to come up with a cover story explaining away the severed arm as an accident. Tedís refusal to go along with the story landed him in an asylum until now, five years later, and heís out for revenge.
You barely even have to squint at the synopsis to see how The Severed Arm anticipates the slasher mold, which often settled on killers exacting revenge for pranks or accidents. You can also tell that The Severed Arm takes a roundabout path in arriving at this point. Many golden age slashers are often more graceful and streamlined in this respect, whereas this one takes the long route with what amounts to an extended prologue with the lengthy flashback, resulting in a somewhat long-winded variation on the theme that takes a while for the slashing to start in earnest. You can imagine a less shaggy version of The Severed Arm, one that might diminish the cave ordeal in an effort to indulge the more splattery revenge portion of the film.
But itís really that shaggy, droning quality that makes The Severed Arm so distinctive and fascinating. Itís one of those regional warblers that drones on to the beat of its own idiosyncratic drum urged on by an evocative electronic score and an increasingly twisted script that dwells on its characters and their strange plight. Maybe it isnít exactly a character piece by any stretch, but itís strangely compelling to watch these guys wriggle on the hook and wait for the axe to fall on them. The script ambles along, bringing a colorful texture to these menís lives before shattering it with scenes of vicious, rugged violence. Unlike so many other slashers that treat bloodletting as artistry, The Severed Arm is blunt and chaotic, relying on frenetic camera work and gruesome, sloppy aftermath gore.
Director Alderman is a playful executioner, gleefully dangling the guillotine over these damned souls to create suspense with long sequences marked by starts, stops, and multiple fake-outs. A notable highlight involves the fate of ďMad ManĒ Herman, who moonlights as a disc jockey and spends most of the movie being stalked and tormented by the unseen killer at his radio station. At various points, it looks like the blade is about to drop on Hermanís neck before heís bailed out by a co-worker in the parking garage or the killer just decides he wants to keep prolonging the ordeal with more prank phone calls. When the blade does fall, it, too, is an offbeat fit of violence that sees the killer bursting through Hermanís radio station window to attack the ill-fated DJ. The showmanship here faintly anticipates this genreís eventual raison d'Ítre as a vehicle for outlandish stalk and slash scenes and even more outlandish violence.
Whatís more, The Severed Arm practically invites the audience to delight in these guys being tormented because they absolutely deserve it. You could perhaps understand their desperation when trapped underground--they do have to survive, after all, and they do come up with a fair method of drawing straws to determine whose limbs get gnawed on first. Thatís fair. However, their motives grow self-serving as soon as they emerge from the cave: terrified that they might face criminal charges, they convince authorities that Tedís a raving lunatic, effectively ruining his life. But they donít stop there: upon learning that their old buddy is (perhaps rightfully) taking revenge for their misdeeds, the group doubles down to save their own asses. After all, they have flourishing careers now, and criminal charges might interfere with that. Instead of trying to reach out to poor Ted and reason with him, they immediately conspire to send him back to the institution, going so far as to enlist his daughter (Deborah Walley) and gaslight her into believing her dad is insane.
These are bad people in need of some savage comeuppance, an interesting dynamic that aligns The Severed Arm more with its giallo contemporaries, which often spun elaborate, conspiratorial webs through corrupt, immoral characters as an unseen murderer seeks revenge for some slight. Ultimately, The Severed Arm doesnít just posture at such similarities but pays them off with an unhinged climax that echoes the gialloís penchant for elaborately-staged, strikingly-shot mayhem. A seaside showdown with the killer goes completely haywire, dovetailing into a completely unexpected finale that effectively turns the film on its head and cements it as a truly great slasher. Where so many of these proto-slashers are more like fascinating curiosities, this one is a truly memorable oddity in the way it goes all-out with its twists and turns. The halfway point between the American slasher and the Italian giallo, The Severed Arm is a crucial piece of the genre puzzle. It might be a little jagged and misshapen, but thatís exactly what makes it stick out.
The Severed Arm is now on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome, presented uncut for the first time ever with a new 4K transfer scanned from the original camera negative. Special features include a pair of interviews with actor Vincent Martorano and producer Gary Adelman, plus an exclusive embossed slipcover.
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