The Mutilator (1984)
Ahhhh…comfort food in the form of a conventional, by-the-numbers slasher flick. There’s something warm and fuzzy about knowing how everything's going to pan out for these horny and very stupid college kids. The horror community makes incredible demands on filmmakers to up the ante and give us something we’ve never seen before. Whenever I hear about a film trying something new, I write it down immediately for future viewing. I want to be challenged and I want to see a divisive but beloved genre elevate itself to occasional respectability. But...not always. Sometimes, I just want to sit back and enjoy the ride. Buddy Cooper’s The Mutilator (1985/shot in ‘84, aka the generically titled Fall Break) is meat and potatoes. This particular plate, though tasty, has a fatty cut of meat and no gravy or butter for the spuds. Edible, but I’ve had better.
Previously only available on VHS, Betamax, and Laserdisc, The Mutilator suffered from the fate which befalls most low-budget horror films: the distribution company went out of business. It’s a bit more complicated than that, I’ll grant you. The film did well in its initial New York run, grossing around $400,000, but since it was released unrated (due to ‘that scene’ I’ll discuss later), it was unable to go wide and properly advertise unless it was cut down to an R-rating. Cooper complied but the film lost its forbidden appeal and its momentum. The legendary Vestron Video, whose output as both a distributor and one of the original VHS boom pioneers includes a ton of Cannon films, The Monster Squad, Dirty Dancing, etc., would go bankrupt due to evolving tastes and The Mutilator would get lost in the shuffle. Dimly-lit bootlegs floated around, but it wasn’t until a pristine print was found in the Library of Congress (submitted for copyright verification), that a proper DVD/Blu-Ray was released. The film was certainly made at the right time. The slasher film was in its 80’s heyday and anyone with a camera and a few buckets of blood was eager to get their movie career off the ground.
Movie posters often fail to deliver on what their pictures promise, but the glorious poster for The Mutilator, though none of the ladies sport a bikini, is pretty accurate. The tagline is also one of the best I’ve seen: By Sword, By Pick, By Axe, Bye Bye. This was Buddy Cooper’s only film as a director, with an uncredited co-directing credit for John Douglass, Professor of Film at DC’s American Institute, until The Mutilator 2 was unexpectedly announced. It seems that Cooper brought the script and enthusiasm while Douglass provided the crew (mostly students) and the know-how. As a North Carolinian, it’s a lot of fun recognizing the familiar terrain since the film was shot in Atlantic Beach, off the Carolina coast. There’s just something about our beaches and the bridge to the mainland that hasn’t changed much for the last 40 years. Cooper directs with a beginner’s playfulness that’s admirable, but it could be so much better were it not for the poor acting and godawful script.
In a massive 10-minute pre-credit sequence, we see a heavily-frosted cake being prepared by the wife of Big Ed (Greensboro native Jack Chatham) and mother of Ed Jr. (here played by Trace Cooper and later as an adult by David Hess-lookalike Matt Mitler). Big Ed is a gun enthusiast and Ed Jr. wants to clean his rifles as a birthday present. Unfortunately, Big Ed keeps these weapons loaded and Ed Jr. accidentally kills his mother in a shot repeated three times for dramatic effect. There’s a nice, dreamlike quality to this whole scene as Big Ed arrives home to find his wife dead. For a moment, it’s very intense as we’re not certain what he’s going to do to his son. At one point, I thought he might say “thank you.” Instead, he slaps the boy hard and drags his wife into the living room where he pours himself a big drink and places a card that reads ‘Happy Birthday Daddy All Cleaned By Me!’ on her body. I’m not certain this is symbolic or not. It's a good scene, mainly because nobody talks, but that serenity will soon be broken.
It’s difficult to describe the dialogue in this film except to say that it’s brutally expository when it’s not pretending to know how young people talk. There’s a strained attempt at witty chit-chat/banter, but speaking normally would probably have been preferable. “Fall Break. Here we sit,” adult Ed bemoans. Like the titular Spring Breakers (2012) but much less attractive, college kids complain about having nothing to do for their fall break. The group of three couples consist of Ed, his girlfriend Pam (Ruth Martinez), Linda (Frances Raines, supposed niece of Claude Rains and who would have a very brief career as an 80’s leading lady in exploitative fare like Breeders and Disconnected), her boyfriend Mike (Morey Lampley), Sue (Connie Rogers), and her unfortunate boyfriend Ralph (Bill Hitchcock), the awful comic-relief and obvious last-minute replacement after an actor left the project. He’s clearly a local since his only other credit is for Lewis Teague’s amazing Cat’s Eye (1985), which was partially shot in Wilmington, NC.
When Ed is asked by his often-absent and very alcoholic father to close up his beach condo for the winter, he complains about being treated like a “red-headed bastard.” Ralph scoffs and points to his own head, which is very, VERY brown. Couldn’t they have taken 2 minutes and come up with something else since that line clearly doesn’t apply to this new actor? Or were Buddy Cooper’s words dipped in gold? Ed doesn’t want to go but the group sees an opportunity to get a free beach trip. Ed mutters the horribly clichéd line, “I got a bad feeling about this.” What should then cut to the opening credits instead hops over to a dormitory to pick up Sue. Ralph comes out and claims Sue can’t go, then she comes out. Is this...is this supposed to be a joke? It’s incredible what the film regards as humorous.
Accompanied by a catchy tune written by actual professionals (the lyrics are by Arthur Resnick, of “Under the Boardwalk” and “Yummy Yummy Yummy” fame), these giggly bastards drive their convertible to the beach. There’s some antics along the way, including a stilted scene where Ralph tries to run a con at a convenience store to get a discount on beer but it turns out he’s the one being grifted. This clearly feels like the owner and his wife were bum-rushed by the film crew to use their location with the promise of being in a major motion picture. One very bizarre bit comes when the car overheats and the scene’s sound continues while the frame is frozen. It goes back to normal as the characters look at the engine, then it freezes again with sound playing. There’s no rhyme or reason to it.
Since the movie really was filmed at a beach off-season, the locations are very accurate. I’ve stayed at several different condos and houses on the coast and this house is no different than those. It’s weather-beaten and the rooms are small. Tons of booze bottles are strewn about and the door is wide open, but no sign of Big Ed. It turns out, Big Ed is in a storage closet in the garage, resting peacefully with his battle axe. In one of the film’s only interesting stretches of dialogue, we learn that Big Ed is a trophy hunter, displaying several stuffed animals he’s killed along the way. Ed Jr. seems pretty well-adjusted for someone who killed his mother and he regales his disgusted and/or amused compadres with tales of his dad’s wild, drunken antics. With the axe missing, Pam suggests they call the police, but Ed indicates that there are very few cops on the island and his dad probably took it with him. He’s actually right on both counts.
While Big Ed dreams of the various ways he’d kill his young son (strangulation, throat slitting) some of the kids laugh their heads off about nothing at all upstairs. They act like they’re high, but there’s no pot and all they’re doing is drinking and guffawing. By the way, they only pick up two six packs at the store and there are six of them, so it seems unlikely they’d have as unlimited a supply of beer as what’s depicted in the film. Mike and Linda check out the garage and there’s a decent build-up despite terrible dialogue like Mike word-for-word repeating Linda, “Yeah, too small for a ski boat.” Just before they discover Big Ed’s hiding place, they’re called away. Pam comes down and messes with the car and Big Ed spies her through the wood slats. She looks up at nothing at all, laughs, then walks off-screen. With no cutaway, it’s fake as hell. Believe me, I know. For a short film I directed, I didn’t think I needed a couple people to play extras, so I had the lead look off-camera and pretend to wave at them. It looks as bad as it sounds.
Unable to get their libidos under control, Mike and Linda head off to get freaky. They find a pool, exchange some awful dialogue (Hey! Where’d everybody go?), then go skinny dipping. Even their splashing is awkward. It’s a large pool but somehow Linda is attacked in an interminable slow-motion drowning scene. The slow-mo is rough since it was clearly not shot that way, so it’s jerky and lasts forever. The music doesn’t help as it sounds like the composer died and fell on a single key. The most outlandish part of this death is that somehow Mike hasn’t noticed any of this happening. The pool would have to be Olympic-sized for this to work. Big Ed steals the clothes and sets up a little scavenger hunt for Mike, leading him back to the house.
As I stated above, the acting here is subpar. A couple of the actors would go on to have something resembling a career, but we were mercifully spared any further performances by Morey Lampley. As Mike, he’s got the perfect look for the douchebag, pretty boy, dumb jock role. His line readings though...hoo boy. Cooper’s dialogue would be hard for any actor, but his flat tone and lifeless acting drag the film down. The Ralph character may be annoying, but he’s at least energetic and Bill Hitchcock tries. It’s a joy to watch Mike get killed. The boat motor he commented on earlier is shoved into his chest and the slash ‘n gash effects aren’t too bad. His death throes are silly and very prolonged, though. The way his face moves reminds me of Jim Carrey in the first Ace Ventura when he encounters that shark. Big Ed drags him into a side room and impales the bohunk on a metal spike.
The rest of the group have left to join Mike and Linda but are startled by a cop with a North Carolina badge on his sleeve. They fill him in on the missing axe but Ed convinces the copper that he’ll call his dad in the morning. The cop (Ben Moore, a frequent Herschell Gordon Lewis performer) reports a possible 10-38. I figured that meant a breaking and entering or something close to that. A quick google search reveal a 10-38 is code for ‘Stopping a Suspicious Vehicle.’ Really solid research there, Buddy. He goes to the house and Big Ed first stabs him in the face with a long blade, then chops his head off with the battle axe. What now becomes clear is that Cooper likes to show lengthy death scenes and it’s unique to see these victims moan and shake as they die. I quite like the approach to prolonging the murders.
Making it back to the house and desperate to play a game, ANY game, they decide to play Blind Man’s Bluff in what is one of the stupidest and most poorly-executed sequences I’ve ever seen. The rules are convoluted. Something about turning off the lights, drinking beer, and playing hide and seek. The worst part of all though, is that the scene is expected to play out in total darkness. The finder is supposed to paw blindly in the dark until he or she finds the hider. It’s very difficult to light a night scene and you need light to shoot on film. It’s accepted that in a bedroom scene, there’s often a blue light coming in through a window or even a parent leaving a light on in a child’s room even though that makes the room super bright. Sure, it's not realistic, but we as the audience accept that you need light to see what's happening. Here, the shots are lit so we can see what’s going on, but the actors are ‘pretending’ to be in pitch dark. They reach out and touch the wall as if they can’t see it. It’s a stunning display of ineptitude and miscalculation. Making the scene a simple game of hide and seek would have been just as effective and the need to literally suspend disbelief wouldn’t have been necessary. In an interview, Matt Mitler stated he realized what was happening but couldn’t stop Cooper from letting him and the rest of the cast look like morons. Ed is the last one to be seeker and we get a little fake-out when they mistake Big Ed’s feet for Ed’s. Still, nothing happens and they decide to go to bed, finally!
I have no idea how Sue could like Ralph. He gets slapped and even thrown to the ground with a little Kung-Fu action. Maybe she likes annoying, dumb guys. Right beforehand, we have to reconcile with the very scary possibility of seeing Ralph get laid, but he’s convinced to search for Mike and Linda instead. With the promise of sex, the film speeds up and he gets dressed super-fast. It would be a funny moment if it didn’t clash so badly with the realistic way the rest of the film is shot. Ralph checks out the garage and in his only funny line, wonders aloud, “Why am I whispering?” He thinks they’re in the storage closet and the film keeps cutting back to Big Ed, waiting. It’s almost as if he wants to see just how annoying Ralph can get before he skewers him. Finally, Ralph gets a pitchfork to the throat.
Sue should have just gone to bed and thanked her lucky stars she didn’t need to bone Ralph, but maybe he owes her money or something. She goes out to look for him in her nightgown. What follows is the film’s most controversial death scene. Earlier, Ed explained what a gaff is. Basically, just a big metal hook. In another extended murder, Sue is grabbed by the throat and thrown on a work bench. The gaff comes out and, to put it delicately, is plunged into her nether regions. The metal tip sticks out through her pelvis with skin hanging from the hook, then she’s beheaded with the axe. In interviews, Cooper claims that he didn’t intend for this particular scene to be more violent or graphic than any of the other murders. He just thought it was a very evil way to kill someone. There’s been a great deal of material on the link between male sexual frustration and violence toward women in film. The violation aspect to this scene along with the very specific way Sue dies produces a disturbing effect. The scene also caused some crew members to refuse to participate on that particular day. There are fun and wild slasher film deaths that you can hoot and holler at. Then there’s this.
Ed Jr. and Pam discover the bodies in a Halloween-style scene and Ed tries to be the big man by locking Pam in the closet and ambushing the killer. This is a bad move because he gets tied up pretty fast. Pam gets out just in time and starts throwing random junk at Big Ed. The music drops out for a moment, making the scene unintentionally comic. Ed Jr. is stabbed in the thigh with a gushy effect. She finds a utility-style knife in a drawer and stabs Big Ed, seemingly to death.
This whole scene represents a major blown opportunity for some real stakes here. Although Big Ed never speaks, it would at least have been interesting for Ed Jr. to see his dad and try to figure out why he’s doing this. It’s never made very clear why he loses his mind on this particular day. The presumption is that he went on a bender and the kids are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Still, a big scene between the two Eds would have some entertainment value.
Instead, Ed Jr. is a fucking asshole to Pam because she floods the car and it won’t start. She saved your life, shithead. The headlights are turned on and Big Ed’s body is missing. The axe comes through the roof and he tries to strangle Ed Jr.. Pam is a quick-thinker and she heats up the cigarette lighter, which in general I thought didn’t work if the car isn’t turned on, and she burns Big Ed’s hand in a nasty little effect. The skin blackens and peels away. The car miraculously turns on and they back Big Ed into a wall. The cops show up all of a sudden, which I’m willing to believe since the other cop hadn’t checked in, but then we see Big Ed has somehow been cut in half. We figure that’s 'all she wrote' for him, but the movie has one more trick up its sleeve. Big Ed wakes up, grabs the cop’s leg and chops it off, laughing all the way. It’s shamelessly over-the-top and hilarious. It’s also a clever low-budget effect since they’re on sand and all they have to do is dig a hole for the actor to stand in.
This is a movie where most of the technical bits are fine. It’s just the main aspects, i.e. writing, acting, and direction that suffer by comparison. The contributions of skilled technicians are often overlooked when watching a bad movie because you’re so focused on the dumb things happening on screen, you don’t stop to think, ‘Hey. This would be so much worse if it were all out of focus’ or ‘I can’t hear anything because the sound is so bad.’ Emmy-nominated cinematographer and documentarian Peter Schnall shoots the film clearly and efficiently (save for the Bluff scene) and editor Stephen Mack keeps the film moving as much as possible. He would later become the editor on two of Robert Duvall’s directorial efforts. The real star here is three-time Emmy winner Mark Shostrom’s effects work. The gore effects are very well-done and he’d go on to do great work on shows like Buffy and The X-Files as well as films such as Evil Dead II, two Phantasm sequels, and the first three Nightmare on Elm Street films.
It would be a better story if The Mutilator was a lost classic that had been unfairly forgotten by time and then re-discovered. The truth is, it’s a minor work with some fun effects and amateur writing and acting. As a slasher, it does its job. A bunch of kids go in. Only a couple make it out alive. For that, it deserves our thanks.