Saturday, October 6, 2012

Satan's Blade (1984) dir. L. Scott Castillo Jr.

Logline: A bank heist double-cross ends in death all around for the renters of a sleepy mountain cabin. While the police investigate, two groups of vacationers (two married couples and a group of five young girls) rent the still blood-soaked cabins for a weekend of ice fishing, skiing, and being murdered.

Crime in the Past: A mountain man (who lives at the bottom of a lake, allegedly, like a Gungan) has his turf stomped upon by outsiders and so is gifted a supernatural knife by the spirits of the forest or the lake or something in order to take revenge. Mountain man bellows out his war holler: "Get off my snow, you damn kids!"

Bodycount: 13, plus 4-5 fakeout dream deaths. That's right-- we receive the dubious pleasure of seeing some of these buffoons die twice.

Themes/Moral Code: Exactly two things of interest here.

The first is a fairly small one, but one that elicited a chuckle nonetheless due to its deliberate reversal of expectations. Throughout the entirety of the opening bank robbery, the robbers' faces are obscured-- the frame is kept at chest level most of the time, and we're only allowed to see their hands and feet, garbed in thick, heavy clothing. During the hold up, one of them assaults one of the two female bank tellers, slitting the buttons off of her blouse and exposing her bra underneath. Afterwards, the two robbers brutally shoot the two female tellers and then hightail it. Blatant misogyny, right? Maybe, but it's also misdirection-- when the robbers reach the cabin and begin stripping off their clothing we discover that they're actually two women. It's curious that we see disembodied hands assaulting a woman (and committing a violent crime) and automatically assume they're male, but the implications of this aren't exactly something the film cares to explore. It's a deliberate switcheroo, but its only function is as a surprise.

The second is something that you almost never see in these sort of things: a faithful husband. Tony (Tom Bongiorno) is married to Lisa (Elisa R. Malinovitz), but she mostly pouts a lot and never wants to go fishing or do anything fun. On the other hand, Stephanie (Stephanie Leigh Steel), one of the young girls in the adjoining cabin, wants to make out, roll around in the snow, and learn how to fish and stuff. What a gal! In most films of this ilk, Tony and Susan would soon be finding a sturdy tree to do their business against and the killer's satanic blade would soon thereafter be discovering a squishy place in their chests to come to rest. But that's not the case in Satan's Blade: Tony loves his wife, regardless of their recent marital troubles, and when Stephanie tries to kiss him he stops her, telling her that while she seems like a wonderful girl, he would never want to betray his wife. He then says they can still be friends if they want, and they shake hands. Unless you've seen a bunch of these films it's difficult to express how unlikely this chain of events is. It's an admirable moment, making it a little sadder when Tony gets slashed later on while trying to protect the women.

Killer's Motivation: The killer is the spirit of an angry aquatic mountain man possessing a police sheriff. Your guess is as good as mine. On one level, it's clear his motive is almost ecological. The sheriff he's possessing states "this is my mountain," and after the perverting influence of those city-dwelling vacationers has been gotten rid of, the film cuts between a series of shots highlighting the idyllic mountain scenery (the slopes, a stream, a lake), which we must admit look a bit better without those tourists frolicking about. On a more plot-based level, the sheriff who is possessed stutters out something about wanting to recover the stashed money from the opening robbery. But, it's the supernatural aspects that take dominance-- a closing shot of a hand in the lake throwing the ghostly knife into a tree Excalibur-style, along with some closing text that informs us that "The Legend Continues," reminds the viewer that a franchise is best ensured with a more well-baked mythology at its core. Satan's Blade is director L. Scott Castillo Jr.'s only film.

Final Girl: The final girl is Stephanie, one of the young girls from the adjoining cabin, as mentioned above. Yes, Stephanie is an attempted homewrecker. (She's well aware that Tony is married, which doesn't seem to deter her from straddling him in the snow while in her nightgown). She also spends most of the film's middle portion stumbling alone through the woods, lost and befuddled, while all of her cabinmates are being slaughtered. When she arrives back at the cabin and discovers all the carnage, she becomes hysterical and hides under a bed to save herself (refusing to share her hiding spot with Tony's wife Lisa). When she thinks it's safe, she runs outside and hugs a sheriff with relief only to be stabbed and die in a state of shock because, oh, hey, he was the killer all along. This is our hero.

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese:  Oh Satan's Blade is nonsense but I liked it. Snowbound slashers are far too infrequently featured in the canon, but they're some of my favorites: it's a setting where it's acceptable to imagine the characters stranded, less than eager to trudge out into the thick drifts of snow. The film is also a bit of a genre mash at times: what begins as a Bay of Blood-esque string of double-crosses evolves into a standard stalk and slash before veering into the mystical/supernatural. These fluctuations, plus the awfully high bodycount, keep the proceedings fresh. There's some decent enough tension in the final act, and before that a slew of charming moments-- like this beauty of a line, "I've been sitting here feeling threatened by some little snow bunny." A rarity that doesn't deserve a new-found swell of acclaim, but one that could stand to be a little more well known by subgenre devotees.


  1. Jeffrey, Thanks for the props. Pretty sure you're the only one outside of the cast and crew to see this piece of cinematic wonder.

    1. Elisa, this "piece of cinematic wonder" is a goofy gem in my eyes, so thank you for your part in making it possible. I look forward to revisiting it some snowy day, when the spirit of the lake/mountain man calls to me.

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