Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Mutilator (1985) dir. Buddy Cooper

Logline: Three college couples head off to a beach condo belonging to the estranged father of one member of their group for some rest and relaxation during their fall break from classes. In-between all the Monopoly and hanky-panky, a madman with a (literal) axe to grind begins to stalk them, hoping to add their corpses to his collection of macabre trophies.

Crime in the Past: While his mother is decorating a cake in the kitchen, a young boy decides that he'll clean his father's prized rifle collection as a birthday present to his progenitor. You can imagine where this goes from here. When the father returns home and discovers the lifeless body of his accidentally blasted wife, he gives his boy a few whacks before settling into a lifelong case of severe alcoholism and psychosis.

Bodycount: 7 go bye bye, as does a stout, middle-aged police officer's leg, which he shouldn't have so carelessly misplaced. R.I.P. LEG.

Themes/Moral Code: The Mutilator is no multi-layered slasher epic, but it does feature a surprising structural unity. All of its characters-- villain and victim alike-- appear preoccupied with games of skill and dominance. Games are all over the film, fused to every stock slasher situation: witness a sexy skinny dipping session turn into a game of tag. But whether it be setting the new high score on an arcade game, owning all the property in Monopoly, or besting all the competition in an accuracy contest, the aim of each game we see or hear of in the film is proving one person's superiority over another. This emphasis on gaming becomes interesting when juxtaposed against the killer's obsession with hunting and fishing, which are themselves games of dominance over nature and other living beings. Through oblique references to Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game" ("he hunted everything but man," one character says in reference to the killer), the film hints that the killer may be-- in his mind-- making these young men and women his game (as in hunted animals; the killer actually hangs them up like taxidermied trophies after killing them, as seen in the above poster.). We see how easily an environment that defines itself through frivolous games of skill can be twisted into something deadly by a warped mind: this notion is perfectly encapsulated by a scene in which our victims are playing a game of blind man's buff at the same time that the killer is stalking them throughout the house, making him, in essence, an unwitting player, though in a much severer game. The film doesn't do enough to tie these thematic threads into the overall tale, but they pervade nonetheless.

The film's moral code, on the other hand, is standard issue "sex = death." The skinny dipping couple (one of whom is the ludicrously pretty Frances Raines, star of earlier wacko slasher Disconnected (1983)) die first, followed soon after by the couple hoping to get it on after they investigate whether or not they locked the house up (amateur mistake). The only couple spared by the film's end is that constituted by our hero and heroine, who can be seen lying chastely side by side, fully-clothed, whenever they're in bed together. What distinguishes The Mutilator from the countless other slasher films that conform to this code is-- in one particular instance-- the horrific severity with which it deals out its moral judgement upon the transgressor. Though most of the film's kills feature a bit of oozing gore courtesy of the makeup department, the demise reserved for Sue (Connie Rogers) is unfathomably ghastly, standing in queasy opposition to the film's otherwise rather jolly tone. The killer hauls her onto a wooden table in the condo's garage and, having her pinned down, stabs a menacing fishing gaff into her crotch, up through her vagina, and out through her womb. This sexualized violence is stomach-turning. It reveals the often barely concealed contempt the culture had (and undoubtedly still has) for sexually active women: the punishment they receive in morally conservative slasher films like this is often far out of balance with that received by their male counterparts. (Sue's boyfriend, Ralph (Bill Hitchcock), gets a comparatively gentle pitchfork to the throat.)

Killer's Motivation: The killer, Jack (Jack Chatham), is the widowed father of the trigger happy Ed (Matt Mitler), one of our college kids heroes. It seems that Jack still holds a grudge against Ed for accidentally shooting his wife to death, as he invites Ed and his friends to the condo under false pretenses so that he can anonymously hunt them and exact his revenge. Though we know he's the culprit from early on, Jack is mute throughout the film, so never exactly spills the beans about his motivation verbally. Luckily, we are privy to his subconscious mind when he's taking a nap in the garage, and in his dream fantasies we see him variously shooting and strangling Ed when he was a little boy. The demented gamesman and moral executioner personas certainly figure into Jack's motivation, but primarily he's a sad, angry, and drunken father.

Final Girl: The final girl is Pam (Ruth Martinez), Ed's girlfriend. On the one hand, she's totally typical of her type: prudish when it comes to sexual matters, hesitant of any risky shenanigans, and eager to contact the police at the soonest possible sign of something being awry. But, then, she's also distinct in several keys ways from the bulk of her predecessors in the role of 'final girl.' Pam demonstrates early on that's she's pretty tough when she tosses Ralph to the ground and restrains him when he won't stop teasing her, and similar physical skills are put into effect during her climactic struggle with the killer, Jack. While the wounded Ed sits around meekly watching and sobbing, Pam tussles with Jack, eventually stabbing him and then crushing him between the rear bumper of a car and a brick wall. Her physical resilience in an adverse situation puts her helpless boyfriend to shame, and that's a pretty neat twist on the usual damsel in distress routine. Regardless, Pam is still a little bland (the most we ever learn about her is that "lightning is not one of [her] favorite things"), and the film isn't willing to make her-- a mere woman-- a totally competent character: despite all her other fine abilities, she can't seem to start a car for the life of her.

Evaluation: By the mid-'80s, the slasher subgenre had become so supersaturated that its next stop could only be self-parody. The mainstream examples of this retreat into lightheartedness would be films like April Fool's Day (1986) and Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986), but Buddy Cooper's The Mutilator, a no-budget video gem, would beat those major studio efforts to the punch by at least a year. It's a goofy but endearing jaunt into tonal madness, replete in equal measure with Benny Hill-style sped-up slapstick and human evisceration. Sometimes, the slapstick and horror are even present simultaneously, like during Mike's (Morey Lampley) death scene, which reaches Paul Reubens-levels of protraction. It's hard to frown at a film that plays a jaunty sax and piano ditty titled "Fall Break" as its bloody-fonted "The Mutilator" title card pops up on screen during the opening credits. How much of this juxtaposed absurdity was intentional is of course up for debate, but Cooper and Company (including the film's many non-actors, who walk around their scenes with corny grins plastered permanently across their faces) seem aware of what they're doing. And it's not often that a straight-faced slasher ends with a blooper reel over its closing credits. Even less often that that blooper reel begins with a flubbed child strangulation. The Mutilator is unique in that way.


  1. Who is excited about Slashtober II? Me is, that's who!

    1. That makes two of us. Precisely two. Hooray for us! We know what's up.

  2. Make that three! You guys never invite me to shit. I'm always having to hear about it ON THE STREET. Is that really where you want me learning things? Hmm?

  3. well I for one am looking forward to death-tober (wait did I do that right?). lets get some of these solid slashers lined up for the hpn movie series as well.