There is something magical about a good slasher movie, but there is something more magical about a bad one. Yes, they are formulaic, and most often modeled off FRIDAY THE 13TH, which itself takes its cue from Mario Bava’s TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE. So what? Almost all movies follow a formula, from drama to action to romance. What makes a movie interesting is how the filmmakers interpret, or misinterpret, the formula. Wild left turns, tonal shifts, and inexplicable reasoning will keep you guessing, even if it is only to guess what the hell the director was thinking. For instance, take a cute and fluffy sex comedy, mix in a brutal murderer fueled by whiskey and hatred, and get ready for the wholesome bloodbath that is 1984’s THE MUTILATOR.
Ed Jr. (Matt Mitler) doesn’t have a close relationship with his dad. Big Ed (Jack Chatham) drinks, is emotionally distant, and blames his son for his failed marriage. The last point is valid, as 10 year-old Ed Jr. accidentally shot his mom while cleaning his dad’s gun as a birthday surprise. So when deadbeat dad calls out of the blue and demands he clean and lock up his beach house for the season, Ed Jr. isn’t keen on doing him any favors. But Ed’s college buddies think it sounds like just the place for suds and love during their Fall Break, so after a couple of quick driving and cleaning montages, they are ready for some subdued, inoffensive partying. That is, until Big Ed, who had been sleeping off his last bender in the garage, wakes up in a homicidal haze and commences to ruin all their fun. One by one, Big Ed takes out his son’s friends in increasingly brutal ways. Can junior and his squeaky clean girlfriend, Pam (Ruth Martinez ), get mean enough to take on Ed senior, or will they too end up on his trophy wall?
Let’s get the obvious complaints out of the way first. Of all the holiday inspired horror movie gimmicks, THE MUTILATOR (AKA: FALL BREAK) has the lamest. Fall break isn’t even a holiday, it’s just the arbitrary period between college semesters. At least Spring Break is associated with bikinis and alcohol and hedonism. What images does Fall Break conjure? Sweaters? Colorful leaves? The movie can’t even take advantage of the nearby Halloween imagery, because it’s staked its claim. No pumpkins or black cats here, this is about the Fall Break, bitches.
Even worse, the movie mostly wastes its best asset, showing how spooky a deserted beach town is during the off season. There’s a little strolling on the beach at night, and a couple goes skinny dipping in a plastic covered public pool (where the tension is dissolved by an excessively long game of Marco Polo), but the vast majority of the movie is set in one small beach house. It’s like condensing Camp Crystal Lake into a condo. That said, the filmmakers do a good job of working with their limited set. There is a nice hide and stalk scene were the killer hunts around the dark house for victims, but the kids are just playing blind man’s bluff with each other and have no idea the person they are hiding inches away from wants to butcher them.
Those gripes aside, the movie is a wild ride. This tonal roller-coaster starts with the very first scene. The prologue starts off all daises and sunshine, with the smiling mom lovingly decorating a cake in her tidy kitchen, cute Lil’ Ed eager to make his dad proud. Once that colorful, hand drawn sign comes out, we know it’s all about to go south. That kid’s “All your guns cleaned by me!” birthday surprise is the worst idea since “Your car’s brake lines cleaned by me!” Sure enough, a moment later he unintentionally blows a hole through mom’s stomach and the cake is totally ruined. When Big Ed comes home, instead of screaming or crying or calling an ambulance, he wordlessly props his wife's corpse against the couch and starts drinking, with Ed Jr watching from hall.
In any other slasher, that kind of trauma would be Junior’s catalyst for becoming the killer. Plus, being raised by a guy who actively fantasizes about different ways of murdering you rarely leads to a happy childhood. Somehow though, he ends up being a mild mannered, well adjusted college kid. A little boring even. In fact, his whole crew is sort of a toned down, smooth jazz version of the typical slasher archetypes. There’s the practical joker, the horny couple, the prude, but all in an inoffensively low key way. They are so corny they break out a game of Monopoly. Not strip Monopoly, either, just plain Monopoly. They are kind of endearing, really, especially compared to the aggressively annoying group of victims populating most slashers. Those dickheads deserve what’s coming to them, but I kind of feel bad about seeing these kids get bumped off.
Especially in the ways they get bumped off, because for such an unassuming lead up, this fucker gets brutal incredibly fast. One kid gets chewed up by an outboard motor, one gets pinned to a door through the neck. A helpful cop gets stabbed in the face with a machete before being decapitated. The most gruesome kill involves a giant gaff hook inserted into a region no hook was meant to go. I suppose you wouldn’t want a gaff hook in any region of your body, but definitely not this one. All the death scenes go just a little bit longer than is comfortable, at least in the unrated cut. It would be kind of a bummer if the gore effects weren’t so laugh out loud excessive. Maybe not that hook scene, though. That was straight up traumatizing.
One of the problems with low budget slashers is the lack of a distinctive killer (I’m looking at you, whatever-the-fuck-your-name-was from FINAL EXAM). I’m happy to say that’s not the case here. Big Ed doesn’t wear a cool mask or have a deformed face. He’s not even physically imposing, just a middle-aged dude. What makes Big Ed unique is his motivation. I’m not talking about his resentment toward his son for killing his wife. If that was the problem, he could have taken the kid out years ago. No, the real reason he goes on a kill crazy rampage is because he is an angry, drunk asshole. I don’t even think he planned any of it. He just wakes up with a hangover, hears the kids upstairs, and simply decides, “Fuck it, I’m going to kill all those little college pricks.”
At no time does Big Ed look demented or maniacal. He just looks annoyed. Stupid punks making fun of my fishing trophies, I’ll show them. Stupid cop with his nosy flashlight, I’ll show him. Stupid other cop trying to stop me from murdering my son, I’ll show him!
On the surface, the movie seems to follow the sex=death trope to the letter. The super sexed up couples buy it first, while the clean cut virgin makes it to final girl territory. It’s a better example of how this trope, or the way it is typically framed, is bullshit. Big Ed is an asshole, not a prude. He gives no fucks about who fucks. This guy would have killed these kids if they were slipping away for bible study. Now, judging from that one scene with the hook, Big Ed clearly has a nasty misogynistic streak, but he doesn’t let it overwhelm his even larger misanthropy. He has enough murder in his heart for everyone.
As with most slashers, the sex=death paradigm serves more of a technical function than a moral one. Sneaking off for a quick one is a handy excuse to put the soon-to-be victims in a quiet, isolated setting. It’s also a fine setup for the classic situation where the girl thinks she hears or sees something, but the dude is too focused on getting into her pants to pay her any attention. Speaking of that, has a movie ever reversed the gender of that scenario? “Hold on, Tina, I think I heard something!” “Relax, Steve, you’re too wound up. Let’s just loosen those tighty whities and you’ll feel better.”
Yes, the final girl does turn out to be the virginal Pam, but that just makes sense. Not being consumed with thoughts of preppy, white bread sex allows her to pick up on all the warning signs. Plus, she redirected all of her repressed energies into something more productive, like self defense classes. This makes the level-headed wall flower the only person even remotely capable of dealing with Big Ed’s murderous, asshole rage. She is certainly better prepared than her utterly useless boyfriend, who actually locks her in the garage closet while he attempts to be the hero. After he fails miserably, she has to save herself and his lame ass.
Big spoiler for the movie’s ending, but it is just too bonkers not to address. After Pam lodges a lead fishing sinker into Big Ed’s noggin and stabs him in the chest, she and her useless, wounded boyfriend make it to the car and share a triumphant moment while we wait for Big Ed to make is inevitable return. As expected, the drunken mutilator pops up and starts hacking through their car top with a battleaxe. Lil’ Ed, who only now puts it together, screams “That’s my dad!” Pam throws Big Ed off the car, and not being the kind of gal who gets fooled twice, throws it into reverse and plows her tormentor into a wall, cutting him in half. But Big Ed is so much of an asshole that even though he is just a torso, he still manages to chop off a cop’s legs with his dying breath. The best thing is the smile of satisfaction as he expires. Some people hope to die peacefully surrounded by loved ones. Big Ed dreamed of dying in a pool of his own blood, taking one last dumb son of a bitch with him.
True, THE MUTILATOR doesn’t break new ground as far as plot goes. The characters never venture beyond their one dimension, and the acting won’t set the world on fire. Yet, for all its predictable broad strokes, it's the nutty detail work that gives it charm. I’ve never seen such a weird mix of harmlessly corny and gleefully vicious in one slasher before. And I love that the killer is just a mean drunk. It’s a pity the movie didn’t take off, because the Big Ed Halloween costume would be super easy. You just need a bottle of bourbon, a gaff hook, and a simmering well of familial resentment. Come to think of it, maybe it makes a more appropriate Thanksgiving costume. In any event, have a great Fall Break you goofballs.