The beauty of the VHS era was that a little horror film could earn a monolithic reputation on the strength of an effectively crafted VHS box. The Mutilator was one such film, with an amazingly lurid bit of poster art that stopped just short of outright gore and an unforgettable tag line (“By axe. By sword. By pick. Bye bye.”). The film inside the box was neither the best nor the worst of the ’80s slasher film cycle. In fact, you could say that The Mutilator plays things right down the middle, going for the most prototypical example of the form possible.
The Mutilator starts with a gaggle of teens spending their “fall break” (i.e. Thanksgiving) by heading to the beach for a weekend at a condo. The catch is they have to clean it up for before they close it down for the season, a job handed to Ed Jr. (Matt Mitler) by his grizzled dad. Ed Jr. is estranged from his dad because of childhood accident in which he accidentally shot and killed his mom while cleaning Ed Sr.’s shotguns. However, he welcomes the chance to blow off a little steam with his friends, including girlfriend-in-the-making Pam (Ruth Martinez). Unfortunately for the kids, a killer lurks in the shadows and said killer has a variety of hunting and fishing implements available to chop them up…
The Mutilator was the first and only film by Buddy Cooper, an erstwhile lawyer who decided to dabble in the slasher form for fun and profit. The plot feels like it was constructed after a thorough study of the genre: you’ve got party-hearty teen cannon fodder, a tragic incident from the past that inspires the killing spree, a virginal Final Girl and a host of setpieces that use a series of exotic weapons. It delivers the gruesome goods, thanks to some splattery FX by Mark Shostrom and Anthony Showe, but it also has some of the usual problems of first-time filmmakers: earnest but wooden acting, a cliche-ridden script, rudimentary staging of shocks and slack placing.
That said, slasher buffs might still enjoy The Mutilator for a few reasons. The first is its intense period vibe: from the synth score to the preppy clothing of its protagonists, it is redolent of the early ’80s. It’s surprisingly well shot for a modestly budgeted indie and the Shostrom/Showe makeup effects are as good as any other slasher of the period, with the highlight being a kill involving a fishing implement that remains shockingly transgressive by modern standards. Given that Cooper was a self-taught filmmaker, this means the film is full of intriguing quirks like all the kills being backloaded into the film’s second half and the oddest theme song in slasher history in “Fall Break,” a tune that sounds like a bar band version of Huey Lewis and the News.
Simply put, The Mutilator is more interesting as a piece of ’80s slasher nostalgia than it is as a film – but the quirky, regional style is likely to charm the slasher diehards.
Blu-Ray Notes: The Mutilator spent a long time in home video limbo after the VHS era, only getting a bootleg DVD release, but it has finally been rescued by Arrow Films. The slasher fanbase will love the red carpet treatment it gets here. This set boasts an excellent transfer taken from the original elements: the results are a dramatic improvement over the dark, muddy VHS editions of this title and show off how well-shot the film actually is. The LPCM presentation of the original mono mix is also surprisingly crisp and nicely balanced for such a simple presentation.
It’s also generously loaded with special features, all with Cooper’s prominent involvement. He pops up on two commentaries, one with crew that focuses on behind-the-camera matters while a track also involving Martinez gets more into the performance side of things. There is also a 72-minute making-of that covers the film from inception to release and cult status: Cooper is quite charming as he takes the viewer deep into the joys and trials of regional filmmaking and all manner of cast and crew pay tribute to the oddly wholesome “let’s put on a show” approach behind the film.
80’s horror fans will appreciate a chat with Mark Shostrom that covers his makeup effects in detail and a sitdown with composer Michael Minard that covers the score, including that unforgettable theme song. Additional extras include audition video footage, a behind-the-scenes reel, an alternate title sequence, storyboards, trailers for both of the film’s titles, image galleries and even the script in DVD-ROM form.
Full Disclosure: this review was done using a check-disc blu-ray provided by Arrow Video U.S.A. The disc used for the review reflects what buyers will see in the finished blu-ray.