Look, you and I have been friends a long time, right? I mean, we've had our ups and downs, our petty disagreements, the occasionally awkward passes at one another's girlfriends, or spouses, or mothers...but most of the time we've been tight, right? And don't think it hasn't meant a lot to me.
So listen, there's something you should know, before we go on this camping trip you're so inexplicably hot about. See, occasionally--not all the time, just every now and then--I have this...well, problem when I sleep. Mostly after I've been drinking, and since we're packing all this beer and sharing a tent, I thought I'd best warn you. It's a little embarrassing, and it can get messy.
You see--I gush in my sleep. Uncontrollably. Copiously. I gush and gush and gush until I'm all drained and emptied out. And it's especially bad when I've just seen a movie like the amazing blood-soaked 1972 trash-gold cinematic obscurity, Three on a Meathook. When I've got something like this in my subconscious, chances are I'm going to gush over it.
I mean all over it. Buckle in, folks:
We open with a naked blonde babe crawling out of bed, which in my book is the second best place to start a movie. It's even better when her bed partner is a balding, paunchy, sideburns-sporting 70s hunk as he is here, because that pegs the sleaze-meter at just the appropriate level. You wonder what kind of drunken swinging Bacchanalia had to happen before the credits for this girl to end up with THAT guy, and that sort of speculation just engages my imagination and puts the Vicar right in his happy place. It also makes me nostalgic, but that's a different story.
Our unnamed slice of hotness is getting ready to go on a trip with three of her best girlfriends, and no amount of protest or promises of more sweaty disco-sex on our hero's part can convince her to stay. (If only she had partaken in more hambeast love, a lot of tragedy might have been avoided--that's a tip, girls, write it down.) The vivacious quartet is soon on the road, and not long after that stop at a roadside lake for an impromptu skinny-dip. Like you do, when you're on a road trip with your girlfriends. Am I right, ladies?
Unfortunately the girls don't see the strange sunglass-wearing man in a canoe on the lake, nor do they hear the ominous music that plays every time he shows up. Soon they're obliviously on the road again, and--wouldn't you know it?--the girls' car breaks down! Not only that, but who should show up but the ominous stranger! Luckily once he takes his sunglasses off he's not nearly so ominous--he is Billy Townsend (James Pickett), a baby-faced introvert more than willing to offer the girls food and lodging at his father's farm for the night. To their credit the girls show some reticence, but in the end they go along. Hey, what's the worst that could happen, right?
At the house we meet Billy's father, Paw (Charles Kissinger, how I'm missing yer), who is none too happy that Billy has brought a lot of "TRASH" into "his MOMMA'S HOUSE." Come on, Dad, they're standing right there. Billy won't turn the girls out, though; one man's TRASH is another man's babelicious boarder, I guess. After a dinner of the strangely delicious but unplaceable gray meat that the Townsend farm is famous for ("It's veal," Paw explains), the old man ominously tells Billy, "You know what happens when you're around women, son!" The lights go out, Paw gets drunk in his room, and everyone retires for the night.
The acting up to this point has been wooden to the point of laughability, and the camera work static and fairly uninteresting (though when the camera does become mobile later, the previous stillness lends it more import--a nice but probably unintentional touch). Billy's comedic earnestness makes things better, though, as does Paw's cartoonish curmudgeonliness and the girls' stilted line readings. And the music--dear god, the music!--if you're not grinning and tapping your toes, you can get out of the tent now.
Still, nothing has prepared us for the carnage that is about to be unleashed. In short order one of the girls takes an ill-conceived bath, which gives us more boobies before ending up about the way you'd expect. The two girls in the bedroom receive shotgun blasts that splatter them all over the guest beds, a surprisingly brutal visual with some nice caro syrup FX work. But the piece de resistance is the fourth unlucky daytripper, who flees into the basement (GREAT idea, babe) and creeps silently along a large brown-paneled wall before taking an axe to the neck in one of the three or four greatest decapitation scenes it's ever been my pleasure to laugh at! Really, have a look:
"just like what happened after your momma died!" apparently, and even though he doesn't remember hacking the three girls to bits, Billy is overwhelmed with guilt and wants to turn himself in. His dad puts the kibosh on that, though, and sends the young man to town for "supplies" while he cleans things up and covers the bloody tracks. We're led to believe Paw has some experience in this arena.
After stopping at a general store to get the supplies, Billy surprisingly doesn't feel any better about the quadruple murder/mutilation he left back home and decides to go out on the town and get schnockered. Like you do. Soon he's tooling around the bad part of town in his pick-up; the juxtaposition of the idyllic rural scenes we've had up to now with the seedy, used-car-lot-strewn urban wasteland is jarring. Despite being a rube from the country Billy happens upon the BESTEST SEEDY BAR IN TOWN. How do I know it's the best? Because the house band is the amazing AMERICAN XPRESS, a 10+ member funkadelic funksplosion of truly funktastic proportions. Seriously, now, have a look at these guys.
While AMERICAN XPRESS play the absolutely funkeriffic tune "WE ARE ALL INSANE" ("Life is so ridiculous / And I am so meticulous / I don't even like black licorice / And we're allllllllllll … INSANE!"), Billy orders whiskey after whiskey. I think he has a flashback to his father berating him for killings in his past, though that may actually come later. Anyway, his conspicuous consumption draws the attention of barmaid Sherry, who uses her preternatural powers of empathy to see that something is bothering him. They engage in some minor flirtation before Billy smiles winningly and passes the hell out.
I must say a few words here about the astonishing performance by Sherry Steiner as Sherry. Steiner is a lovely woman with sensitive eyes, lovely dark hair and a beautiful smile; she also delivers every line as if she were playing the mother in a spoof of one of those high-school personal hygiene films, with such earnestness that you half expect her to start instructing you on the proper way to floss. So kind, so sincere, so carefully enunciated and measured in her speech--seriously, she's like the best dental assistant EVER, as we shall soon see.
Billy wakes the next morning in Sherry's bed, hungover but otherwise on top of the world! A day that started in murder and terror ends in AMERICAN XPRESS and barmaid nookie! Nothing could ruin this moment, right?
WRONG--amazingly, asoundingly, unprecedentedly, and most of all HILARIOUSLY, Billy has WET THE BED! And it's a plot point! Holy crap--er, piss--if I hadn't been in love with the movie before now, that totally sealed it. Anyway, Sherry is not bothered in the least by it, even saying "I like to take care of you!" before getting up for a nude walkaround the piss-soaked bed en route to getting dressed. (Hang onto this one, Billy! She's a KEEPER!)
She cooks him breakfast, and then we get a "falling in love" montage that would be awesome in its cheesiness even if it hadn't just followed a scene of intimate protagonist incontinence--walks through the park, picnic on the grass, even LOVE SWINGING, all to some absolutely spendiferous music that must be heard to be believed. Finally the day must come to an end, and as they say goodbye Billy invites Sherry out to the farm for a weekend stay, apparently having completely forgotten what happened the LAST time he had overnight female guests. Love does funny things to a guy.
The movie slows down a little after that, as Billy and his father spar for a while over whether Billy should even be having a relationship, let alone inviting TRASH out to his MOMMA'S HOUSE again. (As Billy drives up Paw is tellingly coming out of his smokehouse, padlocking the door carefully behind him.) Once again Billy sticks to his guns, and after only a little more padding Sherry is coming up the drive to the house, inexplicably having brought her blonde friend Becky with her for her dirty weekend with Billy. On the other hand, this IS the 70s--ménage? Maybe "Three on a Meathook" is some kind of swingin' euphemism...
Paw gets drunk again, making a bad impression; Becky, Sherry, and Billy go for a long playful romp on the farm and in the surrounding wilderness, to the strains of more of the film's wonderful synth-based score. Later Sherry and Becky (the very cute and amazingly-named Madelyn Buzzard) are in the bedroom talking about Billy, and Becky delivers the speech of the movie, telling Sherry in her friend's earnest, hygenist tone about her one true love and the tragic end of the affair:
"They sent him an invitation to die in one of their wars...and then sent me a telegram to say that he had." Looking directly at the camera, Becky imparts to her friend (and you, the audience) this nugget of wisdom: "Take all the happiness you can--at best life's a short ride, and it isn't always round trip." Wow, that's ama--hey, wait, what?
Anyway, after that they have dinner, where the still-plastered Paw serves up more of his special "veal" and we get more suspicious comments about the nature of the meat. Becky goes to her room and Sherry makes as if to follow, but at the last moment stops, turns slowly (I expected the 3 stooges "slowly I turn" routine--it had exactly the same timing) and comes back to kiss Billy passionately. Cue the music! They fall into make-out silhouette on the couch, doing the hopefully pee-free nasty this time. Presumably Paw takes the back staircase up to his room later.
So here's the kicker--as it turns out, Billy is NOT to blame for the killings out at the ranch! It's actually PAW doing the killing! (<--Spoilers!) We discover this when a heavy-breathing Paw strolls into Becky's room in the middle of the night and plants a pickaxe in her chest, My Bloody Valentine-style! Awesome. Practiced in the ways of stealth impalement, Paw wakes up no one with his hijinx.
In the morning Sherry discovers her friend missing and asks Paw about it ("I've never known here to get up early before!" What, never?) and is rebuffed and thrown out of the house. Wandering around on her own (you may well ask "where's Billy?" but it will avail thee naught) she stumbles into the smokehouse and finds the titular three, though on THREE SEPARATE meathooks and not one as the title suggested. False advertising! It's not clear which three they are, but at this point it doesn't matter. The screaming Sherry races back to the house and bursts into the kitchen to confront this grisly scene:
the most incredible deus ex machina EVAR occurs--and if you want to know what it is, you'll just have to hunt this flick down and watch it, because I'm not telling. Suffice to say that the only thing more amazing and hilarious is the 10 minute post-rescue exposition with an unnamed Expert, who somehow is able to tell Sherry and Billy everything we need to know about what they just experienced. Nobody seems to worried that they've been dining on human flesh for the better part of the movie, Dad gets committed for life, and the credits roll to put an end to the seemingly interminable awesomeness.
Three on a Meathook is not for everyone's tastes. (HAW!) In fact it might be a good acid test for readers of this site to see if your tastes are down with mine and the Duke's. If you can watch this movie and be put off by the hilarious music, the over-earnest acting, the crazy plot developments, and the low-tech gore, then you know you're not part of the congregation I'm preaching to.
But if you watch it and find yourself grinning like an idiot with every Mr. Rogers-intoned profession of love, every overwrought bit of dialog and wonderful strain of synth-addled score--in short, if you will let yourself be entertained by the ineptness that approaches high art, then stick around. You're going to agree with me when I give Three on a Meathook 2.75 thumbs--it's a bit slow in spots, silly in others, but the quicker bits, the amazing ending, and AMERICAN XPRESS more than make up for it.
If you agree, pack up the truck. We're going camping.
PS--This is so far as I know my first exposure to the cinema of director William Girdler, who also directed The Manitou and other well-known but yet-unseen-by-me 70s obscurities, but it will not be my last. Apparently I'm not the only one enraptured by his cinematic output: here is a whole website devoted to Girdler's art, including trivia, interviews, an even more detailed plot summary of Three on a Meathook, and most valuably, an audio clip of AMERICAN XPRESS! Listen now, thank me later!