Thursday, March 12, 2009

Savage Weekend (1976): or, Don't Judge a Book by Its Boom Mike

It's easy to see why, when they talk about it at all, people like to rag on David Paulsen's 1976 slasher obscurity Savage Weekend. After all, this is a movie that features not only a pre-"Dr. Hill in Re-Animator" David Gale as a rugged, moustachioed lumberjack Lothario, but also William "This is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl" Sanderson of "Newhart" fame playing pretty much exactly the same character he played in the long-running sit-com, only going for menace here instead of yuks. Add to that some egregious continuity flubs, shots framed with some foreign object (possibly the cameraman's thumb) obscuring the top of the lens, and a boom mike that has not a cameo but a essentially a meaty bit-character part in the film, and you've got yourself a b-movie snark-target that's really almost irresistible.

But to dismiss Savage Weekend because of its myriad technical faults is to do the film, the director, and yourself--the audience--a grave, grave disservice. Because underneath all those problems is a genuinely *good* slasher flick, even bordering upon the Awesome. It has interesting 3-dimensional characters, a serviceable plot with well-developed subplots that actually pay off, and some genuine tension in the exciting climax. In fact, with just a little more technical prowess, I posit that we'd be hailing Savage Weekend as a hidden gem, a lost classic in the annals of late 70s horror.

And no, I'm not kidding.

Maybe She's Born With It

We open with a woman in a nightgown fleeing some unseen stalker, which as you know is one of my favorite ways to open a movie. While some Deliverance-style banjo music plays over the credits, the woman claws her way through the woods and we see country bumpkin Otis (Sanderson) nonchalantly wander up to a chainsaw in the foreground (which for reasons we won't know for quite some time is already running), pick it up, and head menacingly toward the camera. The woman stands upright, paralyzed by shock, mascara running down her terror-stricken face...

From there we cut to the Manhattan skyline, from whence we pull back to the apartment of main character Marie Pettis (Marilyn Hamlin), our shell-shocked heroine from the opening flash-forward. She's preparing for a weekend getaway with her sister Shirley (Caitlin O'Heaney), their flaming gay friend Nicky (an excellent Christopher Allport), and Marie's middle-aged stockbroker boyfriend Robert (Jim Doerr). After a few minutes of preparation Marie's ex-husband Greg shows up (TV veteran and John Holmes lookalike Jeff Pomerantz) to take custody of their young son while Mom goes away for her dirty weekend. Greg is a former political power player whose boss the Governor has recently committed suicide, and his subsequent fall from influence is the unspoken cause for the dissolution of the marriage. There's some nice establishment of uncomfortable tension between Greg, Marie, and Robert here (when the broker gives the child a baseball glove as a present, Greg sweeps the boy away with a look of hatred and spits, "Get your hands off my son!"), and once the party-pooper and son have vacated the premises, our upper-middleclass group can get on its way.

"I just cain't fuckin' believe it was all a dream..."

It seems Marie's sugar-daddy has bought a lakeside cabin and a large unfinished boat from a family of bumpkins upstate, who had to sell after the paterfamilias died unexpectedly. The plan is to go into the wilds of upstate New York, have some fun, and oversee the completion of Robert's new yacht; to assist, he's invited along shipwright and engineer Jay Alsop (Devin Goldenberg), who's married but not that married, apparently, since the slutty Shirley sets her sights on him from the get-go. Slow-but-intense Otis is supposed to be finishing his father's boat, but has let things slide because of his resentment of the city folk coming in to steal his daddy's dream. "My boat now," he says over the grave of his pa. "I won't promise what I'll do if'n they try to steal it away from me!" Given what we've seen and heard of Otis up to this point, it seems pretty clear who the villain of the piece is shaping up to be.

On their way to the remote cabin and lake, our group stops at a convenience story where Shirley purchases a rubber horror mask as a gag gift for Nicky. Meanwhile, Nicky slides into the local redneck bar and orders a Tanqueray Martini (he has to instruct the retired trucker barkeep how to do it: "Have you got gin? Well, splash some in a pretty glass for me. Vermouth. Divine.") while a couple of local toughs eye him hatefully. When the two come up to start early on the weekend gay-bashing, Nicky surprises them and everyone else by totally mopping the bar with them single-handed! He smashes chairs over backs, breaks a bottle and threatens a slit throat, and ends by kneeing the biggest of them in the groin. "I wasn't brought up in the South Bronx for nothin'!" he declares, and then prances out of the establishment, officially the Queen of the Mountain. Of course he's made some enemies now...enemies who know where they're heading...

Unfortunately, he'd left his spinach in his other pants.

Once out at the cabin, things start to get weird. First, there's the dead bat nailed to the doorframe, which Nicky is the only one man enough to remove. Then there's the local lumberjack and fishing guide Mac Macauley (David Gale, ROCKING the flannel shirt and Sam Elliot 'stache) who when he's not surreptitiously yanking fish hooks into the feet of stockbrokers (yee-ouch!) likes to spin yarns about Otis' possibly murderous past. "See, people up here are too closed in...Makes a man lonely to be closed in like get lonely, you get weird. Any time you see people closed in like that, you better watch 'em. Close."

It's around this time that Paulsen starts adding a few weird touches of the sort that always make me smile. For instance, while Mac tells about Otis' previous obsession with a local girl and his revenge for being spurned, sunbathing Marie imagines herself as the girl in the story and ex-hubbie Greg as the rival lover Otis supposedly bludgeons. This excites her, apparently, as she starts feeling herself up even as Mac details the way Otis branded the girl's chest with a hot iron! Her excitement obviously has an effect on the storyteller too, who eyes her a little too laciviously...

"Actually, I always dreamed of becomin' a scientist..."

Also around this time we see Shirley sunbathing naked in waist-high weeds (like you do), approached by Jay, who wordlessly strips and falls to for an extended sex scene. From a distance, Otis watches through binoculars, and from a nearby brush stand Nicky watches too, with a strangely hateful, jealous look on his face. His relationship with Shirley is obviously a little more complicated than fag and fag-hag...

So really, story-wise, there's a lot to like about the film so far. Paulsen has deftly established a number of possible villains/red herrings for the eventual murder mystery (hey, it said "slasher" on the marquee, it's no secret there will be blood), and has even managed to flesh out the backstories of his characters believably, dramatically, and economically. And the tension between the entitled-feeling city dwellers and the poor rural folk is played up nicely as well, never in the forefront but always noticeable in the way the groups interact. (The catchy, banjo-centric folk song "Upstate Man" that plays every now and then also helps in this regard.)

The cinematography has actually been fairly interesting up to now, with some nice scenic shots and a few cool compositions in the graveyard and the ship barn, and the pacing has been moving us along at a nice clip. However, Paulsen was unfortunate enough on this film to have hired what has to be the WORST BOOM MIKE OPERATOR OF ALL TIME. It's expected in low-budget horror flicks that every now and then the boom mike or cameraman's shadow will appear, but this is really one for the record books. Dude CAN NOT keep it out of the frame! It sneaks in for the first time around the 22 minute mark, then again at around 38 mins during an important dramatic scene from Gale (and it doesn't just pop in and then out--it stays on screen for a good 10-20 seconds, shamelessly!) , again at 47 minutes, and then AGAIN in shadow-form at 53. It's funny, of course, but it's also kind of a shame, as it's distracting and the movie really deserves better.

"Check one..."



As the weekend wears on we get more character development on Marie, who feels overwhelmed by the events of her post-divorce life. "Things happen to me--life happens all around me and I don't have any control!...I don't feel anything but fear. I've been so numbed by what happened with Greg!" She's obviously looking to feel things, to do something, anything to reassert her control. And in this case that takes the form of fantasizing about her porn-star ex-hubby Greg while screwing Robert. We all cope in different ways.

With all these nodules of dysfunction popping off like so much popcorn, it's time for the murderer to make his appearance, in hand-held POV fashion, of course, donning the mask Shirley bought and snooping through the house while everyone's away. It takes a while for the actual killings to begin, but once they do, it's pretty exciting, inventive, and mostly well-done. But as the movie barrels toward its conclusion there are a few more bits of strangeness that merit special mention:
  • Nicky nearly going ballistic when he overhears Shirley and Jay fighting, grabbing a skillet off the wall, but being foiled in his violent tendencies when the pot falls to pieces in his hand!
  • Some excellent nudity and sex from Shirley, and less-excellent but still respectable and copious nudity from Marie.
  • A VERY strange scene in which Marie goes to the dairy barn and sensuously feels up a cow, before Mac comes in and offers to "let her taste it fresh!" (Note: the similarity between this scene and the Significant Goat Milking in Haunts is so stark, I wonder if it's an homage.)
"Milk it, baby!"
  • The group dressing for a formal dinner in the cabin, which allows a nice "getting dressed soul-baring" scene between the sisters, in which Shirley puts the same stocking on at least two times!
  • An odd scene in which Shirley, spurned by the already dead Jay, puts on a tango record and strips to her lingerie for an extended attempted seduction of Nicky, complete with feather fan!
As for the kills, we get a hat-pin lobotomy, hay-bale hooking, defenestration to impalement, post-mortem hanging, and in the real centerpiece of the flick, an extended bondage scene in which the killer ties the still lingerie-clad Shirley to a table saw, plugs it into a light fixture, and then neglects to turn on the juice--which leads to some very effective tension in the final climax.

As for that final confrontation--perhaps lulled into a feeling of smugness by the technical gaffes, I admit I thought I had things figured out. And then, like Otis and Mac, the filmmakers proved themselves much more crafty and resourceful than I would have given them credit for. Maybe others will see the twists coming, but I was pleasantly surprised, and won't ruin them for you here. I will say this though: CHAINSAW/MACHETE DUEL. That's the stuff.

It Takes All Kinds

The acting is largely good as well. David Gale is excellent as Mac, and even though he's playing the role he always plays, William Sanderson is suitably backwoods-creepy as Otis (sometimes, like Dwight Frye, you get typecast because you're fucking AWESOME at it). Christopher Allport really steals the show as Nicky, and though Caitlin O'Heaney is mostly one-note as Shirley, her stark terror when the killer confronts her is surpisingly well-acted and affecting. Other bit characters turn in memorably intense performances as well. In fact, the only weak spot is (unfortunately) lead actress Marylin Hamlin, whom I never quite believed as the damaged thrill seeker. Still, she does get her kit off a lot, so she's got dedication at least.

I really, really liked Savage Weekend, and to all the haters, I say go soak your heads. If you can get past the boom mike's ubiquity and the occasional lens shadow, you'll find a surprisingly effective and intriguing little slasher here, ripe for rediscovery. 2.5 Thumbs--if you're in the mood for something unusual, give this one a try.

Nota Bene: according to Internet sources (the BEST sources!) this movie was put out on DVD a few years back by a company called Substance, in a hacked-up print that removed most of the nudity and gore. Avoid that one. I watched it on the Mill Creek Drive-In Movie Classics box set, and while there is a bit of print damage and some strange fluctuation between full screen and letterbox ratios, all the good stuff seems to be intact. That may make this the only instance in history where the Mill Creek version of the movie is actually the preferred print!

Life is a Cabaret


Unknown said...

I agree with you on this one. I enjoyed this one a lot more than I thought I would. This was one of those movies that every video store seemed to carry in the 80's and 90's but I never got around to seeing until recently.

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

I also think the film is way undervalued. Sure, the boom mike is distracting, but that shouldn't be enough to distract anyone from all that is right (or rather wrong) with it.

Eric Wincentsen said...

I'm wondering if the boom mic would be as visible if they did a decent restored DVD version in the correct aspect. [i]Caged Heat[/i] was another movie known for heavy interference from a boom mic, but the latest DVD version seems to have gotten rid of the problem with letterboxing.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone! Glad to know I'm not the only one who found something to enjoy here. :)

@Rev--It probably didn't help that the cover of the VHS (pictured with the review--I couldn't find a poster) looks like a jr. high kid's drawing for his Heavy Metal band's first gig poster, and has nothing to do with the movie. You *do* judge a VHS tape by its cover, after all...or did, anyway. ;)

@houseinryleh--here here! Whenever I hear people claim they "can't watch" a movie with technical gaffes, a bad print, or sub-par special effects, I just have to smack my head and sigh. What, your eyes and sensibilities are too delicate to see past the rough edges toward the gorgeous, beautiful center? TOUGHEN UP, MAN! ;)

@Ezreal--you may be right! As I mentioned, even on the Mill Creek print there is some strange back-and-forthness between full-screen and letterboxed ratios, without discernable rhyme or reason. Though in some shots I think the boom mike is *so* low, even a different ratio wouldn't help. It even nearly intercepts a kiss at one point! ;)

Cinema Du Meep said...

I'm a fan of this as well. What a well written review!

I believe the incessant boom shots are a result of the poor transfer to VHS. I fear they didn't properly transfer it from whatever master they used, allowing too much of the top to be shown... Good old Paragon Video has been guilty of this before, sadly.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thanks, Cinema du Meep! I had thought this might be the case, but then in certain scenes it looked like the boom mike was low even taking the open frame into account. I guess we'll never know unless someone snaps this up for remastering and a Special Edition! :)

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