Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Luther the Geek (1990): or, Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens

In any of its multifarious guises, Fame is a fickle thing. Who knows what agency picks certain individuals out for stardom and fortune, and consigns others to the shadows of pop cultural history? Is it merely a confluence of random circumstances that determines who will be forgotten and who will be burned indelibly onto the consciousness of an entire generation? Is it just a question of having a good vs. a crap agent?

Readers of the blog already know the abiding affection I have for Barbara Crampton, star of Mad Movie Masterpieces like From Beyond and Chopping Mall, but you don't have to be a subscriber to know why pretty much every movie geek growing up in the 80s knows her name: the famous "head" scene from Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator. (If by some confluence of randomness you DON'T know these scene, go find it. I'll wait.) Ms. Crampton is a wonderful actress and deserves her status as b-movie royalty, but even she would have to admit to that brave* piece of work's prominence in her fortunes.

*Movie critic jargon alert: when an actress's performance is described as "brave," the reviewer always means "completely and shamelessly fucking nude."

I was thinking about Barbara (more than usual) as I recently rewatched an obscure and strange little horror flick from 1990, Carlton J. Albright's one-of-a-kind circus/psycho-killer flick Luther the Geek. The reason? A less outre but no-less-memorably brave performance on the part of sweet-faced bombshell Stacy Haiduk. If the film were better known, if the stars had aligned, I posit that Ms. Haiduk would be a b-movie screen queen of gloriously Cramptonesque proportions.


Grille-d Chicken

As for the movie itself, I'd be willing to wager that most of my readers have not seen a psycho-killer movie quite like it. While it doesn't go quite as far into poultry-related madness as the previously reviewed Turkeytaur epic Blood Freak, it does boast a tuly out-there premise and a strangely unsettling performance by Edward Terry as the titular circus performer gone bad. For fans of the type of movies we celebrate on this blog, it definitely delivers.

The opening credits roll over some nicely painted early 20th-century sideshow banners as an Unsolved Mysteries-style voice over educates us on the history of "the geek." For the uninitiated, the term's original meaning had nothing to do with Star Wars-related OCD and computer tech savvy. In circus parlance, a geek was usually a vagrant so down on his luck and hopelessly addicted to the booze that he would do literally anything for a swallow of cheap whiskey. In this case, the prize of amber forgetfulness involved biting the heads off live chickens and snakes for the entertainment of Depression-era crowds. Kind of like Rotten.com or the Stile Project for the pre-Internet set.

In a flashback to rural America circa 1938, we see a young Luther (played by the director's son William Albright, credited as Carlton Williams) falling in with a torch-bearing mob who have gathered to watch a geek perform in an old barn. Pushed aside by the drunken crowd, young Luther knocks his front teeth out on a wagon wheel while the Old Geek plies his trade. We next see an adult Luther (Terry) fashioning a set of sharp, stainless steel dentures to replace them. There's your origin, kids. Let's get it on!

Keith Richards makes a cameo as the OG--Original Geek.

Next we find ourselves at a parole board meeting of the local insane asylum, where Luther has been institutionalized for 20 years after a double neck-ripping homicide that we don't get to see. A bleeding-heart liberal female board member campaigns for Luther's release, claiming "his institutional adjustment has been remarkable! He's a model prisoner!" Crotchety old Matlock-type Mr. Walsh (Gil Rogers in an entertainingly profane bit part) argues just as vociferously for the Geek's continued imprisonment, but to no avail. Luther is set free, having paid his societal debt.

I don't know what kind of Rorshach tests they're running at this place, but clearly they need to rethink their methodology. Within hours of his release the mute and clearly still-disturbed psycho wanders into a grocery store and starts eating raw eggs right there on aisle 3! Thrown out of the store, he sits down on a bench next to a Laugh-In era Ruth Buzzy impersonator, offering her a stolen egg in friendship. When the butterfingered old lady drops the fragile package, Luther responds by slapping in his metal teeth (which the asylum didn't confiscate, for some reason) and tearing her throat out in broad daylight! Disappearing in the confusion following the murder, Luther climbs into the back seat of a land yacht driven by widowed MILF Hilary (Joan Roth) and lays low as she makes the long drive back to her home in the boonies, which just happens to be a working chicken farm. What are the chances?

Albright generates some nice tension here, having Luther slip out of the car while Hilary carries the groceries inside. As she puzzles over the open car door, Luther catches a chicken in the barn and does what geeks do, in an over-the-top gory head-biting scene that I wager is much bloodier than an *actual* chicken-chomping would be. The suspense is resolved soon enough, though: as Hilary stands in her open doorway looking out at the barn where all the clucking commotion is coming from, Luther emerges, runs across the front yard, and bursts into the house! It's a strangely unsettling scene, creepy in a way I can't quite articulate, but it just works. Kudos to Albright's direction there.

Luther does a little necking.

Once inside the house, Luther wrestles a Granny Clampit-style shotgun out of Hilary's hands and seems to have her at his mercy. It's here that the nuances of Terry's performance really start to show up--he cocks his head at a strange angle, puffs out his chest, and begins softly clucking to himself under his breath like a chicken! The scene would be laughable, except that he's also holding the shotgun on the terrified woman, slowly running the long barrel up her inner thigh in a very disquieting way. Even more disturbing--Luther pulls the trigger, only to hear a mercifully empty click! Hilary's alive, but the Geek's insidious intent is another chilling moment.

Unable to shoot her in the mommy-bits, Luther instead kicks Hilary in the face (very brutally) and drags her upstairs to tie her face down to a bed for who knows what clucked-up purpose. Before he can get his pecker out, though (I know, these are the yolks, folks), help arrives in the form of Hilary's huge-breasted Daughter Ex Machina, Beth (Haiduk, in only her second film role) and her motorcyclist boyfriend Rob (Thomas Mills). Home from college for the first time in months and obviously unaware of her mom's predicament, Beth invites Rob inside for a little horseplay while they wait for the family reunion. Of course this involves Rob spraying Beth with whipped cream across her bare midriff, which prompts the girl to giggle, "Great, now I have to go take a SHOWER!" Yes you do, my dear. Yes you do.

The gorgeousness of Stacy Haiduk here cannot be overstated. A brunette with clean, girl-next-door cute looks over a frankly UHMAZING body, Haiduk plays Beth as giggly, innocent, and altogether endearing. And the shower scene...OMeffingG. I know terms like "the greatest three minutes of 80s/90s-era nudity" get thrown around quite a bit, but this has to be three of the greatest minutes of 80s/90s-era nudity ever filmed. Adding to the sheer aesthetic beautimousness of Haiduk's soap-slick form is her aforementioned joy-bubbling playfulness and her excellent chemistry with co-showerer Mills. This is the scene that should have made Haiduk a scream-queen legend, but alas, for some reason, it was not to be. Much to the infathomable loss of future generations of geeks.
Don't worry, kids--there's LOTS more where this came from.

After a tantalizing intimation of ass-play, the lovers relocate to the bedroom for another couple of minutes of sex, which is sadly interrupted by the sound of Luther outside, trying to steal Rob's bike. Foolishly, Rob abandons the bird in the hand for the cock in the bush...or vice versa...and rushes out to confront the thief.

Luther's not much of a cyclist, so he soon wrecks the bike and allows Rob to catch him. Their fight is interrupted by a clueless hunter, who distracts Rob long enough to let Luther cold-cock him with a helmet before ripping the hunter's throat out with his steel teeth. (In a nice grody touch, Luther nonchalantly retrieves his dentures from the bloody mess of the hunter's throat.) Meanwhile back at the house, shell-shocked Beth discovers Hilary tied to the bed and proves useless in untying the knots, leaving our resourceful MILF to free herself and load up the extra shotgun awaiting Luther's return.

The rest of the flick plays out as a nightfall/home seige scenario, with Luther coming back to attack the women and Hilary doing her best to fight him off. Haiduk does some convincing "traumatized kid in shock" acting, and Roth invests her character with gritty, self-sufficient toughness that's quite appealing. There are also some nicely composed night-for-night shots of Luther creeping through the house or doing his chicken dance under the barn's floodlight, which again prove unsettling thanks to Terry's uncanny performance. The surprising and gory exits of the young lovers also packs a punch.

Pecking Order: Established

The flick stumbles a little when a local constable shows up (Jerry Clarke, a familiar-looking actor whose filmography rings no bells) and Albright indulges in an over-long stalk sequence with the cop trailing Luther through the darkened chicken house. The film's momentum, which has been totally roller-coaster speed up to now, really flags here, especially since it's clear Clarke is only there to provide Luther with another victim. Things pick up though when Hilary goes out to face Luther herself, leading to a bizarre but strangely fitting final confrontation that had me grinning and shaking my head in glee.

Luther the Geek doesn't spend a lot of time developing characters or establishing motivations, but in this case I think that works in the film's favor. If Albright had tried to make Luther's bizarre chicken-fixated psychosis somehow more realistic, or spent the 20 minutes that would have been necessary trying to explain how the asylum staff could POSSIBLY think this guy was ready to be released into society, he'd have sacrificed the pacing and opened himself to probably deserved ridicule for the outlandish villain he's created. However, by giving us only broad-stroke sketches of the principals and seldom giving the audience time to think too deeply about the weirdness of it all, Albright rather establishes a kind of fairy tale/nightmare/urban (or rural) legend tone that is much more effective. And an incredible amount of credit is due to Edward Terry for his completely committed performance that somehow makes a chicken-clucking killer truly frightening.

One Bad Mutha-Clucker

This was not a Troma film per se, but Troma did pick up distribution rights for the DVD, and supply the fan with some very valuable extras. Among these are an interview with director Albright wherein he discusses the origin and making of the movie and a short interview with the director's son William that is unexpectedly informative about the film's star Edward Terry, who sadly doesn't appear in the extras (perhaps becasue of death? imdb is unhelpful). The real treasure trove, though, is the pack of deleted scenes with commentary by Albright, which are all fun and interesting--but none moreso than the extra SHOWER SCENE footage, with even more takes and angles of super-cutie Haiduk in all manner of undress, which would be worth the price of the disc alone.

For its one-of-a-kind premise, its mostly effective direction, Terry's performance, Haiduk's shoulda-been horror-star-making scenes, and the extras that keep on giving (IYKWIM), I give Luther the Geek 3 Thumbs Up. Check it out--you won't be disappointed.

Nota Bene: while unhelpful about Edward Terry's life post-Luther, imdb *does* reveal that he was the scriptwriter for another of the Vicar's favorite weird movies, The Children! I had no idea. While The Children is perhaps not quite as successful as Luther the Geek, it does give me a warm feathery feeling to know of the connection. :)

"OBEY! *tehee!*"


The Duke of DVD said...

Welcome back, Vicar! Once again, you lead us to the water, only to dunk our collective heads underneath and grin maniacally whilst we thrash.

This movie sounds all kinds of Mad. I can't help but chuckle at the asylum giving him his metal teeth back upon his release. I mean, he's cured, right? Paid his debt and all that. Perhaps they equated it to giving a carpenter back his hammer. It was his livelihood, after all.

Major kudos for a splendid review! I must add yet another film to my extensive library. This one sounds both titillating and creepy, two adjectives with whom I am deeply acquainted.


Interestingly and perhaps boringly enough I saw this film during its release period with the director in the audience.

It was in 1990 during my accidental 4 year experiment with celibacy. I attended a local horror and comic book convention called THE FANTACON.

These conventions always had interesting guests like Tom Savini, Dario Argento and our subject of the moment Carlton J. Albright. he gave a talk to us about the ups and downs of making the film and then invited us to stop by the local art house theater to see the film.

I am not a big fan of psycho killer films really, I prefer terrors from beyond but this is one of those films that has long stuck in my head. When I describe it to people they don't believe me.

And as for the lovely Stacy Haiduk well when her shower seen began you the only sound you could hear in the theater was the gentle crackle of 200 or so nerds getting erections.

You know if this film had come out just a few years later they could have called it 'The Silence of the Hens'

Maxim said...

The Vicar is on the money about real life chicken geeking being a near bloodless experience - check out William Eggleston's Stranded in Canton (on YouTube in its entirety after being a near impossiblity to find for twenty years) if you don't believe me. Nice piece, I may track this down sometime soon for a nice evening in.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@The Duke: Thanks for the warm welcome back! You should definitely check this one out at your earliest opportunity. But tell the servants to lock up the Duchal Hens beforehand. I know how you sometimes get influenced by the things you watch on TV.

@Al Bruno III--Great story! I would wager that this one would still have the power to surprise a horror con audience with its unusual premise and the beauty of Stacy Haiduk. I'm secretly hoping she'll see my paean to her beauty and contact me for an interview. Or just send me a glossy 8x10. Ideally in a protective plastic sleeve.

@Maxim De Winter--I'll definitely be looking for that, thanks for the heads-off...er, -up!

Bob Moricz said...

I, too, am a big Crampton fan. Great blog, by the way. I really enjoy your reviews.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thanks for the compliment, Bob! And if you're a big Crampton fan, definitely check back next week...coincidentally, the Duke and I *might* just have something brewing Crampton-related. ;)

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