Thanks to Buddy Cooper for taking time out at the 2017 Salt City Horror Fest to talk about his legendary 1980s slasher classic.
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Buddy Cooper (left) displays the eye-catching poster for his slasher classic, THE MUTILATOR.

REVIEW: 
Exterior,  A suburban house in a middle class area. Day. CUT TO... Interior. Kitchen. Day. A woman makes a birthday cake for her husband while her son cleans dad's firearm display in another room. Suddenly, one of the rifles goes off as the son cleans it, the bullet hitting his mother in the back, killing her as the round travels through the wall. She falls to the floor, dead. His father arrives home, surveys the tragedy, slaps his son around and takes a drink of Jack Daniels, some of which he also pours down the throat of his dead wife as the terrified son watches from behind a door. So begins this superior 1980s "slasher" film. A top tier effort in the once popular sub-genre.

The grieving husband and father, a "trophy hunter" nicknamed Big Ed (Jack Chatham), is driven insane by his wife's accidental death and blames his son. He disappears from the scene and plans revenge. But it's a long time coming and will take the remainder of the film to unfold. Some years later Ed Jr. (Matt Mitler) is a typical young man in his first year of college, who enjoys a few drinks with friends now and then. He receives an unexpected call from Big Ed, asking him to close up his condo on the beach. Ed Jr. refuses, enraging his already resentful father, who has by this time become a raging alcoholic. But Ed Jr. relents when his friends encourage him to take them to the beach house for some Fall Break partying. But Big Ed awaits with his own weekend plan for the carefree group. 

THE MUTILATOR, filmed under the title the less commercial title FALL BREAK, is a rare slasher genre piece which both follows the rules of the game while making up some of its own and subverting them to interesting effect along the way. It's consistently suspenseful and spiked with offbeat humor, maintaining an edge of unpredictability while flirting with real tragedy in the prologue and epilogue. The opening matricide is strong stuff but is immediately relieved by the main theme song, sung in jaunty upbeat manner, the refrain "we're gonna have a good time" acts a counterpoint to what will turn into a grim, graphic massacre. Director Buddy Cooper, who also wrote and produced the film, maintains tension and ratchets up suspense in the long first act as we watch the three couples goofing off and acting stupid once they arrived at the eerily abandoned condo. Empty liquor,  wine and beer bottles are strewn in every room, evidence of Big Ed's alcoholism. Even more disturbing is the omnipresent taxidermy of his kills, giant fish, some forest animals loom in every corner as trophies, still menacing in frozen death. Most disturbingly of all is a picture of a mutilated "friend" of Big Ed's, whom we are informed he "accidentally" killed. There's something very wrong here and that feeling grows as jarring POV shots from Big Ed's hidden vantage points observe the every move of Ed Jr. and friends. 

There are a lot of unstated issues here, including Big Ed's responsiblity in the accidental killing of his wife, leaving his guns unlocked so they could be handled by a child. This is never addressed but lurks beneath the surface. Is Big Ed's rampage transposed guilt? It's an interesting question and draws the viewer further into the building tension, along with the POV camerawork. 

The director decided that all the kills would be done with nautical implements after scouting the Atlantic Beach, North Carolina locations, which results in memorably gory attacks by motorboat propeller, ax, trident and fishing gaff, the latter producing the ultimate in "body-in-pieces" horror. Victims are decapitated, skewered, dismembered, lanced and cut-in-half in a final coup-de-grace. The attacks come suddenly and shockingly as the silent Big Ed lunges out from the dark corners of the condo's garage, finally hanging the mutilated (the re-titling was very appropriate) remains up on hooks as human trophies. As Ed Jr. says of Big Ed, he's hunted every prey except humans. That will change.

The hanging up of the human carcasses is reminiscent of the body disposal in Mario Bava's 1970 stalk and kill thriller, FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON. The entire film is shot with surprising skill by Peter Schnall, shooting in some very confined, low light conditions such as closets and nighttime beach exteriors. Suspense is maintained and heightened throughout by modulated pacing, the aforementioned POV photography and the fact the serial killer Big Ed has no dialogue, his brooding silence making him even more menacing. As with the wildly successful prototype of the slashers, John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN (1978), there's a courageous and resourceful "final girl" and an ending which spares her and Ed Jr. while maintaining a downbeat tone, suggesting that the horror, while dissipated for the moment, will linger in the minds of the survivors. And, refreshingly, there isn't an obvious set up for a series of sequels. It's THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME as a slasher nightmare, played to the hilt, ending with the emotionally exhausted survivors in a quiet moment. The exact opposite of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, which instructively was the following feature at the fest. 

The acting award here goes to Jack Chatham, who makes Big Ed an ultra-creepy presence, without a word of dialogue, while the victims are appropriately played as "normal" freshman on a Fall Break. THE MUTILATOR hits all the right marks as an entertaining, eerie and gory entry into the canon. The graphic gore effects are both credible and vividly detailed. This was Cooper's first and last feature film, despite his assured direction the financial failure of the film at the time stopped his career cold. As producer he was responsible for the budget, which was low at under a half million dollars for the shooting costs, but it took him years to break even and pay off his backers. 

The film's commercial success was doomed by the MPAA which offered him an X rating, for extreme violence. Cooper rejected the rating and it played unrated in such big venues as Los Angeles and New York but failed to make a profit. He also couldn't get bookings in smaller venues since an unrated film was considered equal to an X and was basically regarded as a porn item which small town local papers wouldn't publicize and exhibitors wouldn't book. Cooper finally relented and cut it back to an R, which resulted in a slasher film with all the slashing, blood and gore cut out. Audiences stayed away and the film finally appeared on Vestron Video in both unrated and R versions. I first became acquainted with the film by seeing the title on the eye-catching video boxes in Mom and Pop video stores in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I never rented it out, though, thinking it was just a typical slasher item.

Finally seeing it some 30 years later in a rare uncut 35mm print I was immediately immersed in the film's unique atmosphere and found it a great audience participation experience as there was frequent applause at each execution and at the end. Thanks again to Buddy Cooper for taking time out from his festival appearance schedule and screening the film to answer some of my questions about the making of THE MUTILATOR. The happy ending is that the film has been available since 2016 on a fully loaded Blu-ray release from Arrow Video, complete with a feature documentary directed by Cooper which details the making of the film.. A highly recommended purchase. 

INTERVIEW WITH BUDDY COOPER:
Q: I liked the way you didn't explain Big Ed's exact reason for the murderous plan he has in store for his son. You just let it happen without showing exactly how he went crazy or how he planned the massacre, even though you do show the why in the accidental matricide which takes place in the first scene. 

BC:Yes, I believe in telling the story by telling the story. But you got it.

Q: Yes, it just jumps ahead a decade or so and then you slowly see the horror unfolding. 

BC: Someone once said if you show a rifle in the first act in should eventually go off in the third act. That's what I tried to do without explaining too much.

Q: Which is exactly what happened. Was that planned?

BC: Yes, it was, but I could have taken more time in writing the screenplay. 

Q: It works quite well, I thought. And considerable suspense is created by the direction. Those Point Of View shots as Big Ed lurks around the condo where the kids are really build up the suspense.

BC: Film is a visual medium and I tried to tell the story visually. Those POV shots were done with a hand held 35 mm Arriflex camera. 

Q: One of the most interesting elements in THE MUTILATOR was the very upbeat song heard during the credit sequence where there's singing about "We're going to have a good time!" as the young protagonists drive to their doom. Was that meant as a counterpoint, to satirize the genre, or to evoke a typical 1980s TV sit com.

BC: The upbeat sound was intended neither to be satirical or TV-ish.  It was helping to set the mood of a group of carefree young friends on a holiday--"gonna' have a good time."

Q: You co-directed with John Douglass. Did one of you direct the action while the other handled the actors?

BC: John Douglass and I had no prearranged method for directing.  We did not hand off scenes or sequences.  We just did it together--sometimes he would take over the set, sometimes I would.

Q: I was impressed by the assured visuals in the film, especially since it takes place mostly at night in close quarters or on the darkened beach.

BC:  Peter Schnall, the DP, asked me how I wanted the images to look.  I told him I wanted rich blacks and deep blues in the night scenes.  He nailed it.  He did use a faster film sock for those scenes than he used in the day scenes.  It was standard Kodak, but I can't remember the numbers of the stock. At one point we ran out of the day film stock and he used the faster film stopping down the lens, even though he didn't want to--it could have been seen as unprofessional, but he was every bit the professional. It was shot in very enclosed spaces but the DP did great work. 

Q: The film is very original in the methods of killing and the way it's structured. Did any previous films or directors influence you?

BC: Perhaps unfortunately, I was not influenced consciously by any other directors.  Maybe the picture would have been better if I had been.

Q: What was the budget and how long was the shoot. 

BC: It was shot for 450,000, before the costs of prints and post production. It took 29 shooting days.

(C) Robert Monell, 2017

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