Arrow Video goes on a FALL BREAK with THE MUTILATOR, giving Buddy Cooper's unrated regional slasher a sterling restoration on Blu-ray/DVD combo on both sides of the pond.
Trophy hunter Big Ed (Jack Chatham, ROCKIN' ROAD TRIP) just hasn't been the same since his son Ed Jr. (played in the prologue by the director's son Trace Cooper) blasted a hole in his mother cleaning daddy's shotguns for his birthday. After years of ignoring him in favor of climbing into a bottle, Big Ed calls Ed Jr. at school and tells him to go down to Atlantic Beach to close up his condo for the winter. Although Ed Jr. wants to blow him off, his friends – including virginal girlfriend Pam (Ruth Martinez), practical joker Ralph (Bill Hitchcock) and his girlfriend Sue (Connie Rogers), dumb jock Mike (Morey Lampley) and his girlfriend Linda (Frances Raines, BAD GIRLS' DORMITORY) – think four days of R&R at the beach would make up for a little light housework; and soon, they hit the road for FALL BREAK (the film's original title, and the onscreen title of Arrow's Blu-ray/DVD transfer). Arriving to find the island virtually deserted for the winter, they also discover the door to Big Ed's condo unlocked but the only thing that seems to be missing among the grisly trophies and hunting weapons is a medieval battle axe. Ed Jr. talks about his father's hunting exploits – he is said to have hunted "everything but man" (although he does keep a photograph of a man he "accidentally" ran over with a ski boat) – with a mix of admiration and bitterness, not realizing that Big Ed is sleeping in the garage below (cradling his battle axe like a teddy bear) waiting to pick off Ed Jr. and his friends as they wander off on their own in very cramped quarters by "by sword, by pick, by axe, bye-bye…"
A late unrated entry in the regional slasher cycle, THE MUTILATOR keeps its tone rather light like the teenage sex comedies of the period but veers into the extreme for most of its death scenes (the laughter a death-by-outboard motor scene provokes being unintentional), culminating in the hard to watch scene of a gaff hook to a very intimate place that would do the slasher genre no favors to critics who accuse it of misogyny. In context, that scene plays as part of a progression of increasingly painful and graphic gore set-pieces with the original ending as scripted meant to outdo it (the filmed ending will still satisfy gore hounds). The leads are likable, the scoring a mix of eighties easy listening and synth stings, and Cooper has obviously studied the genre well in terms of evoking the killer's presence and creating a sense of dread in even the wide expanses of the dark beach at night; but the death scenes are really the star of the show. Effects artist Mark Shostrum – who had already worked on a minor gore shots for TO ALL A GOODNIGHT and THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE, and would move on to higher profile assignments later in the decade with FROM BEYOND, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3, and EVIL DEAD II among others – showcases his talents with a series of increasingly accomplished and painful-looking stabbings, spearings, beheadings, and other mutilations (with a body count of five, an early drowning death seems like a wasted opportunity but the extras reveal that it was a workaround for a gore effect that did not work after several hours of setup). While no one's idea of a slasher classic, THE MUTILATOR was a labor of love in the making, and the deluxe treatment it is afforded here on Blu-ray and DVD makes it worthy of reappraisal and earns its place on the shelf next to definitive treatments of other vintage slashers.
Released unrated theatrically on the East Coast and then in an R-rated version with MPAA-mandated cuts as it made its way west, THE MUTILATOR was released in both cuts on VHS by Vestron Video. The film made it to DVD uncut in Germany and trimmed of parts of the gaff murder scene for Vipco's typically poor UK DVD release. When it looked like Arrow would have to create a composite of the uncut version from an R-rated 35mm print and the off-cuts (Cooper removed the MPAA-mandated cuts from release prints rather than the negative or intermediate materials), they announced that their release (originally scheduled for late last year) would include both R-rated and unrated cuts (presumably through branching). When they discovered that a print deposited with the Library of Congress for copyright purposes had been untouched since and was not subjected to the MPAA cuts, the release was delayed until February while Arrow created a new 2K scan of the element. The final product drops the useless R-rated version and presents the unrated cut (86:09) in an MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen transfer retains an 1980s softness but is more detailed, brighter, and colorful than before and reveals that some of the darker scenes were moodily lit rather than underlit. The prosthetics and gore mostly hold up well in HD (the seams of a neck wound appliance is very obvious in HD), making one wonder if Shostrum would have been a rival for Savini had he been old enough to get his start with late seventies and early eighties unrated slashers and horror films. The LPCM 1.0 mono track is clean and boldly conveys the theme song and synthesizer suspense cues along with some of the wince-inducing foley effects for the kill scenes. Optional English SDH subtitles are also included. The film is preceded by an optional introduction by Cooper and Edmund Ferrell (who started out as a make-up effects assistant but would work several positions behind the camera including assistant editor in post-production) in which they touch upon the situation with the original elements.
The film can also be viewed accompanied by two audio commentary tracks. The first features Cooper, assistant special make-up effects artist/assistant editor Edmund Ferrell (THE SUPERNATURALS), co-director John Douglass (who taught the American University screenwriting course Cooper took to develop his script), and actor Mitler, while the second commentary features Cooper and actress Ruth Tutterow née Martinez. Both tracks are moderated by disc producer Ewan Cant who discusses the film's playful nods the genre and foreshadowing dialogue and images – with input from Douglass – that enhance its replay value. Although Cant's questions keep the discussions focused (especially in balancing out discussion of the story points against the shooting anecdotes), Cooper's anecdotes have a certain rehearsed quality (see the retrospective featurette discussed below). Cooper discusses the support and enthusiasm of the locals who came to watch the shooting, the moral objections of some participants and city officials, and the hysterical reaction of one of the female crew members to the gaff scene (necessitating another take). Mitler discusses some of his ad-libbed contributions to cast some suspicion upon his character while Martinez talks about picking up acting tips from Mitler (who was teaching in New York while looking for work) and points out places in which the actors conspired to ad-libbed bits to surprise the crew. The participants also go into a bit of detail about the practical jokes and the fun atmosphere on the set even as they were running over schedule and running out of materials. They also discuss the original ending and the scrapped shot (in the shooting script) meant to signify a sequel.
"Fall Breakers: The Story of THE MUTILATOR" (75:01) is a feature-length retrospective documentary featuring a mix of new and older interviews (presumably from last decade when Cooper first started searching for materials for a Blu-ray release) with actors Mitler, Chatham, Martinez (not a schoolteacher), and Hitchcock, as well as Cooper, Douglass, Ferrell, Cooper's son Trace and ex-wife Pamela (who worked on the wardrobe and then played Big Ed's wife when the original actress bowed out due to religious objections), and a handful of extras. Revisiting the original locations, the participants cover just about every aspect of the film from Cooper trying to decide what to do with $86,000, taking screenwriting and production classes under Douglass who would help him develop the project with some of his graduate students and recent grads, the casting (with local personality Ben Moore, who played the ill-fated beach cop, reading opposite the auditioners), practical jokes as the film went over schedule, effects mishaps, cooperation with the city thanks to the reputation of Cooper's resort owner father, post-production, the film's theatrical reception across the country (it played in New York in a double bill with PIECES), and the cuts imposed for an R-rating (Ferrell, who assisted in the editing and sound design, described the cuts as like "circumcising my own son"). The featurette closes out with the participants reflecting on the film's cult status and musing on the sequel (which Cooper insists that he left the script open for thanks to the prominence of a certain prop among Big Ed's trophies).
In "Mutilator Memories" (15:57), effects artist Shostrum recalls THE MUTILATOR as his best experience on a film, covering some of the same effects mishaps as described by others in the "Fall Breakers" featurette (and ascribing fault for the pool setpiece to CHOPPING MALL's Anthony Showe while admitting his faults with the initial body cast and for the outboard motor prosthetic effects). In "Tunes for the Dunes" (8:13), composer Michael Minard (SPECIAL EFFECTS) recalls how excited Cooper was to work with him when he discovered he had worked with Artie Resnick ("Under the Boardwalk"), and how Cooper's enthusiasm was somewhat of a distraction. He also discusses the theme song, and how he realized too late that it was too up-tempo for North Carolina shag. The behind-the-scenes reel (16:31) largely focuses on the murder scenes, including Cooper's son taking some squib hits not seen in the finished film, while the screen tests (13:03) are amusing with Moore doubling for Pam in Mitler's audition, for Ralph in the convenience store cashier's audition, and Martinez demonstrating the fresh-faced charm that landed her the role.
The alternate opening titles (4:32) showcasing the more familiar title card THE MUTILATOR are also included in their entirety. Trailers and TV spots are presented under both titles. FALL BREAK's theatrical trailer (1:42) and TV spot (0:32) have the tagline "The vacation that became a nightmare" while the MUTILATOR trailer (1:57) and two TV spots (0:32 each) sport "School was hell, but vacation was murder!" Radio spots for THE MUTILATOR (0:57) are also included. The FALL BREAK ones seem to be newly transferred from film while the MUTILATOR ones are upscaled from video. Just in case you did not get enough of them theme song in stereo over the menu screens, it is also presented in vocal and instrumental versions (3:30 each). Also included are storyboards for the opening sequence (4:27) and a stills gallery (8:49). Both the DVD and Blu-ray feature the original screenplay as a PDF file as well as two Easter Eggs: an extension of the director's introduction (3:22) and a piece in which actress Martinez reads some excerpts from her copy of the script (4:14). Not included for review is the reversible sleeve featuring two original artworks. (Eric Cotenas)
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