Friday, January 30, 2015

Shriek Of The Mutilated (1974)

Alright, I have to get something off my chest. I hate when people say a movie is "so bad it's good." If you enjoyed a movie for any reason, then mission accomplished, you were entertained. And seriously, don't ever say to anybody "The ONLY way to see this film is on Mystery Science Theater 3000." It only makes you look bad that you can't watch a movie like "Eegah!" without someone spoon-feeding you what's amusing about it. A bad movie is no fun. Films with very low budgets and non-actors are entertaining if the story is interesting enough and those performers are game.

I had that feeling while watching "Shriek Of The Mutilated", which truly defies description in a lot of ways. I will talk about it here, but I could never really explain what it's like, you must seek out and view this film for yourself. And don't just watch it half-assed in a browser while you're doing something else, put it on your TV if at all possible, and allow yourself to get drawn into its bizarre artificial world.

Yeah man, it's the 70s, dig?
Cannibalism seems to be a theme lately on the blog--is it ever far from our minds?--so here's another fantastic people-eating movie that just may be one of the best movies in the universe. Previously it was lodged in the back of my mind because I must have read about it someplace as "that bigfoot movie where it's not really bigfoot" and I thought I had seen it for sure. When I started watching it though, I quickly realized I had never actually seen this movie at all. And I was stunned.

"Shriek Of The Mutilated" takes place in that alternate universe known as the early 1970s, in a dimension somewhere between a porno film, an early daytime TV soap opera, and a nightmare. Four college students named Keith, Karen, Tom and Lynn are listening to professor Ernst Prell lecture them about the Yeti, a mythological creature that Prell has devoted his life to studying and tracking. He intends to take the four to his associate Karl Werner's remote country estate on Boot Island, because Werner claims a Yeti has been lurking in the wilderness around his estate.
Yeti vision!

Dr. Prell takes Keith to dinner while Karen, Lynn and Tom attend a swingin' 70s college party. Almost as if on cue, former student Spencer St. Claire has an alcoholic breakdown after he discovers Prell is taking more students on a Yeti field trip. It seems Spencer also accompanied Dr. Prell seven years earlier, an episode that only he and Dr. Prell survived, and he stoically tells the room all about his experience, warning anybody who would dare go with Dr. Prell on his adventure. Meanwhile, Dr. Prell takes Keith to an exclusive restaurant where everyone gives each other a knowing look while they are eating a strange dinner called "gin sung". Although he doesn't name Spencer, Prell alludes to his unfortunate experience and tells Keith "I expect more from you." Yeah Spencer is a real nut case, and the first sign that "Shriek Of The Mutilated" is a work of sheer genius comes in a scene where Spencer and his wife return home from the party and spontaneously murder each other. She breaks his bottle of vodka, so he cuts her throat with an electric carving knife. But the onset of death turns her into a true ninja: when Spencer climbs into the bathtub (fully clothed) after attacking her, she drags her dying self into the bathroom along with a toaster, which she plugs into a handy socket and tosses into the bathtub with him.

Hey, no were NOT mutilated.
Despite the pathetically inebriated warnings Spencer gave before his untimely electrocution, the doomed college foursome go with Dr. Prell anyway to Dr. Werner's isolated estate, where Werner and his manservant Laughing Crow terrify them by talking in hushed tones about the Yeti that howls in the woods at night, and Dr. Werner himself swears he has had several near-encounters with it. Well, actually Dr. Werner does all the talking, Laughing Crow just glowers strangely at them and looks pissed off and confused at the same time. Maybe he's just annoyed that Werner refers to him as "his Indian."

"Listen, I forgot to tell you...don't say anything about the boots. OK?"
The Yeti has certain characteristics that they have been able to determine, most notably a strange offensive odor and a heartbeat that can be heard loudly wherever it goes. The characteristic you will notice right away about the Yeti is that it is clearly a human being wearing a costume that wouldn't frighten anything other than a children's birthday party. Eventually though, we learn that it looks like a costume because it really IS a costume: Prell and Werner have invented the Yeti because they are a part of a secret cult of cannibals who lure Prell's college students to their deaths so they can become dinner. The Yeti gives them a cover for the disappearances, and an excuse to isolate the kids before murdering them.
The fatally scratched faces of death.
The atmosphere in "Shriek of the Mutilated" can best be described as a horror kitsch cartoon come to life. In fact, it resembles a violent episode of "Scooby Doo" in a number of ways, including the fact that the Professor's van looks a hell of a lot like the Mystery Machine:

Not only that, but look at these two and just try and not see Daphne and Velma:

I'm sure she just forgot to take them off before she got in bed.
And what episode of "Scooby Doo" didn't end with the monster being revealed as a man in a mask? 

The visage of true terror, the beast itself confronts us!
But it isn't entirely kitschy. Although this movie is hopelessly dated and clearly not made by a film crew with a huge budget, "Shriek of the Mutilated" does have a strange effectiveness. It's quickly paced and never lets up, whether it's a horror sequence where the students are isolated and murdered, or one of the parts where the students shout histrionic lines of dialogue at one another. My favorite moment like this was the part where Keith and Karen allow Dr. Prell to convince them that, after both Tom and Lynn have been murdered by the "Yeti", the proper thing to do is to use pieces of Tom's body as bait to lure the Yeti into a trap. Karen finds herself the only person in the entire group who thinks the right thing to do is leave and find the police, and at one point she screams at Keith, "Stop treating me like a CHILD!" and he screams back at her "Well stop ACTING like one!" It's the line that should have been in "Mommie Dearest", but wasn't.
"What are you thinking, they told us to VIEW the scenery, not CHEW it."
The film's sets and sound design are gloriously cheap and alien. A swinging college party takes place in an apartment that doesn't look quite right, with strangely proportioned rooms and hanging lamps that one of the actors hits his head on as he walks down a hallway. The infamous double murder scene near the beginning of the film takes place in a claustrophobic apartment that could be part of either a dormitory or motel. The outdoor scenes at Dr. Prell's estate don't quite mesh with the large houses's interiors, which are best revealed in a set piece that is spellbinding in its strangeness: separated from Keith, Karen awakens from a dead faint to find herself alone in a room while the Yeti howls outside. She looks out the window and sees it running across the lawn toward the house. It then lunges at her through the window and drags itself inside, where it pursues her through the house in a dizzying chase.

The Yeti has a sound that follows it wherever it goes. The characters call it a "howl", but really what it sounds like is a person imitating a snarling Chihuahua while going "Num num num nummy yyyum yummmmm." There's also that ominous heartbeat, which is later revealed to be Laughing Crow playing drums into a loudspeaker system. It's staggering to ponder if the filmmakers wanted us to believe in the Yeti, too...although it is treated seriously early in the movie, the film's poster itself reveals that the Yeti is fake and the film's true villains are cannibals. And when you see somebody running quickly in a monster suit, nothing is more obvious than the fact that it's someone running in a monster suit. I wouldn't call it scary, but the giddy energy of these scenes is infectious.
Laughing Crow wants to axe you a question about cultural sensitivity.
And then that ending. Like I said before, the film's twist is revealed on the poster, but I suspect it was hoped during the filming and scripting that the audience would be shocked by it. The most shocking thing is that somehow the cheapness of everything that has come before it actually lends some loony credibility to the final act. After we find out the Yeti was fake all along, the fakeness we ourselves have witnessed actually makes sense, although there's no explaining the histrionic dialogue. Keith discovers that the Yeti is a ruse and escapes to get help, but Prell and Werner manage to scare Karen to death. The ritualistic aspect of what they've done apparently demands that the victim they intend to eat must not be bruised or physically harmed in any way, she must have died of fright. Keith brings back the police (apparently he could only find a single officer) and in the tradition of these movies, he is one of them, and Dr. Prell makes him the same offer that he apparently made to Spencer years ago: join them and eat human flesh (his own girlfriend), or be killed and eaten by all of them. The ambiguous ending has Keith salivating over the offering of eating Karen's flesh. Will Keith become a true cannibal, or end up like Spencer, only left alive to carry back the legend of the Yeti so more victims can be lured into the trap? 

The gore effects are mostly of the "fake bloody limb" variety, and the Yeti mostly seems to kill its victims by scratching their faces to death, but the movie loves to show it over and over again. Lynn even gets a pound sign scratched into her face during her meet-the-Yeti moment, breaking the facial death wound mold of two or three parallel stripes. Although directed by notorious exploitation filmmaker Michael Findlay ("Snuff", "The Touch Of Her Flesh", and numerous early porn features), the movie doesn't really go too far over the top with the on-screen violence. Even the scene where Spencer supposedly cuts his wife's throat with a carving knife is bloody but not explicit.

The acting in the film is like an early John Waters film, with what appears to be a group of the filmmaker's friends portraying the characters. "Overacting" is putting it mildly. Indeed, for most of these actors, "Shriek of the Mutilated" is their only credit on IMDB. A few of them do appear in the same director's "Invasion of the Blood Farmers", and lead actress Jennifer Stock also appears in "Bloodsucking Freaks". She turns in one of those performances where she's supposed to be pushed to the limits of her endurance, like her best girlfriend Sally Hardesty, but unlike Sally Hardesty, she doesn't escape becoming a meal. Incidentally, although we know "gin sung" is a meal made from human flesh, it also appears to be an actual meal prepared by a presumably cannibal chef. When Karen's body is presented to the cult members to be consumed, it looks like they just wheeled her body out on a gurney and intended to eat it "tartare".

The SHOWER CURTAIN. OK? Just look at it.

How you like me now?

"Shriek of the Mutilated" is a rickety, lunatic ride that I urge you to take. If you have seen this and were hoping it would be a bigfoot movie, I feel for you, but you did get some bigfoot buttons pushed, right? Personally, I found one of the better horror sequences in the movie to be a well staged scene where the first student gets picked off by the Yeti when he foolishly wanders off alone and investigates a spooky barn lying in ruins. The Yeti is glimpsed through the crudely spaced planks of wood while stalking Tom from the roof, the ominous heartbeat combining with some disorienting camera angles to create a trippy atmosphere that will either annoy or thrill you. What can I say, I'm usually thrilled by these things.

I ask you, is this not the best title in the entire history of cinema?


-Alan D Hopewell said...

"It was the damnest thing, Ernst".... One of my favorite late-night movie experiences, ripe for audience participation.

Mr Y said...

Excellent write-up of this truly bizarre flick, just had the pleasure (?) of watching it tonight and had to Google around to see if I actually hallucinated the whole thing. That's how I found your review, great job. Glad I found this useful site!

Guygrand said...

Been a favorite of mine since seeing it in the early 80s. Incidentally, the party scene on the original sound track is playing "Popcorn" by Hot Butter which actually made the top 10 on am radio of the day. Some copies not contain genetic party music due to a rights issue.