“By sword, by pick, by axe, bye bye,” reads the tagline from The Mutilator‘s poster art which was ubiquitous in every mom-and-pop video store’s horror section in the mid-1980s. Anyone who grew up as a horror fan in the VHS era who hadn’t seen the bloody 1985 gorefest, had at least surely seen the video box artwork. You couldn’t really miss the menacing gaffe that threatens to disembowel four teenagers hanging by hooks just above that title that leaves absolutely no doubt as to the film’s content: this is a movie about a guy that mutilates people. If you’ve seen the unrated version (the film was originally released in “R” and “unrated” versions on VHS and betamax), you know the film delivers the goods.
As a teenage Fangoria-subscribing gore-hound, The Mutilator was one of my favorites of the slasher genre. As a low-budget film, it’s “got a lot of heart.” In what initially seems like a dragging ramp-up, screen-time is actually taken to develop likable characters with unique personalities—not simply establish machete fodder. Once we get to know and care about those characters, the killer wastes no time in dispatching with them in various grisly ways. One particular scene, in fact, is so over-the-top that I’m left wondering to this day how they were able to get away with it in 1985. Then again, it might be even more difficult to get away with something like it in today’s current culture of outrage. This scene, involving a gaffe and a woman’s hoo-ha, remains the most talked-about and notorious scene in The Mutilator. It’s a rough watch, not for the faint-of-heart.
Miss, you don’t want to know what comes next.
The Mutilator was shot in coastal North Carolina by Buddy Cooper, a first-time director with a cobbled-together crew of locals and American University film students. Though some reviews have described the production as “amateurish,” I’ve always felt that there was a vibe to this film indicating that everyone involved had a blast with what they were doing. I think that’s one of the reasons it’s always stuck with me: the actors’ performances, while not always perfect, are nonetheless engaging and fun. The special effects created by make-up wizard Mark Shostrom (later of From Beyond, Evil Dead 2, A Nightmare of Elm Street 3) elevate The Mutilator to a higher tier of splatterdom than your typical ‘80s Halloween and Friday the 13th clones. The murder pieces are original and the ending is totally nuts.
It’s also worth noting that the film’s theme music, unlike your typical Herrmann and Penderecki-inspired violin stabs, is an absurdly catchy bit of beach “shag” music, reflective of the film’s North Carolina location. The theme song, “Fall Break,” alludes to the film’s original production title before the distributor suggested the more marketable Mutilator moniker. If you watch the film only once, you will have that goddamn earworm stuck in your head for a week.
The film’s beach music theme. Play at your own risk.
So, what ought-to-have-been considered one of the great, classic, low-budget ‘80s splatter movies sort of got lost and forgotten. The primary reason for this is because, up until very recently, it never received a proper DVD release to introduce it to a new generation of horror fans. There were some pretty awful overly-dark bootlegs that floated around in collector circles, but that was about it unless you had one of those old VHS (or Betamax) copies. There were a couple of foreign DVD releases that, according to wikpedia, were unauthorized.
The story behind why it never saw a release until now is interesting. The film had been doing well in New York in its original theatrical run as an unrated film, but in order to get a wider distribution it would need an MPAA rating. In order to get an “R” rating, much of the gore scenes were cut from the film. This was actually disasterous, as all of the most appealing aspects to the film’s target audience were now missing. The Mutilator was released in both “R” and “unrated” cuts on VHS and Betamax by Vestron Video, who later went bankrupt. Fast-forward to the DVD era. When it was first proposed that The Mutilator get a DVD release, it became apparent that there was no complete pristine print of the film that included all of the excised gore elements. Any release that was going to happen would need to be cobbled together from various elements, which would have looked pretty bad. For those of us who followed the saga of promised releases that never saw the light of day, it was beginning to look like we’d never see a high-quality complete print of the film on disc.
This young actor demonstrates many of the cuts made by the MPAA.
Then came Arrow Video to the rescue. Arrow had been working on a composite cut of the film when it was discovered that there existed a forgotten pristine print of the film, sans-cuts, at the Library of Congress—a print which had been deposited there for copyright purposes. Arrow was able to rescue this print and made a gorgeous 2K scan of it for a two-disc special-edition Blu-ray and loaded it up with incredible extras—including a fascinating hour and fifteen minute long documentary, Fall Breakers: The Story of The Mutilator, which is utterly fascinating if you are a fan.
I’d be remiss in my gushing over Arrow’s release of this film, if I didn’t say a few words about the work this company does. Arrow sits alongside Grindhouse Releasing and Mondo Macabro as the holy trinity of digital video companies specializing in genre films. All three companies go above and beyond the call of duty with attention to detail in their transfers and bonus materials. Arrow has very quickly become my favorite, and I recently described them in conversation as “The Criterion of Shit Movies.” Frankly, their packages often put Criterion to shame. Their new release of Bride of Re-Animator comes as a three disc set, packed with commentaries, documentaries, behind-the-scenes footage, and a sizeable comic book—it’s a better package than I’ve seen for the most hallowed cinematic works… and it’s for fucking Bride of Re-Animator! They’ve also just released a gorgeous hardcover coffee table book Cult Cinema: An Arrow Video Companion which is jam-packed with articles and photos related to several genre styles: horror films, westerns, science fiction, sex comedies, yakuza epics and neo-noirs. I recently had the opportunity to dump my wallet out on Arrow’s table at the 2016 Mad Monster Convention. I was able to pick up several of their releases, most notably Spider Baby (one of my favorite all-time films!), Mark of the Devil, Blood Rage, and the ridiculous Alien-ripoff:Contamination. These releases and their accompanying bonus features and eye-popping packaging are beyond compare, and the work Arrow does probably warrants its own separate post here on Dangerous Minds.
Arrow Video’s killer Blu-ray release of “The Mutilator.”
Their release of The Mutilator is a godsend for fans of ‘80s gore and should not be missed. I seriously cannot recommend this enough. It can be picked up HERE.
I also had the opportunity to meet The Mutilator‘s director, Buddy Cooper, and let him know how much I had loved his film since my teenage years. I couldn’t help but nerd out a bit in letting him know that it had been one of my most-anticipated DVD/Blu-ray releases of all time, and in asking “what the hell took so long!?” I was able to score, directly from Mr. Cooper, a copy of the “Fall Break” 45, as well as a sizeable stack of the original storyboards from the film—including the storyboard of the film’s never-shot original ending with the killer being cut in half by a drawbridge!
Original production storyboards (from the author’s collection)
What I also scored was the opportunity to ask Cooper a few questions about his classic film and possibilities of future mutilations:
Dangerous Minds: I first saw The Mutilator when I was in high school, rented on VHS from a local mom-and-pop video store. Before I knew anything about where the film was made and details of the production, I could tell the film was “different” and had a lot of heart. It seems that the actors on screen are having a good time and the there’s an air of Little Rascals style “let’s put on a show!” to the whole thing. The Mutilator does a better job of establishing characters the audience cares about and relates to than most 80s slasher movies. Was that a primary concern of yours?
Buddy Cooper: That was not a conscious concern of mine, although I think it was caught up in my overall concerns. As the project progressed from idea to production a getting along and have fun attitude grew among all of us. We all got along and we all wanted the thing to be good and we all wanted to have a good time doing it. Only one member of the team was difficult and she was excused six weeks before shooting started. The rest of us had a good time.
No small part of that was the fact that John Douglass, who is and was a Professor of Film at The American University in DC, brought a group of young students, graduate students and recently graduated students with him to the shoot. The department heads were all working professionals, but we utilized these young people to fill up the departments with energetic, enthusiastic young people who were having fun. It didn’t hurt that most of John’s young people were single women and most of [director of photography] Schnall’s pros were single men.
So it turned out that in my efforts to create pleasant, fun working conditions a good situation was created in which everyone, not just the actors, had what you described as a “let’s put on a show!” attitude. We all had fun almost all of the time. (There was even a food fight with cake and beer on [make up FX artist] Shostrom’s birthday—which caused a problem.) There were a few tense moments—especially for me (see food fight problem)—but it was a great experience for all of us.
Most of the young cast of “The Mutilator.”
DM: Was the decision to make a slasher horror movie as your first (and only) feature film strictly based on the possibility of a monetary return, or were you a fan of horror films going into it?
BC: I was a fan of the horror genre. I had been reviewing movies for the local paper for a few years. I was friends with the manager of the local theaters. The new pictures were first run on Fridays. The new films were set up on platters after the last show on Thursday nights. The manager would let me come in late Thursday, give me a box of popcorn and a Pepsi and run the new pictures for me. I’d often watch horror movies alone in those dark theaters until 2:00 or so in the morning. It was great.
However, the decision to make a horror picture was influenced by economics. At the time Weekly Variety was reporting that 30% of the tickets sold in the U.S. were being sold for horror films. I had read that horror films could be made for not too much money—they were referred to as low-budget horror films. I thought that I would have the best chance of getting my money back if I made a low-budget horror film.
So both. I liked the genre and it seemed like a good financial idea at the time.
DM: One of the things that sets The Mutilator apart from other horror movies of its era is the absolute brutality of the gaffe-through-the-crotch scene. There’s a lot of academic writings about slasher films being an allegory for male sexual frustration, with knife penetrations being replacement for the desire of sexual penetration. I’m not sure that I buy that, but if there’s anything to that line of thought, the gaffe scene kind of just goes right to it. When you came up with this scene, was there any fear that you had “gone too far”?
BC: I wasn’t thinking that seriously about it. I thought it would be a good, evil, horrific event of the sort that would make the audience cringe. Nothing more.
Some on the crew thought it was too much. Especially some of the women. Lisa Schnall, little sister of Peter Schnall the DP, was our boom operator. Lisa said she wasn’t going to work on that scene. Peter explained professional responsibility or something to her and she agreed, but during the first take it got to be too much for her and she ran out. She came back and we got it on take two.
I always wondered what the “gaffer” did on a movie set.
DM: I remember back in the day, The Mutilator seemed to be in every video store. You really can’t miss that cover art. Then, it seemed to just disappear with the advent of the big chain video stores, and there was never a DVD release until the very recent Arrow Video release. How well did the film do theatrically and on video back then? And did you see any of that money? I ask because it’s always struck me as odd that there wasn’t a follow-up Buddy Cooper production.
BC: Well, you may have missed it, but The Mutilator was in the big chain stores as well. It was in Blockbuster, for instance.
When The Mutilator was first released, it “broke” in New York City and did well. It grossed about $400,000 in its opening weekend and made it to #13 on Variety‘s weekly chart of top grossing films. It stayed on the chart for six weeks. After that it did well in LA and in one or two pockets of understanding around. But it was unrated, and because it was unrated when we could get bookings, the theaters couldn’t get advertising—the papers wouldn’t run ads for an unrated picture, radio and TV stations wouldn’t run the spots. At that time an unrated film was considered to be a pornographic film. Ultimately, It was necessary to decimate the gore scenes in order to garner an “R” from the MPAA and, as I had suspected, the fans lost interest. I lost money because of that.
Vestron offered a nice $250,000 advance, but went into bankruptcy still owing me a third of that.
I lost enough money so that it was a few years before I recovered and then I was supporting a family and paying bills and I was gun shy of putting it all into another movie at that time. Later, I went to AFI and spent a few years in LA chasing a career as a producer. I put together a few projects, but never was able to make a movie and ultimately my hopes for a Hollywood career got away from me.
Vestron Video’s Betamax release.
DM: The theme song is insanely catchy. If you see the movie once, you’ll have the song stuck in your head for a week. It’s unusual for a horror film to have a theme song that isn’t “scary.” You even released it on a 45. What was the idea behind using a song like this to open the film, and were the 45s produced simply as a promotional item, or was there a thought that the song might have some “hit” potential?
BC: The picture is set at the beach. There is a type of music around here and in South Carolina as well known as “beach music.” It’s music that’s good to shag to. For your UK fans, “the shag” is a dance.
So I wanted beach music in the movie. Michael Minard wrote the music and he and Arthur Resnick wrote the lyrics. Arthur wrote one of the all-time great beach music songs, “Under the Boardwalk,” so he was a good choice for Michael as a collaborator.
It was in the immediate post-Jaws era and a local DJ made a song, “Just When You Thought it was Safe to Go Back in the Water,” using parts of the theme song from the movie. It was a very clever spoof. It was funny and entertaining and became popular on his station. I had a copy of it, but can’t find it now.
I had 45s pressed not so much in hopes that it would be a hit, as just a way to promote the movie—sending the 45s around to stations near where the movie would be playing. I like the song. It is catchy.
“Fall Break” 45 promotional tie-in for the film, recorded by Peter Yellen and “The Breakers.” (From the author’s collection)
DM: With the renewed interest in The Mutilator, do you ever consider taking another crack at film making?
BC: I do—like every day. Ed Ferrell was important to The Mutilator in a lot of roles. Ed now manages the Oceanana Motel, which my two sisters and I own and where I live and work and incidentally where The Mutilator was shot. Ed and I talk about making the next one all the time. In fact we are actively searching for a screenplay right now. I’ve read dozens of query letters and a few scripts over the past several weeks, but haven’t found what I’m looking for.
There’s talk of MII. I wrote a pretty good screenplay for a different horror picture, but it’s not quite good enough—yet. We are talking about writing our own again. John Douglass is involved in those discussions.
I’ll make another one.
You heard it here, folks!
Check out the trailer for “The Mutilator” below: