The Mutilator Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
When Ed (Matt Mitler) receives a message from his father asking him to go and lock up the family’s beach condo for the winter, it seems like the perfect excuse for an alcohol-fuelled few days away with his friends. After all, his dad, Ed Sr. (Trace Cooper), has forgiven him for accidentally blowing mom away with a shotgun several years ago… hasn’t he? But no sooner are the teens on the island than they find themselves stalked by a figure with an axe (and a hook and an onboard motor) to grind… (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
I don’t like the concept of “guilty pleasures,” because it’s so exhausting to worry about a guilty consciences in reference to objective quality when one spends as much time as I do watching, studying, and, yes, sometimes loving trash cinema. I can usually find a reasonable justification for my obsessions – a first-time taboo breaker, unique story elements, impressive camera work, groundbreaking subject matter, et cetera. Sometimes, I can even enjoy a film on the level of an Mystery Science Theater-like joke, because there is real joy in honest ineptitude. But, every once in awhile, excuses fail me. Buddy Cooper’s The Mutilator (1985) is one of those movies. It’s derived from about a thousand other slasher movies that had already busted taboos and it’s sloppily constructed, yet not so clumsy as to be inadvertently funny. If I’m entirely frank, I can barely even recall a plot point or line of dialogue from Cooper’s script. So, what, if anything, sets The Mutilator (original title: Fall Break) apart from the rest of the mid-’80s’ Z-grade slasher fodder? What makes it a personal favourite? Two words: simplicity and excess.
The Mutilator was one of a select number of American-made horror movies that was granted unrated theatrical and home video release in the ‘80s, because the distributors understood that its value was almost exclusively tied to its graphic and elaborate violence. Bereft of that violence to appease the era’s MPAA standards (and keep in mind that the MPAA was on a tear, following the controversy of Friday the 13th’s R-rating), Cooper’s movie is a tepid rehash of genre cliches without the reward of over-the-top carnage. The promise of formulaic mix of mundanity and gore is what makes a slasher movie work. Watching such films is like entering a social contract with the filmmaker in which they promise to sate your bloodlust if you agree to sit through the narrative practices of a ‘real movie’ in the time between gory moments. It is easy to mock The Mutilator’s banal set-up and awkward characters (not the fault of the actors, all of whom are charming, despite appearing to be in their thirties), but Cooper and his co-filmmakers clearly understood the rhythm required of a good slasher movie.
Though it lacks an ounce of originality, the mundane process of introducing victims, moving them to an isolated location, and separating them for slaughter is rarely boring. In fact, the set-up has a semi-satirical (though probably accidental) appeal, in which the characters ignore some of the biggest red flags in slasher movie history – a plethora of tragic and violent backstories, creepy decorations in the lake house, an unlocked door on arrival, friends that go missing for hours without contact, and so on. It takes an hour and ten minutes for someone to finally admit that they’re scared. Then, after making us wait almost exactly 40 minutes to get to the juicy stuff (we’re tossed a couple of bones in the form of bloody dream sequences), Cooper and his effects crew come out swinging with a surprise disembowelment via outboard motor. Soon after, Ed Sr. retires to more typical and trusted slasher killer weapons – a machete, which he drives into a curious cop’s face, and a battle axe, which the uses to behead he poor sap. A couple of other “college students” are dispatched with a pitchfork to the throat and a giant fishing hook to the groin (the one mean-spirited murder in this otherwise light-hearted kill-fest), Ed Jr. and his girlfriend (Ruth Martinez Tutterow) survive a protracted battle with Ed Sr., eventually pinning his body between a wall and the back of their car. With his body cleaved in twain, Ed Sr. musters the strength to spring back to life in order to chop a leg off of the sheriff that has arrived on the scene. Truly, it is the pièce de résistance. The credits run over silent B-roll footage and bloopers, reminding us that it was all in good fun.
It has been difficult to be a Mutilator fan when it comes to home video. Though we were granted an unrated VHS release, the DVD revolution practically passed over this particular slasher gem. There were only two options – a slightly censored, non-anamorphic pan & scan UK disc from Vipco and an uncut, non-anamorphic pan & scan German disc from Dragon. Both looked like the footage had been run over by a couple of trucks before scanning. Arrow’s new 1.85:1, 1080p Blu-ray was originally scheduled for a September 2015 release, but it was delayed when Arrow found a complete 35mm master print of the uncut version at the Library of Congress of all places. The print was scanned in 2K and all restoration/remastering was approved (though not supervised) by Cooper.
Fans should not expect any miracles, of course – this is still some pretty rough material. Debris and scratches are minimal, as is frame wobble, while the grain levels are consistently thick and sometimes snowy. The biggest issue in terms of print damage is fading on the sides of the frame, however, the biggest hurdle that the transfer’s producers had to surmount is the film’s lack of light. For years, I had assumed that the excessive darkness was due to Cooper and cinematographer Peter Schnall’s relative amateurism, but, with a better gamma balance, some scenes now appear genuinely evocative (not to mention the difference the 1.85:1 framing makes for the film’s sense of theatricality). Though there are still shots that turn to complete mud (sadly, the muddiest tend to be murder sequences), the gamma has been adjusted to reveal quite a bit of texture during the entire final hour of the movie. Some of the darkest scenes have been so substantially brightened that black levels turn green or bluish, but the alternative would be total crush, so I commend the effort. The pool scene is probably the key example of the clearer image is – what was once a black backdrop defined by only the vaguest highlights is now crisp and colorful enough to differentiate characters from the watery geography of the room. Backgrounds and wide-angle shots are a bit soft, but this appears to be another purposeful artifact of the diffused photography, which creates blooming effects along the brighter highlights. Color quality is vastly improved over the DVD versions, as well. I suspect that this transfer might be a bit cooler than Cooper and Schnall originally intended, but the director did okay this transfer and it’s certainly a step up from the murky browns of those DVDs.
The original mono soundtrack was also taken from the 35mm source and is presented here in uncompressed 1.0 LPCM. The sound is about as rough as the video overall, but there are few specific and obvious problems. At worst, the whole thing just sounds muffled and turning up the volume doesn’t really do much to clear up the dialogue and basic effects. Still, there’s little distortion and the clarity is consistent enough to consider ‘clean.’ Michael Minard’s keyboard score – which tends to turn on a dime, from spooky suspense, to wacky hijinks, to romance, and back again – gets a more substantial upgrade. The stinging cues are sharp without buzzing and the bass throbs without warbling. The best sounding thing on the entire track is actually the opening title theme, “Fall Break,” which was composed and performed by Minard with input from the filmmakers and doo-wop king Artie Resnick, under the name Peter Yellen and The Breakers.
Introduction with writer-director Buddy Cooper and assistant special makeup effects artist/assistant editor Edmund Ferrell (1:10, HD) – A brief description of what happened to the original negatives.
Commentary with Cooper, Ferrell, co-director John Douglass, and star Matt Mitler – This new group commentary is moderated by Arrow Films’ Ewan Cant. It’s a bit low-energy with Ferrell and Douglass sort of taking the lead over Cooper for some sections, but the discussion eventually gets moving and stays pretty well-focused.
Commentary with Cooper and star Ruth Martinez Tutterow – The other new commentary is also moderated by Cant. I’m not sure how Arrow ended up with two separate Cooper/Cant commentaries. I suppose that the overlap is minimal and Cant has an option to grill the director for additional info he skipped the first time around. Tutterow also has more to say than Mitler did about the actors’ point-of-view of the production.
Fall Breakers: The Story of The Mutilator (1:15:00, HD) – A substantial, newly produced behind-the-scenes documentary that includes the backstories of the filmmakers, casting descriptions, audition tapes, video footage and photos from the set, MPAA cuts (along with censored and uncensored comparisons), and extensive technical discussions about everything from gore effects to adding milk to the pool to make it appear more opaque on film. Interview subjects include Cooper, Douglass, Ferrell, and actors Mitler, Tutterow, Bill Hitchcock, Jack Chatham, Pam Cooper, and Trace Cooper. The most refreshing thing here is that every interviewee remembers the film fondly and doesn’t feel the need to defend themselves for appearing in it.
Mutilator Memories (16:00, HD) – Special makeup effects artist Mark Shostrom, who would go on to help gather the team that would become KNB Effects Group, recalls his work on The Mutilator, which was one of his earliest film projects. The interview includes more footage from the set.
Tunes for the Dunes (8:10, HD) – An interview with composer Michael Minard on his score. He sits at a piano and demonstrates some of the motifs and explains Artie Resnick’s input on the theme song.
Behind-the-scenes reel (16:30, HD) – The complete, uncut on-set video footage.
Screen tests (13:00, HD)
Opening sequence storyboards (4:30, HD)
Alternate opening titles (4:30, HD)
Fall Break and The Mutilator trailers, TV spots, and radio spots
”Fall Break” theme – Original and instrumental versions (3:30 each, HD)
Original Fall Break screenplay (BD/DVD-ROM)
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