Monday, May 20, 2019

“He’s Just Irish Like Most of Them Up Here” - Savage Weekend (1978)

Let us return to that proverbial diamond mine of high-quality films--the rural protoslasher--and discuss 1978's Savage Weekend, featuring acting powerhouses David Gale and William Sanderson in supporting roles.

Reviewer coventry writes, "This movie is bad, and not just low-budget bad but really BAD to the third degree. We're talking incoherent screenplay, insufferable characters, long stretches of boredom where absolutely nothing happens, predictable twists, laughable killing sequences and utterly senseless dialogs." Reviewer chrisbrown6453 writes, "What the heck is this? Is this even a horror film?....I feel as though I've lost 5% brain cells having watched this crap." And reviewer greenflea2 writes, "Other than the sex and boobs, the story is completed trash, low budget and daft."

Read on to discover the truth about Savage Weekend...

A woman runs through the woods in her nightgown, pursued by William Sanderson (from the science fiction classics Blade Runner and Newhart) as banjo music plays. In a trance, Mr. Sanderson picks up a mysteriously running chainsaw and advances on the woman.

He smiles, and the frame freezes.

Cut to Manhattan, to the apartment of Marie and her son Jeremy. Marie prepares to go away for the weekend with her sister Shirley and her boyfriend Robert, leaving Jeremy with Marie’s separated husband Greg, a mustachioed man wearing a business suit who is followed by sinister, tinkling music. His ex-wife asks Greg, “How are you? Not so depressed?”

Greg tells a long, slow story about losing a good job opportunity. He is clearly depressed, but Marie thinks little of leaving her son with him. After Greg takes Jeremy, the three meet up with their friends Jay and Nicky, and the five of them drive off into the country.

While the others shop in a country store, the intensely flamboyant Nicky visits a bar, where a wise old man playing pool says, “New moon came in wet.” He explains something about the shape of a crescent moon indicating wet or dry weather, and that a storm is coming. Nicky replies, “As I live and breathe.” When some local toughs threaten him after he says he is into rough trade, Nicky is perhaps predictably forced to beat them up in a bar fight, even threatening one with a broken bottle. He leaves the bar with the parting line: “I wasn’t brought up in the South Bronx for nothing.”

The group arrives at Robert’s cabin, only to find that someone has nailed a bat to the door.

Robert, somewhat oddly, goes down to the massive basement to find some gloves to deal with the bat’s body, and he also brings up a crowbar, which Nicky uses to pry the poor bat off the wall.

Later, like most country folk, William Sanderson bicycles to a cemetery, where he talks to the tombstone of his friend Clarence. “That son of a bitch don’t care nothing about your boat. All he wants to do is spruce it up on the outside and sell it, probably.” After some more speechifying, Mr. Sanderson says ominously, “I don’t promise what all I’ll do if’n he steals it away from me. As far as I see, that boat belong here. Right in that barn. It’s gonna stay here, just like it is.”

The group from New York splits up, with Robert and Maire going fishing in a rowboat with a local man named Mac, played by David Gale, who explains out of the blue: “See, people up here are too closed in, too bottled up in the head. Winters are real bad. Thirty, forty below. Nothing to do except split logs and throw them in a wood stove. It makes a man lonely to be closed in like that. You get lonely, you get weird.” He also explains Mr. Sanderson’s character, Otis, who killed his counsin’s lover and then branded an H (for “whore”) on his cousin’s chest. Mr. Sanderson is the man working on Robert’s boat.

In an effectively wince-inducing scene scored for some reason to a disco drumbeat, Robert steps on a fishhook, which has to be pulled from his foot with pliers. Then Robert jumps into the water and swims to shore to check on Mr. Sanderson’s progress with the boat, leaving Mr. Gale with his bikini-clad wife. As soon as Robert is gone, Mr. Gale says, “If I had a woman that looked anything like you, I sure wouldn’t let her alone.”

Marie replies sensibly, “Jealousy’s stupid.”

Elsewhere, Shirley and Jay (who is married to someone else) make love in a field, where they are watched by the flamboyant Nicky, who squeezes a barbed wire fence with both hands while he plays voyeur, resulting in an effective bloody hand image.

Eventually, the group walks to the barn where Robert’s big boat is being built—and Mr. Sanderson is shooting rats.

Robert reveals that Jay will be staying in the country with Mr. Sanderson to help him build the boat, a fact that Mr. Sanderson is not happy about.

A few minutes later, apropos of nothing, we are treated to the image of Lumberjack David Gale.

Mr. Sanderson returns to his friend’s grave to tell him what we have just seen: that Robert has put Jay in charge of building the boat. He also tells Clarence he is attracted to Marie. “She gives me a whole lot of ideas.”

Later, in bed, Robert and Marie talk about the townsfolk. She asks about David Gale. “He tells such horrible stories.”

Robert explains, “He’s just Irish like most of them up here. You know, they love their fantasies. Blood and gore and all that.” (Fascinatingly, Mr. Gale has shown no signs of being Irish.)

The next day, Marie visits Mr. Gale as he moves lumber. She gets carried away stroking the hydraulic shaft of his bulldozer in a suggestive manner.

Mr. Gale strikes a match. “That’s what you’re playing with,” he says dramatically.

Later, establishing the film’s protoslasher credentials, the camera’s POV stalks through Robert’s cabin. The stalking reveals a rather odd furry face over a wall sconce upstairs, echoing the bat-on-the-wall image earlier.

The stalker uses the strange face, a pair of work gloves, and a big cloak to transform himself into a masked slasher.

The filmmakers cut to another scene of Shirley and Jay making love, this time in a barn, and screenwriter/director David Paulsen shows off his skill with dialogue. “You don’t like women much, do you?” Shirley asks.

“Parts of them,” he replies.

“You know, there is something really disgusting about you,” she says.

The filmmakers continue the questionable tastefulness by cutting to the lonely Marie walking into a dairy barn and slowly stroking a cow’s udder for a long, long time. Then, as if to accentuate the unpleasantness of the situation, Mr. Gale helps her squeeze the udder to produce fresh milk, which he dribbles for no apparent reason onto her knee.

Mr. Gale then grabs Marie awkwardly and kisses her even more awkwardly, which prompts her to knock him on the head with a hook and run away. (The attempted rape will soon reawaken Marie’s sexuality with Robert.)

In an unrelated scene, Jay wanders into the boat barn, only to be strangled by the masked killer. In slasher movie fashion, the killer hangs Jay’s body from the rafters.

In a clever means of isolating the city folk in their cabin, David Gale borrows the car to take his daughter to the movies, a plot point which the characters discuss over dinner for some time.

In a sequence that can only be described as odd, Shirley does a striptease to tango music for the flamboyant Nicky, and then puts lipstick on his lips while the masked killer watches from outside the house. Eventually, the killer stabs Nicky through the ear with a knitting needle, and the unfortunate Nicky dies without using his South Bronx-inspired fighting skills.

Next, the film establishes the trope wherein the next victim, Shirley, believes the masked man to be the previous victim, Nicky, though the deception lasts only a second or two. The killer chases the lingerie-clad Shirley through the house and into the basement, where he forces her down onto a circular saw, though the saw is not plugged in.

Next, the killer throws Robert out of a second-story window, impaling Robert on some spikes below whose presence is an unexplained surprise.

When Marie is the only person left, the killer confronts her and pulls off his mask. It is her ex-husband Greg [Spoiler]. Her first question is, “Why?” Her second question is, “Where’s Jeremy? Where’s my son?”

Greg tells her he is safe. Then he explains why he went off the deep end, which involves people laughing at him because his former boss the governor killed himself. Perhaps sensibly, he wants to regain the power he had when he worked in the governor’s administration by killing random people.

In the climactic sequence, Greg plans to burn the boat and the barn, along with Marie, but Marie escapes into the woods. This occurs at the same time as Mr. Gale returns the car to the cabin to find Nicky and Robert dead—and he inadvertently turns the circular saw on, presumably killing Shirley. He also grabs a machete from the basement steps.

The finale sees a fight between Greg and David Gale, which leads to one of the cinema’s earliest chainsaw battles. It also features the triumphant return of William Sanderson, who has been absent for most of the second half of the film, and we realize the opening of the film was also the finale, though the opening lacked a great deal of context.

In the end, Greg is vanquished and Marie survives.

Written and directed by David Paulsen, who would go on to write, produce, and direct 1980s soap operas such as Dallas, Dynasty, and Knotts Landing (not to mention 1980's Schizoid with Klaus Kinski), Savage Weekend might be best known for its striking VHS box art.

But the film is more than its box art (which some might consider misleading, as there are in fact no skull-faced grim reapers carrying scythes in the film, and furthermore nobody points directly at the camera). It is a true protoslasher, filmed in 1976 as The Killer Behind the Mask, then later retitled as The Upstate Murders, and finally released at the beginning of the slasher boom in 1979 as Savage Weekend by Cannon Films. As a protoslasher, some fans of slasher films might find its balance of violence versus nudity/sex to be tilted wildly toward the latter, but its inclusion of both exploitation elements mark it as a significant contribution to the subgenre.

There is also a universal quality to the film that adds to its classic status. Though set in upstate New York, the characters native to the rural locale have accents that range from Tennessee (William Sanderson) to New England (David Gale). The musical score, which is heavily reliant on banjos, echoes films set in the American South such as Deliverance. And Robert, the protagonist's boyfriend, makes bigoted comments about the Irish. The audience's difficulty in placing the geographical setting of the film helps to disorient them, setting up a creepily universal rural locale.

In the end, though, there is one aspect of the film that makes it a bona fide classic, and that is the presence of Lumberjack David Gale, an image which I must copy here:

Mr. Gale, who died tragically in 1991 of complications related to open-heart surgery at the age of 54, should be remembered for many of his fine contributions to the cinema, but high among those contributions must be his portrayal of outdoorsman Mac Macauley in Savage Weekend, for which he will always be remembered here at Senseless Cinema.