Monday, November 2, 2020

“The Last Time You Men Got Together, Another Man Lost His Arm" - The Severed Arm (1972) - Film #190

Let us turn now to the influential protoslasher The Severed Arm (1972), a film that belies its title by featuring the severing of several arms.

Not all critics in your universe appreciate this historic film. For example, reviewer Speechless writes, "The story might have been interesting, but it falls apart under the burden of terrible acting, dialogue, music, and photography. Even giving the filmmakers the ultra-low-budget benefit of the doubt, this is just a badly made, boring movie." Reviewer trspamfile writes, "The acting quite honestly is about on par with porn -- I say this without exaggeration. The cinematography looks like something shot by a community theater, and the characters are the most unlikeable ever written." And reviewer BSGG99 writes, "This is possibly one of the worst movies I have ever seen in my life. Boring, stupid, terribly written, acted, directed, you name it, you can be sure that it was bad."

Of course, these reviewers display their lack of taste through their reviews, as it serves as the blueprint for many horror movies to come. Please read on for a thorough appreciation of The Severed Arm...

In an operating room, someone takes a saw and cuts off a man’s arm, which somehow falls to the floor, resulting in a classic opening title shot.

The film proper begins with a mailman who bears a passing resemblance to Jack Benny picking up a severed arm-shaped package from the Reseda, California post office and driving it in his personal car directly to its intended address. The recipient, Jeff, signs for the package and opens it, then drops it on the floor. (The arm has clearly seen more than its share of floors.) He calls his friend Dr. Sanders and immediately rushes to the doctor’s office.

“You didn’t call the police, did you?” is Dr. Sanders’s first question.

“Are you kidding? Of course not.” Jeff tells him he got rid of the arm, though he gives no details.

“Whose arm do you think it is, anyway?” Dr. Sanders asks casually.

Jeff shrugs. “Who knows? Maybe one of the others.” (We never find out whose arm was sent through the mail.)

They both agree the culprit must be someone named Ted, who should be in an institution but who must have been released. Dr. Sanders looks out the window philosophically. “How could I have enjoyed such a thing? Crawling around in some damn hole in the ground. It’s going to come back at us, Jeff. Hard. After five nightmarish years…”

The film flashes back to, presumably, five years earlier. Six men, four wearing hardhats, relax near an abandoned mine shaft in the mountains. The shaft penetrates the mountain vertically. They rig up an “elevator” by tying a rope to a plank that lies across the rectangular mine shaft entrance and then they climb down.

Once all six men are at the bottom of the shaft, they start collecting rock samples and remarking on the decrepit condition of the wood beams holding up the ceiling. One of the men is Herman, played by Marvin Kaplan of Alice, Top Cat, and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World fame—he appears to be more interested in lunch than spelunking. Mr. Kaplan uses a hammer to pound against a rock, causing pebbles to shower down.

“Do you see what you did?” one of the men asks.

By way of explanation, Mr. Kaplan answers, “It’s an old cave.”

Of course, Mr. Kaplan’s fumbling causes a massive cave-in that blocks the exit but not all the air.

The film dissolves to seven days later. The men are still in the small chamber. It is unclear if they did anything to try to clear the cave-in. “If I don’t get anything to eat soon,” one of the men says, “there won’t be anything left to rescue.”

Jeff says wearily, “I once wrote a short story about a group of sailors who were lost at sea for 60 days. Know how they kept alive?”


“Nope. They ate the weakest member of the crew.”

“Swell. Now we’ve come to cannibalism,” Mr. Kaplan says. “We’ll have to hold off till tomorrow. I can’t eat meat on Friday.”

The film dissolves to a later time. Now all the men resemble werewolves for some reason.

From the conversation, they have been trapped for more than two weeks. They give up hope of rescue and go back to the writer’s lost at sea story, which seems a reasonable blueprint for dealing with their situation.

“What if the men on that raft had only eaten parts of each other? Could they have survived?”

“You’re talking about cannibalism.”

“He’s talking about survival.”

Dr. Sanders essentially guarantees that one or all of the men will be dead by tomorrow, so they tear up a sheet of paper and draw lots. As might be predicted from the film’s opening scenes, Ted chooses the short bit of paper. The men hold down the crying Ted but they wait a few hours before performing the terrible deed—long enough for the others to fall asleep and for Ted to hit Mr. Kaplan on the head with a rock.

“We might as well do it now,” says one of the men.

They use a belt as a tourniquet and sterilize a hunting knife with a lighter. Then Dr. Sanders slices into Ted’s arm (offscreen). Ted passes out.

Literally as soon as the arm is severed, the men hear tapping at the top of the mine shaft. 

“When the newspapers and the law get through with us, we’re gonna wish we all died,” says one man. However, they agree to say Ted’s arm was crushed in the cave-in and they had to amputate to save his life. Also, they will say he was delirious for a week, insisting they cut off his arm for food.

As Ted is wheeled to an ambulance that drove into the mountains right to the mine entrance, a weakened Ted says, “I asked you to wait. I begged you. I…I won’t forget.”

The foolproof ruse works, though it had the unfortunate effect of sending Ted to a mental institution.

Jeff and Dr. Sanders arrange a meeting later that night of the five uninstitutionalized survivors at the doctor’s house. They begin arguing about covering up the arrival of the arm in the mail. Meanwhile, the filmmakers show us a man with a hatchet stalking around outside.

Mark, a police detective, insists they report the arrival of the arm, but it is not difficult for Jeff to convince everyone else they will lose their livelihoods if it comes out they chopped off their friend’s arm for cannibalistic purposes. They also decide to go to Ted’s family so they can help find Ted.

Meanwhile, Dr. Sanders’s wife is in bed, reading a book called The Psycho Lover, when the doorknob turns a few times without the door opening. Frightened, she calls for her husband, who immediately opens the door and enters the room. She says, “I heard a noise at the door and the doorknob turned. You frightened me when you didn’t come in.”

“Upstairs? You must have been dreaming?” He does not address the fact that there is no way he could have missed seeing anybody turning the doorknob in the space of a few seconds.

After everybody else leaves, Dr. Sanders sees someone’s shoes downstairs so he gets his handgun and searches for Ted. Tragically for the doctor, the stalker has left an empty pair of shoes in the dark. Luckily for the stalker, the doctor does not turn on any lights. When Dr. Sanders climbs down the stairs, the stalker grabs his leg, forcing him to trip down the stairs and allowing the stalker to cut off the doctor’s arm.

At the hospital, where Dr. Sanders is recovering, his wife tells Jeff and Mark (who has had himself assigned to the case), “The last time you men got together, another man lost his arm.”

Back at Jeff’s house, there is another stalking incident in which the stalker breaks in while Jeff is in the shower. The man rips open the shower curtain and punches Jeff, knocking him out but not severing either of his arms. The stalker leaves a message on the mirror in shaving cream: NEXT.

The next day, Jeff and Mark drive to Ted’s house and confront Ted’s daughter, who tells them her father isn’t home and her father is very ill. They arrange to meet at the Sea View Hotel lounge in an hour. At the lounge, Mark says, “We think that he’s the one who mutilated Dr. Sanders.”

She tells them Ted was getting better but then he started talking about revenge and went back to the hospital, and then got better again and came home. She also says she has a brother who lives back east.

In the next thrilling sequence, Mark drives Jeff back to Jeff’s house for a drink and the stalker lets the air out of Mark’s left rear tire. When Mark opens the trunk to get the spare, the stalker attacks him but Mark fends him off, shooting at him. Jeff runs out to see what happened and they come up with a plan to use “the girl” (Ted’s daughter) as bait somehow to bring Ted out into the open.

The next day, they visit “the girl” and ask if they can use her to trap Ted.

“And you expect me to help you?” she says incredulously.

“Would you?” Mark asks. When she shakes her head no, he says, “Look, he’s a very sick man. If we don’t get to him first, he could be killed.” (Mark does not explain how the stalker could be killed if they don’t find him, or how that even makes sense.)

In an effort to get “the girl” on their side, Mark and Jeff take her to Dr. Sanders’s hospital room to see the helpless victim. She agrees to help them.

The film cuts to Marvin Kaplan’s overnight radio disc jockey gig, in which he tells an insulting joke and puts a record on so he can go to a restaurant and get a sandwich. A suspenseful stalking sequence ensues as Mr. Kaplan is pursued by a shadow holding a hatchet.

The stalking is complicated by the fact that Mr. Kaplan’s Volkswagen won’t start, forcing him to borrow a coworker’s car and frustrating the potential hatchet murderer. We don’t see Mr. Kaplan get his sandwich; the filmmakers cut to him telling jokes on the air. “Good night, you nymphomaniacs,” he says. “You know what nymphomaniacs are? That’s people who have trouble sleeping…around.”

Mr. Kaplan starts receiving phone calls from someone who requests the song “I’ll Be Seeing You.” He doesn’t play the song, but he makes several statements on the air that might be considered jokes. “And now, another record done by that new swinging group, The Hormones. We’ll give it a shot.” And: “This far-out instrumental group recently gave a concert and almost got arrested for taking out their instruments in public.”

After another phone call, Mr. Kaplan calls the operator to report threatening phone calls.

“How many?” is the operator’s first question. Mr. Kaplan says he will contact the operator if the man calls again, which he does almost immediately. For unknown reasons, Mr. Kaplan gives the caller the address of the radio station. When the caller hangs up, the operator calls and tells him, “The calls, the ones you asked us to trace? Well, they’re coming from your other line. Whoever it is, they’re in the building with you!” (Note that this film was released before 1974’s Black Christmas and 1979’s When a Stranger Calls.)

In probably the film’s finest suspense sequence, the stalker appears in the studio, smashing through a glass window to get at Mr. Kaplan.

Meanwhile, Mark hatches a plan to convince Ted that Jeff and “the girl” are spending the night together so Mark can ambush Ted. This ploy is unsuccessful and they learn about Mr. Kaplan’s death over the police radio. They wait until the next day to go to the workplace of the last survivor, Bill, who owns a manufacturing company. After they leave, Bill receives a phone call, allowing the actor (Vince Martorano) to show his chops at phone acting: “Hello?…Yeah, this is Bill Hale…Fire?…At the mill?…Yeah, I’ll be right there…Who is this?” Following the time-honored tradition of movie characters never saying “bye” at the end of a phone call, Bill simply hangs up the phone. (He never asks if the caller also called the fire department, and he does not call the fire department himself.)

In a scene mixing suspense and comedy, Bill takes the elevator in his apartment building down to the parking garage but he is interrupted by a woman with a St. Bernard and an old woman wearing curlers who take a long time to get where they’re going. Despite Bill’s skepticism about the phone call, he drives to his place of business, where there appears to be no fire. He investigates the place anyway, gun drawn. He sees a table saw running so he turns it off. Then he appears to get scared, running out of the mill and driving back to his apartment. In his elevator, he is suddenly attacked by a man with a hatchet.

“The girl” calls Jeff to tell him her father called and told her he was after Bill, so Jeff and Mark rush to the apartment building, only to find Bill’s body in pieces on the elevator floor.

Jeff and Mark drive to “the girl’s” house to grill her. She tells them Ted wants to meet her at Trancas Cliff, above a beach, so they drive to the beach and set up a trap in which Mark acts as a sniper with a rifle at the top of a cliff while “the girl” and Jeff act as bait. Shockingly, however, the killer is aware of the hidden Mark, ambushing him, tying his wrist to a rope, and throwing him off the cliff.

Mark’s arm pops off at the shoulder, bloodlessly, and the rest of his body falls to the beach, also bloodlessly.

“The girl” drives Jeff away. “Just get me away from here,” he says.

“My brother has a cabin in the mountains,” she says. “We’ll be safe there.”

“Ted will find us.”

“No. No, he never knew about it.”

They drive up to the cabin, where they get out of the car. She points a gun at Jeff while another car approaches. A man climbs out of the car, holding a hatchet. He knocks Jeff out instead of “disarming” him, then reveals himself to be Roger, Ted’s son. They drag Jeff into the cabin.

Ted is at the cabin as well, though he is confined to a wheelchair and appears to be in a vegetative state. His children push him to a locked cell, inside which Jeff sits under a bare lightbulb. “What are you doing to me?” Jeff asks.

“Nothing. We’re not going to do anything to you.” She reveals that Ted never hurt anybody. The murders and mutilations were committed by Roger.

“You said you wouldn’t hurt me,” Jeff says after he looks through the window in the cell door and sees Ted’s condition.

“I said we wouldn’t do anything to you, and we’re not. You’re going to do it. And this time, it’ll be your idea again.”

Jeff looks incredulous. “Cut off my own arm?”

“Either that or starve. When you get hungry enough, you’ll do it.” She tells him to look behind a little door in one of the walls. He does so, finding a gift-wrapped present with a gold bow. He opens the present and finds a box with a bone saw inside. Instead of attacking his captors with the weapon, he tosses it to the floor.

“I’ll never do it! Never! Never! Never!”

As his exclamation echoes, the film cuts to a shot of “the girl” and Roger taking care of Ted. The credits roll. We never find out Jeff’s fate.

The Severed Arm is a prototypical protoslasher in that it introduces a past trauma that causes a murder spree. Its very early use of the "calls are coming from inside the house" trope and its harrowing though ambiguous finale mark it as one of the best protoslashers. As with many of such films, it is a shame the director, Thomas S. Alderman, made only one other film, an adult film called Coed Dorm (1971). Surely a sequel to The Severed Arm would have been profitable -- and creatively fulfilling as well, if it were to tell the story of the patient at the opening of this film whose arm was cut off and delivered through the mail. The Severed Arm is a wonderful film, but as a 1970s horror franchise it would have been extraordinary.