Monday, August 1, 2022

"We Gotta Stop Booking These Monster Movies" - Meatcleaver Massacre (1977) - Film #235

The late 1970s represent a cusp in terms of the horror movies being made and released, as the protoslasher exemplified by films such as The Severed Arm (1972) gave way to fully realized slasher films exemplified by Halloween (1978). One of the finest supernatural protoslashers is 1977's Meatcleaver Massacre, aka Hollywood Meat Cleaver Massacre (not to mention dozens of other titles). Let us discuss this near-masterpiece of 1970s terror.

Of course, some of your universe's critics are blind to the charms of Meatcleaver Massacre, some for no other reason than there are no meat cleavers in the film. For example, reviewer mhorg2018 writes, "After watching this trash, and wondering where the meatcleaver comes into play, HINT: It doesn't." Reviewer Bunuel76 writes, "Everything about the film is ugly: from the the utterly dreary look and the messy pseudo-surreal nightmares preceding the spirit's retribution..." And reviewer colaboy7 writes, "why oh why is this film called 'the meat cleaver massacre' when there is absolutely no meat cleaver used in this film?? The plot is stupid, the FX are stupid, the acting is stupid. The whole film is stupid. Avoid!"

Read on for the truth about Meatcleaver Massacre...
“Morak, Destroyer of the Destroyers,” a man intones as he presents a slideshow of many, many fine paintings of a monstrous creature killing humans. “I call upon thee to serve my warrant of vengeance, to seek out my enemy no matter if he were to the ends of the earth or to the inner planes beyond, and crush him with thine awesome power.”

The man continues speaking his incantation about Morak, then says, “Lights, please.” The lights come on and we realize we are in a college class (a location marking the starting point of many, many fine movies.) A female student asks rationally, “Professor Cantrell, if this chant is so powerful, why didn’t something just happen when you said it?”

He gives two reasons: The chant must be in Gaelic, and the spirit can only be evoked under dire circumstances. “Morak was sometimes known as ‘the great avenger.’”

“Yeah,” quips another student, “like Batman.” (Batman being perhaps the best-known of the Avengers.)

“True. A Super-Batman if you wish.” After a few more words, a school bell rings (in your universe, of course, bells mark the end of college classes; I find this somewhat strange, as in my universe bells are reserved for pre-collegiate education). Professor Cantrell promises the next class will include an Irish vengeance chant in Gaelic.

After class, Professor Cantrell causes slight embarrassment to a troublemaking student named Mason, who is skeptical about whether Irish mythology is true.

At night, a few male college roommates are sitting around relaxing (an activity that involves burning photos of women, for no apparent reason). Mason arrives and asks another student, “Have you ever killed a man, Dirk? You think you’re ready to go out and raise some hell? Huh, Dirk?”

Dirk, an inexperienced and somewhat angry youth, says, “I can handle it.” (Perhaps not the most sensible response to someone who leads with “Have you ever killed a man?”)

The four students go out of a night on the town, an activity that involves driving down Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard, then driving to Professor Cantrell’s house to play a prank. At the professor’s house, his daughter lets the dog out to do its business: “Here you go, Poopers. Don’t eat my flowers.”

Horrifically, the four college men, now hiding their faces under panty hose, kill the poor dog with a hunting knife (the murder is not shown on-screen, and we only see blood that looks like red paint brushed against a man’s purple pants). The men then break into the house and knock out the professor. Dirk and another friend protest, but Mason forces them to continue with their home invasion “prank.” In the kitchen, they assault the professor’s son (who is spreading mayonnaise on bread with a giant kitchen knife) and his wife, then they stab the professor’s daughter to death.

The film cuts to a press briefing from the police, who admit they have no leads and no ideas about a motivation for the home invasion. (This scene is purported to include a cameo by the famous director Edward D. Wood, Jr.) However, Professor Cantrell is still alive, though he is in a coma in the hospital and may never wake up. Doctors discuss his condition and reveal he is paralyzed from the neck down, helpfully showing us X-rays of the man’s skull.

Surprisingly, the professor’s eyes open moments later. Meanwhile, various electronic monitors start beeping somewhere, though there are no monitors in the professor’s room. Conveniently, a police detective talks to a doctor in the room while Professor Cantrell looks up at them, blinking his eyes. The detective reveals they found a clue in the house, a triangular patch that was sewn on Mason’s denim jacket, revealed through the professor’s flashback. Professor Cantrell now realizes that Mason was one of the intruders.

Later, as in all fine films, the audience is treated to a stand-up comedy routine at a bar. After a Columbo impersonation, the comedian, who is half-Italian, quips, “My godfather’s a hairdresser. He made me an offer once I had to refuse.”

The four intruders, gathered at a table in the bar, are nervous about getting caught, but Mason, who is a true sociopath, tells them to relax. 

In his hospital bed, the professor, in voice-over, calls upon Morak to avenge his daughter’s death (he does not mention his son’s or his wife’s death). This is followed by a sepia-toned vision in which Mason wanders through a mausoleum and a beach before encountering his own dead body wrapped in a shrowd. Confusingly, Mason becomes another one of the students—Sean, the one who murdered the professor’s daughter—and he finds himself in the mausoleum with the daughter’s body rising from a casket. Sean then awakens, only to deny anything is wrong to his girlfriend. Out of the blue, Sean decides, “I gotta go hikin’ or something.”

The film cuts to the desert, where Sean hikes alone among the Joshua trees and yuccas and bleached cow bones. Suddenly, Sean hears Professor Cantrell’s voice reciting a different chant (in English, for unknown reasons) and then Sean finds himself being stabbed and bloodied by an unseen force.

Back at the students’ apartment, Dirk forces Mason to talk about their mutual problem. After Mason gets his girlfriend Darlene to leave the room by rudely spilling Coors beer on her clothes, Mason tells his friends the professor can’t do anything. “He’s just lying in that bed. Like a carrot. A big carrot.”

Dirk replies, “I never did like carrots.”

Dirk tries to drink himself to sleep in his room (decorated with movie posters and lobby cards, though there is no other indication he is a cinephile). He also has a vision of picking up a straight razor and slashing his wrist. He thinks to himself, “Bye, Mom. Bye, Dad. Goodbye, Debbie. Oh Jesus, this is gonna make an awful mess. I sure hope the landlord isn’t gonna be super upset about it.”

He presses his razor against his wrist, but he can’t go through with the suicide. “Oh, Jesus,” he says, “I’m late for work.”

Dirk works as a mechanic at a garage, where apparently he is the only employee. He hears sounds while working on a car but can’t find anything or anyone in the garage. His work at the garage is intercut with Professor Cantrell having a seizure, and eventually Dirk is killed when a demonic hand smashes the car hood down on Dirk’s head.

Meanwhile, two detectives continue to explore leads. While driving, one detective tells his partner about Professor Cantrell, “Seems he was quite a prominent figure in the psychic research circles.” He adds, “I checked libraries, straight bookstores, weirdo bookstores, you name it. Cantrell’s name was listed as reference in almost every book I saw pertaining to the occult.”

The third intruder, Phil, returns to his apartment after being scared by a child in a Halloween mask in the elevator, but then wanders the streets of Hollywood, passing various burlesque houses and strip joints. In an inexplicable aside, the film cuts to the inside of a house of prostitution, where a Black minister enters and eloquently explains, “A storm of passion has entered my forest of serenity. The icy winds of lust threaten to blow from my center.”

“Oh, I get it,” a prostitute tells him as she leads him to a private room.

Phil is the next client, but instead of looking to take advantage of the services offered, he wants to talk to a woman named Patty, another student in the professor’s class. Phil and Patty end up making love, allowing the filmmakers to show some nudity, before Phil is subjected to visions and storms out of the house of prostitution. He goes to his job at a cinema, where he is a projectionist showing the 1934 film The Scotland Yard Mystery (known in the U.S. as The Living Dead). After the film is over and everyone leaves (“Such a lousy turnout tonight.” “Yeah. We gotta stop booking these monster movies.”), Phil stays late to un-stick the theatre curtains. In a clever scene, Phil sees the projector start up by itself—it is playing the night of the home invasion on the movie screen.

For unknown reasons, Phil runs into the cinema and punches the screen, though by now the projector is not showing anything. Phil is injured when an electrical box explodes, and then he falls to the ground, his face grotesquely burnt.

Following the age-old principle that the most villainous of villains must die last, we realize that Mason is the only one of the four intruders who is still alive. The detective has put together a theory about the murders, so he visits Mason and tells him the theory: “Sean, Dirk, and Phil weren’t killed by the fourth man to keep him silent. The professor did it. Somehow, he’s been able to call up some sort of power and send it after the people that he thinks killed his family. Now what do you think of that theory?”

“What kind of power?” Mason asks.

The detective has no idea. But he has looked through the professor’s notes and realized that there are counter-spells to all the incantations covered in class. “All you have to do, I guess, is find the counter-spell and the killer’s worries would be over, right?”

“Sure,” Mason says, smiling.

It is unclear whether the detective has stumbled upon the supernatural truth, or if he is baiting Mason to reveal himself as the killer of his friends and the professor’s family, or both. In any case, Mason breaks into Professor Cantrell’s house to find a counter-spell, and the detective is waiting for him. Unsurprisingly, however, Mason kills the detective with a tchotchke.

In his hospital bed, Professor Cantrell cries out, “Morak!”

At the professor’s house, Mason searches for the counter-spell, finding a filing cabinet just as a demonic hand appears nearby. Then Morak appears in “person” as a kind of swamp monster, so frightening that it rivals the appearance of the yeti of Shriek of the Mutilated (1974).

It rakes its claws across Mason. In the end, accompanied by some Andy Milliganesque swinging camerawork, Morak plucks out Mason’s eye, though it does not kill him.

In a surprising twist, Mason ends up in a psychiatric hospital with two intact eyes, convinced the demon plucked out one eye. Mason even sees his missing eye in his own hand.

The film’s last shot shows Mason laughing crazily, staring at his empty hand.

Outside of its own qualities as a (perhaps minor) protoslasher masterpiece, Meatcleaver Massacre is the subject of some controversy as there are claims it was fully or partially directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr. I will not wade into these waters, though I will say that in my eyes the film's framing, editing, and dialogue did not resemble the works of that recognized master. Much more detail can be found at the blog Dead 2 Rights, one of the best sources of information about Mr. Wood's works and career.

Meatcleaver Massacre's many cinematic innovations must be mentioned here. First, the film has no protagonist. It begins by following Professor Cantrell (I must note that the correct spelling might be Kantrell, as a character in the film searches for a file in the Ks, but I will follow the onscreen credits and other sources and spell it Cantrell), who is quickly dispatched to a hospital bed to do nothing but mutter "Morak." The film also attempts to follow Dirk, the most likable of the intruders, though still party to the murder of humans and dogs, but Dirk is killed fairly quickly. The only other potential protagonist is the reprehensible Mason, but he appears in only a few scenes. Perhaps the true protagonist of the film is Morak, Destroyer of Destroyers, the most active and morally defensible character in the entire film.

A second innovation is the film's central mystery: Are the intruders' deaths due to the supernatural avenging force named Morak, or are they simply due to suicidal guilt? The ending with Mason in the psychiatric hospital argues for the latter, presenting the intriguing possibility that Professor Cantrell's paralyzed thoughts about Morak are simply delusions (a possibility also supported by the fact that his thoughts are in English and not Gaelic, and English cannot control the demon). A third fact supporting a non-supernatural explanation is this: There is no way the professor and Morak could know the identities of the intruders, as they all wore masks. The film never answers this central question, balancing its ambiguity with great skill and subtlety, further reinforcing Meatcleaver Massacre's status as one of the central protoslashers of the 1970s.