Monday, January 9, 2023

“I Could Probably Take First Prize in Any Evil Contest” - Mardi Gras Massacre (1978) - Film #242

Although this review is being posted soon after the New Year holiday, we will be discussing a film about another holiday marked by exuberant celebration. The film is the video nasty Mardi Gras Massacre (1978), directed by Jack Weis, most famous as location coordinator on the New Orleans-set James Bond film Live and Let Die (1973), but nearly as well known as director of Louisiana-set exploitation films such as Death Brings Roses (1975) and Crypt of Dark Secrets (1976).

As usual, many of your universe's critics have negative opinions of Mardi Gras Massacre. For example, reviewer skanners writes, "The acting is woeful and the sound, editing and directing are nothing short of abysmal." Reviewer skullrot1 writes, "This is one of the few movies that left me completely unsatisfied in every way." And reviewer andrewmford writes, with perhaps some hyperbole, "Avoid this movie like the plague on humanity that it is. All copies of this movie should be gathered and destroyed, so that no one else should have to suffer though this assault on art of filmmaking."

Read on for the truth about Mardi Gras Massacre...

The film opens with two women entering a bar in New Orleans. The bartender, who resembles a balding Bill Macy and who wears a striped button-down shirt with a striped brown tie, asks them “How’s tricks?” He adds that it looks like a good night because there are “a lot of johns.” 

Seconds later, the stiffest man on Earth (not a euphemism) enters the bar, turns his head robotically to the prostitutes, and says, “Good evening ladies. I’m new in the city and I’m looking for something…different.”

After he flashes a wad of cash, he says, “Out of all the ladies in this bar tonight, which one do you think is the most…evil?”

One of the prostitutes replies, “The most evil, without a doubt, is Shirley.” Both prostitutes lead the stiff man to Shirley, a young woman with brown hair wearing a red dress. He sits at a table with her. “Hello. I understand that you are the most evil woman here.”

As would any prostitute looking to “score” with a wealthy man, Shirley says, “Listen, honey, I could probably take first prize in any evil contest.”

The stiff man offers two hundred dollars. She says she will do anything for that amount. He pays her the money in advance, then leads her to his apartment. “What I want from you, I want to do in a very special place, on a very special kind of…bed. Come with me in the next room and I’ll show you.”

He leads her to what appears to be a set for a magician’s stage show, complete with red curtain and high table. She undresses (not particularly evilly) and he reveals himself in a new costume, a kind of toga with a metal mask. “You are weird, aren’t you?”

He replies, somewhat confusingly, “Yes. More different than you’ve ever known before.”

She lies on the table and he rubs oil all over her naked body. Then he ties her to the table. “You said that you were the most evil. Well, I am going to sacrifice you.”

As the music takes on a disco beat, he grabs a ceremonial knife and plunges the blade through her right hand and her left foot. “And now,” he says, “for the part of you you use for your evil.” Despite waving the knife over her private parts, he cuts into her belly and removes a generic bloody organ, which he uses to anoint a statue behind the red curtain.

The filmmakers cut to the discovery of Shirley’s body on a railroad track. Thus begins the major plot of the film: the detectives’ investigation of the murder. The two detectives on the case, Abraham and Mayer, tell the medical examiner they have looked back to records from the 1800s but have never seen a ritualistic murder like this one. Of course, because they are out of their depth, they have turned everything over to both Interpol and the FBI—then they start investigating on their own at the bar where Shirley met her killer. They first speak to Sam the bartender. Even though he saw the man Shirley left with, they do not ask Sam for a description. Instead, they talk to Sherry, one of the less evil prostitutes from the previous night.

Sherry is confrontational with the detectives (“What is this, a bust?”) but soon expresses her desire to help the police. “Now we got something brand new, sacrificing prostitutes.” When they ask her about the man who picked up Shirley, she says he wore a custom signet ring. (Perhaps she should have mentioned the man was looking for an…evil…prostitute, but she leaves this detail out.) Then Sergeant Abraham takes Shirley to dinner at a nearby restaurant (a restaurant so fancy the placemats on the tables are maps of Louisiana for children to color in), where the sergeant breaks up a fight between a pimp and two of his prostitutes. A thankful Sherry takes the sergeant to bed.

The filmmakers cut to a strip club, where the murderer enters stiffly. When a red headed woman sits next to him at the bar, he says, “I’ve got a lot of money, and I’m looking for a particular kind of girl. A very particular kind of girl. One that was…I don’t know, you might say…very evil!” The redhead directs him to one of the strippers at the club, and he leaves with her.

At the murderer’s apartment, he plies her with wine and asks, “Are you sure you’re really evil?”

“Honey,” she replies, “I’m as evil as you can get.”

He directs her to the next room and his sacrificial altar. She strips and climbs onto the table, allowing him to tie her up without even the comfort of spreading oil across her body. “I don’t know what kind of scene you got cooked up here with all your doodads on the wall, but you know, whatever turns you on.”

He disappears behind the curtain, then emerges in his ritual outfit with his knife.

He slices up the woman’s body in the same manner he sliced up the previous victim, pulling out what might be her heart from somewhere in the vicinity of her stomach and offering it to his idol.

The filmmakers cut to a montage illustrating the budding romance of Sergeant Frank Abraham and Sherry the prostitute (no last name, apparently). They wander the streets of New Orleans by daytime, eating beignets, waving at a passing riverboat, and unsuccessfully attempting to pick up a stray dog. 

The stakes are raised when the police captain yells at detectives Abraham and Mayer. “The brass down at City Hall, every two-bit politician, the Hotel Association, they’re calling me and they’re saying, ‘Stop the bad publicity about the killings or you’ll ruin Mardi Gras and cost us a lot of business.’” Further, the captain has called LSU, Tulane, and even MIT to ask about sacrificial killings, but none of these universities know anything about the topic.  However, a policewoman has called someone at Duke University, contacting a parapsychologies who refers the police to an expert in New Orleans, Dr. Lewis.

The detectives visit Dr. Lewis and show him crime scene photos. “Human sacrifice,” Dr. Lewis says philosophically. “Not uncommon today.”

“In the United States?”

“Yes. The Indians in the Western culture do it, and even in parts of China and Outer Mongolia.” He explains, looking down at papers on his desk, that human sacrifices are designed to establish a link between reality and “the world we don’t understand.” He also identifies the photos as indicating an Aztec ceremony to the Lady of the Serpent Skirt before telling the detectives there is no way to identify who committed the sacrifices (“It will be next to impossible, as difficult as telling a Baptist from another protestant, or a Catholic from an Episcopalian.”)

Meanwhile, the murderer attends another strip joint, where a woman in a devil costume and red makeup picks him up. This time, however, her pimp Monk follows them out onto the street and jumps the killer. Using judo, the killer subdues Monk and leaves the pimp and the prostitute in the street before returning to the strip joint.

In a bit of lightheartedness, the film introduces a long-haired male pimp named Catfish who speaks in rhymes and takes the murderer’s money to arrange a liaison with a stripper/prostitute named Cissy. The killer takes her to his apartment and, in a fascinating twist to his regular modus operandi, the stiff killer calls an order for takeout to a Chinese restaurant, the number to which he knows by heart. While Cissy showers, the killer receives the Chinese food, tips generously, and the filmmakers cut to the delivery man shaking the killer’s hand—emphasizing the killer’s distinctive ring.

Cissy eats the food and thanks the man profusely (she truly is evil), and then he takes her to the other room where she does a topless dance to music that might or might not be diegetic (in any case, it begins with no action by anyone onscreen). After a long dance, he asks how old Cissy is, and she replies, “Nineteen.” He tells her to leave. When she pulls off her panties, however, he reconsiders and tells her to lie on the table. (Presumably, the quality of her evil outweighs her youth.)

The killer ties Cissy up and prepares for the sacrifice, and this time he explains his motivation. “I am going to sacrifice you to the goddess Coatlicue, the queen of evil in the universe.”

And he does.

Meanwhile, Sherry breaks up with Sergeant Abraham because he stole one of the victims’ money. She insults him to his face, using both racism and sexism: “You ain’t worth no hundred dollars a night. If you were a broad, you’d be lucky if you could turn a two-dollar black trick!”

After she storms out of his apartment, Sherry goes to a disco and we are treated to a scene of disco dancing that may be said to prefigure the disco dancing in Prom Night (1980), though this scene ends with Sherry brawling for no reason with another prostitute on the dance floor, an act Jamie Lee Curtis did not imitate.

Sherry is comforted by Sergeant Mayer, who walks her away from the disco and to her apartment, where he leaves her alone.

The next day, Sergeant Abraham figures out that the killer has struck every Tuesday for the last three weeks — and next Tuesday is Mardi Gras! He and Sergeant Mayer walk through New Orleans, shaking down various pimps and others (including the proprietor of a Chinese restaurant called, evocatively, Takee Outee) for information about the killer. They discover nothing.

At a bar, Abraham theorizes fatefully that the killer is done because he has killed three women. Besides, prostitutes do not work on Mardi Gras.

At a different bar, the killer asks the bartender if he can arrange for three prostitutes on the day of Mardi Gras. The bartender agrees to set it up.

Back at the killer’s shrine to the queen of evil, the killer tells his statue that tomorrow, three will die and the goddess will reign again.

Mardi Gras finally arrives, and the filmmakers provide entertaining shots of parades and big crowds. The killer, wearing his sacrificial mask, stalks through the crowds, and so do the detectives. Someone yells, “Woo! Mardi Gras!” 

Back at the fateful bar, we find out that Sherry is one of the three prostitutes the bartender hired for the killer, who takes all three back to his apartment. He serves them drinks, explaining loudly and stiffly that “It’s a PERUVIAN drink…called pisco…and it’s to be consumed in one swallow.”

Even though Sherry has seen the man before, and even linked him to an earlier murder, she thinks nothing of drinking the beverage.

In a sudden cut, we see all three prostitutes passed out in the apartment.

As the film barrels toward its thrilling climax, the detectives run into the delivery man for the Chinese restaurant, and he identifies the killer’s ring. The man gives them the killer’s location, and they rush — to a bar to wait for backup. Fortunately, at the bar, they are approached by yet another bartender who saw Sherry go with the killer (we are never told why the bartender recognized the man but Sherry did not). Now they rush to the killer’s apartment. (They are waylaid for a moment by a friendly gay man who tells them that upstairs there is “…a party for all the queers. It’s Fat Tuesday, you know.”)

Unfortunately for the detectives, they can’t break down the killer’s door, so they have to wait for a fire engine to arrive. Once the firemen break the lock with an axe, Abraham and Mayer find the sacrifice room. They free the chained, topless prostitutes, including Sherry, and then chase the killer out a window and down a fire escape. 

The killer outruns his pursuers by walking at a slightly accelerated pace, forcing the police to seal off the French Quarter (which is fortunately completely vacant, as it must always be on Mardi Gras). 

Eventually, the killer is discovered driving a yellow station wagon, and there is an exciting car chase that concludes when the murderer steals a Harbor Police car and intentionally drives it off a pier.

When the police recover the vehicle, they find only the killer’s silver mask. The film ends abruptly, with no sign the killer’s whereabouts. The end credits roll in chilling silence. 

Mardi Gras Massacre is a classic for a reason. However, it is unclear what that reason is. Perhaps it is the copious female nudity on display. Several women appear completely nude throughout the film, and the murder scenes involve a great deal of nudity as the killer cuts open three women's torsos, their breasts (or reasonable facsimiles thereof) on display, before he removes their hearts from their abdomens. Perhaps the reason the film is a classic is its high production values--high enough to include a car chase and a police car driven into the Mississippi River. Or perhaps the reason is simply the elegance and familiarity of the central plot, which is basically a late-seventies retelling of Herschell Gordon Lewis's Blood Feast (1963) with more nudity and slightly less gore. Whatever the reason, Mardi Gras Massacre is a bona fide classic that introduced the frightening, nameless, stiff killer of evil prostitutes to audiences all around the world. For that, we must celebrate like it's Mardi Gras.