Monday, June 5, 2023

“You Didn’t Believe That Old Lady’s Story About a Legend, Did You?” - Satan's Blade (1984)

The pool of classic regional slashers and porto-slashers is seemingly bottomless. Today we look at Satan's Blade (1984), a California-shot slasher film with (possibly) supernatural overtones filmed in the beautiful snow-covered San Bernardino National Forest.

Predictably, many of your universe's critics do not understand even so simple a film as Satan's Blade. For example, reviewer Logan-22 writes, "This movie stinks. Everything about it is substandard from the acting to the script to the special effects." Reviewer fnv790 writes derogatorily and clearly incorrectly, "It appears to be the most low budget film ever produced." And reviewer rooee writes, "Welcome to the longest 80 minutes of your life."

Read on for the truth about Satan's Blade...

The film begins as a knife slams into a tree and then begins to glow red. After the main titles, two coworkers at Sierra Foothill Bank (an establishment with no parking lot) leave their place of employment on a Friday afternoon. (They will never be seen again.) Seconds later, two gunmen force another employee to open the door to the (security guard-free) bank. They steal a few hundred dollars from a cash box left out on a desk while one of the robbers attempts to rape a female teller at knifepoint before shooting her and her coworker. 

The robbers race away in their car and the filmmakers dissolve to the remote, snowy mountains. The two robbers enter a cabin, where they are revealed to be, shockingly, two young women. They hide their loot behind an air vent near the ceiling. “Now all we have to do is wait,” says one of the robbers, Ruth.

“That’s going to be the hardest part. I don’t know if I can wait to spend all that money.”

“Things should calm down in a couple of days, so just try and keep yourself together until George gets here.”

To help themselves relax, Ruth runs a bath while her partner, Trish, strips down to her underwear. 

Meanwhile, a shadowy figure approaches the cabin from outside. 

As Trish gets ready to bathe, the two robbers fill us in on some backstory, discussing the fact that George used to work at the bank so he knows its security system (which presumably consists solely of two bank tellers). They also reveal a twist: Ruth no longer needs George, so she plans to kill him so she and Trish will be left with the $50,000 they stole. Ruth, however, has something else in store: She approaches Trish topless in the bathroom and shoots her in the abdomen. Laughing maniacally, Ruth quips, “Trish, dear, I’m afraid you’re going to have to take your bath in the lake.”

Shockingly, Ruth’s plan falls apart as she drags her partner’s body to the front door. The shadowy figure from outside stabs Ruth, killing her.

The next morning, two incompetent sheriff’s deputies investigate reports of shots being fired at the cabin. They find the bodies of the robbers and an X symbol drawn on the wall with blood.

Later, we watch a car drive through a snow-covered landscape. We hear the passengers in the car speaking, though we don’t see them yet. “It’s not every day you pass the bar exam,” says a man.

“Listen to this,” says another man incredulously. “I’m the lawyer and he’s defending me.”

“Well,” says a woman, “that’s what Al is good for. He’ll defend anyone…especially if it means he’ll get to eat sooner.”

Meanwhile, at the rental office for the murder cabin, the investigating deputies are distracted by the manager’s mother’s theory about the murders. “No one will be safe, if it’s what I think it is,” she says.

One of the deputies is interested in her theory, which involves a local legend. “Hey, I’ve heard that. That’s the one about the mountain man whose spirit still roams through these hills!”

The deputies leave, and the two couples from the car enter the lobby. Tony, the newly minted lawyer, says casually, “I read about a murder that happened here last night. The papers were a little sketchy. Anything you can tell me?”

Before the manager and his mother can fill in any details, a group of five young women enters the lobby. The manager says there is only one available cabin. After some back-and-forth conversation, the manager’s mother tells the guests (and the audience) the legend. “There was a time when there wasn’t a soul living in these parts…except for a giant man and his family.” (At this point, interestingly, none of the holidaygoers ask about the use of the word “giant.”) “The mountains provided everything they needed. But then, the people started coming in. They bought land…changed things. They forced him higher and higher up the mountains until he didn’t have a place to live in for himself. And that’s when he decided to fight back…for the land he thought was rightfully his. So he asked the gods of these mountains for help.” (At this point, interestingly, none of the holidaygoers ask about the use of the word “gods.”) “They say he was given a weapon, but that wasn’t from the gods. That was from the evil spirits of these mountains that wanted them for themselves. They tricked him into using the weapon to kill not only the people that were coming in, but even his own family. And some say even himself. Still others believe he lives beneath the waters of the lake, where he has become a monster of death and stalks all who come to these mountains.”

Tony sums up what we are all thinking: “That’s it?”

Of course, the five young women decide to take the murder cabin, reasoning there will be nowhere else to stay. The manager tells them the one rule: No partying till all hours of the night.

In a well-timed comedic scene, one of the women tells Tony that the young women will be good, to which Tony responds, “I wouldn’t worry. I just hope we don’t keep you up with our party.” He chuckles, then looks at his partner, whose arms are crossed over her chest, and his smile disappears.

The two couples enter their cabin and are impressed about how hospitable it looks, though Al’s wife Lil says, “It’s nice, but spooky.”

Al replies, “Come on. You didn’t believe that old lady’s story about a legend, did you?”

“No, of course not,” she replies.

At night, Al waits until Lil and Lisa go to bed before toasting his friend Tony with liquor for passing the bar exam (even making a joke about “passing the bar” due to the absence of a bartender). Simultaneously next door, the five young women start yawning rather than partying. They all lie on the floor in front of the fireplace and toast to friendship.

After some heartfelt conversation among Al and Tony, who get quite drunk, Tony’s thoughts turn toward the young women next door and the fact that they were “taken in” by the “legend.” “I bet they’re having a hard time sleeping.”

“A real hard time,” Al agrees with a grin.

Then the filmmakers cut to a shocking shot of two of the women lying on the floor, bloody and dead, while a man attacks a third woman and cuts her throat with a knife. This leads to perhaps the film’s most artful shot, an expressionistic vision of terror.

The filmmakers frame the killer’s face as he stalks another woman.

Shockingly, the murders are revealed to be the dream of one of the young women. She wakes up in bed, jolting upright as dreamers are wont to do in movies. Then, even more shockingly, she sees a monster’s face at her window. She screams and wakes the other women, who flee downstairs, before the “monster” is revealed to be Tony and Al. After some perhaps inappropriate “struggling” in the snow, Tony’s wife Lisa scolds the men and they return to their cabin.

The next morning, we watch as Lil and Lisa wake up their hungover husbands. Al and Lil go skiing while Tony and Lisa, both acting extremely passive-aggressively, separate. Tony goes fishing and Lisa repeatedly rinses mugs in the sink. As Tony walks toward the lake, two of the women in the cabin next door ogle him, for completely unexplained reasons and one of them, Stephanie, follows him down to the lake and immediately kisses Tony.

After rebuffing her, Tony gives Stephanie a fishing lesson that involves grabbing her repeatedly.

Later, we watch Stephanie walk through the snow for roughly ten minutes. Eventually, she sits on a log. 

Tony returns to Lisa and they hash out their problem. Lisa says softly, “That girl’s awfully attracted to you. She’s very pretty.”

“I know,” Tony responds, perhaps ill-advisedly. “And very willing. It’s just one of those infatuation things, like a high school kid has on her teacher.”

“Yes,” Lisa points out sensibly, “but she’s not in high school and you’re not her teacher.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means I’ve been sitting here feeling threatened by some little snow bunny, trying to picture what my life would be like without you, and oh I felt so alone.”

Tony reassures her, though he is clearly 100% at fault. “There could never be anyone else.” They go into the bedroom to make love.

Outside, Stephanie is still walking through the snowy forest as dusk falls.

Back at the cabin, the other women return from skiing; their discussion displays the filmmakers’ sparkling wit. One woman, ready for some “action,” says, “Those ski instructors are just a warm-up for the main event.”

“I don’t know where she gets the energy,” says her friend.

Another friend says eloquently, “Yeah, and if we ever find out we probably could harness it and solve the energy crisis.”

Even though it is late at night, Stephanie remains outside, apparently still dejected that she was unable to break up Tony’s marriage. Also outside is the killer; we watch his POV as it approaches the women’s cabin. He breaks in and attacks one woman by pressing her head into the dishwater in the kitchen sink—a bloodier death than one might anticipate.

Meanwhile, upstairs, two of the women paint each others nails while discussing a cute ski instructor, all beneath a clearly visible boom microphone.

The killer works his way through all the women in the cabin, stabbing one in the back and two in the breasts.

Eventually, Stephanie returns to the cabin only to find her friends murdered. She screams, and her scream is audible next door, where the older couples are just starting to eat a pizza. Stephanie runs to their cabin, sending Al and Tony next door to investigate. They see the bodies and return to their cabin, attempting quite sensibly to escape, but their car’s tires are slashed. Al argues for leaving the cabin and running into the woods, but Tony disagrees: “Don’t you remember the legend? He stalks those woods. That’s his territory.”

Al and Lil leave the cabin to take their chances in the woods. Their chances, of course, are infinitesimal, and soon Al is knifed in the throat while Lil is the victim of a thrown knife. 

Tragically, Lil is able to crawl through the snow to the edge of the nearby road, where a car passes her obliviously as she dies.

Meanwhile, Tony, Lisa, and Stephanie barricade the cabin door with a sofa. Lisa takes a near-catatonic Stephanie upstairs to bed, then returns downstairs, where Tony, who obsesses that all the kitchen curtains are closed, makes a fire in the fireplace. 

Shockingly, a hand smashes through the window in the living room, grabbing Lisa’s hair. Tony fashions a crude torch from a piece of kindling, a washcloth, and lighter fluid, but he never manages to use the torch. Instead, he struggles with the killer, who breaks in through the front door. In the dark room, one figure stabs another, but we don’t see whether it is the killer or Tony who survives.

Lisa runs upstairs to find Stephanie, who has apparently run away. She watches as someone clomps heavily up the stairs—it is the killer, who murders Lisa as well.

Finally, Stephanie is revealed to be the final girl, hiding underneath the bed while Lisa is murdered. 

The filmmakers dissolve to the sunrise over the snowy mountains. Stephanie crawls out from under the bed and opens the curtains, revealing the dawn. She warily heads downstairs, past a bloody sigil inscribed on the wall, and finds Tony’s lifeless body. “Oh no,” she cries. She runs outside and finds a sheriff’s deputy already on the scene, though she is unaware that this deputy has just taken the money stolen by the women at the beginning of the film and hidden in the air duct.

In a shocking, nihilistic finale, the deputy stabs Stephanie, leaving nobody alive. “Why?” Stephanie asks him.

The deputy convulses. “I…don’t…know! All I ever wanted was the money. I didn’t want to kill anyone. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. There’s something inside me…I can’t…control.”

He wields the Satan’s blade and his voice changes. “This is my mountain, and people who come to my mountain must perish. You don’t belong here and you have trespassed upon my world. There must be no one left. You all must die.”

Stephanie runs back to the cabin but the deputy catches her and stabs her repeatedly.

The film’s narrative ends as the deputy, now barefoot for some unexplained reason, throws the Satan’s blade into the snowy lake. In a chilling coda, however, we see a hand emerge from the bubbling lake to throw the Satan’s blade into a tree.

A man approaches the tree and the film fades to black, with red letters declaring THE LEGEND CONTINUES!

Minimalist slasher films are nearly always classics, and Satan's Blade is no exception. The film has only two locations: the bank at the beginning and the snowbound cabins where most of the action takes place. It is true that the film could be more minimalist, as the opening bank robbery is a complicating factor, but the use of a crime spree to kick off a slasher film is both a fun nod to Psycho (1960) and a solid precursor to the conceit of From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). It is fascinating that the film returns to the crime prologue at the very end, when the possibly mountain man-possessed deputy retrieves the money from the bank heist. The quick shot of the loot retrieval also raises doubts in the viewer's mind about whether the slasher is a supernatural entity or not, a question that is never fully answered by the film. Perhaps this ambiguity -- is the slasher a supernatural mountain man that possesses others, or simply a corrupt sheriff's deputy? -- is the film's strongest quality, and the primary reason the film is unfairly overlooked as a mid-eighties slasher whose status should be upgraded to misunderstood classic.