Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 50: "Meatcleaver Massacre" (1977)

Believe it or not, this poster actually does sort of summarize the plot of Meatcleaver Massacre.

catholic [kath-uh-lik, kath-lik]  
adjective
  1. broad or wide-ranging in tastes, interests, or the like; having sympathies with all; broad-minded; liberal. 
  2. universal in extent; involving all; of interest to all.
  3. pertaining to the whole Christian body or church.

Ed's 1977 novel.
What might Ed Wood have given for the opportunity to direct a non-porno movie in 1977? His situation was exceptionally grim that year, with his only known creative output being a single transvestite-themed paperback, TV Lust (billed as "The Fictional Memoirs of One of America's Best-Known Drag Queens"), for a publisher called Eros Goldstripe, which had previously released his novels Forced Entry and Diary of a Transvestite Hooker in 1974. Thwarted projects from that period include Shoot 7, an unproduced musical about the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, and Venus de Milo, a proposed film vehicle for Ed's nascent punker neighbor Shannon Dolder involving a search for the missing arms of the titular statue. As intriguing as Shoot 7 and Venus de Milo sound, such never-to-be endeavors clearly do not pay the bills. Eddie was broke, drunk, in showbiz exile, utterly lacking direction, and only a year away from his untimely death. So seedy and crime-ridden were his surroundings that he lived in a state of constant fear and paranoia, a situation which served to exacerbate his racial and ethnic prejudices. There were even times when, according to his wife Kathy, Ed pawned his typewriter -- his only conceivable source of future income, mind you -- to pay for booze. All he really had left with which to bargain by then was his immortal soul.

Under those circumstances, Ed Wood might have made a tempting mark for Mephistopheles. Had the Horned One come knocking on the door of Eddie's squalid Yucca Street apartment in Hollywood, clutching a sheaf of parchment, would Eddie have affixed his name in blood to the cursed document? Would he have even flinched?

I ask these questions because of the strange, occult-themed movie which serves as our focal point this week. Though I had never even heard of it until a few months ago, the title kept recurring with regularity throughout the course of my Wood-ian inquiries. Which books and movies do you cover and which do you ignore in a series such as this? There are definite, identifiable levels of orthodoxy in Ed Wood scholarship and journalism. Some ultra-strict observers limit themselves to the six feature films he wrote and directed under his own name between 1953 (Glen or Glenda?) and 1960 (The Sinister Urge). Most will at least allow for the films he wrote under his own name in the 1950s and 1960s (The Violent Years, Orgy of the Dead, Bride of the Beast, etc.). Heartier explorers will make room in their lives for the softcore and hardcore pornographic films Ed wrote and/or directed in the 1970s, some of which (like The Snow Bunnies and Fugitive Girls) were even done under his own name.

But then, my friends, there is a whole world of speculative Wood work: projects Eddie may have, might have, could have, sort of, supposedly, allegedly, or probably worked on. What does one do with such movies? I grew up in the Roman Catholic faith, a religion which takes its name for a word meaning "all-encompassing," and I have taken an appropriately catholic approach to Ed Wood's filmography and bibliography. Certainly, some of what I cover will be cinematic chalcopyrite -- fool's gold. But to neglect these auxiliary films is to potentially miss a large, perhaps even the largest, chunk of Eddie's career. Eddie labored in Hollywood for 30 years, and for much of that time he was an undocumented worker.

My job, then, is to do some documenting. Let's proceed.

M E A T C L E A V E R      M A S S A C R E  (1977)
Hey, Christopher Lee had bills to pay, too.

Some aliases for the film.
Alternate titles: Meatcleaver Massacre is in the running for having the most alternate titles of any film covered in this series. It seems like no two sources have the same exact name for this motion picture, with "meat cleaver" often divided into two separate words. There are a number of variant titles for home video and foreign releases as well. Domestic aliases for this film include Meat Cleaver Massacre, Hollywood Meat Cleaver Massacre, and The Hollywood Meatcleaver Massacre. In Italy, it was known as Morak or Morak: The Power of the Occult. Venezuela had it as The Power of the Occult as well. In England, it was Evil Force. And in Spain, it was Massacre at the University.

Availability: As of this writing, I can find no legitimate American DVD releases of this film, not even in Mill Creek boxed sets. However, this title seems to have slipped into the public domain and is freely available on YouTube. For those who prefer physical media, a number of vendors are selling the film on iOffer for anywhere from $8 to $15, sometimes as Meatcleaver Massacre and other times as Evil Force. The public domain print is not especially good, so I'd be curious to know if any of the bootlegs are better. For you British Ed Wood fans, Amazon.co.uk has an "uncut and uncensored" edition on DVD as Meat Cleaver Massacre for a mere ten pounds. The film's trippy '70s poster art, meanwhile, has inspired quite a bit of homemade, grey-market merchandise. Try Ebay for that stuff if you're interested.


The backstory: My first encounter with Meatcleaver Massacre occurred a little over a year ago when I reviewed David C. Hayes' Muddled Mind: The Complete Works of Edward D. Wood, Jr. Hayes' guidebook is mostly devoted to Ed's literary career, a rarity in books about Wood. However, Hayes covers the movies as well as the novels and includes both canonical and apocryphal titles. Towards the end of Muddled Mind is a chapter entitled "The 'Lost' Films," which contains the following, undeniably tempting passage:
Hollywood Meatcleaver Massacre (1977): Released by Group One Films, HMM concerns the tragic tale of cleaver wielding hippie students, and their taste for blood. For the record, this is worse than ANY Wood written or directed film. After a brief introduction by the obviously down-on-his-luck Christopher Lee, the only other noteworthy point of the film is a brief cameo by Ed Wood in his last known acting role. Ed plays "Man in the Crowd" and is actually quite effective.
Could this photographer be Ed Wood?
Further Wood-ian attributions abound on the Internet. Several sites list Eddie as either a co-director, bit actor, or both. The famed Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, for instance, boldly declares on its website that the movie was "never on DVD" and was "partially directed by a boozed-up Ed Wood shortly before his death." A movie review site called Oh, the Horror! says the movie was "directed by Evan Lee & Ed Wood (uncredited)." Cult Reviews rather unkindly speculates that the movie was "possibly directed by a senile Ed Wood on drugs." Interestingly, Philip J. Fry, one of the Internet's top Wood historians, does not include Meatcleaver Massacre in the "Complete Chronological Filmography" section of his website, The Hunt for Edward D. Wood, Jr., yet he does name check the movie on a sub-page devoted to Ed's horror films. There is also a "Hunt for Edward D. Wood, Jr." Yahoo! group, a forum rarely used today but which in 2006 played host to a spirited, sometimes confrontational discussion of Meatcleaver Massacre and its possible connection to Ed Wood.

Of particular contention is the appearance of a camera-clutching news photographer in a press conference scene at about the 20-minute mark in the movie. Some viewers claim that this fellow, seen only for a few seconds and in profile, strongly resembles Eddie. One participant in the thread says he forwarded images of the scene to Wood biographer Rudolph Grey, who "claim[ed] the nose is nothing like Wood's!" Grey does not even mention the film in Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr., nor does it merit inclusion in Rob Craig's Ed Wood, Mad Genius: A Critical Study of the Films. The print I screened came from YouTube and had the end credits lopped off. By some accounts, however, there is an Ed Wood listed among the cast members as either "Photographer" or "Man in Crowd." The IMDb handles this in a rather sneaky, noncommittal way by crediting "Ed Wood" rather than "Edward D. Wood, Jr." and linking to an otherwise-blank filmography page for that actor. One reader, Lee Jones, has suggested to me via Facebook that Wood "directed around 60% of Meatcleaver Massacre" because "the original director was fired." His source is Jim Bryan, the film's editor. I am neither confirming nor denying, merely reporting. I will say that the photographer does strongly resemble Ed Wood and that the rest of the movie bears remarkable thematic and stylistic similarities to the Wood canon.

Ed Wood's own scripts often stressed the importance of facts, so let's examine the objective evidence as it relates to Meatcleaver Massacre. Officially, this film's director is one Evan Lee, who has (you guessed it) no other credits to his name. The YouTube print, which looks like a crudely-digitized VHS copy, bears the names of at least four production and distribution companies in its first five minutes: Atlas International, Video Warehouse, Inc., Cine Repertory Group, and finally Group 1 Distribution Organization. Ltd. (with a 1976 copyright date, indicating when it was made). A forlorn foster child of a film, Massacre was sold and resold to a variety of companies and was marketed both theatrically and on home video by a half-dozen or so different names. While in no way an accurate description of the plot, the name Hollywood Meatcleaver Massacre blatantly and memorably apes Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). File it alongside The Toolbox Murders (1978), The Driller Killer (1979), Microwave Massacre (1983), and The Nail Gun Massacre (1985) in the pantheon of horror films with weapon-specific titles.

The author on the copyright application for the film is Raymond J. "Ray" Atherton, the film's producer and co-screenwriter. (The script's coauthor is Keith Burns, who has no other credits.) Not to be confused with the similarly-named American diplomat, Chicago-born filmmaker Ray Atherton (1949-1996) had a robust and varied filmography spanning from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s -- usually as the producer of documentaries about show business (sample title: The John Wayne Anthology) and crime (sample title: Charles Manson Then and Now). One of his few produced screenplays was something called F.A.R.T.: The Movie, for which he also served as an associate producer. That little-regarded 1991 comedy (tagline: "Russell loves to fart. Heather hates farting ... a love story.") is notable for an early appearance by child actress Kesha Sebert, later to find fame as pop princess Ke$ha. (Trust me, you'll want to watch this clip, if only to hear Kesha's character misidentified as "a very virile man.")

As for the cast, Meatcleaver Massacre's tiny budget allowed for the relatively brief and entirely peripheral participation of one major star. We'll get to him in a moment. As for the rest of the players, the most intriguing name in the roster is that of Maria Arnold, billed here as "Natasha." Nearing the end of her screen career by the time of Meatcleaver Massacre, softcore and hardcore veteran Arnold worked on two other prominent films in the Ed Wood canon: Necromania (1971) and Fugitive Girls (1974). She also appeared alongside Wood protege Valda Hansen in Wham! Bam! Thank You, Spaceman! (1975).

Many of the actors, unsurprisingly, are one-and-done nonentities, including J. Arthur Craig, who comes as close as anyone to being the movie's hero. Lead actors Larry Justin and James Habif had both appeared in Female Chauvinists (1976), but neither amounted to much outside of a handful of '70s B-pictures. A doctor here, Woody Wise would later reteam with Ray Atherton by working as a location scout for the aforementioned F.A.R.T.: The Movie. Another supporting actor, Paul Kelleher, is still active in 2014, working in made-for-TV and straight-to-video productions. It says something about Kelleher's resume that he's appeared in nearly 40 films and Meatcleaver Massacre is still among the most high-profile titles. Pretty Lisette Kremer has only a handful of movie roles to her name, but they're all in well-known films; TRON, Legal Eagles, Can't Stop the Music, and Sam Fuller's White Dog. Meatcleaver Massacre, however, is the only one for which she received onscreen credit. If there are further notables among the thespians in this movie, I have yet to discover them.

"1, 2, 3! Look at Mr. Lee!"
The one above-the-title, put-his-name-on-the-poster kind of celebrity in Meatcleaver Massacre is Sir Christopher Lee, CBE, CStJ (1922-2015), the hyper-prolific and famously prickly English actor forever associated with villainous roles in horror films, thanks to his numerous appearances in Hammer Studios' Dracula and Frankenstein franchises in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. Though he'd rather you remember him as a man rather than as a monster, these assignments are what won him the eternal love of generations of moviegoers. In recent years, the nonagenarian Lee has lent his furrowed brow, menacing presence, and basso profondo pipes to the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Hobbit franchises. He has also become a favorite of Ed Wood director Tim Burton, appearing in such films as Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Sweeney Todd.

In a way, Lee's career bears a similarity to those of Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price, two other stars who crossed paths with Edward D. Wood, Jr. All three men, for better or for worse, became cinematic bogeymen in the minds of the public. Bram Stoker's famous creation, Count Dracula, sank his fangs into Lugosi and Lee and refused to let go. Price never actually portrayed the old neck-sucker, but he played plenty of fiends, madmen, and deviants over the course of a half-century. These three men simultaneously benefited and suffered from becoming iconic. Lugosi, Lee, and Price are unmistakable performers -- all handsome, yet none conventionally so, and each with a voice that is much-imitated and yet inimitable. These blazingly talented men neither look nor sound like the typical fellows we encounter in our daily travels, so it is understandable that directors would rarely use them in such a fashion. Where else, really, could they find a permanent home but in horror, science-fiction, and fantasy movies? Lugosi and Lee crankily fought such typecasting, only to learn these efforts were ultimately futile. Unique among them, Price learned to embrace and cherish his public persona and would cheerfully play the "baddie" wherever he was invited to do so, be it The Brady Bunch or Michael Jackson's Thriller.

As for Christopher Lee, then in his mid-50s, playing the on-screen narrator in Meatcleaver Massacre was nothing more than a day's work done simply for some quick cash, something to tide him over between, say, Dracula and Son (1976) and Return from Witch Mountain (1978). He looks rather bored and disengaged here, obviously reading his lines from cue cards as he strolls around a wood-paneled library, and yet his performance is not without impact. Like Lugosi and Price, Christopher Lee is a human special effect. That's why people have been hiring him so consistently for so many decades. Whether he's making an effort or not, the man has an otherworldly aura and exudes gravitas from every pore. According to the IMDb, Lee had no idea he was "starring" in Meatcleaver Massacre because his narration was recorded for an entirely different film. He briefly toyed with the idea of suing the producers before deciding it was not worth the time and money. Besides, he had Airport '77 to occupy his time.

An example of grotesque artwork.
The viewing experience: Before I proceed any further with this review, let me say that the YouTube video of Meatcleaver Massacre that I screened was in barely-watchable condition and was severely pixelated in the tradition of so many public domain horror films in Mill Creek boxed sets. It would appear that an already-faded 35mm print of the movie was crudely and carelessly transferred to VHS and then just as rudely digitized, losing sharpness and color at every step in the process. The movie's frequent night scenes are hopelessly garbled, and even the brighter-lit moments appear muddy and indistinct. Why does this matter so much? Though most of the film's costumes and locations are drab by nature, there is ample evidence to suggest that the makers of Meatcleaver Massacre did what they could to make this film visually interesting through fish-eyed lenses, oddly skewed angles, cockeyed compositions, surreal nightmare sequences rife with symbolism, and fleeting cutaways to grotesque works of art. All of these effects are muted and nearly rendered impotent by the sheer cruddiness of the transfer. For reasons I will try to elucidate, Meatcleaver Massacre is a movie that fans of Ed Wood or paracinema in general will want to view. I just wish there were a better way for them to do so. This movie may not actually be the work of Edward D. Wood, Jr., but having viewed it several times, I now sincerely want it to be.

A statue of the lucky King.
  • The movie is bookended by appearances from Christopher Lee as a narrator whose half-sinister, half-authoritative presence suggests both Criswell in Plan 9 from Outer Space and Orgy of the Dead and Bela Lugosi in Glen or Glenda? Wearing a black suit with a shirt whose wide, wide collar is casually left unbuttoned, Lee resembles a weary high-roller who's just spent a long, unsuccessful night at the casino. Dwelling in a world entirely separate from the rest of the movie, Lee occupies a wood-paneled library whose cluttered walls are decorated with strange paintings and ominous artifacts and whose shelves groan under the weight of many quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore. It is very much like the space once occupied by Lugosi's string-pulling puppet master. "What you are about to see," the narrator begins, "you may find hard to believe." Compare this to Criswell's similar line from Orgy: "For years, I have told the almost unbelievable, related the unreal, and shown it to be more than a fact." After this caveat, Lee talks to us, in that rich mahogany voice of his, about the phenomenon of a person's spirit leaving its host body, either temporarily (during sleep) or permanently (at the time of one's death). 
  • After name-dropping Oedipus, Orestes, and the Japenese mikados, our narrator tells us the strange story of France's King Guntram the Rich, who discovered a great treasure after a truly bizarre incident in which a small snake (apparently real) emerged from his mouth while he was napping. But Lee then tells us that not all spirits are so benevolent. Some, he informs us with almost palpable joy, can be quite nasty indeed and can inflict terrible vengeance on the behalf of an injured party. This, arguably, sets up the rest of the movie.
  • The main body of the film begins with an academic lecture on a university campus, bringing to mind the pseudo-documentary nature of both Glenda and The Undergraduate. Fuddy-duddyish Professor Cantrell (James Habif) is lecturing his students at fictional Valley College about a vengeful spirit named Morak, who can only be summoned in Gaelic and only in times of great distress. Those who call upon Morak for assistance will owe him their souls for eternity. I like to think of Morak as a sort of otherworldly version of The Equalizer. In these opening scenes, which bear more than a passing resemblance to the seances in Night of the Ghouls, Cantrell (his face lit from below) shows his students slides of grotesque paintings of monsters while reciting an English translation of the chant which is supposed to summon Morak. Nearly everyone is entranced and delighted by this presentation, except for a quartet of ne'er-do-wells in matching jean jackets with triangular patches sown onto the shoulders. It's worth noting that Cantrell's class is devoted to Irish mythology, a field of study which also inspired Ed Wood's short story, "The Night the Banshee Cried."
The denim-clad gang members.
  • After class, we get to meet these four malcontents and learn that they comprise a smallish gang. (Yes, a literal gang of four.) Their leader is the sneering, snickering, and always-unstable Mason "Mase" Harrue (Larry Justin). Mason's obedient sidekicks include; twitchy Garrison Keillor lookalike Dirk (Doug Senior), who works as a mechanic; hormone-crazed Phil (Bob Mead), a projectionist; and long-haired, brooding Sean (Robert Clark), a burned-out '60s-type bum. Mostly these guys just hang out, drink beer, get high, razz each other in a playful fashion, and casually mistreat the women in their lives. But on one fateful afternoon, they meet Professor Cantrell on campus, and Mase decides to angrily confront the educator about his "Morak" lecture: "Do you really believe all that shit?" The professor says that if Mase doesn't believe in Morak, then he should write an essay in which he intelligently discusses his skepticism. The student responds by flicking the brim of the teacher's hat, knocking it slightly askew. Before walking away from the gang and going home, Cantrell tells Mase, "For god's sake, grow up!" Most observers would say that nothing of consequence really happened here, but Mason begins plotting revenge. Itchy for action, insensitive to the needs of others, and constantly goading his cronies into wrongdoing, this young man reminds me of Timothy Farrell's loose cannon Vic Brady character from Ed Wood's Jail Bait.
  • That night, Mason and the gang decide to pay an unexpected visit on the good Professor Cantrell. Their drive takes them down Sunset Boulevard, so we get to see what that famous thoroughfare looked like circa 1976. We get a brief glimpse at Lou Adler's renowned Roxy theater. One of the gang members also mentions seeing Hollywood Boulevard, but it's too dark to see what he's talking about. The boys take particular interest in a billboard advertising Wild Turkey brand bourbon. ("Turkey! Turkey! Wild Turkey!" one stupidly chants.) A fixation on alcohol, a prominent motif in Ed Wood's life and work, runs throughout Meatcleaver Massacre. The four main thugs are rarely seen without at least a beer in their hands. They drink separately, collectively, privately, and publicly throughout this movie.
  • Once they arrive at the Cantrell manse, the four goons take the time to admire how nice the neighborhood is before doing any breaking and entering. Being a college professor must pay well, they decide. Inside, we see that the Cantrell clan consists of the Professor, his loving wife (Undine Hampton), his oafish son Roddy (Doug Ely), his nubile daughter Tina (Lisette Kremer), and his faithful but annoying pooch Poopers. (In one memorable moment, the wife lets the dog out the back door and says, "Here you go, Poopers! Don't eat my flowers!") The filmmakers also take the opportunity to include a totally gratuitous shot of Tina in the shower. Almost nothing is actually shown, but the young lady is clearly established as an object of heterosexual lust, a fact which colors what we're about to see in the movie.
Tina's brutal murder.
  • The gang's home invasion seems inspired by the late-1960s activities of the Manson Family. Before Manson's cult followers actually committed any murders, one of their habitual games was "creepy crawling," which involved breaking into people's homes at night, watching them sleep, and rearranging their possessions. That seems to be what Phil, Sean, and Dirk have in mind. They thought they were just going to "clown around" at the Cantrells' home. But sinister Mason -- and, yes, I think the name deliberately evokes Manson -- is in a murderous mood, and the evening unfolds like the dreadful Tate-LaBianca slayings of 1969. Mason announces this change in plans by clubbing the professor in the back of the head, leaving him bloodied and unconscious. Then the other members of the family are killed one by one. Tina's death is especially brutal. After pleading desperately for her life, Tina is repeatedly stabbed by Sean. As ultimately silly as Meatcleaver Massacre is, these scenes have an undeniable impact and are the ugliest in the entire movie. We are treated to several closeups of Tina's bloody and lifeless body. The poor girl resembles the crucified Christ in these shots. It's noteworthy that, even though Professor Cantrell's entire family is murdered, he only specifically mentions his daughter when calling upon Morak for help.
  • Ironically, seeing as how he was the gang's original target, Professor Cantrell is the lone survivor of the massacre. He spends the rest of the movie in a hospital bed, immobilized from the neck down. Though unable to say or do much, he nevertheless remains a central figure in the story by calling upon the spirit of Morak to slay his hated enemies. The rest of the film is a surreal, nightmarish story of vengeance, as Morak tracks down the gang members individually and does away with them in creative ways. As if to keep reminding the audience of the central premise, the film remembers to cut back occasionally to Professor Cantrell, who is seen tossing his head from side to side and mumbling, "Morak... Morak..." Actor James Habif's voice is also heard as voice-over narration throughout the movie, so we are privy to his inner thoughts. With the exception of the ever-inscrutable Mason, the other three members of the gang also share their thoughts and feelings with the audience via narration. Meatcleaver Massacre, then, is as heavy on voice-over as some of Ed Wood's best-loved classics. While we're at it, let's mention the fact that several scenes in this film are scored with very 1950s-sounding stock music, further enhancing the Wood-ian feel of the production.
The press conference scene.
  • After the murders, Meatcleaver Massacre takes the form of a police procedural, a type of story Ed Wood tackled again and again in the 1950s and beyond. But the lead detective in the film is unusual even by Wood's standards: the overweight, balding, and completely lackadaisical Detective Wexler (J. Arthur Craig). The sluggish, phlegmatic Wexler sighs heavily before speaking and barely seems to care about the case at all. He is introduced to us during a hysterically unbalanced press conference -- the very same scene in which Ed Wood is said to appear! A young, obviously unschooled actor plays a TV reporter here, and his nervous energy contrasts amusingly with the underwhelming lethargy of Detective Wexler. Neither actor seems to know his lines, and the reporter keeps pushing the microphone into the detective's face and then hurriedly pulling it back towards himself, a la Larry "Bud" Melman from Late Night with David Letterman. A transcription follows:
(The reporter thrusts the microphone at Wexler, who barely seems to notice. Throughout this interview, Wexler simply stares at the ground. In the background, tired-looking middle-aged men swarm around.
Wexler: Uh... (sighs) Again, I'd rather not comment on that at this time. 
(The reporter quickly pulls the mic back.
Reporter: Was there any, uh, motive, detective? 
(The reporter jabs the microphone at Wexler again before actually finishing his question.
Wexler: Uh... we were going on the idea of, uh, of robbery for a while, but, uh, that seems to be pretty well ruled out now. 
(The reporter pulls the mic back.
Reporter: Now, are you saying, detective... (he looks down at a pad of paper in his other hand) Wuhhh... was this a thrill, uh, murder or what? 
(He again sticks the mic in the detective's face before he finishes asking this question.) 
Wexler: Uh... I'd rather not comment on that at this time, but thank you. 
(Wexler wearily shuffles away from the reporter and out of frame.
Reporter: (looking at the pad of paper again) All right, thank you very much, Detective Wexler. 
(The reporter remembers to look up at the camera and stands there for a second with his mouth open. Cut to a grungy-looking apartment, where the four gang members are watching this program on TV.
Reporter: (voice-over; haltingly) And so another apparent senseless murder has joined the list of other killings that have become all too familiar a pattern in American life today. Paul Tucker, KPEZ News. 
(One of the gang members comments, though no one's mouth moves.
Voice: Shit, they're pissin' in the wind. They'll never make the connection!
  • The memorable scene described above introduces another quintessential Wood-ian theme in Meatcleaver Massacre: a heavy reliance upon newspapers and other media as a storytelling shortcut. Very much like classic-period Ed Wood flicks of the 1950s, such as Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda?Meatcleaver Massacre accomplishes much of its exposition via screaming newspaper headlines ("EXTRA! CANTRELL KILLER STILL AT LARGE!") and various TV and radio reports about the crimes, which are conveniently available whenever the characters need an update on the plot.
  • The gang members are not too concerned at first with Detective Wexler's molasses-slow investigations. The only living witness, Professor Cantrell, is in the hospital, seemingly out of commission for months or even longer. ("It's a miracle he's still alive," one doctor flatly informs the police.) But the cops do have one piece of evidence to go on: the triangle insignia from Dirk's jacket. It was discovered at the crime scene near Roddy's body. The director of this film must not have trusted his audience to recognize this clue, because there are numerous flashbacks to other scenes in which the triangles were visible.
A campus comic does his thing.
  • To unwind, the gang members go to a campus bar, and we're treated to a few minutes of entertainment from a leisure-suited comedian who does celebrity impressions from the point of view of various household pets, i.e. a parrot as Jimmy Cagney, a dog as Ed Sullivan and Lt. Columbo, etc. (A sample of the latter: "Pardon me. Am I botherin' you people? I don't mean to bother you, but you people need to put some paper down here or I'm gonna go on the rug.") Our once-topical comic also does a quick Godfather joke: "My godfather's a hairdresser. He made me an offer once I had to refuse." The inclusion of this material is very similar to the appearance of Cotton Watts and Chick in Jail Bait.
  • Very quickly, the increasingly-paranoid gang members start turning on each other and sniping at one another over little things. (Sean scolds Dirk for chewing ice too loudly.) Meanwhile, Professor Cantrell thrashes around in his hospital bed, calling upon Morak. There are flashes during these scenes of the same ghoulish artwork from the beginning of the movie. The professor's plan starts working right away: the gang members not only have frequent flashbacks to the night of the crime but also vivid, surreal nightmares as well. Because of these frequent detours from "reality," it is often difficult for the viewer to discern what's actually happening and what is only in the characters' minds. Sean has a dream in which he slowly approaches a fog-shrouded coffin with a skeleton inside. Coffins and skeletons are frequent motifs in the Ed Wood canon, and the scene is very much in the spirit of Final Curtain, Night of the Ghouls, Orgy of the Dead, and even Necromania
  • Yet another Ed Wood trademark arrives with the appearance of a squabbling heterosexual couple, in this case Sean and his girlfriend, who bicker over the young man's troubling recent behavior -- cutting class, quitting his job, and boozing it up with his worthless buddies. It does not take too much imagination to see this as a late-1970s argument between Ed and Kathy Wood, during those last few dark years of their marriage. Sean decides, unwisely it turns out, to go hiking alone in the desert amid the cacti, scuttling insects, and bones bleached white by the sun. In one of the movie's few totally ambiguous death scenes, he is set upon by the unseen Morak. The poor actor has to lurch and stagger around, as if  someone is attacking him.
  • One down, three to go. Unaware of Sean's fate, Phil and Dirk nevertheless become jittery about the visions they've been having and the increasing threat of being caught by the police. What if Cantrell comes out of that coma? Very much like Vic Brady, Mason's confidence is unshakable. "The professor is not about to do nothing," he explains to the others. "And besides, if he does, what can he do? I mean, he's just lying in that bed like a carrot." He laughs. "A big carrot!" Dirk looks down sadly and exclaims, in another highlight moment, "I never did like carrots."
Dirk's would-be moment of truth.
  • Dirk is right to be concerned, because his own death scene at the hands of Morak is coming up shortly. It's nothing too noteworthy. The young man works the night shift alone as a mechanic in a garage (shades of Married Too Young and Fugitive Girls), and Morak simply drops a car hood down on him. No muss, no fuss. But this run-of-the-mill revenge murder is preceded by a most extraordinary sequence in which Dirk, in the tradition of Hamlet, contemplates suicide. Again, the director freely intersperses reality with fantasy, as the troubled young man visualizes slashing his wrists with a straight razor and then smearing the blood on the bathroom mirror. In the "real" world, Dirk sits alone in his miserable apartment (with vintage B-movie posters on the wall!), drinks whiskey on the rocks, rubs his temples, and stares at his hands as if he were Lady Macbeth. The troubled young man has torn up a newspaper and left the scraps all over the room because it contained a story in which the police commissioner expresses his confidence in Detective Wexler and states that "suspects will be apprehended soon" in the Cantrell case. 
  • Through voice-over narration, we hear Dirk's extraordinary inner monologue: "Jesus! I just got a promotion to night shift mechanic at the gas station and a part time job cleaning up the biology lab! God, life was starting to treat me really good. Now there doesn't seem to be much to live for." He takes another drink (or five), then continues. "Bye, Mom. Bye, Dad. Goodbye, Debbie." He stands up from his chair. "Oh, Jesus. This shit is gonna make an awful mess. I sure hope the landlord isn't going to be super upset about it." He then enters the bathroom and takes a razor from a drawer. The music has, by this point, become mournful and melodramatic. Just as Dirk is about to slash his left wrist with the deadly instrument, he catches a glimpse of his watch and grumbles, "Oh, Jesus. I'm gonna be late for work!" and simply stops what he's doing. 
  • So dumbbell Dirk shrugs off suicide, goes to his job as a "night shift mechanic," and is promptly murdered by Morak at the behest of Professor Cantrell, still in his hospital bed. The grease monkey's bloodied and battered body is discovered the next morning by some impatient customers who are described by Detective Frank Shaye (Paul Kelleher) as "a couple of drunk Okies" who won't be of much use to the investigation. Ed Wood often has unreliable or drunken witnesses to supernatural events in his movies. Besides Paul Marco's jittery Kelton the Cop character, there is the hysterical elderly couple in Night of the Ghouls and especially Old Farmer Caulder (played by Tor Johnson's son, Karl) in Plan 9 from Outer Space, about whom Carl Anthony's skeptical Patrolman Larry says, "The only spirits he saw tonight were those I smelled on his breath." In this scene, Detectives Shaye and Wexler briefly entertain the theory that Dirk's death was an accident, until another mechanic (Steve Singer) points out that the deadly car hood was propped up and couldn't have moved on its own. Wexler takes in this obvious information and says, in his best Joe Friday monotone, "He's right." This is exactly the type of policework we see again and again in Plan 9 and other Wood films.
Rotten bastard Guerdon Trueblood
  • Only two hoodlums left. Schlubby, mustachioed Phil is next on the chopping block. Like Sean and Dirk, Phil is plagued by flashbacks and has news reports about the Cantrell murders echoing in his head 24-7. There's a great scene in which Phil takes an elevator up from a parking garage and is legitimately spooked by the sudden appearance of a little boy in a monster mask and a Mickey Mouse T-shirt. The kid jumps out at him and growls, causing Phil to cower pathetically in the elevator. The IMDb identifies this person as Guerdon Trueblood, who grew up to be a visual effects artist on such big-deal movies as The Avengers, Alice in Wonderland, and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, among many others. That's plausible, since Trueblood's effects career began about 20 years after his appearance in this movie. I doubt the IMDb's claim that Trueblood also served as the uncredited director of photography on Meatcleaver Massacre, however, since he would have been a child at the time and didn't do any camerawork on other movies, either before or after this one. I await refutation. Anyway, Trueblood blows a raspberry at Phil and is scolded by his mother: "You rotten little bastard!" The fact that the mother character is just an obviously post-dubbed voice helps give this scene the naive, unschooled quality of Ed Wood's most famous work.
  • More classic Dragnet-via-Ed-Wood policework ensues, as Shea and Wexler clumsily investigate the Cantrell murders as they cruise around Hollywood (with landmarks like the Walk of Fame visible) and discuss the case in semi-bored tones. Shea learns that Professor Cantrell was so well respected that he didn't have an enemy in the world, a sentiment very much like what cops Lyle Talbot and Steve Reeves said about Herbert Rawlinson in Jail Bait. Wexler, meanwhile, has been trying to get to the bottom of the "mystic mumbo jumbo" that Cantrell was teaching his students at Valley College. Shea and Wexler's deadpan dialogue about this could have come from any number of Ed Wood scripts or stories.
Wexler: Seems he was quite a prominent figure in the psychic research circles. 
Shea: You mean ghosts and shit? Aw, c'mon!  And he probably believed all that crap, huh? 
Wexler: Yeah. So do a lot of other people. You know, I checked libraries, straight bookstores, weirdo bookstores, you name it. Cantrell's name was listed as a reference in almost every book I saw pertaining to the occult. 
Shea: Okay, Fred. Well, maybe I ought to go back to his house... 
Wexler: No, no, I'll take care of that. Why don't you continue your investigation over at the college? More students, faculty, anybody who knew Cantrell or the Kramer kid from the garage. All right? 
Shea: Eh, sure. Okay, Fred.
  • Poor Shea, doomed to be the Dr. Watson to Wexler's Sherlock Holmes, then attempts (without success) to interview a student who is running around a track. Wexler, meanwhile, is waddling around the Cantrell home, manhandling the antiques and flipping through a yearbook which has been conveniently left out for him to find. (By Morak, one wonders?) This is how he finally discovers the link between the professor and his recently-deceased students. By the way, I wonder if Frank Shea's name is a reference to Manson victim "Shorty" Shea?
Catharsis for sale in West Hollywood
  • Perhaps sensing his days are numbered, Phil decides to treat himself to one last night of fun and goes to a sleazy part of town which reminded me of Pottersville from It's a Wonderful Life. This marvelous neighborhood consists entirely of porno theaters, dirty bookshops, massage parlors, strip clubs, and brothels. This part of the movie, incidentally, is scored with fuzz guitar and was filmed (from what I could glean of the visible landmarks) on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. Among the historical sites: the Pink Pussy Cat Burlesque at 7969 Santa Monica (still a nightclub but most recently called DBA) and the Free Mind Sexual Catharsis Center at 7708 (currently a clothing store). Other, seemingly real businesses visible in the movie: the 69 Club and the Institute of Oral Love. Phil goes into a massage parlor where a smooth-talking black priest is making a deal with a masseuse. "A storm of passion," he says, "has entered my forest of serenity. The icy winds of lust threaten to blow me from my center." "Oh, I get it," responds the canny young lady. "That'll require a $20 donation." Phil wants to meet with a girl named Patty (supposedly Maria Arnold, but it doesn't look like the one I know from other movies), who is involved in this line of work to pay for her schoolbooks. Phil wants to make a date with Patty for "later." First he has to go work as a movie projectionist.
  • This, in turn, leads to a lengthy sequence at the movie theater, apparently a repertory house, where Phil works. Tonight's bill of fare is a black-and-white British thriller which I think I have identified as The Scotland Yard Mystery (aka The Living Dead) from 1934, directed by Thomas Bentley and starring Gerald du Maurier, George Curzon, Grete Natzler, and Belle Chrystall. After the film lets out, two men apparently connected to the theater discuss their disappointment with the grosses. "That was a very lousy turnout tonight," says one. "Yeah," says the other, "we gotta stop bookin' these monster movies." Unfortunately for Phil, who keeps having flashbacks to the murders, the curtain is stuck and the projector mysteriously won't turn off, meaning he has to stay behind while everyone else leaves. Once again, this element of the plot -- a man alone in a spooky theater plagued by an unseen force -- is something we've seen in a previous Ed Wood movie, namely the TV pilot Final Curtain from 1957. And just like in Final Curtain, the results are fatal. In this case, weirdly, Phil is done in by an exploding fuse box.
  • The director of this movie obviously felt that the audience would need a recap of the story at this point, because the next scene has Detective Wexler walking along the beach and reviewing what he knows about the case, via more voice-over narration. The sight of Wexler -- hardly the "beach boy" type -- wading in the water with his pants rolled up to his knees is another delightfully absurd flourish in this film. It wasn't until my third viewing of Meatcleaver Massacre that I noticed he's still wearing his usual brown suit and is carrying his dress shoes with him in one hand and a notepad in the other. It's taken Wexler the entire movie, but he eventually manages to tie the murders together. His next step, obviously, is to interview Mason Harrue.
  • Up to this point, except for the supernatural angle, Meatcleaver Massacre has closely followed the template of Jack Webb's Dragnet. Detective Wexler, however, is no Sgt. Joe Friday. While Friday would have been terse and threatening while interviewing a smug little "punk" like Mason, Harrue is soft-spoken and overly deferential. He just wants Mason's "objective opinion" on the case. That's all. Mason, typically, is a jackass. "I said we were in the same club," he snorts when discussing his deceased classmates and former drinking buddies. "I never said we were friends!" This is exactly the kind of outburst which would have prompted Sgt. Friday to say something like, "Now, you listen here, mister!" And Friday would have never made the fatal tactical mistake that Wexler does. As the detective and Mason discuss the theory that the professor could be causing these murders with a spell, Wexler mentions the possibility that there might be a "counter-spell" somewhere in the notes at the Cantrell house. So then Wexler goes back to the house and waits for Mason to take the bait. This plan works, sort of, but Wexler obviously didn't think through the details. 
  • That night, as Mason roots through Professor Cantrell's belongings, Wexler casually walks up to him and takes a second to gloat: "Well, well, well. Now isn't that interesting? Mason Harue." It takes the young criminal about four seconds to kill the pudgy, unarmed detective. Whoops. Detective Wexler truly died as he lived: extremely casually.
"Morak! Morak!"
  • But this is enough to prompt the final showdown between Cantrell and Mason. As usual, the professor thrashes around in his hospital bed and croaks, "Morak... Morak!" a few more times. Back at the house, Mason stumbles upon some kind of attic or storage room. Even though he's alone, the cretinous murderer takes the time to make a snotty, sarcastic pronouncement: "This is reeeeeeal nice, professor. I wonder if this is where you keep your deep, dark secrets." Mason spots a filing cabinet and decides to rifle through it. And you know who shows up then? Morak. In person. Not a painting. Not a voice on the soundtrack. This time, it's an actual dude, probably a stuntman or crew member, in a moth-eaten monster costume. Morak proceeds to kick Mason's ass while the musical score goes into overdrive. The vengeful spirit even plucks out the young man's eyeball. This, apparently, is too much for the professor, who is experiencing all this excitement vicariously from miles away. The beloved teacher dies in his hospital bed, a trickle of blood coming from his mouth. (His last word? Unsurprisingly, it's "Morak!")
  • Meatcleaver Massacre could probably have ended here, but instead we are given an absolutely outrageous epilogue which seems culled from both Psycho and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Mason Harrue, physically unharmed but totally insane, is in a padded cell and is providing free entertainment for a trio of white-coated doctors, who watch him through a tiny window. They discuss his condition thusly: "The patient actually believes he was attacked by some sort of monster." This conversation is temporarily drowned out by Mason's hysterical laughter, then continues: "He even insists his own eye was torn from its socket." Cut to actor Larry Justin writhing, twitching, chortling, and generally hamming it up. When he looks down at the palm of his (empty) hand, he sees a gory human eyeball. A young, long-haired doctor smiles broadly at this, barely able to contain his glee. "Hey, this is my first nut!" he says, in the kind of line one rarely hears outside an Ed Wood movie. Utterly beyond treatment, Mason repeats some dialogue from earlier in the film: "You don't believe all that shit, do you, Professor? You really believe it?" Fade to black.
  • Is the movie over? Nope. Nominal star Christopher Lee returns to deliver the valedictory epilogue from his cozy office. Lee's speech bears a striking similarity to the one given by Criswell at the end of Plan 9 from Outer Space. In both films, the narrator has anticipated some skepticism on the part of the audience and decides to "head us off at the pass," so to speak. Here's Lee: "Fantasy or reality? Do such powers exist? Need there be further proof than that provided by shamans and witch doctors whose influence over physical phenomena has been tirelessly investigated and substantially verified?" And here's Criswell: "My friend, you have seen this incident based on sworn testimony. Can you prove that it didn't happen?" Note the common thread of "proof" running through these orations. Here's Lee again: "If the shamans could so influence our present, then what control have we over our future?" Compare this to Criswell's more succinct: "God help us in the future."
So what have we learned here? There is very little "forensic evidence" connecting Edward Davis Wood, Jr. to Meatcleaver Massacre. A man named "Ed Wood" may have been an extra in the film. One bit player certainly resembles him. The film's editor says Eddie was hired to complete this motion picture after the firing of the original director, Evan Lee, who was conveniently never heard from again. And at least one actress in the cast appeared in multiple Wood-related productions. Still not enough to sway a jury. As Monty Python once put it, "You can put it in the hands of your attorney, but it won't stand up in court." However, as I watched this movie several times in preparation for this article, I found myself oddly enthralled by it. If it's not Ed Wood's work, it is an uncanny evocation of the Wood aesthetic. As I hope I've described in the paragraphs above, there are dozens of moments in which Meatcleaver Massacre mimics the dialogue, plots, and themes of Eddie's best-known films. Of all the so-called "apocrypha" I have covered for this series, there is perhaps no film I'd rather see inducted into the canon than this one.

27 comments:

  1. This sounds positively insane. And here I thought Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf was the most embarrassing entry in Christopher Lee filmography.

    Also, it's worth noting that there was at least one instance where Vincent Price resisted typecasting. Apparently Roddy McDowell's role in Fright Night was written expressly for him, but he decided he'd had his fill of horror movies and turned it down.

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  2. And yet, Price couldn't sign the contract fast enough for 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo. Makes you wonder.

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. Philip R. Frey, here. I removed "Meatcleaver Massacre" from the listing because I just couldn't buy that Ed had anything to do with it. The inclusion of an actress named "Wood" (in such a small budget film it's like;y *this* Ed's wife), the fact that he wasn't working in film with anyone other than Apostolof at this time *and* the fact that the guy who kind of looks like Ed kind of looks like he looked in the late 60s, *not* how he looked in the mid-to-late 70s finally sealed it for me. In fact, it was I (in days when I had time for that sort of thing) who put through the changes at IMDb to disambiguate this guy from *our* Ed.

    Didn't realize it was still listed on the "Horror" page. I actually moved its listing to the "Not by Ed" page:

    http://www.edwoodonline.com/thehunt/notbyed.html

    And I'll be sure to fix "Horror" whenever I get off my a** and do an update.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Oh, and, yeah. A lot of good detective work and a lot of great discussions happened on the old Yahoo! Group back in the day; stuff that informed and expanded The Hunt. I tried to migrate it over to Facebook (especially when Yahoo!Groups changed), but the others were against it, so it just kind of petered out as the new material stopped coming. In recent years, as stuff has started to surface again, it was no longer a part of my routine so, like updates to the website, intended posts never got posted and it's pretty much dead nowadays.

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    I cannot tell you how much I love this site! Ed Wood (for some strange reason) is my favorite film personality. From the "I'll never give up!" attitude to his prodigious (literary) output, I've loved Ed since I was a kid. How HE, instead of Coleman Francis, Al Adamson, or Larry Buchanan, or (insert an even worse director here) received the "Worst Director of All Time" crown, I'll never know. Unless it was due to "bad movie" + "watchable" = "Worst Director," because although you can get through Francis's works without much of a problem (due to length), the others? While they may not be crowned worst film of all time, they do take a bit of stamina (and alcoholic fortitude!) to get through.

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