Oct 28, 2010

Shriek of the Mutilated (1974)

Shriek of the Mutilated is one of the great drive-in films of all time. It symbolizes the perfect 1970's independent horror film - cheap, gruesome and unerringly fantastic, with plot twists and imagery that stay long in memory - in this case, a result of the meeting of several great filmmakers, who pooled their particular talents to create what might be considered a "hybrid" of various earlier grindhouse/drive-in genres, including speculative documentary, horror, and sexploitation. Indeed, the mastermind behind Shriek may be its director, Michael Findlay who, along with his wife Roberta, created some of the most notorious and successful sexploitation "roughies" of the 1960s, including the infamous "Flesh" trilogy starring Findlay as the quintessential one-eyed misogynist, Richard Jenkins. Shriek shows that Findlay had a flair for horror and suspense as well, and in harness to his wife's astute cinematography, managed to create a film which, although not in his usual genre, stands above all his others as his inarguable masterpiece.
Much credit must also go to producer/screenwriter Ed Adlum, who in addition to concocting the hare-brained scenario with Ed Kelleher, gave the Findlays free reign to film the screenplay in their own inimitable style. Yet Adlum's presence can be felt throughout Shriek, which shares stunning narrative and aesthetic similarities to his earlier drive-in smash, Invasion of the Blood Farmers (1972). In both films, a rural New York community is invaded by a killing satanic cult! In Farmers it's druids, in Shriek it's cannibals, but the effect is largely the same. Also, both films share a marvelous depiction of suburbia as it edges towards the rural wilderness, and both films are remarkably attractive in their capturing of the natural beauty of the surroundings, tainted by human evil and savagery.

Shriek opens with an intense "teaser" depicting a graphic beheading which, in classic exploitation style, appears to exist for completely gratuitous reasons. A nice graphic title sequence ensues, with both the producer and director credits being amusingly superimposed over crude drawings of a bigfoot-type creature. An old-fart college professor named Prell plans to take a group of 4 sexy college kids (all of whom who look like they could have stepped out of a soft porno film) on a field trip to mysterious "Boot Island," in order to locate the mysterious Yeti.

The kitschy 1970's computer-synth hit "Popcorn" plays on the soundtrack as a college frat party commences. This pivotal scene introduces Shriek's most remarkable character, Spencer St. Clair, an alcoholic nut case who supposedly went on one of the Yeti excursions several years ago, and tells a sordid tale of being one of the few survivors of what was, by his account, an all-out massacre. With his bad toupee, sloppy non-acting, and ridiculous accent, along with what appears to be some sort of speech impediment. St. Clair recounts his memory of a furry beast-thing attacking a fellow camper, illustrated via an extraordinary flashback/hallucination sequence which seems to be in negative or reverse image - the screen is almost all white, with the narrative being depicted through shadowy, ethereal black highlights, beautifully conveying either a traumatic nightmare or a real dream of madness. Returning home shortly after, St. Clair slashes his wife's throat when she tries to take away his vodka bottle. He then luxuriates in a bath, drinking beer, while the still-living victim slowly crawls to the bathroom and exacts her revenge by tossing a toaster in the bathwater, thus electrocuting her killer.

Although several online reviews of Shriek mention that director Findlay appears briefly in the pre-credits beheading scene, none thus far seem to have noticed that Findlay also plays the amazing character Spencer St. Clair (under one of his ubiquitous pseudonyms, Tom Grail). The director's presence make these scenes all the more remarkable, and to some extent explain the otherwise implausible double murder, for Findlay is resurrecting his Richard Jenkins character, the career woman-hater of the "Flesh" trilogy, in what is undoubtedly an intended signature for the artist - even his particularly gruesome death seems a nod to his former sexploitation glory days.

Soon arriving in Suburban Westchester in an atrocious white Econoline Van, Prell and his gang meet their contact there, a very foppish man named Werner - Prell and Werner together paint a hilarious parody of the liberal college professor stereotype. Even better, Werner's housekeeper is a retarded mute Native American called "Laughing Crow," a completely absurd creation, and a genius touch.

Werner relates to the group his own witnessing of the fabled Yeti, via another flashback which features a nicely-composed scene of the beast prancing around far in the distance, almost indecipherable, as one might actually see such a thing, unsure of what one is actually looking at. Soon, the expendable characters (the folk singer and the sexy bookworm) are slaughtered, ostensibly by the shaggy man-in-suit thing which is running around. There are several effective gore scenes during this segment of the film, including an appropriately gruesome severed leg. Yet even after these murders, Prell carries on as if nothing had happened, an oddity which first appears to be merely bad acting, but turns out to be a much more sinister sign as the film catapults into truly fantastic territory.

Some have decried Shriek's 180-degree plot turnabout at this point, citing it as a "cheat ending," but truthfully, this mad shuffling of the screenplay is what turns Shriek into the indelible grindhouse experience which it is - Shriek is a bounty for the true grindhouse aficionado because it is like getting two movies in one. It is revealed that the whole excursion was an evil conspiracy between Prell and Werner, who turn out to be some sort of devil worshippers - the entire "Yeti field trip" was a fabrication in order to garner needed human sacrifices. This plot twist is as delicious as it is preposterous, and verifies that anything can happen in a good grindhouse sleeper. Other members of the old men's cult soon arrive to join in "the annual Saturnalia," conveyed via an exquisite scene of several limousines creeping slowly up a country lane, their headlights piercing the early morning fog, looking like a somber funeral procession, to the strains of the familiar occult theme, "Dies Irae."

Even after the jig is up, the "Yeti" attacks the remaining girl student, an act which raises more questions than it answers, yet in keeping with Shriek's spirit of constant possibility. Later, the poor girl sees, again apparently for no reason, Laughing Crow's head in an ice box. All of this latter phenomena is gathered up to create a marvelous "spook show" crescendo. Elsewhere, the male student tracks down a cop to stop these ghoulish fiends, but of course he's part of the plot, because all adults are evil bloodrinkers. Meanwhile the assembled devil cult, which seems to consist of every stereotype of nefarious character imaginable, gather to summon the spirit of their master, a certain Lord Belberith. All of the members of this cult, who call themselves "Le Juan DeTwat," or "The Finger People," have committed acts of theatrically-inspired sabotage which resulted in mass murder. However, their real goal for this Saturnalia is the consumption of their prey, for they are, after all, just a gang of cannibals. Shriek's parting shot is a brilliant nod to the Grand Guignol tradition - as Laughing Crow prepares to slice up the slaughtered girl, he coyly asks the horrified young man, "Mr. Henshaw - white meat, or dark?"

Shriek is one of those marvelous films that feel like experiencing some sort of hallucination - one is never quite sure of where when is in the scenario (is this real? dream? flashback? madness?) and the misc en scene changes so dramatically throughout the film, it feels at times like a journey to a foreign land, or even an alien planet. Mike Findlay and Ed Adlum, along with Roberta Findlay and Ed Kelleher, pooled their considerable resources and brought along their especial talents, to make Shriek of the Mutilated one of the great movies of the 1970s, a decade where, it seemed, a postmodern counterculture masterpiece came out every other day.

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