At its most basic, American regional cinema is defined as films made elsewhere than Hollywood or New York City — the two great hubs of American entertainment. It turns out the United States is a big place, and there are filmmakers scattered all over it, like fleas on a mutt. Sometimes little-known filmmakers produce masterpieces, such as Night of the Living Dead or Carnival of Souls. What mostly marks regional cinema is local flavor that Hollywood productions can’t quite match, even when they invade the further reaches of the country to shoot on location.
The Mutilator is a case in point. It was written, produced, and directed by Buddy Cooper, whose family is something of an institution in the area around Morehead City and Atlantic Beach, North Carolina. Cooper is a lawyer by trade, but has a love of horror films. In the mid-80s he had some money burning a hole in his pocket, so he decided to make a movie, shoot it in his hometown, and hire as much local talent as possible to act and crew the film. That is the very essence of regional cinema.
The film opens with stark tragedy. A young boy and his mother (played by Trace Cooper and Pamela Weddle Cooper — keeping it in the Cooper family) are preparing a birthday surprise for patriarch Big Ed (Jack Chatham), who loves to hunt. As part of the surprise, Ed Jr. decides to clean his father’s rifles for him. We all know where this is leading. Ed Jr. accidentally shoots and kills his mother, just as his father is arriving home. It’s a dark opening to the film.
Flash forward many years, and Ed Jr. is now a college student, played by Matt Mitler, whom readers may remember from his starring turn in a pair of post-apocalyptic sci-fi films, one of which graces the Index.
It’s the end of the quarter, and Ed and his friends have a long weekend to kill. They decide to head down to Big Ed’s house in Atlantic Beach for some off-season fun and games.
They arrive at the house, and find that someone has been doing some serious drinking before they arrive. It looks like Cooper took all the empty liquor bottles from a bar after closing on Saturday night and used them to dress the set. Ed is convinced that all these empties are from his father on a bender, and he treats the scene as nothing abnormal. He gives a tour of the house and both viewers and the other characters get an inkling of just how weird Ed’s childhood was. Big Ed has filled the house with disturbing trophies of his life, including a bloody photo of some poor soul he ‘accidentally’ ran over with a boat. Ed, meanwhile, shows all these sick knick knacks to his friends with a smile on his face, unaware of just how messed up his childhood was — and this is a guy who killed his own mother.
In a film like this, one would expect Ed Jr. to snap and kill his friends. That’s not where Cooper went. Instead, as revealed early in the movie, it is Big Ed that goes psycho. He indeed was at the house on a bender, and ends up with a hangover so wicked he has to take it out on Ed’s friends, and whoever else shows up at the house.
What follows would be standard slasher fare, were it not for the comical extent of the gore, courtesy of Mark Shostom and Anthony Showe. Shots of blood and gore go on longer than is customary for horror flicks, both because most filmmakers self-censor to appease the MPAA, and also because lingering looks at special effects tend to make them less special. None of this concerned Cooper. He lets viewers get nice, long looks at spurting blood and severed necks. But it was one kill scene in particular, that I won’t spoil here, that earned his movie an ‘X’ rating from the prudes at the MPAA (Cooper’s response, God bless him, was to release the film unrated). It’s a nasty bit of work in a flick with some nasty deaths. It’s also not the goriest of the bunch, but it is the most uncomfortable.
One strange thing about the film is that, during the first act, Cooper gives us a guided tour of all the sharp objects that will be used to kill his characters later on. I can’t recall ever seeing that in a horror film before, and it’s quite funny.
Cooper was obviously working from a limited budget and a limited location. Of all the kills leading up to the bloody finale, the majority take place in a single room. Characters wander in one after another every fifteen minutes or so and that’s that. Their contribution to the film is over, their absence occasionally noted by the remaining cast. It’s clumsy and amateurish, but exactly what one would expect from a first-time filmmaker whose only training, as far as I can find, was a three-week continuing education course in filmmaking at American University (in fact, AU faculty-member John Douglass is credited as this film’s co-director, which had to have helped this film’s quality a lot). I can’t really fault his storytelling chops, as he did a hell of a job for someone who didn’t know what he was getting into.
As for the cast, only Mitler and Frances Sherman, who played one of his friends, had any sort of career in film. The other four members of the ensemble, Ruth Martinez, Bill Hitchcock, Connie Rogers, and Morey Lampley, were local talent who all-but disappeared from film after this wrapped. Relying so much on locals as he did meant that Cooper got very uneven performances from his cast, and that’s being generous. But, they were an earnest and eager bunch, and the camaraderie amongst the players feels very real.
Objectively, this movie isn’t good. However, it’s exactly the kind of film I think is worth celebrating. One man, outside the closed and stifling shop of American entertainment, wanted to make a horror movie. Come hell or high water, he made his movie, and gave a big middle finger to the censors at the same time. Hurrah, Mr. Cooper. The Mutilator lands with a splash in the Shitty Movie Sundays Watchability Index, displacing Things at #139. Check it out.
But, wait, there’s more! As of this writing, Buddy Cooper has wrapped production on Mutilator 2. After forty years, horror fans are getting a sequel, reuniting Cooper with at least two of this film’s stars, and featuring a seven-figure budget. I can’t wait.