Tuesday, 2 June 2015

The Love Butcher (1975)

Gruesome murders of young beautiful naked women are depicted in ‘The Love Butcher’. It is a rare ultra-low budget slasher forerunner that was released on the grindhouse and drive-in circuits a year after Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Bob Clark’s ‘Black Christmas’ and three years before John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ - genre landmarks that would mould the American modern horror landscape. It was given a slightly wider release in 1982 in an attempt to capitalize on the then booming sub-genre that was induced by Sean C. Cunningham’s gory elaboration in 1980 with Friday the 13th. Despite being ahead of its time in 1975, due to its limited distribution and despite its early ‘80s lesser limited re-release as it got lost in the sea of red of all the slashers released every weekend becoming just one of the blood pack it largely went unnoticed putting a damper on any influential potential it might of had.

The film’s unevenness though is another drawback that prevents it from being placed in the same league as those aforementioned influential titles but overall this is powerful trashy stuff. Don Jones best known for his terrible 1982 slasher ‘The Forest’ co-directs with Mikel Angel who also co-wrote the screenplay of this Psycho-esque schizoid psychological character study that is immensely sleazy and extremely disturbing encapsulated in an unpleasant atmosphere. There is only a little bloodletting and the female nudity is minimal but that does not make this a lesser effective piece of exploitation that features some standout sequences and an intense powerhouse performance from its star the late Erik Stern in a dual role as the insane Caleb/Lester.

A string of bizarre and brutal murders of young attractive housewives involving the use of garden tools has an upscale suburban neighbourhood in a grip of terror. A crippled gardener with thick-lensed glasses named Caleb performs his daily chores tending to the gardens of local female residents who verbally mistreat him. At the end of the day he returns to his filthy little apartment and talks to his brother Lester. The thing is Lester is not as he appears and neither is Caleb - Lester is actually his suave and handsome yet psychotic alter ego. When pushed too far Caleb transforms into Lester and using a variety of disguises returns to punish the women that have done him wrong convinced all females are evil.

The movie has a deeply misogynistic tone. The writers Angel and James M. Tanenbaum portray the female victims of the supporting cast as cruel bitches, and it is hard to feel sympathy for them. It is feasible that this might have been the intention in getting the viewer to root for the unfortunate Caleb who is an easy target for their ridicule when getting his revenge as Lester, although the most shocking murder scene is saved for the only likable female character here. When Caleb returns as his avenger alter ego Lester to slay the horrible stuck up cows who wronged the harmless gimp yard-worker, Lester who is an exact polar opposite of his other personality - an alpha-male stud - hates women in general. The murder of the only sympathetic female is in jealously for her showing kindness to his other half as both personalities are at odds with each other with a sibling rivalry. Lester’s hatred for women stems from a childhood trauma in relation to his mother and he sees himself as a Godly figure of masculinity that should be worshipped by women.

In one scene just after Lester seduces a woman in her home a bible-bashing nuisance turns up at the door preaching to her about how her “immortal soul is in jeopardy”. She closes the door on him but within the sub-text of the scene she is rejecting his help as she is then brutally murdered by Lester; before Carpenter would make promiscuous sex a sin in ‘Halloween’ that would become a major trope codifier in the slasher sub-genre we see it here three years earlier.

Stern has helluva a lot of charisma and gives a highly memorable turn with manic energy. We pity and feel sympathy for poor Caleb but are terrified of the menacing and merciless Lester and how the actor pulls off the transformation is amazingly convincing. His monologues with oh so over the top demented dialogue as his two personalities converse with each other when alone is pitch black comedy but the character’s flashback at the end depicting the origin of his madness is truly heart-breaking stuff.

The rest of the performances though are what you might expect of a low-budget production of this nature, the dialogue delivered by this supporting cast portraying eccentric characters is kooky, and often clunky it is laughable whereas the lines spoken by the lead actor seem more naturalistic in comparison. The attempts at humour here as well put the tone way out of whack at times ruining the otherwise mean spirited approach whereas the dark humour in the Caleb/Lester conversations complement the schizophrenic madness. However, used as buffers for the viewer there are scenes of romantic light-heartedness between a couple who later feature in two nasty unsettling sequences made all the more tragic by this comfort zone placing. The police investigating the case are some of the stupidest ever committed to celluloid - they are baffled to solve the crimes when it is so obvious staring them in the face and it boggles our minds in how they cannot see it. The supporting cast includes the lovely Robin Sherwood of the obscure 1979 classic 'Tourist Trap' and the best sequel of the Death Wish franchise 1982’s Death Wish II. Shot entirely on location the gross d├ęcor of these suburban houses reminds us of just why the ‘70s was the decade taste forgot.

Due to its shortcomings ‘The Love Butcher’ was never going to be uttered in the same breath as the influential genre classics of the 70’s Golden Age of cinema that would lay the foundations for modern horror no matter how many people saw it on its limited release and slightly wider 80’s re-release. In spite of these faults with its unevenness though, it succeeds in the respect of being a crazily entertaining solid piece of trash cinema that is a dirty gem well worth plucking out of the dirt of its rarity for these reasons if you are looking for some naughty exploitative fun. The recent Code Red DVD release is a remastered version featuring the original Techniscope (2.35:1) aspect ratio as opposed to the previous horribly cropped transfer by Monterey Home Video. This little seen depraved and quirky slasher prototype is recommended for connoisseurs of the sub-genre.

*** out of ****

Dave J. Wilson

©2015 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.

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