Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Masked Mutilator Enters the Ring Straight Out of 1994


Masked Mutilator (2019, 1994)
76 Minutes

Directed by: Brick Bronsky (aka Jeff Beltzner)
Written by: Ed Polgardy and Dale Schneck
Starring: Brick Bronsky, Jeff Sabbich, Doug “Flex” Yasinsky

Available from Severin/InterVision Films DVD/Blu-Ray


At a glance, Masked Mutilator doesn’t look like it has a lot going for it. The cast barely exists on IMDB, it released to DVD/Blu-ray with little fanfare, and the film itself looks grainy and outdated. Shit, they barely got the name right — doesn’t “The Masked Mutilator” sound better? 

Despite the stacked odds, Masked Mutilator not only punches, but also dropkicks, body slams, suplexes, headlocks, lariats, and piledrives way above its weight class. This film serves as a bizarre window into the world of 1994 Pennsylvania and its independent pro-wrestling community. 

When you watch Masked Mutilator, you’ll immediately realize that something is off. A few scenes, depicting an interview for a podcast, are crisp, digital, and high res. The majority of the movie, however, is shot in grainy 16mm — genuine 16mm, not an effect or filter. That’s because the majority of the film was shot in 1994 then sat largely forgotten in the producer’s basement for the next 25 years.


Stories about this film’s failed production seem nigh infinite, but here’s a brief summary of what happened, to the best of my understanding. Following his roles in Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. and Class of Nuke ‘Em High Part II: Subhumanoid Meltdown (and possibly Nuke ‘Em High Part III), Troma wanted to give actor and pro-wrestler Brick Bronsky (aka Jeff Beltzner) the reigns to direct and feature in his own movie. 

In 1994, on the promise of funding, the cast and crew started shooting in an abandoned funeral home in Eastern Pennsylvania. They worked on deferred pay and managed to film a good deal of Masked Mutilator

The shoot was grueling. The funeral home they shot in lacked air conditioning, the craft services consisted solely of pizza, and many of the stunts ended in injury. As filming progressed, there was a disagreement on the ending, funding seemed to dry up, and the movie was shelved. 

Members of the production got back together in 1996 and started filling in the film’s blanks. But for reasons unclear to me, it again was shelved, not to be seen until 2019, when InterVision (the archival branch of Severin Films) somehow scrounged up the footage. They filmed a few present-day scenes with one of the original actors, threw in Jim “Tank” Dorsey, and miraculously brought Masked Mutilator back to life. 


At a lean 76 minutes, Masked Mutilator doesn’t have a particularly dense plot, but I’ll go into that later. For now, what you need to know is that it’s about a former pro wrestler, The Masked Mutilator (aka Vic Mangiano, played by human freight-train Jeff Sibbach) who retires after he accidentally kills his opponent in the ring. After some time, he comes to run a group home for wayward teens. One day, however, someone dons his Masked Mutilator persona and begins killing those teens.

As you may have already guessed, the plot isn’t necessarily Masked Mutilator’s biggest strength, although it’s absolutely serviceable. That said, as I started writing, I struggled to express precisely what did make me enjoy this film so much. After some thought, I realized that Masked Mutilator is great because it has charm. In 1994, a bunch of amateur pro-wrestlers went all-out making a goofy little slasher. There’s a lot of heart in this movie, and while there are elements that are rough around the edges, the charm smoothes it out. 

It takes the style of an 80's slasher and mixes it with 90's aesthetics. One character (aptly named Rocker) is an over-the-top punk rocker. Doug “Flex” Yasinsky dresses like a musclebound Kurt Cobain. There’s heaps of flannel, just as much denim, and an overabundance sleeveless shirts that show off the bulging muscles of the wrestlers that star. Of course, they’re still meant to be teenagers in a group home, which makes the hulking biceps and tree-trunk necks ridiculous, but it’s all part of the movie’s charm.

Now, because many of the characters are played by amateur actors, the performances are mixed, but because they’ve come straight from the squared circle, there’s no shortage of theatrics. These become center stage in the film's fight scenes, where characters fight with headlocks and dropkicks. This is heightened by the film’s surprisingly good practical blood and gore effects, supplied by effects artists Paul Sutt and Glenn Hetrick, who both co-star, and who both went on to have impressive careers.


Despite being a 1994 production with a 2019 release, Masked Mutilator feels like a better fit in the pantheon of 80's slashers. 1994 gave us films like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and In the Mouth of Madness alongside Interview with a Vampire and The Crow. Meta-horror was in, and everything else was driven by pure angst. By the time this was being filmed, the traditional slasher was long dead, and wouldn’t be back until Scream kicked off years of lame knockoffs.

With that in mind, I spent some time thinking about where Masked Mutilator would fit into that 80's pantheon. Final Exam (1981) was the first movie I thought of, due to its bare-bones plot and inconsistent tone, but Masked Mutilator is definitely a step up from it. As far as quality (or at least enjoyability) I’d put it way above Madman but a little below Blood Rage and The Mutilator. It’s got a lot of the same goofiness of the latter films but doesn’t manage to match their over-the-top gore. 

Plot-wise, Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning might be the closest comparison, as they share the home for troubled youth setting, and both have vague mystery elements. Personally, I’m a fan of Friday 5, but it catches a lot of flack for not having Jason. Don’t let that deter you, Masked Mutilator is really a thing all its own. Had it been released in 1985 as a completed production, I could imagine it being a cult classic.

Hopefully, at this point, you’re sold on Masked Mutilator. If not, feel free to tap out. Otherwise, I’m about to go into spoilers, so if you’re worried, watch it first, but even then, it’s got such a threadbare plot, that I don’t think you’ll find anything earthshattering.


Masked Mutilator begins with opening credits that don’t quite feel deserved, but get over with quickly enough. You might notice here that the film has a fairly impressive score, supplied by Fabrizio Bondi, who, at a glance, seems to have done a fair bit of work in Italy. The credits fade and we move to the present day, as Brian (played both past and present by Steve Taylor) and his girlfriend come in for an interview on a podcast about neglect in youth homes.

We soon jump to some time prior to 1994, as the Mutilator dons his mask. A dead-eyed announcer announces his match, and the fight begins. Very quickly, The Masked Mutilator kicks his opponent in the chest, clotheslines him, then puts him in a headlock. As the ref checks for a pulse, the Mutilator snaps his opponent’s neck, killing him. The performances of the announcer and the ring girl are baffling, perhaps to the point of being distracting, but the scene itself provides a great hook, and really sells the movie’s tone.

It then jumps to 1994, in the home for troubled youth run by Vic Mangino, the wrestler formerly known as The Masked Mutilator, where we meet the teens and watch as Rocker (Glenn Hetrick), an over-the-top, leather-clad punk, threatens to “slice a pretty boy” with a can opener, as recompense for touching his records. Vic quickly breaks up the fight, and throws Rocker in “The Cell.” A basement room meant for solitary confinement. 

For whatever reason, Vic makes a phone call, while Marcy (Amanda Kupchinsky) tries to flirt with him, but he’s on the phone with a naked woman, who herself is gyrating on top of a fully clothed man. As far as I know, none of this serves any purpose plot-wise, except maybe as a red-herring when the murders start. It seems, however, like this may be the remnant of a subplot that never got filmed. Vic calls this mysterious woman a bitch and hangs up, and we move on.

We jump to breakfast. There’s lousy food, big muscles, and an unidentifiable juice — Vic’s, in particular, contains a fingernail. During the meal, a social worker brings in Steve Carson (Brick Bronsky), Vic’s new intern. Brick is fantastic in this, his acting is spot on, and his wardrobe really helps sell the film’s campy vibe. He’s frequently clad in oversized blazers, which look absurd on his massive frame, other times he’s dressed in preppy combinations of chino shorts and polo shirts, and his overacting is some of the film’s best.

Shortly after, we meet the 1994-Brian, who’s been sent to the home because his hair was too long. Vic forces him to get a haircut and drags him back to the group home. He replaces Rocker in one of the bedrooms and asserts his authority by showing how much of a badass he is with nunchucks. If that doesn’t sound like the most 90's thing you’ve ever heard, it’s only because I failed to mention that he does this while wearing a pink denim vest. It is glorious.

As the film progresses, the intern questions Vic’s methods and releases Rocker so he can lift weights. As Rocker works out, someone dressed as The Masked Mutilator kills him, dismembers him with a hacksaw, and tosses him in the building’s surprisingly large furnace.

Through the rest of the film more teens die, there’s a vague mystery over who the killer is (is it Vic? Is it the intern? Is it Carl the Cook?). Eventually, the real killer is discovered, there’s a great fight scene, and the day is saved. 

Like I said, the plot is thin. 

Trust me though, it remains thoroughly amusing throughout. One of the major perks of having a cast of wrestlers is that the fight choreography is great. The punches and kicks feel impactful (according to the commentary, it’s because some of them did impact). The kills also make impressive use of wrestling holds, which is a fun gimmick. Altogether, it makes the performances feel surprisingly genuine, even given the cast’s inexperience. While it’s goofy at times, nothing ever took me out, and even when it’s ridiculous, it’s engrossing.


At this point, I’ve written more about this film than I thought I had in me, but I’ll end with a note on the special features. I mentioned them a few times already, and I’m no authority on Blu-Ray extras, but they include an audio commentary, a bunch of interviews, and some old audition tapes which are pure gold. It seems like a pretty meaty selection given the film’s history, and really shows that a lot of love went into making this, even if it took 25 years. The commentary, in particular, gives some great details on the film’s troubled production but approaches it with constant positivity. Just another bit of the movie’s charm.

If at the beginning of 2019, you had asked me to predict my top 10 horror movies of the year, some choices would’ve been immediately apparent. Us, Midsommar, The Lighthouse, and Brightburn all would have seemed obvious. There’d be some welcome surprises and other disappointments, but I feel like I could have gotten close to nailing 8 out of 10.

While this predictability can be boring, it only serves to make it even more delightful when an outlier emerges. Each year, a film or two comes out of nowhere and smashes me in the face with something strange and wonderful. Revenge, The Evil Within, and Cat Sick Blues have been some from the last few years, and it looks like Masked Mutilator will be this year’s outlier. 

So if you’re also a fan of 80's slashers, campy horror, and cult oddities, Masked Mutilator is definitely worth your time.

Move your stack of bootleg WWE tapes, put your feet up, crack open a Yuengling, and enjoy. 


-Listener Sam

Friday, September 13, 2019

The Overlook Theatre Reviews: Depraved, Larry Fessenden's


A disillusioned field surgeon suffering from PTSD makes a man out of body parts and brings him to life in a Brooklyn loft.

7 of 8 viewers "Liked" "Depraved" (2019, USA)
Creature reviews have been minimally altered in an attempt to maintain their voice:

Lord Battle: Modern retellings of the Universal Monsters do not interest me in the least. I have no need to see the Creature from the Black Lagoon run around Florida in a leather jacket... Okay, I take that back, but I'm not joking about "Modern" retellings being guilty of just dressing up the same old characters in whatever is currently popular. Depraved, however, stands out for not only updating Frankenstein's Monster's look (the SFX are amazing!) but also all of Mary Shelley's themes. Mad scientists testing pharmaceuticals on cadavers conjured up all of my hatred for Purdue Pharma and with all the unethical treatment they've had with the living. I wouldn't put it past them to make some awful deal with the minorly less corrupt VA to make this nightmare a reality... Larry Fessenden has managed to drag some strong emotions out of me here and I was completely caught off guard. Those of you who consider yourselves casual film fans need to stick through the first act, it's a little slow but the payoff is well worth the wait." - 4 Stars

TroubleShoot: "A modern microcosm of Frankenstein doused in a heavy blanket of PTSD, this one displays a wonderfully physical and melancholy performance. But despite some interesting ideas it doesn't quite sustain its runtime. Some of the editing choices were jarring and strange with superimpositions of chemical reactions and synaptic firings working about half the time. Though he didn't have the budget he needed, Larry Fessenden continues to prove himself as the Godfather of Indie Horror with shaky chaos complimented by flat stillness and a strong current of extreme sadness and depression. It would have benefited from more focus on the father/son dynamic instead of corporate shenanigans. Simpler may have been better." - 3 Stars

The Impostor: "Depraved is an intriguing film that kept me engaged from beginning to end. I went into it blind and with the name like "Depraved", I didn't know what to expect. With a story that has been told over and over, Depraved tops my list. The acting in this film was so good, especially from the main character Adam, that I believed this was really something that happened. Overall, a solid Franken flick that I can't wait to own in the near future." - 4 Stars

Huntress: "I wasn't a big Frankenstein fan going into Depraved, but this retelling made it easy to sympathize with the heartbreak and rage that Adam (Alex Breaux) goes through. The film's deliberate pace through his recovery and re-education, amplified by the subtle reduction of scarring and eye discoloration really makes it feel like we're watching him come to life. When he starts rebelling against creators, it's very satisfying. If Larry Fessenden hadn't already established a reputation for amazing low budget movies I would have never suspected that Depraved was, in fact, low budget. And the more I think about it, the more I enjoy Frankenstein in a big city setting." - 4 Stars

KillDozer: "A beautiful retelling of a classic cautionary tale. The horrors of loss, love, parenthood, and the human condition. This is a refreshing vision of a monster kid classic." - 4 Stars

Speed Demon: "No matter what good intentions you have, playing God never works out. An Emotional Modern Frankenstein." - 3.5 Stars

Math Mage: "Rules for the care & feeding of your creation:
  1. Read Mary Shelly's Frankenstein
  2. Don't make him super strong on purpose
  3. Don't make him out of people you personally kill
  4. Do study both early child development and rehabilitation techniques
  5. Do respect the wishes of your creation. Take it seriously as an adult
  6. Don't give your Frankenstein cocaine!
  7. Accept that it may kill you, despite your best efforts." - 5 Stars
Wondering Panda: *Fell Asleep* - 2 Stars (Default)



The Overlook Theatre Final Rating*
(Below is for after you've seen the film)


Appropriately, Frankenstein has had many faces and the story has seen many renditions spanning decades and genres. It's a unique story that has many different levels that an audience can relate to, be it with the creature who is alone and didn't ask for any of this, or with his creator(s) who are quickly realizing they are in way over their head. That being said, I was still extremely nervous during the Overlook screening of Depraved

I'm a big fan of Larry Fessenden, who wrote and directed this nearly two hour long movie, which like I mentioned in my review takes its time building up. And this particular screening was being attended by a new reviewer. It has become an unintentional tradition that when someone new enters the Overlook Theatre, their first screening becomes a real endurance test. Some have not returned. I got into my head about the audience being quiet, the movie being too atmospheric, and horror coming too late... and that was all wrong. 

To an extent, Adam is the movie. The special effects that give his scars life make everything he does visually engrossing. The body horror aspect of his recovery doesn't need any additional distractions; it's our bonding period with him. We bare witness to his isolation and hunger for human contact, to the situation he was thrown into due to greed, corporate irresponsibility, and a veteran's desire to eradicate death after seeing too much of it. And all of these scenes make the end of this movie more than worth sticking around for.


-Huntress

The Overlook Theatre materialized in a Residence for a screening on 7/25/2019
*Based on the star ratings turned in by character reviewers, others viewed and got to "Dislike" or "Like" but that does not affect the rating.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Awesome Theatre's HOLY SH*T THAT WAS SCARY PART 2: THE CITY


Presented by Awesome Theatre

WRAPAROUND
Written and Directed by Colin Johnson

THE LANDLORD
Written by Sunil Patel 
Directed by Colin Johnson

START FROM THE BEGINNING
Written by Christopher Magee
Directed by Puja Tolton

THE DARKNESS
Written by Red Durkin
Directed by Tanya Acosta


I’d be lying if I said that I knew all that much about theater. My experience doesn’t go much further than a kindergarten performance of The Three Little Pigs and an eighth-grade performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I played the Big Bad Wolf and Puck respectively.

I know what you’re thinking, and yes, I was an adorable big bad wolf.

Beyond that, I’ve seen a few film adaptations of stage plays (William Friedkin’s Bug comes to mind). Like most, I had to read some Shakespeare in high school and I’ve watched Stage Fright (1987) a few times. That’s the extent of my theatrical knowledge.

At its core, I think there’s something inherently intimidating about theater. Society leads you to believe that (school plays be damned) it’s an activity reserved for the Bourgeoisie. I felt a degree of anxiety on my way to Holy Sh*t That Was Scary. I imagined a high-brow production, presented by a clique insular thespians, and aimed at an audience far above a plebeian like myself.

What I got was a revelation. I adored Holy Sh*t That Was Scary. As a lifelong horror fan, it managed to be one of the most visceral experiences I’ve ever had in a theater.

Let me set the stage.

I leg it to Market at about 6:30 pm and head for PianoFight. Having never been there before, I gave myself a little extra time to make sure I found it alright. Coming from 4th, I took Market to Turk, to Mason, to Eddy, to Taylor. I haven’t spent a ton of time in that part of the city and forgot just how much of it overlaps with the Tenderloin.

I’m not necessarily uncomfortable in the TL, but it’s inarguable that it’s the bad part of the city. It’s hard to not feel a little unease crossing from the tech-startup bloated streets of SoMa to the poverty-stricken streets of the ‘loin.

It’s not just the neighborhood though. For those unfamiliar with San Francisco, much of the city doesn’t feel like a city. Buildings rarely rise above five or six stories, and in places, the transition from city to urban sprawl is indecipherable. Downtown, however, is a tangle of skyscrapers, tight streets, and Gordian knots of foot and vehicle traffic. The constant shadow of the metal and concrete behemoths, and the nonstop thrum of humans makes me claustrophobic.

Regardless, I round the corner onto Taylor and make my way to Pianofight. I hopped inside, grabbed a beer, and headed for the theater.

The first thing I saw upon entering, besides the splotchy black of the stage, was a pile of tarps, garbage bags, and other refuse. I almost thought I’d walked into the wrong room or maybe out a back door. I wondered for a moment, “maybe thespians are messy. Maybe these are mess-pians.” (I’m sorry.)

Then I looked left and saw the audience. I took a seat, sipped my beer, chatted with my seat-neighbor, and waited for the show to start.

Okay, I’ve wasted your time with about 300 words describing a trip that amounted to maybe 10 blocks. You’re welcome. Let’s get on with the show.

Holy Sh*t That Was Scary is comprised of three segments and a wraparound, not unlike the formula of found footage classics, V/H/S and V/H/S 2. Although I don’t have much experience with theater, I felt like this format worked well, especially in the realm of horror. The breaks between segments were comprised of blackness and video segments that included titles and credits for each segment as well as found footage clips central to the wraparound.

Below, I’ll detail each segment individually. There’ll be spoilers galore, but because (to the best of my knowledge,) this was a one-time production that shouldn’t be a concern. Rather, I’d recommend reading it for fun, and to gauge interest in future productions from Awesome Theatre, Colin Johnson, and the others involved.

---

WRAPAROUND

The play begins with a video segment, where the two leads (Olivia Brown and Melissa Keith) meet in an apartment to discuss a missing friend. We learn that they were sent a mysterious package that contained a videotape.

Despite the extremely distorted video, they realize that the tape shows a person with the same birthmark as their missing friend. We eventually learn that the friend had allegedly died in a ferry accident, though her body was never found. With only a return address, they embark on a journey to a seemingly abandoned building in a bad part of the city.

This is how we transition to the stage portion, where we find our leads in the basement of an abandoned warehouse. Eventually, they find an audio recording, and we begin our first segment.

---

THE LANDLORD

This segment opens with a man planting the recorder that our wraparound characters later find, and then confronting his landlord about an unfair “Asylum Tax” that she charges him because he’s an undocumented immigrant. The tax has become too much, on top of his already high rent, and without a reprieve, he’ll no longer be able to support his family.

The segment, for the most part, plays out as an argument between the landlord and her tenant, before diverting into the supernatural. The dialogue is quick and punchy, and the acting was superb. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find the names of the actors for this article, but they deserve recognition. The tenant is portrayed as haggard and downtrodden, and the landlord (depicted with a twangy southern drawl) excellently captures the “I’ve got mine” mentality of a slumlord.

As their argument reaches its climax, the tenant reveals his recorder, and plays it back to his landlord, only to realize that it’s captured something otherworldly. A demonic voice rumbles from the tapedeck and seems to possess the landlord.

We learn that the landlord is little more than a thrall for this being, and is only allowed to remain alive because she keeps providing the demon sacrifices, in the form of the undocumented immigrants she preys on. Speaking through her voice, the demon reveals that the landlord is late with her sacrifice, and is no longer of use.

The segment ends with the demon taking over the body of the tenant to replace the landlord and continue providing the demon with new lives. When the demon takes over, the performances stay strong, as both actors take turns being possessed, showing off some particularly effective body movement to give the sense that something else was controlling their skin.

This segment is by far the most political of the three, and insomuch as it was, felt the most timely and relevant. It also had one particularly effective “jump scare” involving a desk. Together, these provided a great introduction to Holy Sh*t, giving us an idea with what to expect (and what will be unexpected) without providing all its scares upfront.

After this scene, the wraparound continues, providing additional context into the first segment. The women find newspaper clippings that reveal that the tenant grew to become an infamous serial killer who murdered his tenants, apparently continuing the sacrifices for at least 10 years.

Soon after, the leads find a body bag, corpse and all, and we segue to our next episode.

---

START FROM THE BEGINNING

Start From the Beginning was my favorite segment but is also the most difficult to write about. It follows a discussion between a woman and her therapist (Jan Gilbert and Michael Magee), as she discusses a past trauma involving a man whose face appeared “wrong”.

Throughout the conversation, the story becomes simultaneously more outlandish and more real. As the segment progressed, the therapist repeatedly asks the patient to “start from the beginning,” beginning a new iteration of the same story.

By the conclusion, the therapist has become a raving lunatic as the man with the “wrong” face has come to take him to his inevitable fate.

I’m not doing it any justice, but the whole segment is pure, beautiful dream logic with a heavy dose of cosmic horror. It felt like equal parts Lynch and Laird Barron, and the effect was amazing. I wish I could talk more about it, but it would be a disservice to Christopher Magee’s phenomenal writing. This is almost part of why it’s great. As I write this, I recall it more as a nightmare than a true experience, and it’s rare that any kind of media would affect me like that.

On the topic of writing, the dialogue, especially as the lead actress's monologue about the indifferent and terrifying cosmos, was fantastic. I’m a huge fan of Lovecraft and most horror in that vein, but it’s not known for having particularly engaging characters. Seeing it delivered with the fervent passion of these actors was transcendent.

This segment ends, and we return to the wraparound, where the leads get as close as they ever will to their lost friend.

They find a camcorder and play the tape inside.

---


THE DARKNESS

The final segment again features two actors, one playing the role of the missing friend, the survivor of a ferry accident, and the other as a madman who’s kidnapped her.

We learn that she’s been selected by some malevolent force (perhaps the same one as in The Landlord), to act as a vessel. Her kidnapper holds deep resentment that she was selected instead of him, but because he fancies himself an acolyte of this malevolent being, he’s not committed to outright murdering her.

This segment above all others has extremely impressive physical acting. The leads, Sarah Coykendall and Travis Maider, both take on far more physical tasks than we saw in previous segments.

As the villain, Travis constantly spasms and twitches, toeing the line between neurological condition and demonic possession. He plays a near-perfect maniac.

Sarah, on the other hand, is a fantastic hero, who provides what may be the most cathartic moment in the entire performance. To escape her imprisonment she manages to get the jump on her captor and bludgeons his head in with a telephone.

This near-final scene has all the brutality you’d expect, masterfully hidden (just barely) by the garbage bags I’d mentioned earlier in this article. By using a rotary phone to do-the-deed, each hit provides a satisfying audio element.

---

Despite being a bit skeptical of theater coming in, I enjoyed the hell out of Holy Sh*t That Was Scary and I’m looking forward to Awesome Theater’s future productions, and the output of the creators involved in this production.



You can find more details about Awesome Theater at AwesomeTheatre.org.

~💀~

-Listener Sam