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 The cast barely exists on IMDB, it released to DVD/Blu-ray with little fanfare, and the film itself looks grainy and outdated.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

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