Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Szurek Zone: THREE ON A MEATHOOK (1973)

Something has been bothering me about William Girdler's second effort at shoestring filmmaking (his first was ASYLUM OF SATAN). A lot of sources have called this a biogrpahy of Ed Gein. Even the videotape box says that it is (but then again, it's from Regal Video, and videophiles know how well to trust anything Regal says!). So how come (A) The Killer's name is changed? (B) His acts are changed? (C) When it's revealed, his motivation is changed? and (D) The usual "Any persons living or dead" disclaimer is present? What have we left? Well, there's the theme of the kill-crazy farmer. But, for crying out loud, not EVERY kill-crazy farmer can be Ed Gein, can they?

Anyhow, not as gory as the title would imply to those used to '80s standards, but perhaps graphic by those of 1973, like such misleadingly titled films as BARN OF THE NAKED DEAD and BLOODY BIRTHDAY. This is undeniably more of a psychothriller than a formula splatter film. Research indicates the possibility that at some point during its lifetime, it was known as both FUNHOUSE and SLAUGHTERHOUSE, no relation to latter movies of the same names. The most significant factor, to this reviewer's way of thinking, is that THREE ON A MEATHOOK, while Girdler's most obviously low-budget flick (I haven't seen ASYLUM OF SATAN), could have duped the non-soothsayer into undue optimism of the man's future. Definitely a little picture with no serious pretensions of being anything else, and no great shakes in the overall swim of things but reasonably entertaining -- more than reasonably for what it is -- it nevertheless displays a few redeeming qualities which would have been nice had Girdler hung onto later in the game. Such as a primitive enthusiasm and a conveyed sense that the film was cared about in ways other than financial. Some of the camera angles, while not "arty" in the pretentious and rather abrasive sense, show a good college try at making the most of an economically bankrupt situation, and a well-chosen cast demonstrates more talent than is generally associated with such a miniscule budget. Girdler wrote the screenplay as well, which is fraught with (for the sub-genre) unusual and unusually compassionate attempts at characterization and plausibility. The big question is why such a seemingly well-intentioned individual as the protagonist would continually open up innocent parties to danger, but then again, he is also depicted as emotionally unstable and possibly even borderline retarded, which might have something to do with it.

As the story opens, the usual gang of stranded females seeking shelter at a nearby farmhouse are systematically but quickly bumped off. The senior farmer tries to convince his teenage son that he was the one who did it in a blackout, and while there has never been any legal action to document it -- turns out the kid has since childhood been involved in so many similar incidents -- the story is bought. The son slips into the inevitable angst, but is reluctant to see what the audience does: that the old man is trying just a little too hard, which tips us off that he is setting up a scapegoat. There are also clues that the senior farmer is into thrill killing, cannibalism and possible necrophilia and may possibly have killed his own wife. Junior farmer ventures into town to drown his sorrows as a prelude to contemplated suicide, but is dissuaded from the act by a girl he meets and falls in love with. He takes her home for the weekend and it becomes apparent that the father has the same plans for her as for his past victims. The son eventually finds out what has REALLY happened all these years, alters the planned course of events, and we get into weird Freudian stuff revealing the father for no less a menace, but a psychological basket case more worthy of pathos than condemnation.

THREE ON A MEATHOOK may not appeal to the fan of the '80s, conditioned to a breakneck -- if not always very substantial -- pace, and the focus on dialogue with subtle emoting may have been an unwise move with lower caliber acting. If this is the only film that you can afford one weekend, I advise you try for something else, but if you're planning on a double or triple bill and it sounds the least bit attractive, look for it in the bargain bin.

(originally published in Temple of Schlock #9, July 1988)

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