There are some movies where the flaws are so numerous they become positives, where they were made with such dedication that you can’t help but admire them. “Mutilations” is, I think, one of those movies. They’re often the most famous of the “so bad it’s good” genre, but the name that immediately sprang to mind when watching this was Don Dohler. He made movies at the same time and in the same place as John Waters (Baltimore, 1970s) but his interest was in science-fiction and horror, also publishing a magazine called “Cinemagic” which gave underground and low-budget filmmakers tips on how to do special effects. His early movies – from “Alien Factor” through to “Galaxy Invader” – are serious movies made for insanely low budgets, and while they’re occasionally a little cheesy looking to our modern eyes, and the acting from whoever he could round up isn’t always that great, the effort he put in to every aspect of the process means you can’t help but love them.
I’d hazard a guess that writer / director / producer Larry Thomas read “Cinemagic”, or some other magazine very similar to it. It’s got that charming near-home-made Dohler quality, while also looking remarkably good in places (thanks in part to pro cinematographer Brett Reynolds, who came in halfway through production to help out and brought his top-end Panavision camera with him). But the other strand that brought “Mutilations” to us is home video. Tulsa, Oklahoma (where this movie was shot, and where its cast and crew are from) was briefly the centre of the straight-to-video world. The company that’s now VCI is from Tulsa, and their first release was 1985’s “Blood Cult”, which seems to be the first movie intended for distribution solely on home video without getting any cinema release at all. The idea that you could do this and make money from it inspired countless thousands of filmmakers, and Thomas was one of them.
An astronomy professor and a small group of his students read about cattle mutilations and mysterious lights in the sky in the small town of Berry Hill, and decide to go on a field trip. The professor, one Al Baker (as with most of the cast, his one and only film credit) appears tired and hungover in his first scene, which isn’t helped by his voice being dubbed – probably too noisy outside that night, and they didn’t have good microphones. Anyway, the little band of them go up there, meet some oddball locals, and eventually go to an old shack out of town, as its owner keeps getting visited, or knows a lot about the aliens, or whatever.
There’s a super-weird scene in a classroom near the beginning which my notes describe as, in script terms, “an idiot trying to explain things to an even bigger idiot”. One of my least favourite tropes is the lecture which is really exposition, and the exposition in this is spectacularly clumsy, with the level of the knowledge on display in this college-level classroom about on a par with elementary school. I felt like leaning through the screen and shaking the director, honestly, but it does get better.
When someone in a diner complained about the high price of $15 for six rounds of burgers and fries, I was like “ah, the 80s”. That diner does have an actor with a rather famous namesake, though – the opening credits mention a Bill Buckner, and a fellow by the same name was a big-league baseball player, and once committed a huge error which cost the Boston Red Sox the World Series (in the same year this movie was released, coincidentally enough. Extra coincidentally, Buckner’s daughter Brittany is now an actress, having appeared in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” among many other things). Just outside the diner, the crew must have stumbled upon some farmer having a fire, and used it as part of the movie (it’s an alien landing site), which shows nous. The last half of the movie is set inside the shack, which is evidently a TARDIS, having almost unlimited space inside. They all have a big discussion about Joseph Smith and the early Mormon church until eventually the aliens show up. They seem to consider us cattle, with no differentiation between their treatment of people and…well, actual cattle.
Those alien effects, a mix of stop-motion and an arm clad in a rubber alien suit reaching out from just off camera, are pretty decent. While most passion projects look like they cost $50, this clearly had some money spent on it, just not in the script or acting departments. They’re entirely practical – CGI would have been both awful and expensive in 1986 – and look decent, mostly. There’s a slight problem with the scenes where the actors interact with effects such as a mutilated cow, or one of the aliens, as the effect is presumably a miniature right in front of the camera, and the cast is back-projected behind the effect. The problem is, the cast seem like they’re not there (the quality difference between the two images is very large), and it happens a lot. I guess you could play it off as charming? The guy who gets his life-force sucked out by an alien (also the video cover image) is really quite unsettling.
There’s some debate about whether “Mutilations” is a comedy or not. I think not – while there are moments you’re supposed to find funny, the actual movie certainly feels like it’s trying to be taken seriously. Also, there’s a little too much professionalism on display for that, or to list it among stuff like “After Last Season” or “Things” – the camerawork is well-lit, focused and framed, for one. The alien “voices” are pretty well done, too, all mangled and sounding like speech without actually being speech. But then, over and above the shockingly wooden acting – one guy sort of seems like he’s in on the joke, but I think he was just nervous and went OTT – and script that feels like it was written to explain space to seven year olds, there’s some flaws that didn’t feel deliberate. One poor woman gets impaled through a door by an alien claw, and rather than do anything, her boyfriend stands next to her and looks a little bored. And there’s the habit of characters using other peoples’ full names, even people they’ve known for ages. The professor’s assistant / love interest comes to rescue him at the end, but I’d hazard a guess the gun she fired on set was the first time she’d ever held one in her life, much less shot it.
I could go on, but I’d feel churlish about doing so. While it slows down considerably when they start walking through the cellar of the shack (I think it’s the cellar, honestly it’s hard to tell), it’s a heck of a lot of fun, and if you’ve got love in your heart for the independent, the cheap, and the “why on earth did they make this?”, then you’ll find something to enjoy with “Mutations”.
What is wonderful news for fans is that Massacre Video – distributors of tons of incredible independent horror and genre movies – are putting this out soon. Go to http://massacrevideo.com/site/ – and while you’re there, pick up some Donald Farmer movies, like “Savage Vengeance” and “Demon Queen”, or the Chester Novell Turner box set. The more sales amazing sites like Massacre get, the more weird old movies they’ll be able to release, and that’s better for all of us.
Rating: thumbs up