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But when it comes to vision, we are talking more about a warped worldview than how to properly frame and edit a fistfight. The concept of the auteur was specifically developed for such cinematic devils, individuals not wanting to play by the standard show and tell rules. The mainstream names are as interesting as they are mysterious – David Lynch, Wes Anderson, Todd Solondz. But as evocative as these creators can be, they really can't match the unheralded prophets, those filmmaking futurists who banged their own drum slowly, and succinctly, even though no one was listening at the time.
One such man was Fredric Hobbs, director of the totally deranged Godmonster of Indian Flats. His story of a mutant sheep monster that terrorized a planned community based on the principles of the old Wild West boomtowns is enough to startle your staid sensibilities permanently. Then there is Brad F. Grinter, the only director in the world that thought a movie about a blood-sucking killer turkey man with a nasty need for drugged up junkies would make a good cautionary tale for the drive-in crowd. One look at Blood Freak, however, and his whacked out warnings are written all over the nicotine-stained set walls. We can now add Paulmichael Miekhe to this list of ill-advised luminaries. Anyone who thought of combining Harper Lee with Herschel Gordon Lewis must be missing a few cerebral keystones. His The Butchers is not so much a fright film as a frightening film. It will chill you not for what it shows - or, more accurately, doesn't show – but for what it says about the perverse personal vision it was predicated on.
In some small town too tiny to have a single horse, but which is conveniently located near a shipping dock that apparently imports human bodies, people go about their far from ordinary lives. A local metal shop worker worries about his deaf and mute daughter. In fact, he's so concerned about her well-being that he dresses her like a boy, doesn't let her go to school, and makes her sell newspapers from a little red wagon to pass the time. Naturally this makes the owner of the local Mexican food stand concerned. She loves the little girl, but would really rather be lovin' the wigged out welder himself. The town butcher buys the corpse cargo, and gets his mentally impaired apprentice to deliver it to his store...in broad daylight...without any precautions...and the bodies are even wrapped in brown paper. All they need is a USDA grade stamp and a bolt gun mark and you'd never know it wasn't cattle.
When a high-minded doctor arrives in the pseudo-city, nosy social worker assistant in tow, he puts out the plank and makes his purpose perfectly clear: he is going to cure the backwards burg of its ills – social, emotional AND physical. He helps the handi-capable child's pappy with a hurt tootsie. He's determined to teach the decent dummy daughter how to pretend prattle. And he's more than happy to listen to an old Scottish gentleman as he "hoot-man"s himself to death. But when the sensory-deprived brat gets a peek at the meat carver's 'product', she is compelled into a kind of ethical vegetarianism. She also gets kidnapped by his addled assistant, who hopes to protect his benevolent boss from any violations of the human health code.
Even though it has a title that evokes a kind of visceral, vivisection based terror, there are several essential horror movie elements that The Butchers is missing. First, we never do get to see a sequence of all out body carving. There are hints and halfhearted attempts at suggested corpse grinding, but the full on visual assault is left for an off camera ideal. Second, any and all bloodletting is relegated to a strange, hyper-surreal sequence in which the retarded adult apprentice goes cluck buck, and randomly slaughters a bunch of chickens. Though we do see a semi-real fowl beheading or two, the clots of gore are saved for a post-pecking order reveal. Finally, the promised personal meat eating, in all its cannibalistic, taboo-busting glory, fails to materialize. Our producer of human hors d'oeuvres constantly refers to the fact that he supplies the town with actual butt steak, but we never once witness a little old lady biting into a meaty portion of juicy ground...Chuck.
Instead, The Butchers (which may or may not have been called Maxie, and/or Murderer's Keep at some point in its release life) plays like a warped version of Carson McCuller's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. A better title, perhaps, would have been To Serial Kill a Mockingbird. Or better yet, Big SUGGESTED Meat Eater, since is occasionally plays like a non-musical/non-campy version of that kitschy Canadian cult classic. In essence, the element that will move macabre fans most – the preparation and use of people variety meats - is more or less a narrative afterthought here. The vast majority of the movie is taken up with simmering personal secrets, oddball courting habits, broken toes and maladies of both the inner ear, and Method acting. Similar to how Fried Green Tomatoes handled the concept of character cuisine, the titular frights come more from the performances, and less from the cutlet-ready cadavers.
As the title character – depending on if you buy Troma's relabeling – Alice's Vic Tayback proves that, if your were a sitcom star in the mid-70s, there was no such thing as '"F"-You' money. Affecting an accent that would embarrass Gravis Musnick (actually, another potential name for this non-fright flick could be Very Little Chops of Horror) and playing his affected foreigner like a throwback to the days before indoor plumbing, his menacing meat packer is about as horrifying as headcheese. Talia Shire also makes a brief appearance as the assistant of the crusading doctor (don't believe the DVD cover, or any product listings you'll see on the 'net – she does NOT play the deaf mute Maxie), and oddly enough, she is still attempting to idealize that mealy-mouthed mousy moron quality she almost excelled at in Rocky.
However, neither of these so-called professionals can hold a lunatic lantern to Robert "Donald Joe Segretti Rossi Waters" Walden. Taking a little Strasburg sense memory, add in some Bowery Boys wardrobe malfunctions, and more Jerry Lewis than the French Government should really tolerate without causing an international incident, and we end up with an adult orphan offal puller as tic-filled scene-stealer. Walden's performance is so mannered, so filled with dump truck sized dramatic pauses and primal scream backdrop-chewing that you actually fear for this actor's sanity. Walden gets so lost in the role of a meat carver's dim bulb trainee that you find yourself waiting for him to start attempting Tayback's intonation after a while. The stupendously deranged man vs. chicken scene aside (truly one of the movie's high/low lights), Walden wants to mimic Seymour Krelboyne's little boy lost, with just a splash of James Dean delirium to keep things interesting. Instead, he's like an unhinged bootblack, an oversized urchin with bad prosthetic teeth and more bat guano than actual bats in his belfry.
The rest of the cast must therefore wrestle around these patented environmental masticators to get any recognition at all. They barely succeed. As the lead enigma, the youngster playing deaf-mute Maxie is cursed with some unfortunate, unfavorable looks. One imagines her first words, if and when she ever speaks, will be something along the lines of "Is there a plastic surgeon in this Hellhole of a town?" As the do-gooding doctor who wants to teach little Max the magic of sound, we get an African American Anne Sullivan that skips all the Helen Keller water works and leaps right into complex sentence structure. Maxie's neglectful father is hiding several secrets, one of which, unfortunately, is NOT his own personal affinity for the KKK's ethnic philosophies. Yet the actor portraying this Podunk prig can't work up a convincing beer belch, let alone a real racist retort. And who can blame him, frankly. If you had the regional winner of the Sandy Dennis whine-alike contest (who also happens to run the enchilada stand down the street) all warm and torn for your frequently lager-laced form, you'd be unnecessarily pissed off too.
It's all just part of the lunatic local color that professed writer/director Paulmichael Miekhe wanted to add to his mangled menageries of genres and styles. At any given moment, The Butchers can be a romance, a comedy, a thriller, a geek show, a family feature, a disease-of-the-week epic and a one-horse mystery. About the only clear-cut certainty, however, is that whatever you are witnessing at the time will definitely be half-assed. Miekhe (one suspects a pronunciation similar to Inspector Clouseau's simian statements) mixes so many differing styles, symbols, subplots and stumbling blocks that you just wish he'd settle on one and make his own damn movie. Instead, he ends up creating the cinematic equivalent of a staff infection, an oblique mess that just spreads and oozes across the screen like fissures on an untreated leg gash. By the end, you aren't hoping for closure so much as a conclusion – ANY conclusion – just to get us out of this asylum as anti-horror film.
And yet, for all its baffling movie machinations, its lack of gory goodness and substantially less than successful storytelling, The Butchers is still a fascinating film experience. It's not really entertaining as much as enlightening. It's like peering through a mental window into Paulmichael Miekhe's secret shame. It's his own internal car wreck, a combination of borrowed elements crafted into what he thought was a enigmatic and evocative almost American Gothic. Yet his cornball characterization, his abrupt alterations of tone (the out of the blue bigotry, a sudden hit and run) and occasionally inspired cinematic moments (there are actually one or two decent shots here) all evoke curiosity, not consternation. It's just hard not to think of this fractured flick, with its random editing, overlapping sequences, and indiscriminate insert shots, as being anything other than the work of an unknown auteur. Miekhe is like Coleman Francis, or Arch Hall Sr. They may not known mise-en-scene, but they have a perverted personal flair for film that comes across wholly and completely onscreen.
That is why The Butchers is a recommended respite. It won't scare you. It won't shock you – at least, not in the ways you expect from a movie macabre. Heck, it probably won't even keep you conscious. But if you give into its demented deliciousness, if you remind yourself that you're not going to see spurting arterial showers or recently deceased citizens dressed like deer (ala Ed Gein and various other flesh-eating fools), you may be able to enjoy what's actually being offered. While you probably would have preferred a film with competence, logic, characterization, subtlety, tone, atmosphere, action, thrills, spills, chills, comedy, horror, drama, suspense, dread, tragedy, intelligence, quirkiness, wistfulness, and some manner of wisecracking animal, what you end up with is Miekhe's own mesmerizing arcane vision. Though it can't turn chicken giblets into coq au vin, this director's frantic film force turns The Butchers from a sad joke into a serene sensation. And frankly, nothing is more frightening than a foretaste into a first time filmmaker's botched fantasy world. Yikes!
Taking Troma to task for releasing a VHS quality copy of this surreal cinematic anomaly is a lot like making fun of a restaurant for putting Hollandaise instead of Béarnaise sauce on its French fried cat turds. The 1.33:1 full screen image resembles police-produced crime scene footage in its lack of correct colors or contrast-created details. The lighting is ludicrous, the lack of competent framing and filmmaking skills shocking. Still, it seems to fit an entity that feels like a snuff film without the moral culpability. So it's not Lloyd and the boys' fault. The Butchers looks cruddy because it was made cruddy. Troma is merely delivering what was secreted onto celluloid. Besides, a digital clean up would cancel out the homicidal maniac's home movie feel that this film exudes like pus.
When it comes to audio, however, we end up with a whole other bag of draining decibel disasters. Someone needed to stop Paulmichael Miekhe, when they had the chance. No, not for his filmic facets, but for his mind-numbingly insane decisions regarding soundtrack and/or score. Combining silent film sonics, an occasional banjo solo, a few honky-tonk piano passes and more misplaced mid-70s music than exists in the entire Starland Vocal Band canon, we end up with the ambient equivalent of painful rectal itch. Obtuse aural offerings come pouring out of the speakers – in faux Dolby Digital Stereo, mind you – to turn the entire stifling soundscape into a funeral march for non-A List actors in crashing career desperation. Oh my.
Nope. Not going to mention that fill in the blank, Lloyd Kaufman/Debbie Rochon intro. Won't catch me complaining about that again. Not going to harp on the lack of movie-specific content either. No chance that I'll address the fact that the same Tromatic trailers, PETA ads and Make Your Own Damn Movie messages are all that is offered here. Just going to keep my mouth shut. It's much less painful that way.
Sometimes, you need to broaden your bad movie horizons. Certainly, you can sit back and declare – with some amount of certainty – that Manos: The Hands of Fate, or the entire output of one Edward D. Wood, Jr. is worthy of scorn or ridicule. And no one will question your contempt for modern day Hollywood hackwork from the likes of Paul W.S. Anderson, Raja Gosnell or Rowdy Herrington. But you'd have to be a truly heartless misanthropist to not find something refreshingly perverse about The Butchers. It's not built on competence or artistry. It doesn't derive from professionalism or a pure intent. Instead, this movie meanders and moves through the incredibly skewed sensibilities of a man who – apparently – never attempted another stab at cinematic legitimacy once this first film was out of his system. But what a brave, bewildering motion picture BM it is. While it might not have the requisite amount of blood, breasts and beasts to be a typical toxic treat, this is still one weird mamajama of a movie. And it's a testament to the power of personal vision, no matter how deformed or hurt.
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