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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Shriek of the Mutilated (1974)


Screenplay by Ed Adlum and Ed Kelleher
Directed by Mike Findlay

Alan Brock:  Dr. Ernst Prell
Ivan Agar:  Laughing Crow
Tawm Ellis:  Dr. Karl Werner

This movie's more memorable to me for all the times I never saw it. Back in high school I was the nucleus of about six or eight cult and B movie fans--my favored infection vector was to show people the clip movie It Came From Hollywood and give 'em a taste of all the different flavors of oddness that were out there in the various video stores in the greater Wheaton metropolitan area. This was back when Blockbuster had a "Wild Action" section (the movies that promised copious nudity) and lots of tiny little subdivisions of action, drama, horror, science fiction and comedy in their store. It's also the time I explained who Ed Wood was to a high school classmate when we ran into each other at a Blockbuster and he was making fun of the title Orgy of the Dead without knowing anything about the film. Wheaton being a hyperconservative town, I scored exactly zero cool points for knowing about oddball movies and knowing the stories of the creators (by this point in my cinemasochistic education I'd read the three books on cult movies written by Danny Peary as well as the Medved Brothers' Hollywood Hall of Shame and Golden Turkey Awards books--in 1990 or thereabouts, those texts, the Psychotronic Video Guide and Joe Bob Briggs' collected columns were about it for cult movie information). I also scored no cool points at that time because I just was not cool at that time. Thankfully, if my memory serves me correctly, I didn't realize quite what a dork I was and eventually learned to blend in a bit more with the civilians. I think. Ask me again when I'm done contemplating that I saw Army of Darkness in the theater five times, and that I did that during my senior year of high school.

But I was talking about not seeing Shriek of the Mutilated dozens of times, wasn't I? My friend Joel--who got bitten by the bad-movie bug enough to go to more than half a dozen B Fests--used to haunt a mom-and-pop video store with me in downtown Wheaton called Family Video. That store (and my continual instigation) was the reason he saw Infra-Man, Plan 9 from Outer Space, The Blues Brothers and a couple dozen other crazy movies that have faded into the mists of memory for me. But Joel has a sensitive constitution, or at least he did when he was seventeen and just dipping his toe into the polluted waters of the B movie scene. And he didn't care for gory films in the least. Still doesn't, to the best of my knowledge. So every time we were at Family Video looking for something new and unusual to inflict on ourselves I'd make a pitch for Shriek of the Mutilated, because then and now I can't turn down a grimy title like that. I was way too timid to go to the Chicago theaters doing midnight shows at the time, but I was perfectly willing to throw money away on a VHS rental of anything with a monster in it. And Joel had a level of interest in seeing this movie that could only be measured with scientific notation. With a negative sign in there somewhere.

Which is really too bad, because this movie is a continual garden of stupid, stupid delights. It doesn't live up to its title, but really, nothing could. It's not that gory (or at least the print I have on DVD isn't all that gory; the VHS and theatrical prints could be full of red-dyed corn syrup for all I know). The 70s fashions will make you want to set your eyes on fire to stop seeing them. The monster suit is incredibly dire and the dialogue sinks to the occasion admirably. I'm not sure this would have turned into another movie I'd show to other people in order to explain why I watch these things, but I would have thrown it at my circle of friends at least once if I'd seen it back in the day.

The story starts with a big glob of exposition lobbed at the audience; Dr. Ernst Prell is lecturing about the yeti. I like yeti, so that's a good start. He believes that the creature exists, and that it's shy. He and a group of Expendable Meat, oh, I'm sorry, college students, are going on a six-hour van ride to Boot Island to track one down. Which doesn't sound too promising to me because I thought they lived in Tibet. But I'm not a doctor of yetiology, so what do I know? The expedition leaves the next morning at eight sharp, so of course the students plan to go to a party beforehand.

Two of the students have an awkward and stilted argument outside the lecture hall before the movie jumps to the party scene (the company that released the current DVD print does not have the right to Hot Butter's early electronica pop smash "Popcorn", so some generic filler music plays over this scene; Hot Butter is credited for the song in the opening titles, though, so I feel kind of ripped off). The party's going pretty well until the lone survivor of Prell's last expedition shows up to bonk his head on a lamp in the entry hall and harsh everyone out by having a flashback to the doomed expedition (which he calls a "field trip", making me wish that Mike Findlay had done this movie with a cast of grade-schoolers). His monologue is kind of awesome; he sounds like he's trying to do a mad Lovecraftian survivor who's seen too much to maintain a hold on his sanity, but his voice is so shaky that you get much more Torgo than Randolph Carter.

Intercut with awkward dancing and panicked recollections at the party, we get Dr. Prell and his prize student Keith at a local restaurant, where Prell orders the specialty of the house. It's a meat dish called gin sung, prepared only for some of the restaurant's regular clientele and never listed on the menu. If you're a regular reader of this site, or any other B movie reviewers, or you've seen pretty much any other motion picture before, you instantly thought of the most gruesome possibility--but what the heck would that have to do with an expedition to catch a yeti?

After the party, we get the doomed survivor and his wife at home padding out the film with an argument and then a double murder (featuring an electric carving knife and a toaster, no less!). The movie's only 85 minutes long and yet it's padded. At least it's not just party scenes, I guess. And seeing the "electrocuted" husband glance off camera to see if the camera is still rolling or not is a hoot.

So eventually the group of Yeti hunters pile into a white van that I tried mightily not to think of as the dollar-store ripoff toy based on the Mystery Machine and the audience is treated to some orchestral library music and Dr. Prell makes his way to the suburban home, er, remote wilderness cottage owned by his great friend, colleague of several years, lesser Yeti enthusiast and Classique Productions-level John Carpenter lookalike Dr. Karl Werner. Everyone gets introduced all around and the movie kills some time with banter and arguments between the students before killing any of the students. My notes at this point include the phrase "OH NO, ONE OF THEM BROUGHT A GUITAR" as well as the perplexing-without-context "Armadillo?", which you'll have to see the movie in order to understand. I'm not suffering alone.

Also, around this time, Werner says he hasn't seen the Yeti out there, but he totally heard it doing whatever it is that Yeti do in upstate New York. I like to imagine it browsing used record stores and waiting for an open dryer at a laundromat. We get a false jump scare as one of the students runs across a man with an axe chopping firewood and flips out; Dr. Werner introduces him as "my Indian", which means their action figures would come in a two-pack. The Indian, who might very well be the whitest looking person in the movie, is named Laughing Crow. Brother Ragnarok and I once had a ten minute long conversation wondering if anyone from any Native American nation was ever named Laughing Crow; we eventually decided that one sarcastic teenager on a reservation around 2002 saw this movie and picked the name for himself just to play into the stereotypes. This Laughing Crow is mute, so the actor makes a lot of guttural noises. It's not really any more or less annoying than any of the other performances in the film.

Dinner is served (it's gin sung, which Werner claims implausibly to be a dish prepared in many different cultures, including whatever the hell tribe Laughing Crow is supposed to be from as well as feudal China). The call of the Yeti is discussed (remember, Werner says he's heard it out in the woods but hasn't seen it); apparently it's higher pitched than a bear and more raucous than a moose. Having seen the Barbarian Brothers do moose yells for pretty much an entire film at one B Fest, I cannot imagine a vocalization that would be MORE raucous. Perhaps this "no, it's totally a Yeti out there" assertion is not a thousand percent true. Werner narrates his own flashback of going out into the woods in a scene that looks like it was shot day-for-who-gives-a-shit and seeing a Yeti, or at least someone in a rented Snoopy costume, off in the distance capering about like a goof. In the morning (the cinematography of which is indistinguishable from the previous "night"), Werner saw a couple footprints but no creature.

That night, we get some Yeti growling and one of the students falls asleep with her giant Arnim-Zola-viewscreen-sized glasses on, which I do not think can be done in the real world. I buy that less than I buy Laughing Crow as a genuine Native American and the upstate New York abominable snowman put together. In the morning, everyone goes out and wanders around where Dr. Werner says he saw the creature. Coffee is disparaged and one of the students wanders off by himself, which results in exactly what anybody on Earth would expect in a movie called Shriek of the Mutilated. The ensuing attack is hilarious and disjointed in equal measure, but "terrifying" doesn't really come into it.
Dr. Freex of the sadly moribund Bad Movie Report describes the Yeti dialogue as "iggly oogly aargh" repeated over and over, but I think it sounds like the Nonsense Break in the middle of "Surfin' Bird" by the Trashmen if it were performed by the Tasmanian Devil.

One of the students finds Expendable Meat #1's rifle, and then one of his legs. Her discovery and flight back to the house is intercut with Dr. Werner creepily fixing one of the other Expendable Meat Students' glasses and scarf before she goes out for a walk. Prell carries the leg back to Yeti Research Central and the student who went off alone gets upgraded to Expendable Meat #2. Histrionics are displayed and Prell decides to go full Ahab after people got killed on his second consecutive Yeti hunt. Perhaps the most telling thing at this point is Prell's decision to use the severed leg as Yeti bait so he can catch one alive and make all the deaths and terror worthwhile in the end.

Prell returns from the trap-baiting having barely gotten away from his own encounter with the beast, bloodied but alive (and, in a cost-cutting measure, we don't get a flashback while he narrates his fight with the creature). Karen, one of the two remaining students, wants to cut their losses and leave; Prell refuses and doubles down, wanting to use the more or less intact body of Expendable Meat #2 now that he's learned that the monster has a taste for human meat. Karen sees EM #1's body in the greenhouse and goes into hours of screaming hysterics; Prell, Werner and her boyfriend Keith all try to tell her it was a perfectly understandable nightmare and that she's starting to crack up under the strain. Keith is an asshole in this sequence, even by the standards of cheapo 70s monster movies.

Everyone teams up for a needlessly complicated plan to fire trank darts at the Yeti after blinding it with bright lights while Karen takes pictures of it; the next sequence appears to have actually been filmed at night. I couldn't believe it. The plan just about gets Karen killed and Keith The Jerk pursues the creature until he finds a speaker nailed to a tree, broadcasting the Yeti's heartbeat and then some supremely goofy circus music. Laughing Crow boils one of the casualties' heads in a crock pot while Prell and Werner discuss how to kill Karen. Keith puts things together just in time to get clubbed unconscious by Laughing Crow; he wallops Prell with a shovel and steals the generic van and hides in the woods while a jaunty music cue covers up the fact that there's several minutes with no dialogue.

Meanwhile. back at the ranch, Karen sees the Yeti running at the house full tilt boogie over a slippery field; the poor stuntman in the suit can barely keep his footing and you get a pretty nice look at the miserably monster suit (complete with obvious shoes). The monster breaks into the house chases after Karen, who winds up locked in the bathroom with another kind of monster altogether, the sheer shock and horror killing her without bruises (as Prell and Werner required for a purpose they never quite got around to defining earlier).

And then we get the Two Plot Pileup at the end, and I'm just going to leave that part vague in the hopes that I can inspire any of my readers that haven't seen this one yet to waste an hour and a half of their life that they will never get back. I will say this--the movie plays astonishingly fairly with the hints dropped throughout the first two and a half acts; lots of stuff that didn't look like it had anything to do with anything paid off in the end. Plus Werner has a totally sweet red velvet dinner jacket that I really hope the actor got to keep, or even just owned already and used for the film. And in an homage to the denouement of Psycho, we get a gigantic ungainly wad of exposition that someone disgorged in order to bring the entire narrative to screeching halt before one last tasteless joke. But even here, there's a flash of unexpected wit--I've never seen anyone applaud with their silverware before but it fits right in with the last-minute revelations in this story.

I shouldn't kick this movie around too much. Honestly, I've seen worse. I've seen dumber. It isn't all that boring, either, and if you're going to watch something with eye-searing 70s fashions in it you could do a lot worse than the New York Yeti Hunt Thing. Mike and Roberta Findlay, the only husband-and-wife production team in exploitation movies, pushed their budget about as far as it could go and did a creditable job in most of the aspects of the production (their track record with day for night shooting is among the worst I've ever seen, though). And I'm not sure if it's brilliant or just a happy coincidence, given what we find out in the last ten minutes, but the utter shittiness of the Yeti suit works in the movie's favor. It's not often that seeing the monster actor's shoes is a positive in a movie, but there you have it.


  1. I am honored to have such a central position in one of your posts. And no, I still do not care for gore, and have yet to see this movie. At this point, it's almost a matter of pride.

  2. If I were going to make a pie chart about the movie's contents, "gore" would be a tiny sliver and "stupid" would take up pretty much the entire circle. It's really incapable of living up to its title, but honestly? I'd much rather be ripped off and disappointed by the title than see a movie that lived up to it.

  3. Sounds like the perfect October flick.

  4. I'm of two minds. On the one hand, I really do hope people like the movie after they've seen it. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure they won't like it after they've seen it. I think it most likely will come down to how much you like the title and how much you're willing to let go because the movie can't live up to it.