Slaughterhouse (1987)

MARCH 14, 2017


I don't know why I never rented Slaughterhouse as a kid; I distinctly recall seeing it at my usual video store right next to the Silent Night Deadly Night series, and obviously I was all about the slasher genre that it clearly belonged to, but for whatever reason I never gave it a chance. Maybe it was because I didn't hear much about it in Fangoria and such chances rarely paid off (see, or don't see: Iced), or maybe the lack of a mask on the killer's face left me less impressed. Or maybe I just somehow knew if I was patient I'd get to see it in the ideal setting: on the big screen with 200 other horror fans, on a 35mm print that would definitely contain the gore that may have been cut from the VHS*. Alas, as the film unspooled, I realized there was another possibility for skipping it: perhaps I just knew it wasn't very good.

Don't get me wrong, it's not a disaster or anything, and I could name a few worse slashers just from that same year (Open House, The Outing, Slumber Party Massacre 2...), which is worth noting since this was past the heyday of the genre and thus they were a bit rarer at this point, as even indie producers were making more creature/ghost-driven vehicles that could spotlight showy FX as opposed to splattered blood and disembodied limbs. So the slashers that were coming around, like this, weren't so much trying to compete with the Friday the 13ths and the like, but merely just catering to the non-discerning. With slashers only coming around every once in a while (as opposed to nearly every week as they were in the early '80s), there wasn't as much need to be GOOD, just... well, to exist at all for the people who were then like I am now: willing to watch anything as long as it had a big guy hacking up teenagers.

Whether this leeway dawned on its filmmakers or not is unknown, but after listening to their Q&A I don't think it did. The director did mention that he preferred comedies but understood it was easier to get a horror film made/sold than a comedy when you didn't have a lot of money, but I didn't get a sense that they were a bunch of get rich quick schemers - they seemed to genuinely want to deliver a good movie. And to its credit, despite their inexperience (if writer/director Rick Roessler has ever made anything else, the IMDb hasn't caught wind of it) the film actually manages to deliver some effective shots and interesting beats, including more than one wide shot where Buddy (the hulking brute killer) is there but not being heralded with a musical sting or anything like that. There's one terrific one where the heroine - who will be drawing your eye - is at the bottom of the frame looking for her friend, whose corpse is being dragged out of sight by Buddy, walking on the level above her. Stuff like that says to me someone was at least putting in effort to give the movie a little more oomph than required, and not just doing the bare minimum to get the movie finished and profitable.

If only that sort of elbow grease was applied to the script, they could have had a legitimately solid entry into the slasher canon. The ingredients are all there, but they're let down by a script that is hellbent on focusing on the wrong things, and goes beyond slow pacing into almost surreal territory. For example, we meet our standard group of six teens in the first scene, where they are partying near the titular location. Two of them sneak off to fool around, annoy Buddy, and get killed - perfectly normal stuff. Then we cut to the next morning, and the other four have noticed their friends are missing but don't think much of it. After a full reel of farting around town (I swear a good ten minutes of this movie is just of the male lead driving his orange jeep around), they all go back to the slaughterhouse to film a music video (the '80s, man...). At this point I'm thinking "OK, now things get going!", in that they will show up, do their thing, find something odd (or even one of the bodies), and Buddy could start finishing them off. But no! They leave AGAIN and kill more time around town, only to finally return with about 20-25 minutes to go in the runtime. This is not how one structures their slasher movie!

And like I mentioned, there's a strange focus on things no one would possibly care about listening to. Just as the aforementioned Open House spent a lot of its time explaining the real estate business in detail, Roessler's script has its adult characters (all rival slaughterhouse owners) go on and on about their equipment, their process, etc. One even shouts at another about his tendency to allow 30% fat on his roast, which I guess is bad but I mean, I don't really care much unless I plan to actually buy my meat from this fictional character. There's a fine line between fleshing out the characters and simply boring the audience by spending too much time on irrelevant minutiae. It's like Roessler watched Texas Chainsaw Massacre (a very obvious influence, with a bit of Motel Hell too) and got annoyed that they didn't spend enough time explaining the meat-making process because they were in a rush to be scary, and was determined to correct it. The script also curiously doesn't understand how foreshadowing works; the male lead's poor driving skills are brought up twice (and he almost runs a guy over in a separate incident!), with the sheriff (his girlfriend's father) even getting a close-up as he says that "someday I'll have to scrape you off the highway", which is ironic when he... uh, is smashed in the head by Buddy. Inside the slaughterhouse. When he's not driving.

Luckily the kills are fairly varied; Buddy carries a big axe that could be his Freddy glove (i.e. pretty much the only thing he ever uses to kill someone), but he only uses it a couple times. For the others he mixes it up: the slaughterhouse machinery gets used, and he merely crushes the head of one guy with his bare hands - all presented with minimal (better than nothing!) prosthetics and fake blood spray. Since the blood looks more purple than red in a couple instances, I guess it's fine that this isn't exactly a movie that would give the MPAA a heart attack, but given Buddy's hulking size and the title I was hoping for a little more carnage (that it was showing on a Grindhouse night made me even more hopeful for the sort of stuff we would usually need unrated cuts to see. I mean, next week they're showing Pieces). It's not bloodless, it's just... subdued, I guess would be the best word, with the variety making up for it. Doesn't quite make up for how they're paced, but at least if you were to make a highlight reel of the film it wouldn't be repetitive.

In addition to the kills, the film also offers up the occasional inspired or at least memorable bit that also helps lessen the blow of its stop-and-start structure. The opening credits are set to cheery music played over footage of a real pig being slaughtered (none of the gorier parts of it, thankfully, but we see the poor guy walking to his doom, being hit with the prod, and then being hung up in preparation to become delicious bacon), and there are a number of intentional laughs sprinkled throughout. Buddy has some choice reactions to whatever's going on around him, and I never tired of the awful meat-related puns that accompanied a number of the kills - Arnold as Mr. Freeze would approve of how they never stray from the gimmick. There are also some weird character choices, like the fact that the deputy, who mentions his family for no real reason, is having an affair with the town floozy. He's kind of a goofy guy, so what could have been a simple "He's desperate and willing to settle for the town hussy" note becomes "he's an asshole cheating on his wife and risking losing his kids to a divorce", with no payoff to any of it - we never see/meet the kids and his wife's only contribution is being the unheard other end of a phone call. And he dies, so now we're feeling sad for two fatherless kids, all of which could be avoided if they just snipped the line where he mentioned them. I also enjoyed how we kept hearing about the local radio station's annual jamboree show, and when it finally arrives, it gets shut down after 20 seconds due to a power failure (even better, no one even boos - they just all happily leave as if they had their fill anyway).

So alas, it's just another underwhelming late-coming slasher. Dream Warriors aside, 1987 is hardly a banner year for the sub-genre, so it's not like I'm shocked and stunned to discover this won't be replacing My Bloody Valentine or Black Christmas on my list of favorite non-franchise slasher movies (speaking of the sequel that never came to pass - it's actually set up early in the movie, instead of the end - we are told Buddy has a brother early on, but the finale doesn't establish his return). Maybe I was putting too much stock in its placement as a Grindhouse night selection, but I also kept thinking of the underrated Sweatshop, which also had the "hulking brute killer" scenario but way more of that Grindhouse-y sleaze and attitude. So the lesson to learn here is that if you're a 9 year old looking for something to rent, get Sweatshop and be ahead of the curve when it gets a revival screening in thirty years!

What say you?


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