The Mutilator (1984) Retrospective

While cleaning one of his father’s rifles as a birthday surprise, young Ed Jr. accidentally shoots his mother. Ed never forgives his son for this, and the two become estranged. Years later, while Ed and his friends are trying to think of something to do for their college’s fall break, Big Ed calls, and demands Ed come to his beachfront condominium, and close it up for the winter. Ed’s friends convince him to accept the job, and take them with him, so it will be finished quicker, and they can spend the rest of their break hanging around the condo.

Ed’s group arrives at the condo, which Big Ed is passed out drunk in the basement of, having dreams about killing his son. After dinner, everyone goes for a walk on the beach, and Mike and Linda go skinny dipping in the pool. Big Ed discovers the two, drowns Linda, and uses a trail of her and Mike’s discarded clothes to lure Mike back to the condo, where he kills him with an outboard motor. A police officer stationed on the beach then stops by the condo, and is killed when Big Ed decapitates him with an axe.

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The others return to the condo, and as his friends get ready for bed, Ralph searches for Mike and Linda, and is killed when Big Ed impales him through the throat with a pitchfork. When Ralph does not return, Sue goes looking for him, and is caught by Big Ed, who stabs her in the crotch with a fishing gaff, and chops her head off. Ed and Pam find Sue’s mutilated remains, and the bodies of the other victims, in the basement, and are attacked by Big Ed. The two incapacitate Big Ed and try to drive away, but Big Ed jumps onto the car, and tries attacking them through the roof. Pam puts the car into reverse, and backs into a wall, crushing Big Ed into it, and cutting him in half at the waist. When a police car arrives, one of the deputies goes to inspect Big Ed’s body, and has one of his legs sliced off when Big Ed springs to life. As Ed and Pam look on in horror, Big Ed finally dies laughing maniacally.

When North Carolina-based lawyer Buddy Cooper had an idea for a horror movie, he set out to be unique. His first attempt at film making required a special angle to break it apart from the dozens of recent predecessors. He recalls, “I was walking down the beach with a guy and we started talking about horror movies and how a low budget one could use nautical things to do people in. We came up with about four or five nautical ways of killing people. I also think it’s a primordial fear that boys have a fear of their father. I think it’s true of almost all animals that the father will attack and kill their young, Cats are the ones that come to mind, I believe it’s particularly fearsome for a small child to be threatened by his father. I think that’s why I chose that concept for the structure of the movie because it might strike a chord with the audience. The rest fleshed itself out.”

Not having any previous motion picture credits whatsoever, Cooper wanted to produce what he calls, “A real popcorn muncher “Thus, The Mutilator was born. His desire to make movies had, up to that point, only been a dream in the summer of 1982, Cooper enrolled in the American University in Washington, DC. “I’ve always wanted to make a movie. And I felt that I would someday. I had only taken one or two courses in college and read some, but really hadn’t done much, I went to the American University for a two week intensive course on script writing and film production, I got to know the guys that were teaching the course and one of them was John Douglass.” Cooper began writing The Mutilator during this time while Douglass and he stayed in touch throughout the process. “John counseled me and I sent him various treatments and rewrites. He made suggestions right along. He recommended graduate students from the university to work as production assistants. He worked with the talent for two weeks while we did other things. All his work together, I thought, earned him co-director credit. It’s a legitimate credit.”

The original intention of the Mutilator project was to make a low-budget quickie, with Cooper and a few choice associates to shoot the picture themselves. “We were going to shoot it in two weeks… maybe three. Four of us were going to do it! I would do camera and special effects makeup and a friend of mine was doing sound and someone else would cover other jobs. The original budget was $80,000, We left that a long time ago! It came in at about $650,000. We kinda made the budget up as we went along! The need for professional opinions and expertise became more obvious. Cooper and Douglass went to New York City where Cooper interviewed a director of photography. “The first one disillusioned us with his opinions and views of what it would be like. It was a bad day for me. The next day we interviewed another one, Peter Schnall, and he seemed to strike a better chord with me. Once I decided to hire Peter, he asked who could run my sound, who’s the matter and so on. He suggested that needed hardcore professionals. We used all New York NABET National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians) people. They were great teachers and very dedicated. It was not the easiest of shoots, Without the NABET people, it probably wouldn’t have been made.

The Mutilator began production on May 4th, 1983. His script in hand, Buddy Cooper recollects that first day of shooting. “The first day we were shooting in a country store where the character of Ralph (Bill Hitchcock) buys some beer, It was drizzling rain. I was unprepared for all that was going to happen … the big lights were being unloaded and they were laying dolly tracks down and pulling the camera on it. Peter Schnall took me to the side and said, When you see something you like that’s what we’re going to do.” He kind of led me by the hand that first day and I needed that. It was exciting but I was more lost than aware.”

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Aside from the unique story approach, The Mutilator manages to entertain its audience on another level. Cooper felt that the look of the picture should be as special as its script. This goal is amazingly achieved by the film’s crisp and moodily lit scenes. Cooper explains. “We wanted a very low light… almost a film noir look. That meant, because we were using low light, focus would be critical. We wanted deep, dark blues and rich blacks where it falls off into shadows and sometimes depth of focus was just a few inches. I think you’ve got to admit that the look of the picture is a little bit different for its genre and sort of special in its own right. Peter and John Newby, I think, are responsible for that.”

Heading up the special makeup effects team was Mark Shostrom, Anthony Showe and Ed Ferrell, Faced with a screenplay requiring nearly a dozen makeup effects, they successfully executed some of the genre’s grisliest murders. Ferrell, who assisted on all the makeup, relates some of the finest behind-the-scenes moments. During the course of the movie, a photograph is shown that reveals a graphic scene of a swimmer who was run over by a motorboat. The swimmer in the still is director Buddy Cooper ( making a Hitchcock-like appearance). “On my first day, I didn’t know what to expect,” says Ferrell, “We practiced that afternoon on the scars for Buddy and the next day we went over to his office where he cleared off a 10-foot long meeting table. He laid down and as we were applying the gelatin scar material, secretaries were bringing in checks to sign and his partner, Neil Whitford, brought in briefs to review. Then we walked next door where there is a restaurant with a dock on the back where the still was taken. At that point there was a food delivery and the truck driver’s reaction was one of the best I’ve encountered. He walked around the corner and there stood Buddy with these gaping holes in his side.

Not all the special effects went as easily. Certain designs had to be altered and some never worked at all, forcing alternate plans at the last moment. In one instance, it was to the picture’s advantage. In a highly effective drowning sequence, masterfully edited by Hughes Winborne and Stephen Mack, the initial intent was to eliminate the first victim by a fishing spear. When the effect did not handle as well as thought, a last minute change in script forced a drowning of the character, Linda (Francis Raines). But the unusual presentation of this sequence actually enhances the tone of the film and perfectly sets up” the audience for the subsequent bloodshed.

H.G. Lewis vet Ben Moore makes a brief but memorable appearance in The Mutilator. Ben played the axe wielding wacko in 2000 Maniacs, Buddy Cooper knew Moore for years and when it came time for the casting of the ill-fated deputy, Cooper explains, “Ben is from Morehead, North Carolina, where part of the film was shot and I’ve known him a long time. He used to come by the office and ask, ‘When you gonna make that movie? When we finally had the tests for the deputy, Ben would say how good he’d be for that part. I’d tell him not to worry because we would test him. We knew we were going to give him.

Ed Ferrell continues about the unforeseen complications with the effects makeup and cited Ben Moore’s decapitation as the most time-consuming “We had back-up heads and everything was set and ready to go. We primed the blood into the head and just before we rolled the cameras it started bleeding from the mouth! We stopped and Mark Shostrom tried to repair it but was taking too long. The crew went elsewhere and filmed some pick-up shots. Problems wise, that scene took the longest. Mark sculpted an amazingly large appliance for Morey Lampley’s death scene. He used a foam-latex formula created by Dick Smith and it went from Morey’s neck to his waistline. It wasn’t very comfortable but it had to be worn by him for five hours or so. He gets chewed up by an outboard motor when Big Ed’ jams it into him. That went four takes and used two cameras.

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The Mutilator script, while containing several scenes of graphic violence, would be just as unsettling if the effects makeup were played down. Cooper’s theme of a father seeking revenge on his son, played by Matt Mitler, called for an actor whose range could carry the non-speaking role through facial nuances. This was a critical factor in casting the part. Jack Chatham (pronounced, Chatham) imparts a brilliant portrayal of the lead nemesis, Big Ed. Not having a hockey mask to hide behind, Chatham was extremely conscientious about the role. As Cooper explains, Jack was a former teacher and basketball coach. He called and asked for a script before he tested. We sent him a script and he came in dressed as he thought Big Ed would dress. We used a video camera for tests and when we saw him on the monitor, we knew he was it. I remember him asking on the phone what type of character the father was and all I could tell him was, ‘He’s a mean son-of-a-bitch, And that’s what Jack practiced!”

The Mutilator spilled over 35 gallons of blood throughout its production. A portion of that is amply displayed in Big Ed’s vicious death sequence. Originally, a full-sized dummy was used in certain angles but in the final editing stages, the sequences were deemed too unrealistic for inclusion in the film. Hughes Winborne, who worked on sound effects and edited segments of the film, managed to fit some of that discarded footage into the answer print. Winborne tells me, “The problem with that scene and the way it was shot was if you never saw the dummy footage, you never really knew what was going on. We started experimenting. There were master shots of the dummy latched onto a platform that was attached to the rear bumper of the car going into the wall. It just didn’t look right. As it turned out, we cut the scene so that the action switches from Pam (Ruth Martinez) with Big Ed on the back pleading not to be crushed into the wall. But from that perspective, you really couldn’t figure out exactly what was going on. We finally decided to cut away from that action to six frames of the dumny being rammed into the wall and then right to Big Ed after impact.” Since the scene depicts lack Chatham being split in two, it required him to be buried waist-deep into the ground. “Chatham went through hell being buried, “Winbome continues. He stayed in there a long time. He was losing the circulation in his legs and had to be dug out of there a few times! There were several takes of that scene.”

When the character Ralph sets stabbed through the neck with a pitchfork, Buddy Cooper used an unusual technique. He says, “There is a shot from the side where the pitchfork is coming out from behind a door at Ralph’s neck and him falling back trying to get away from it. The pitchfork goes rapidly right up to his neck and then there’s a cut. That shot was filmed upside down! It started with the pitchfork here, indicating his neck, then it was pulled away, and he went forward. So it’s in the movie backwards and upside down!”

Ferrell further explains a problem that turned out to have an advantageous result. During the horrific climax, the character Sue (Connie Rogerslis gruesomely impaled with a fishing gaff. “Mark used a body cast and it was filled with blood bladders. We cut a hole for Jack to aim for and a happy coincidence was when a blood-filled prophylactic was nicked by the gaff and pops out. But it appears as if it’s intestines or something!”

Many of the Mutilator sound effects were post-dubbed by Winborne, Ferrell and Buddy Cooper at the Film Center in New York City. An interesting array of foodstuffs were sacrificed to accommodate the on-screen butchery, Cooper describes the mayhem: “A whole raw chicken got a fist in its chest cavity for the wall scene. We used a bag of black-eyed peas to simulate blood and walking in the sand, Most of the knife plunges were done with a meat cleaver into a head of cabbage. For a leg getting chopped off we used a 10 dollar watermelon! Bone crunches were done by making appropriate noises into a microphone and I know somewhere along the line we used a pound of chicken livers. By time we were done, the studio looked like a slaughterhouse. It was a lot of fun!”

The Mutilator was shot entirely on location in Morehead City and Atlantic Beach, North Carolina. Since location shoots rely heavily on cooperation with town officials and residents, Cooper found total support in his native home. We were shooting the outside of a college-dorm scene in Morehead and a block away they were digging a foundation for a condominium. Apparently they had struck water and were pumping it out of the hole. We called the supervisor and asked if he could shut the loud pump off. Well, each time we filmed he would shut his pump off and in between takes he’d turn it back on! Morehead also had a railroad track running right through the middle of town and while we filmed, the police were stopping car traffic. But we forgot about the train! And each afternoon at about three o’clock the train came through carrying jet fuel from the port to a Marine air station. It would be blowing its air horn and caused us to stop filming. The chief of police came over and said, ‘Look, we can’t stop the train but we sure can speed it up!’ and that’s what they did! They had someone wave the train on through. This is the kind of cooperation we got. The local people were just great.”

On location in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina
On location in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina

Cooper never produced a second film, because “The Mutilator,” had a rocky run in theaters.

“I didn’t get my money back,” Cooper said, and he credits much of the film’s commercial demise to a kerfuffle with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) over an appropriate rating. Cooper opted for an unrated release of “The Mutilator” in New York, Los Angeles and other big movie towns. He said it did well, bringing in $400,000 (the final budget was $450,000) on opening weekend. In order to secure a wider release, though, the movie would need to get an MPAA rating.

“When it hit the hinterlands without a rating, it was considered to be X-rated, and at that time, an X rating meant pornography,” Cooper said. “The MPAA had [originally] offered an X rating, which I turned down for that reason.”

Cooper said he had a difficult time securing bookings because of this rating. “Imagine a theater showing porn in the 1980s Bible Belt,” he said. The few bookings he did get, Cooper added, did not amount to much, because newspapers, radio and television stations refused to run advertisements for an X-rated film. He said he knew he had to recut the film so it could receive an R rating from the MPAA.

“That meant cutting out all the good parts,” Cooper said. “It’s not very interesting in the R-rated version.”

Interview with Director Buddy Cooper

Was the decision to make a slasher horror movie as your first (and only) feature film strictly based on the possibility of a monetary return, or were you a fan of horror films going into it?
Buddy Cooper: I was a fan of the horror genre. I had been reviewing movies for the local paper for a few years. I was friends with the manager of the local theaters. The new pictures were first run on Fridays. The new films were set up on platters after the last show on Thursday nights. The manager would let me come in late Thursday, give me a box of popcorn and a Pepsi and run the new pictures for me. I’d often watch horror movies alone in those dark theaters until 2:00 or so in the morning. It was great. However, the decision to make a horror picture was influenced by economics. At the time Weekly Variety was reporting that 30% of the tickets sold in the U.S. were being sold for horror films. I had read that horror films could be made for not too much money—they were referred to as low-budget horror films. I thought that I would have the best chance of getting my money back if I made a low-budget horror film. So both. I liked the genre and it seemed like a good financial idea at the time.

For the audience, the transition between the two time periods is pretty quick. Ed accidentally kills his mother, but we next see him as a college student and his father is about to snap and become “The Mutilator.” Was there any story lost, either by editing or the filming schedule, between those two points?
 Buddy Cooper: No. That was the way it was written, shot and edited. I thought that the audience would be able to keep up with that time transition without wasting any screen time explaining it.

One of the things that sets The Mutilator apart from other horror movies of its era is the absolute brutality of the gaffe-through-the-crotch scene. There’s a lot of academic writings about slasher films being an allegory for male sexual frustration, with knife penetrations being replacement for the desire of sexual penetration. I’m not sure that I buy that, but if there’s anything to that line of thought, the gaffe scene kind of just goes right to it. When you came up with this scene, was there any fear that you had “gone too far”?
Buddy Cooper: I wasn’t thinking that seriously about it. I thought it would be a good, evil, horrific event of the sort that would make the audience cringe. Nothing more. Some on the crew thought it was too much. Especially some of the women. Lisa Schnall, little sister of Peter Schnall the DP, was our boom operator.  Lisa said she wasn’t going to work on that scene. Peter explained professional responsibility or something to her and she agreed, but during the first take it got to be too much for her and she ran out. She came back and we got it on take two.

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Overall, the various death scenes are not too surprising to someone who watches lots of movies, including slasher films. However, Sue’s was the exception. It is the only one that really seems cruel (in the context of horror movie deaths). The killer actually impales her with the gaff in a very uncomfortable place, and her reaction immediately prior to the piercing is really understated. Compared to the other deaths, this one stands out as being the “odd duck.” Is there any reason why Sue’s demise was so brutal?
Buddy Cooper: No, in keeping with the motif of doing these young people in using nautical implements, the huge gaff seemed like a natural. Now why I chose to gaff Sue where I did, I can’t explain – it was just a horrible thing to think about. Certainly in retrospect, I should have chosen differently.

How well did the film do theatrically and on video back then? And did you see any of that money? I ask because it’s always struck me as odd that there wasn’t a follow-up Buddy Cooper production.
Buddy Cooper: When The Mutilator was first released, it “broke” in New York City and did well. It grossed about $400,000 in its opening weekend and made it to #13 on Variety‘s weekly chart of top grossing films. It stayed on the chart for six weeks.  After that it did well in LA and in one or two pockets of understanding around.  But it was unrated, and because it was unrated when we could get bookings, the theaters couldn’t get advertising—the papers wouldn’t run ads for an unrated picture, radio and TV stations wouldn’t run the spots. At that time an unrated film was considered to be a pornographic film. Ultimately, It was necessary to decimate the gore scenes in order to garner an “R” from the MPAA and, as I had suspected, the fans lost interest. I lost money because of that. Vestron offered a nice $250,000 advance, but went into bankruptcy still owing me a third of that. I lost enough money so that it was a few years before I recovered and then I was supporting a family and paying bills and I was gun shy of putting it all into another movie at that time. Later, I went to AFI and spent a few years in LA chasing a career as a producer. I put together a few projects, but never was able to make a movie and ultimately my hopes for a Hollywood career got away from me.

The theme song is insanely catchy. If you see the movie once, you’ll have the song stuck in your head for a week. It’s unusual for a horror film to have a theme song that isn’t “scary.” You even released it on a 45. What was the idea behind using a song like this to open the film, and were the 45s produced simply as a promotional item, or was there a thought that the song might have some “hit” potential?
Buddy Cooper: The picture is set at the beach. There is a type of music around here and in South Carolina as well known as “beach music.” It’s music that’s good to shag to. For your UK fans, “the shag” is a dance. So I wanted beach music in the movie. Michael Minard wrote the music and he and Arthur Resnick wrote the lyrics. Arthur wrote one of the all-time great beach music songs, “Under the Boardwalk,” so he was a good choice for Michael as a collaborator.

 Looking back on it now, is there something you would have changed about the movie?
Buddy Cooper: In hindsight, I believe that the script is the weakest part of the movie. If I were to do it over again I would spend a lot more time rewriting and polishing the screenplay. The screen values produced by the cast and crew and the edit and sound edit are all of very superior quality. While I’m not particularly proud of the screenplay, I am proud to have been part of a collaborative effort which produced such high screen value. Also, I would have begun editing the picture on the set. I didn’t know that you were supposed to start editing before the shoot was finished. We could have saved a lot of time. This is an example of how ignorant I was going into this project. On the other hand, I learned an awful lot about making movies.

If you could go back and remake it, what changes would you make to the screenplay? Would they be sweeping rewrites, or limited (such as changing some of the spoken dialog)?
 Buddy Cooper: I would rewrite the screenplay. It was designed to begin slow and build to a high level, which I think it does. Now, I think the first part of the picture is a little too slow. If I had a chance to do it over I would make act one much more exciting. I would start at a higher level and try to maintain a high level of intensity throughout.

Matt Mitler as Ed Jr.
Ruth Martinez as Pam
Bill Hitchcock as Ralph
Connie Rogers as Sue
Frances Raines as Linda
Morey Lampley as Mike
Jack Chatham as Ed Sr.
Bennie Moore as Cop
Trace Cooper as Young Ed Jr.
Pamela Weddle Cooper as Mother

Directed by Buddy Cooper John S. Douglass
Produced by Buddy Cooper
Written by Buddy Cooper

Music by Michael Minard
Cinematography Peter Schnall
Edited by Stephen Mack
Production Company OK Productions
Distributed by Ocean King Releasing


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