The Mutilator has the distinction of being one of the only 80s slashers in which the killer’s identity isn’t a secret. Hell, he doesn’t even wear a mask. Buddy Cooper’s ocean-adjacent horror movie (Cooper hasn’t directed anything since, go figure), for which he also penned the screenplay, fits snugly within the slasher bracket, but its greatest legacy nowadays is largely in reminding us of movies that have better stood the test of time. It’s an entertaining enough watch, but learning that there isn’t a Mutilator 2, 3 or 4 isn’t exactly shocking either.
Opening with a too-bright, pastel-hued shot of an idyllic family home, reminiscent of the far superior April Fool’s Day, Cooper makes his lofty ambitions clear immediately by having a child accidentally shoot his mother dead while jaunty music plays alongside it. There’s even a creepy happy birthday jingle — a clever choice when it comes to establishing the messed up family dynamic that will inform the rest of the story. Both the mother and child were played by relatives of the director, too, which adds a whole other level of weirdness.
The hero, Ed (Matt Mitler), is unfortunately the son of a clearly unhinged, gun-crazy hunter. Thankfully, in the years since poor Ed murdered his mother, neither he nor his father have been punished for the crime, which sets the scene perfectly for him to get a phone call from Ed Sr., or Big Ed (Jack Chatham), to come clean out the beach house over fall break (also the movie’s alternative title). Ed is rightly suspicious, channelling Han Solo by proclaiming, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” but his party-hungry friends spy an opportunity and soon the whole gang has descended upon the ramshackle beachfront property — the only one, they’re later told, that’s occupied in the vicinity at this time.
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Several things are immediately striking about The Mutilator, the first of which is obviously that the audience knows Big Ed is the killer from the outset, making the big reveal at the end (during which Ed hilariously exclaims “Dad!?” as though he doesn’t recognise his own father) something of a non-event. However, rather than robbing the film of tension, knowing the killer’s identity actually adds to it. There’s still plenty of skulking around, not to mention the classic heavy breathing and POV shots made famous by the likes of Halloween and Friday the 13th (the latter is actually referenced in a hokey “ch-ch-ch” style stinger that feels like overkill).
Crucially, though, Big Ed features as a fully-formed character himself, as he fantasizes about the variously horrible ways he could’ve murdered his young son. Ed Jr. also reminisces about all the “accidents” he witnessed as a child, which the well-adjusted young man recounts as though trying to convince himself they weren’t on purpose. Both offer an interesting glimpse into the killer’s psyche that viewers aren’t usually afforded. Although Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger are all bonafide horror icons, it’s never clear what motivates them to kill, as explaining their motivations only seems to rob these guys of their essential scare appeal (see: 2010’s flaccid A Nightmare on Elm Street reboot).
Big Ed is glimpsed shrouded in darkness for the most part, a shaft of light illuminating enough of his face to confirm he’s looking a bit more ragged these days than he did during the opening sequence. His first kill is, weirdly, captured in slo-mo (later, a character is sped up, Benny Hill style, to communicate how desperate he is to get back to his lover — a truly baffling stylistic choice) and the victim, unfortunately, is a naked woman. Considering it happens in a pool, the murder is also disappointingly bloodless, but thankfully The Mutilator only gets more intense from there.
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Although the actor’s “arrrrrrrrrrgh” death screams are a bit much, the second kill is a gory affair that looks terrific. The makeup and practical SFX are great across the board and likewise hold up incredibly well, from a beheaded corpse to a sawed up body, a rake to the neck, all the way down to a simple hand burned with a cigarette lighter from a car (remember those?). The money shot sees Big Ed continuing to hack away with his battle-axe even after being chopped in half (more movies should utilize a half-buried character; the recent Scare Package contains a delightful use of this classic, old school effect).
As a weapon of choice, however, the battle-axe is an odd one. Big Ed doesn’t actually use it that much throughout the movie, even though a point is made early on about it being mysteriously missing. Perhaps Cooper was trying to create demand, but if he was attempting to emulate Jason’s machete or Michael’s butcher knife, perhaps the writer-director should’ve ensured Big Ed actually carried his weapon around a bit more. However, The Mutilator might inadvertently have inspired 90s slasher I Know What You Did Last Summer, since the killer in that film utilized a fish hook. Here, the hook kill is super gnarly. Even watching it with 2020 eyes, there’s no denying how rough it is, especially with the camera steadily focused on the gaping, oozing wound for what feels like forever.
As the killer, Chatham does fine work, neither too crazy-eyed nor too soft. Elsewhere, the performances are a little stiff and forced, but this may have been intentional considering there are moments when Cooper appears to be making fun of goofy co-ed comedies. Take the “Fall Break” theme song, which sounds like the bastard child of Wham! and Michael Bublé but is undoubtedly an ear-worm. In any other slasher, the score would be dark and ominous, but here it’s downright jaunty — even the background music playing when the kids are hanging out in a bar early on is upbeat. There’s a hint of self-awareness at play that would justify even the Benny Hill interlude, and it’s one which, notably, gained traction in slasher movies from Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (released in 1994) onward.
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Still, there are elements of The Mutilator that signal how much of a relic of its time the movie actually is, starting with its all-white, all-hetero cast. Two POC feature, very briefly, when the kids visit a gas station, but otherwise this is a total white-wash. Surprisingly, however, the female characters are strong and well-drawn, all with their own agency. And, with the exception of that poor lady who dies naked, there’s no nudity or titillation. The group is smart and resourceful, too (they even go to bed at one point and some of them actually sleep, which is unheard of in a slasher movie). Staying together is paramount for this lot, particularly when a couple goes missing early on. The movie bucks another well-established trend by having a Final Boy rather than a Final Girl in the form of Ed.
Mitler has a slight tinge of Chris Sarandon about him, and he makes for a believable, compelling lead. This isn’t the kind of movie where you’ll be surprised by who lives, as the characters who seem like they’re going to survive do, but that doesn’t make the journey of getting there any less enjoyable. With a title like The Mutilator, viewers will be expecting horrifying kills, and Cooper’s passion project certainly delivers in that respect. Having the killer unmasked and identified is a fresh take on a well-worn trope, while the accidental matricide angle offers a unique, strong premise to kick-start the eventual mini-massacre. The film was released in 1984, so it’s understandably aged, but this is solid slasher fare in spite of it being slightly hokey in places. There has been much better and much worse released over the years, but The Mutilator is a pretty safe bet all things considered. What a terrible tagline, though: “By sword, by pick, by axe, bye bye.” Huh?
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.