The Meat Cleaver Stays Clean

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

When a movie opens with a narration by Christopher Lee speculating about the existence of disembodied spirits of natures benign and malign, you expect some sort of endearingly cheesy-yet-earnest Hammer affair, along the lines of something like The Devil Rides Out. It’s incongruous at the start of something entitled Hollywood Meat Cleaver Massacre, but this incongruity is natural since Lee’s scene was actually recorded (along with an accompanying epilogue) for an entirely different project and tacked onto this film after the fact to give it some star power, to Lee’s great annoyance.

Once we get into the movie proper we are introduced to Professor Cantrell (James Habif), a pre-eminent expert on the occult teaching at a Los Angeles university. We meet him as he is lecturing his class on a bit of folklore concerning Morak, an ancient Irish vengeance spirit, depicted as a generically Lovecraftian monstrosity in a painting depicting Morak’s summoning by a figure who doesn’t look entirely unlike the Professor. On his way home the Professor encounters one of his students, Mason (Larry Justin, who looks like a young Tom Waits who hasn’t worked out how to dress properly yet) and has a nasty altercation – despite the Professor being perfectly cordial with him, Mason acts like an unruly schoolboy instead of a college student, and his fragile little ego gets all bent out of shape with the Professor tells him off for being a douchebag.

Naturally, under circumstances in which an authority figure has told you off for behaving completely unacceptably in an educational context where there was no reason to sign onto his class if you didn’t want to, the only way honour can be satisfied is through bloody revenge. So, that evening Mason cajoles his buddies into conducting a little home invasion of the Professor’s place, which they agree to for no apparent reason. By the end of the night, Cantrell’s wife, daughter, son and dog are all dead, and Cantrell is badly brain-damaged. Left paralysed from the neck down, unable to communicate, and drifting in and out of consciousness, Cantrell does have one option open to him – he can call out with his mind to Morak, so that vengeance can be had against those who destroyed Cantrell’s family for no reason.

I was first interested in this movie because rumour has it that it was one of the very last films directed by Ed Wood. A reasonable summation of the case for Wood’s involvement is here, though the only really strong bit of evidence is someone’s claim that the film’s editor Jim Bryan told them that Ed directed about three-fifths of the film after Evan Lee, the original director, was fired. Certainly, Evan Lee himself seems to have been a bit of a mysterious figure, since so far as I can make out this is the only movie to his name, and that might have driven the rumours of the involvement of someone else in the process. Personally, I would like to believe that this was Ed’s final opus; the circumstances of his later life were drab enough, and I could buy that Wood could turn out a movie as good as this one if he had someone else to do the script, put the cast together, sort out the locations and props, and generally get everything set up before Wood had to step in and do any directing.

For make no mistake, I actually think this movie is pretty decent. It’s not a high-budget piece by any stretch of the imagination, and none of the actors can really compete with a screen presence on the level of Christopher Lee, but the screenplay by Keith Burns, Ray Atherton, Miklos Gyulai and Steve Singer is actually pretty tight. Each of the members of the gang has a personality which, if not appealing, is actually well-realised, and there’s some really compelling moments in there – like a dream sequence early on in the progress of the curse which put me in mind of some of the stranger parts of that delicious little oddity Messiah of Evil, or the part where Phil (Bob Mead), a projectionist, finds that the movie projector is displaying to an empty theatre an image of him wearing the stocking mask he wore during the home invasion, with a look of pure fear and guilt on his face.

Of course, not everything works quite so well. There’s a bit where Dirk (Doug Senior) is contemplating suicide, intercut with images of him bleeding out from slashing his wrists, only to think better of it at the last moment when he notices his watch and realises he’s going to be late to work, which rather ruins the very powerful buildup by ending it with an anticlimactic joke in dubious taste. The death of Sean (Robert Clark) is quite fun – he’s cut up by an invisible presence – but it happens under ludicrous circumstances, where apparently he elected to just go off walking in the wilderness in the middle of Death Valley for an afternoon stroll (which I guess you could class as another instance of suicidal ideation). And when Mason himself meets his fate, it’s in a fight with a monster in a deeply unrealistic costume. Still, even this latter point is turned around when it’s revealed that the final revenge on Mason is not his killing, but the way he is driven insane by a confrontation with the supernatural forces whose existence he so rudely denied to the Professor’s face – a confrontation so undeniable and vivid that it caused his sense of reality to crumble.

Nobody would ever mistake this for an expensive or classy movie, but – like Messiah of Evil – there’s a certain charm to it anyway. One of the reasons I like to think Ed Wood was involved in its production is that none of the canonical Wood movies actually have quite that same charm (at best, they capture the fleeting impression of the much better movie Ed was trying to make but was smothered by his incompetence and poor circumstances), or succeed quite so well. It’s comforting to think that he might have turned in at least one work of quality so outshining its humble Z-budget origins that it finally, in some small way, exonerated and proved that a work of genuine merit could emerge from his rich but inconsistent imagination.

That said, at no point is anyone massacred with a meat cleaver, so if that got you excited it might be a problem. (That may explain why some video rereleases of the movie gave it the title Evil Force or Morak – amusingly, the video artwork for the latter seems to have been ripped off from the video artwork for Fulci’s Manhattan Baby.)

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