Ah, Video Vortex. Without a doubt, the last Tuesday of every month is the day I look forward to most, just so I can soak in the trashy, so-bad-it’s-good VHS brilliance with a like-minded squad of miscreants. Only once have I been let down (I’m looking at you, Attack of the Beast Creatures), and this month’s feature, Blood Massacre, continued the trend of leaving me happy at the end of the night. Unhinged Vietnam War vet? Check. Bumbling criminals that get in over their head? Check. Bizarre, bloody sex scene? Check. Cannibals? Check. What’s not to love?! Director Don Dohler delivers up a great (if not cursed, more on that later) thriller/horror film with basically no “good guys”.
The movie centers around Rizzo (George Stover), a tightly wound Vietnam vet who longs for the days of war, and relishes killing. The role was a welcome a departure for Stover, a Baltimore film scene regular, who had typically been cast as “nerdy characters” in previous films by both Dohler and John Waters (side note, Stover is currently filming Night of the Living Dead: Genesis, directed by Film Club/Psycho Cinema member Matt Cloude). In his own words, “It was nice not to wear a lab coat for a change.” The fact that he seemed too clean cut for such a character lends a more menacing feel to me – he’s not your typical, crazy looking killer with a human skin mask. After the opening scene, which sees Rizzo kill a bar manager (by somehow choking him to death with a tie visibly on his chin instead of throat) and an employee/stripper/hooker/I don’t know (via stabbing, which looked a lot more like a game of mumbley peg than a murder), he meets up with the rest of his gang – Jimmy (James DiAngelo), Pauly (Thomas Humes), and Monica (Lisa DeFuso). Even though nonw of them get along with each other, they somehow decide it would be a good idea for the four of them to rob a bank. Oh, wait, the bank has guards and video cameras? Well, how about that video store over there? Perfect!
Of course, the robbery doesn’t go as planned (though the scene starts with a nod to Dohler’s previous work as Rizzo picks up a copy of Nightbeast), and instead of merely robbing the store, the merry band of hooligans ends up killing a few people. They hop in the getaway car, and as they speed off, a patron of the store runs outside with a gun, fires off a few random shots at the fleeing vehicle, and… somehow manages to hit their gas tank. Don’t try to figure out the logistics, just roll with it. With their transportation now out of commission, the gang flags down and hijacks a passing car driven by Liz Parker (Robin London), who we had seen just moments before strangely flirting with a gas station attendant. While slightly sassy and defiant, she agrees to direct them to her parents house so they can lay low for a while. A nice, quaint, country home is disrupted by the arrival of a group of criminals who are so busy fighting with each other that it’s a miracle they’re still alive. They round up the father, Howard (Richard Ruxton), the sister, Chrissy (Grace Stahl), and mom, Frances (Anne Frith). Howard and Chrissy are understandably not too happy with the intruders, though Frances seems oddly ok with it. When one of the gang finds her knitting and orders her downstairs at gunpoint, she just says “Oh, I didn’t know that we had guests.”
This, my friends, is where the movie transforms from crime thriller into horror. See, little sassy Liz is a killer, escaped from a mental institution. The gang finds out that fact shortly before finding her dead doctor in the trunk of her car. Why does this present a problem? Why can’t they all just have a good laugh and bond over being murderers while enjoying some of that stew that Frances prepared? Well, because the Parker family are cannibals. Nobody wants to be at a dinner party thrown by cannibals. From this point on, there’s unprecedented pandemonium as the family begins to pick off the gang one by one (they even kill a barely involved sheriff, just for good measure). While not as gory as the title Blood Massacre might suggest, there’s some pretty brutal deaths, particularly a front porch beheading. When Rizzo ends up being the only member of the gang still alive, he has to get a little creative with his weaponry, building coffee can land mines and projectile saw blades with random odds and ends he finds in the shed. In another don’t-question-it move, Rizzo somehow manages to fall asleep in the woods, which is something I don’t think I’d be able to do with a family of murderous cannibals hot on my trail. Somehow, they don’t find him laying right there in the middle of a clearing, and he lives to fight on. For now.
The twist at the end of the movie is clearly Dohler throwing back to his sci-fi roots, and while it’s kind of a cool move on his part, it makes absolutely no sense at all. None. Not even a little bit. Even Stover has said that he doesn’t know why it was in there, and that it wasn’t in the original version. What’s that, you say? Original version? Well, remember way back in the first paragraph when I said the film was cursed? So, as the story goes, when the movie was nearly completed, Dohler sent a work print to his investors. They liked it so much, they asked him for a budget proposal to re-shoot the entire movie on 16mm film. Thrilled at the possibility of a theatrical release of some sort, Dohler agreed and got to work making the movie. Again. This time, when he sent a work print of the now completed film to the investors… they vanished, along with the film. Years later, they popped back up trying to shop the film around to distributors. Dohler managed to get it back, though the original negative had been damaged and all he had left to work with was a work print. This is the version that ended up being released, because as he stated in an interview, he wasn’t in the mood to “shoot the film a third time”. After retiring from film making for several years following this, Dohler did pop back up as a producer on a remake/retelling of this film which was released in 2001, titled Harvesters.
While not as well known as his Baltimore counterpart John Waters, Don Dohler has had an equally impressive influence on film, his DIY ethic no doubt inspiring countless numbers of young maniacs to gather their friends and start shooting their own films. Hell, J.J. Abrams had his first job in film working for Dohler (he composed the music to Nightbeast at age 16). As for this particular film, if it’s low budget sleaze and murder that you’re after, you can’t go wrong with Blood Massacre.