On the last Sunday of each month, the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz in downtown Austin screens straight-to-VHS movies for their “Video Vortex” series. For August, this film was an almost forgotten flick helmed by venerable Baltimore-based director Don Dohler. Dohler was a cinephile from an early age who took a brief career detour into working on the underground comix circuit before founding Cinemagic magazine, which was purchased by long-running genre mag Starlog in 1979. In 1976, Dohler made his first film, The Alien Factor (released in 1978), with a reported budget of less than $4,000; the film was a Ted Turner cable staple throughout much of the 1980s. The Alien Factor, like most of Dohler’s work, was a B-grade creature feature about an alien crash-landing in/near Baltimore and proceeding to be a murderous nuisance. After going in a slightly different direction with 1980’s Fiend (in which an evil spirit possesses the corpse of a piano teacher in order to wreak havoc), Dohler returned to the “alien crashes, deadly hijinx ensue” mold with 1982’s Nightbeast and 1985’s Galaxy Invader (the former of which featured an original score composed by sixteen-year-old J.J. Abrams, who corresponded with Dohler after becoming a fan of Cinemagic and essentially begged to be involved in a future production of Dohler’s).
According to Alamo art director and programmer Joseph A. Ziemba, Dohler’s early work on the film that would become Blood Massacre was shot on video but piqued the interest of several film investors, who asked that he shoot the rest of the picture on film, including reshooting the 45 minutes that had already been produced. He later presented them with an incomplete working print of the film in 1988, and was told that they would get back to him. They never did. After quite some time, Dohler walked in to a video rental outlet in 1991 and discovered that the incomplete film had been released on VHS without his knowledge when he saw it sitting on a shelf. Dohler wouldn’t make another film for eleven years.
This is, presumably, the reason that the plot structure of Blood Massacre seems so out-of-joint. The transitions between scenes are often abrupt, and it sometimes feels that there is more filler dialogue than final dialogue being spoken onscreen. Consequently, the anti-hero protagonist of the film (Charlie Rizzo, played by frequent Dohler collaborator George Stover) suffers from inconsistent characterization, which isn’t helped by the fact that portraying jovial everymen is well within Stover’s acting range—Rizzo’s post-‘Nam grizzled nihilism, not so much. Stover’s not a bad actor, but he fails to have the kind of screen presence required to make Rizzo believably disturbed, and the inconsistency in the movie’s tone doesn’t help. Rizzo kills two people in the film’s opening scene with little provocation and for virtually no consequences in order to steal a small wad of bills; later, his bank-robbing partner has an emotional crisis after the collateral death of one person during a robbery that nets barely $700 dollars. In another scene, Rizzo supposedly murders a woman in an extremely violent way, but it’s hilariously apparent that he is repeatedly stabbing the table next to her, complete with repeated wooden thunks. There’s a pretty decent story in the film, which might have been saved with proper editing, but the reach far exceeds the grasp of the film’s budget and troubled production, and it’s a shame that viewers never got a chance to see Dohler’s complete vision of this narrative.
The film opens with Rizzo, a Vietnam veteran, being thrown out of a bar after aggressively berating a waitress for collecting his not-quite-empty beer can. He waits in the bar owner’s car; after they close for the night, he murders the man and his wife. After the title, we meet a young woman (Lucille Joile) approaching the home of the Parkers, a farming family with a room for rent. She introduces herself to the family’s daughter, Chrissy (Grace Stahl), and explains that she is an art student who has come to the countryside for the landscape painting opportunities it provides. She also likes the family matriarch’s stew, which seems like a throwaway line but becomes important later. (This character does not appear again before the final act, and it would seem that most of her scenes were planned but not shot, although I can only infer that this is the case.) Elsewhere, Rizzo returns to his fellow criminals:Jimmy (James DiAngelo), whose life Rizzo saved in the war; Pauly (Thomas Humes), Jimmy’s brother; and Monica (Lisa DeFuso), Jimmy’s girlfriend, who openly despises Rizzo. Following an aborted bank robbery, the foursome robs a video store (Rizzo picks up a copy of Nightbeast, which is a nice touch), killing a female clerk in the process. Their car breaks down, and Pauly and Monica take off on foot to find gas before flagging down a car being driven by Elizabeth (Robin London), who happens to be the elder daughter of the Parker family. The gang takes her hostage and forces her to take them back to her home, and the interesting part of the film, obviously inspired by the late Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, begins.
Rizzo and company meet Mr. (Richard Ruxton) and Mrs. (Anne Frith) Parker, and there’s some general strangeness about them. Pauly searches the rest of the house and says that there’s no one else there aside from the family, and there’s no mention of the young painter from the earlier scenes. Elizabeth in particular is an odd duck, displaying no apparent fear and seeming, if anything, bored (and slightly aroused) by her captors. She showers and seduces Rizzo, and the two exchange in a truly kinky sex scene (Google “bloodplay fetishism” if you’re curious–on second thought, don’t). A detective (Herb Otter, Jr.) comes to the Parker farmhouse, but Mr. Parker convinces him to leave while a gun is held to his back. Realizing that the heat will be on soon, the thieves prepare to skedaddle, but not before checking to see if the Parkers have anything of value worth stealing. What they actually discover, however, is the young art student from the beginning of the film, who is locked in a closet. They free her; she warns them that the Parkers are cannibals, then runs for her life. She doesn’t make it far, however, as she is captured and killed by Mr. Parker, as is the detective. Only Rizzo survives long enough to hide overnight in the woods, where he sets to work crafting homemade mines and building an impromptu long-range weapon that is basically a sling shot that shoots blades for a handheld circular saw. He returns the next night to exact his revenge.
Like I said, there’s a some decent plotting on display here, and it’s impossible to look back after two and a half decades and say how much better the film might have worked if Dohler had been allowed to smooth the film’s rough edges. As it stands, there are some neat visual elements (Rizzo’s nightmare sequence in the woods is a standout montage of experimental editing) and some that are… not so great (Dohler couldn’t resist revealing that the Parkers are monsters of some kind, although the pulsating air bladders in the Mr. Parker monster head are sickeningly effective). The film’s score is also quite good, featuring great snare drum work and an early synth leitmotif that really deserves to be in a better film. As a whole, however, Blood Massacre shows its seams as an aborted feature. The only reason you or I have access to this movie is because of a broken promise, and above all else, it really shows. If you manage to catch it on late night cable or it materializes on Netflix, check it out, but don’t go out of your way to track it down.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond