MY FRIENDS NEED KILLING 1976
Greg Mullavey (Gene Kline), Meredith MacRae (Laura Kline), Clayton Wilcox (Gil Perkins), Roger Cruz (Les Drago), Bill Michael (Walter Miller)
Directed by Paul Leder
"...After what we did in 'Nam...I mean, we all gotta pay...we gotta pay for that."
The Short Version: This bleak little 73 minute psuedo horror picture is about a mentally dysfunctional freakshow who, after spending time under psychiatric care, decides that his ex-war buddy Friends Need Killing. Despite an obvious skid row production, the guy who brought you the touching exploitation classick, I DISMEMBER MAMA (1974) and the US-Korean Krap fest A*P*E (1976) manages to capture an occasional atmosphere of dread in one of the least discussed post Vietnam trash pics. Leder goes for the throat much of the time, but at least one sequence opts out of nauseating the audience for a more upbeat, if still ultimately gloomy coda. Worth it for Mullavey's amazing, brain-fried meltdown performance alone.
Deeply disturbed after his experiences in the Vietnam War, former POW, Gene Kline, sits up in bed one night and comes to the realization that he and his old war buddies deserve to die for the crimes they perpetrated while overseas. Kline sends out letters to his friends letting them know he's coming for a visit to reminisce about old times. Little do they know that he's coming to kill them.
The 1970s is my favorite era of cinema. There are so many movies that dared to cross lines, push envelopes and turn stomachs with alarming rapidity. The sheer volume of films is staggering as is the amount of low budget wonders that remain unaccounted for on the digital format. The beauty of this era was that it wasn't unusual for a meagerly budgeted movie of questionable taste to get booked in a theater or Drive In considering the video boom wouldn't take hold till the 80s broke. MY FRIENDS NEED KILLING (1976) is one of those movies that has slipped through the cracks of exploitation cinemas extensive canon.
"You keep makin' those funny remarks...I don't even think about the war no more."
Director and MAMA DISMEMBERer, Leder, returns to the sleazy territory first trampled in his 1974 staple about a psycho mother-woman hater; a film bearing one of the most well known titles of that era. Here, though, the script substitutes I DISMEMBER MAMA's mentally unbalanced mother fixated malcontent with a mentally unbalanced ex 'Nam vet fixated on war atrocities he was involved in.
It's apparent in nearly every scene that Leder had an extremely low amount of money to work with here. All the interiors are shot within single rooms, or what is likely somebody's house helping out with the production with nary a scene transition in sight. There's a lot of post dubbed dialog laid over the onscreen action at times, which helps in hurrying things along. It also doesn't help matters that this difficult to obtain film is only currently available in a battered videotape copy floating around within collectors circles. A widescreen presentation would at least open things up a bit.
"How many did we kill? How many? Let's see...there was a chief...his wife...two old ladies...four old men...and four kids...and four kids...and four...a dozen...twelve...that's how many, twelve..."
The main selling point here is the lead performance by Mullavey. He's absolutely terrifying to say the least. He spends the film either staring blankly off into space, talking as if he is somebody else, or erupting in fits of violence that tend to leave people dead throughout his corpse strewn trek between California and Texas. From the opening scene we realize there are serious issues going on inside his brainpan.
To add to Kline's mania and the abhorrent ambiance, the filmmakers occasionally, and generously dot his scenes with actual Vietnam atrocity footage. This adds an even more queasy element that surpasses Leder's more well remembered movie. While I DISMEMBER MAMA had a tasteless aura all its own, there's no mama dismembering, but in MY FRIENDS NEED KILLING, the title pretty much tells it all.
Meredith MacRae plays Gene's wife, Laura Kline. She's very good, too, as the concerned, and eventually grieving wife upon learning what her husband is up to. She starts out as merely worried as to her husbands whereabouts, but quickly crumbles when he calls fearing he may commit suicide. Little does she know he has been on a killing spree the entire time.
These two performers make up for the slack of some of the others. Both she and Mullavey had the lengthiest careers and were both married in real life. MacRae even sings the main theme song, 'Mirror of Time'. Some of Leder's family contributed to this picture as well.
"...Just before he was captured, he was flippin' out a couple of times."
It would be beneficial to learn what the participants think of this movie today. It would be interesting to know if anything was cut from the finished product. There's actually a bonafide good piece of storytelling buried just beneath the surface. By the time it claws its way to the surface, the film is over.
There's fleeting moments here that foreshadow the grim visceral punch of ROLLING THUNDER from the following year, arguably the most famous example of the 'Disturbed 'Nam Vet' sub-genre. That film benefited from a substantially larger (if still low) budget, notable technicians behind the camera, and thespians who went on to bigger things.
"They didn't count, they were just gooks!"
An uncomfortable dinner conversation that begins with laughter, but ends with lots of screaming.
The violence itself is rather tasteless and made all the more unnerving in that Kline moralizes with each friend before snuffing them out in assorted gruesome ways that befit the violence they perpetrated in 'Nam. The editing scheme here is also worth mentioning, lending itself to the unsettling groove established right from the start; the aforementioned 'Nam death footage inserts being extremely effective.
Easily the grimmest sequence is the second killing. Kline ends up at his friend Gil's house in Southern California. Spending the night, it becomes known that Gil had no desire to even entertain Kline. He reveals to his wife of Gene's crumbling state before and after he ended up as a prisoner of war. We also see that Gil is into rough sex and pretty much rapes his wife when she doesn't feel like entertaining him.
Kline then gets out of bed a short time later, grabs the revolver from his suitcase and enters their room. Suddenly changing his personality, Kline is now back in 'Nam and thinks he's Gil and that he's stumbled upon a couple of Vietcong. When information about captured men and supplies isn't forthcoming, Kline shoots Gil in the hand and leg. He forces his wife to tie him up then rapes her in front of him.
Not only did this woman suffer a rough ride from her husband, but later in the night, she's raped yet again, this time by a psycho who thinks he's still slumming it in the sweltering Vietnamese jungle.
"I should'a left you in that loony bin when you cracked up over there."
The third murder is possibly the most revealing conver-sational piece when Gene Kline next visits his old friend Les; living alone and a member of a theater group. Les is obviously disturbed, too, but not to the murderous degree of our main character. Gene uses Les's feelings of regret and detachment to help him in his last big "performance" that culminates in a twisted level of Kevorkian death dealing.
It's one of a few times this movie belies its exploitation roots in an effort to strive for something more than mindless brutality.
"Walt made Les kill the kids, he made him kill the kids! I think one of those kids belonged to the chief's wife...Walt thought it was funny when the chief's wife threw herself on that kid...he then told me to kill the chief! My hands were shaking so hard I could hardly hold the gun!! Walt saved the chief's wife for himself...she was pregnant...just like you. Her belly was out to there...he did it with a knife...it comes to an end now, anyway. No more memory...no more pain..."
The last fifteen minutes of the picture wherein Kline confronts his former Sergeant is the most suspenseful section of the movie.
All of the scenes with Kline in the presence of those unknowing that he intends to cancel them out are very well done on this shoe-string budget. You're left wondering just when Kline is going to snap and what he has in store for his victims. That Walter, his former commander, has a pregnant wife, makes the finale all the more distressing.
However, the fate of one character pretty much goes how you expect save for one bit that, despite taking the "high" road, is rather surprising after everything that's come before it. For a movie rife with so much revulsion, this moment during the finale may disappoint hardened trash peddlers. I was nonetheless surprised and thought this bit of exploitational deceptiveness was commendable and went a long way in allowing me to forgive the director for A*P*E (1976).
Fans of rare, obscure 70s movies will want this in their collections as will those with a predilection for lower rung Hollywood fare built around controversial topics that were raging in the news of the day. Without doubt a product of its time period, and in spite of its under-budgeted short-comings, MY FRIENDS NEED KILLING is in dangerous need of a wider audience.
*A big thank you to Chris P. for allowing me the opportunity to finally see this 70s rarity*