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Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Love Butcher (1975) review


Erik Stern (Caleb/Lester), Kay Neer (Florence Leonard), Jeremiah Beecher (Russell Wilson), Richard Kennedy (Captain Donald Stark), Robin Sherwood (Sheila), Eve Mac (Pat)

Directed by Mikel Angel and Don Jones

"I'm the great male Adonis of the universe!"

The Short Version: This 70s misogynist schlock is about a deeply disturbed, necrophilic gardener with a penchant for pruning the female population of an LA suburb. Wretchedly entertaining from start to finish, the film is held together by its lead, Erik Stern, stoically uttering some of the dumbest dialog imaginable in a showstopping, multi-character portrayal of Shatnerian proportions. Equal parts Norman Bates and Robert Louis Stevenson's famous Jekyll and Hyde story, this tale of the psycho with the alternating psyche is in the same class as THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS (1974) and THE SWINGING BARMAIDS (1975); only THE LOVE BUTCHER is that one clown destined to sit in the corner wearing a dunce cap. That's a recommendation, by the way.

Caleb, a deranged caretaker with a split personality, kills beautiful women living in a Los Angeles suburb using a variety of disguises and garden tools.

The tastelessly titled THE LOVE BUTCHER is fun for all the wrong reasons. Other than a few shining moments, it's uniformly awful in nearly every department; yet somehow manages, seemingly by accident, to come out a polished turd. For instance, the gore is of the "offscreen technician squirts blood" variety. However, the quirky music of porn composer Richard Hieronymus gives the impression we're watching an intentionally terrible movie. The use of cartoonish cues, and even Beethoven, adds a blackly humorous layer, turning this malnourished movie into a digestible experience. Regarding porn, with its $40,000 budget, THE LOVE BUTCHER could easily have been an X rated venture. 

Shot in 2.35:1widescreen to give it more ample production value, the filmmakers do very little with the wider open space. Most everything is dead centered. There are a few infrequently inspired moments, but something else keeps the picture interesting; and that one factor that makes this movie of lasting importance is Erik Stern.

While a life preserver couldn't keep the film from drowning in a sea of mediocrity, the performance of Erik Stern manages to keep the movie afloat despite being given the dumbest lines this side of an Ed Wood monologue. He even gets a catchphrase, "But of course!" Stern didn't do a great deal afterward, but his deliriously excessive tour de force as the title boucherie de l'amour alludes to great things that never materialized. Co-director Angel's script (with assist by Jim Evergreen) contains a bumper crop of hackneyed dialog for Stern, and he spouts if off with such straight-faced conviction, one can't help but be in awe of him--especially when the necrophilic nutcase is uttering diatribes like, "You're going to make love to me. Satiate me. Fill me with nymphoid satisfaction. Drain me. And then you'll lie at the foot of my alter. And adore my godly beauty."

A comparable performance would be Dyanne Thorne as Ilsa, the psycho-sexual Nazi Fraulein of a popular series of exploitation pictures. Both are wildly over the top and campy, only Erik Stern's role is far more complicated, yet, unfortunately, his career never took off in the cult film canon as Thorne's did with her infamous interpretation of the nasty Nazi. 

Stilted dialog aside, the writers have given Stern a psychologically complex character to chew on for 84 minutes. It's the film's winning hand where most everything else fails. Stern is essaying a dual role of sorts, with Caleb and Lester evoking both Jekyll and Hyde and Norman Bates. The former in that Caleb is docile and ugly while Lester is handsome and a smooth talker. Caleb is a hunched over, balding, overalls-wearing gimp who wears what looks like magnifying glasses for bifocals. When Caleb kills, he does so as Lester, a suave, muscular Casanova wearing a toupee who sweet talks the ladies--making house calls as something of a Love Doctor--but once the doors close he becomes the Love Butcher. 

Just like in the same years THE SWINGING BARMAIDS (1975), we're dealing with another guy who can take his women hot or cold, if you get my meaning. That film, along with others dealing with psycho killers, are superior to THE LOVE BUTCHER, but few have the ability to blur the line between outright kitsch and refinement.

The two persona's are constantly at war with one another, too. In actuality, there's more to this relationship than a mere split personality--Caleb and Lester were brothers. Some of the best scenes are those where Caleb is arguing with Lester, who is represented by a Styrofoam mannequin. When Caleb is Lester (actually, Lester is the one who is alive), he has a wide array of personalities aside from assuming the identity of his sibling--these range from a Texas cowboy, to a Hispanic record salesman; and Stern is extraordinarily good at all of them.

It's in these scenes of a battle of wills where the PSYCHO (1960) influence is noticeable. When Caleb/Lester is talking to himself, we never see him talking in the other voice. There's a detachment between the two that's reflective of Norman's conversations with his "mother". A deep seated animosity is shared between the two families--Norman with his mother and Caleb/Lester with his brother. That the two are in fact brothers isn't a big secret, but the final revelation at the very end is another comparison to Bates.

There's one other actor who makes an impression in THE LOVE BUTCHER. Richard Kennedy (billed as Edward Roehm) is seemingly in competition with Stark as to who can say the ridiculous dialog in the most serious, or most bombastic fashion; such as this pearl Kennedy says with a straight face when his character figures out a defining trait of the killer.... "Whoever did this is weird. Not just sick, but a real weirdo." Kennedy, as Captain Stark, is constantly yelling his lines with gnashing teeth, repeating similar affectations of a certain iconic police officer played by Clint Eastwood. Just as Erik Stern is incredible as the literal lady-killer, so is Kennedy as the no-budget Harry Callahan. A veteran of a handful of Drive-in movies, Kennedy (who had more than one pseudonym) was a memorable character actor who could really express himself as villains or comic relief. He was the General who begged Ilsa to piss on him in ILSA, SHE-WOLF OF THE SS (1975) and gets scalped in the Indian revenge picture, JOHNNY FIRECLOUD (1975).

For all of Stark's anxiety and bluster, he can't seem to put two and two together in what amounts to another scripting blunder. It takes him and his police force long enough to come to the conclusion that all the murders have occurred in the same neighborhood, but never seem to make the gardening tool connection. Towards the end we hear a radio broadcast that Stark has been removed from the case due to incompetency! Even more hair-brained is Russell, listening to this on the radio, figures it all out by recalling two different people referring to Caleb the gardener as a weirdo.

With little else to recommend it, the rewatch value of THE LOVE BUTCHER is due predominantly to Erik Stern. His multi-cultural character arcs are a marvel to watch in action. Richard Kennedy gives him some good camp competition in the interim. The gore is weak, but the misogynistic mean streak is strong, even with the chintzy moments generously spread throughout. Your tolerance for camp will figure into whether you'll be able to handle something as budget barren and technically inadequate as this. The Drive-in crowd will be the most appreciative by a visit from THE LOVE BUTCHER (1975).

This review is representative of the Code Red DVD. Extras and specs: 16x9 anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen; audio commentary with director Don Jones.

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