If there’s one job that’s less enviable than being the President of the United States, it’s being a low budget filmmaker. I gather most Americans think of directors as people to whom studios hand millions of dollars, so they can point a camera and sit in a folding chair between their glitzy parties in the Hollywood Hills. People who think this have no idea just how much grunt work goes into making a film, and how hard it is to get one finished. Stevan Mena knows this. It took him six years to get his debut film MALEVOLENCE in the can, and during that odyssey, he encountered some strange situations, and some even stranger characters. When he couldn’t secure budget for his prequel, instead of committing suicide, he did the one thing a director knows how to do: he made another film. Not just any film, though. A film about the odyssey a low budget filmmaker has to go through to get his latest work off the ground. The final outcome is BRUTAL MASSACRE, and it’s a hilarious romp that serves as a brutal warning to all those who want to make films.
BRUTAL MASSACRE starts off in a place so many of us find familiar: the horror convention. Harry Penderecki is ready to make his directing comeback, and he’s got a documentary crew in tow. Harry’s public appearance among those who laud him is just the beginning, as he goes about his work: securing funds from a cowboy who thinks “titties” are the key to a horror film’s success; sending out his assistant director Jay on location scouting, to find the perfect house; hiring a cast of dubious talents and assembling a crew, all of whom will work for little or no money; and in the end, marrying sound to image and putting together a film. None of this, I assure you, goes smoothly.
Mena could have made a mean spirited, biting piece about the difficulties of making a film, and I’m sure he could have made a fine piece. But the genius here was that Mena decided to satirize the events. In doing so, he manages to point out all the suffering a low budget director must suffer, but in entertaining fashion. Take, for example, the controversy of the nipple. Penderecki and Jay have to bend over backwards to persuade an actress, who has already agreed to do nudity, to show her nipple once. Simple enough. Until it unfolds into filming the scene itself. A misunderstood non-verbal communication between Harry and his DP Hanu (with whom Harry shares an almost psychic link) leads to an out-of-focus nipple shot; which subsequently leads to a hilarious showdown between Penderecki and Hanu in the DP’s hotel room. But the true payoff comes near the film’s end, when the film’s eventual distributor praises Harry for his out-of-focus nipple. Had Mena played this straight, his point would have been taken, but not nearly as enjoyable.
What makes these scenes even more poignant is Mena’s documentary on the DVD for MALEVOLENCE. Toward the end of it, he rattles off a number of problems he encountered, such as an overflowing toilet in an RV, a crew member who hijacked the film negative and ransomed it for pay, and a crazed local who rented a film location under false pretense. It’s no surprise that every one of the terrors he describes, he goes on to satirize in BRUTAL MASSACRE. Though he stretches and alters them to absurd ends, his comedy is so effective because Mena himself has experienced them firsthand.
One of BRUTAL MASSACRE’s greatest strengths is its veteran genre cast, all of whom are playing against type. David Naughton is perfect as Penderecki, a moron who fashions himself a visionary; but even he seems to see through his own smoke screen, as he’s always one step from losing it. Brian O’Halloran of CLERKS is superb as the dimwitted assistant director whose constant hustle keeps both the director and his work from falling to pieces. EVIL DEAD’s Ellen Sandweiss does no-nonsense in style, the bulldog who keeps things real as Harry yearns to fulfill his artistic spirit. Gerry Bednob brings an insane glee to his role as Vanu, the sometimes lethally angry DP. Ken Foree is far from the self-confidence he brought to Peter in DAWN OF THE DEAD; as a rigger whose plans to get out of the film industry and work with computers while he still can… well, I’ll leave that to the film. The most inspired bit of casting is Gunnar Hansen as the local who rents the perfect house to the crew set. His maniacal gaze sells his unhinged Vietnam vet, and his frequent promises that the crew can do anything to the house can only end in disaster, at least in this film. Throw in cameos by Mick Garris and former Fangoria editor Tony Timpone as themselves, and this cast goes at the material full tilt. I was surprised to find that so many other reviewers criticized BRUTAL MASSACRE for its lack of comic timing; for the most part I disagree, and when the timing was off, I found it even funnier. I feel too many people sold this film short, and maybe if they gave it another shot, they would see the comic genius in it that I see. Make no mistake: in a world of lame studio comedies that don’t tickle the funnybone, BRUTAL MASSACRE is outrageously funny, in large part to its cast.
Anchor Bay provided a few extras on the DVD. The two main extras start off with the behind-the-scenes. It fits the film like a glove, because everybody in it stays in character. The other extra consists of about 20 minutes of deleted and extended scenes. I can see why most of them were cut, as they would tamper with the film’s flow. But some of them are flat-out hilarious, especially the one that involves Foree and Bednob sharing a room. Well worth a look.
While Spielberg and Ridley Scott are off partying while negotiating their next eight-figure deals, Stevan Mena is down in the trenches, alongside Harry Pendercki. Mena knows how tough a time it can be, and thankfully for his audience, he’s still able to have a sense of humor about it. Hopefully, Harry is too.
–Phil Fasso
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