Savage Weekend (1981)

Sharp Objects, Dull Wits: The ’80s Flashback of ‘Savage Weekend’ and ‘Lisa’

These films were rescued from old VHS and late-night TV, but why?

Scorpion Releasing has unearthed two low-budget shockers about psycho killers, which lots of viewers caught on TV at some time or another since the ’80s, and reissued them on Blu-ray, complete with interviews.

Savage Weekend was shot in upstate New York in 1976 under the title The Killer Behind the Mask and languished for years before getting a release. Muddy censored prints have floated in the public domain, but this Blu-ray edition “in HD from the original vault elements” is the full dose, with more nudity than you might expect. It looks as good as it probably can, which still has its limits.

The idea of a masked psycho stalking a bunch of knuckleheads at a house in the woods and killing them in various ways wasn’t quite a genre yet, so in that respect, Savage Weekend was slightly ahead of its game before circulating on video in the flood of slasher films after Halloween and Friday the 13th. As a result, this slow-boiling stew owes nothing to them. With its emphasis on class resentments between local hicks and snooty big-city folks, its main debt is to Deliverance, with perhaps a dash of Straw Dogs. A backstory of political corruption and “impotence” might tie in with themes of sexual transgression and punishment that overshadow the “city vs. country” thing.

The main drama concerns Marie (Marilyn Hamlin), an uptight and rather randomly characterized heroine who “doesn’t know what she wants” and “can’t feel anything”; her bland stockbroker boyfriend (Jim Doerr); the local handyman (David Gale) with a manly mustache, who says, “Every time I turn around I see another wood nymph”; and another local yahoo who’s crazy-angry from the get-go. He’s Otis, played by William Sanderson in a weird dry run for his role of Larry on the Newhart TV series.

In fact, the manipulative opening sequence (scored by backwoodsy plucking, like “Duelling Banjos” without the duel) shows Otis brandishing a chainsaw while Marie runs through the trees with lots of subjective shaky-cam. We’ll have to wait until the end of the movie before we know what that means, but if it’s a spoiler to call it brazenly deceptive, so be it. We must wonder if writer-director David Paulsen created this opening in the editing sometime later to help sell the picture, and we’re reminded of Kathy Bates’ righteous complaints about the old chapter-plays in Misery : “Do you all have amnesia? They just lied to you! He didn’t get out of the cock-a-doody car!”

Although it’s hard to believe they’d come along for the ride, the more interesting characters are a bitchy gay friend (Christopher Allport) who swans about in little shorts and defends himself handily in a bar fight because he was brought up in the Bronx, and Marie’s sister (Caitlin O’Heaney, billed as Kathleen Heaney in her film debut), a sexually open woman who flashes her breasts — in other words, a slut, and therefore a candidate for the cruelest death. For the record, we should mention Marie’s ex-husband (Jeff Pomerantz), who had a breakdown after his political career was ruined, and the brief debut of a youngl Yancy Butler, who grew up to star on TV’s Witchblade.

Lisa (1990)

More slick and skillful is Gary Sherman’s Lisa, which aired a lot on the Lifetime Network. The 14-year-old Lisa (Staci Keanan, who’s very good) has a sound but strained relationship with her single mom (Cheryl Ladd) over whether she’s old enough to go on dates. Maybe mom should loosen up after all, for the miffed Lisa retreats into phone pranks with a handsome stranger (D.W. Moffett) who happens to be the anonymous Candlelight Killer making so many headlines.

The story owes something to William Castle’s I Saw What You Did (1965), as refashioned for the flat, brightly lit ’80s and re-imagined for the world of answering machines. (A remake today would emphasize the Internet.) Co-written by Karen Clark, the script’s investment in Lisa’s relationships with other characters (especially the female ones) keeps it credible as the plot builds to the big knockdown drag-out at the end, which requires some stupidity on the killer’s part. The highlight of suspense is when Lisa finds herself in the killer’s car in something of a bravura sequence.

Sherman, who is interviewed and offers a commentary track, is best remembered by horror fans for Deathline (aka Raw Meat ) and Dead and Buried, and the thrillers Vice Squad and Wanted Dead or Alive. He states that he created this film specifically for adolescent girls, including his daughter. Obviously a less visceral film than these, it satisfies on its quieter level because the characters are more well-drawn and likeable, as is necessary for this type of essentially mechanical suspense.

RATING 4 / 10