Color, 1975, 85m.
Directed by Don Jones and Mikel Angel
Starring Erik Stern, Kay Neer, Jeremiah Beecher, Richard Kennedy, Robin Sherwood
Code Red (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
Horror movies in the mid-'70s don't come much more crazily entertaining than The Love Butcher, a nutty psycho shocker with a thick streak of effective black comedy. TV actor Erik Stern has a field day here as Caleb, a balding, heavily bespectacled gardener with a "gimp" hand, and his domineering, suave, psychopathic, and far more hirsute brother, Lester. The thing is, Lester only seems to appear and take over when Caleb's talking to a black mannequin wearing a wig, so we're obviously inside a lunatic's head right from the beginning.
When women start turning up dead in a tranquil suburban community, irritable reporter Russell (Beecher) puts his career and his love life on the line to track down this predator, who seems to be knocking off any female who treats employee Caleb nastily. That means the woman-hating Lester's bound to pay a visit soon and take care of them, adopting a bizarre array of accents and assuming personas like a smooth-talking Puerto Rican record salesman. Of course, it's just a matter of time before Lester and Russell cross paths, leading to a crafty twist ending of sorts.
Almost every character in The Love Butcher is foul tempered and played way over the top, which naturally makes its gear shifting between sicko comedy and shocking violence far easier to swallow than the potentially offensive premise might indicate. The film was more than a little unlucky, with original one-shot director Mikel Angel (better known as the writer of Psychic Killer and an actor in films like The Candy Tangerine Man and Grotesque) waltzing off after delivering his initial, unreleasable cut under the title The Gardener. The full saga of the film was covered in detail in Stephen Thrower's epic Nightmare, USA, but to cover the basics, the production company enlisted the film's cinematographer Don Jones (director of Girls in Chains and The Forest) to perform salvage duty by essentially going back and reshooting about half of the film to give it some coherence.
Much of the bizarre comedy was injected at this point to give it a tone similar to what might happen if an acidic sitcom like Maude got hijacked by Wes Craven, and the end result is a wonderfully strange middle film between the visually linked '60s roughie Aroused and the 1980 mannequins and gore classic Maniac (with a few similarities to The Toolbox Murders for good measure). This one is pure '70s all the way thanks to a gaudy parade of vibrant, supremely tacky art direction and outfits, though ironically it wasn't until the '80s slasher craze was in full swing that any significant number of viewers finally ran into this one courtesy of Monterey's VHS release. By that point it looked a bit dated, though the roughness of some of the murders (which involve an array of gardening implements and even a swimming pool hose) certainly caught the attention of more than a few sleaze film fans (possibly including director Jeff Burr, who recreated Caleb's appearance for Clu Gulager's character in From a Whisper to a Scream). That VHS tape (in one of this great oversized boxes) found in most mom and pop stores throughout the decade brutalized the original, very wide Techniscope compositions, often making nonsense of the Caleb/Lester scenes and coming off far more claustrophobic than originally intended. That same transfer was later ripped off for a pathetic bootleg DVD in 2006 from Jef Films, which should be avoided at all costs.
Fortunately you don't have to put up with either of those options thanks to the 2013 DVD release from Code Red, which finally presents the film in its original scope aspect ratio for the first time ever on home video, or the 2016 Blu-ray release. The print is in very good shape with just few minor bits of damage, and not surprisingly, the film plays far more enjoyably when you can actually follow what exactly is going on in every shot. The sole extra is an audio commentary with Jones, moderator Lee Christian, and R.A. the Rugged Man (of Basket Case extras fame), which alternates between giddily celebrating the film's highlights and pointing out which sequences were shot by which person. Apparently this was recorded quite a long time ago (most likely circa Jones' commentary for the same label's The Forest), most obviously since they refer to Bad Biology as a new film about to be released. (The theatrical trailer can be seen on Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part 2: Draconian Days.) Very highly recommended, of course, and be prepared to show this one off to a lot of friends in the future.
Updated review on May 26, 2016.