Friday, October 13, 2006

It Came from Netflix! Mutant (1983)

Mutant, a.k.a. Night Shadows, is a film that efficiently synthesizes a number of horror movie tropes popular in the 1970s; the American Southland as a place of menace (not too surprising a notion, as that’s where Jimmy Carter came from), evil corporatism, cover-ups by the Powers that Be, contagion and fatalism.

Indeed, the whole feel of the film is so of the ‘70s that it was only the use of air bladder effects during the monster transformation scenes—popularized by 1981’s The Howling and ubiquitous for several years thereafter—that made me think this might have been made at a later date. The ‘70s-ishness of the film is probably due to the fact that the ‘star’ members of the cast (Wings Hauser and Bo Hopkins), and more importantly the director (John “Bud” Cardos), had cut their B-movie teeth in the previous decade.

We open with a classic stalk ‘n’ kill sequence, signally immediately that folks are being killed by something or someone that leaves the victims’ flesh smoking. That established, we cut to our main characters, Josh (Hauser) and Mike. Two brothers from up north, they are taking a driving vacation in order to spend some time together.

Josh is kind of wild, Mike is the opposite. To get Mike’s goat, Josh starts driving like an idiot and attracts the attention of—what else—a crew of violent Southern rednecks led by one Albert Pogue. A chase commences, and Josh’s car is driven off the road. Their car disabled, the brothers hike into a small nearby town to seek a tow truck. There they run into Pogue and company again, and only escape severe physical harm via the intercession of Sheriff Stewart (Hopkins). Stewart is not very sympathetic, however, and orders them to get out of town the next day.

Interestingly, both brothers attract trouble, but in manners according to their personalities. Josh takes stupid risks (as long as he is in charge, as when he’s driving), while the more naïve Mike is the one who persists in—to Josh’s mind—baiting the locals. Having found one of the bodies earlier, Mike keeps attempting to convince Stewart of this. Josh, aware of just how tenuous their situation is, and frankly not really caring about the corpse, wants him to shut up until they are safely out of the vicinity.

After bunking down for the night at a local B&B, Josh heads back into town to seek a mechanic. Instead, he meets pretty young school teacher Holly. The town itself is increasingly deserted, meanwhile, due to a rapidly spreading illness. The unwitting Stewart and his one-time lover Dr. Tate (Jennifer Warren) end up closing in on the truth from one end, while Josh and Holly do so from another angle.

Things are progressing quickly, however, Before they much have time to figure out what is happening, the majority of the town’s population has been killed or zombified. Come nightfall, the town’s few remaining humans find themselves fighting for their lives against a horde of mindless killers.

Cardos ably captures an evocative sense of place, along with a nice, ‘70s-esque naturalism. Hauser, for his part, is a weird dude, both in looks and demeanor, sort of a younger Bruce Dern-type. Given this, he generally played villains rather than heroes. Here, however, his non-movie star looks add a further feel of reality to the proceedings. The rest of the cast is solid, too, and looking at a lot of the DTV junk churned out today makes you wonder when it became so hard to get a bunch of decent actors together for a low-budget movie. Perhaps it’s just not a priority any longer.

As with Cardos’ earlier Kingdom of the Spiders, things soon take on an apocalyptic turn, albeit not on quite so broad a scale. Sadly, it’s at this point the movie starts to stumble. They quite evidently didn’t have the time or the budget to really capture what they were going after here. This manifests itself in, for instance, some blatantly phony-looking action scenes. At one point Hauser fends some zombies off with a wiggling rubber ‘tire iron’. It also becomes all too clear during the film’s extended climax that fight choreography was not much of a priority.

More damaging is the ridiculously exaggerated look of the zombies. These sport the sort of heavy gray greasepaint and fright wigs that wouldn’t be out of place in kid’s somewhat ambitious 8mm monster movie. The level of the aforementioned air bladder effects, meanwhile, quickly establishes that Rob Bottin had nothing to do with this movie. In both these matter, less would have been significantly more.

Still, most of the things a film can provide on a limited budget—good direction and acting; a tight, at least serviceable script; decent characterization—this one delivers. Moreover, I can honestly say the movie caught me off honestly guard more than once, and that’s not something that happens overmuch.

Starting as an actor and stuntman, John ‘Bud’ Cardos remains a name to conjure with for B-movie fans of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Aside from directing one of Bill Shatner’s better turns in the demi-classic King of the Spiders, Cardos helmed incredibly fun crap like Outlaw of Gor, and sheparded as best he could the legendarily troubled production of (1979’s) The Dark. For whatever reason, he basically dropped out of the movie business altogether in the early ‘90s.

Wings Hauser is a busy character actor, best known for playing scary psychopaths in such films as Vice Squad. Unsurprisingly, he has also done a ton of episodic TV work. He continues to do such work, as recent appearances on Monk and House, M.D. attest.

Bo Hopkin was another reliable and busy actor trolling the B-movie and TV show waters (he has over a 120 credits listed on the IMDB), specializing in tight-lipped violent types. Like Hauser, his face rather than his name would be familiar to TV and drive-in movie buffs of a certain age. He appears to have retired as of 2003.

Although not quite as prolific as Hauser or Hopkins, Jennifer Warren was also a busy actress through the ‘70s and ‘80s. She appeared in a mix of low-budget theatricals, TV shows and TV movies. Several of the latter were genre oriented, such as the 1976 Jaws knock-off Shark Kill, and 1981’s Alien knock-off The Intruder Within.

Watching B-movies of the ‘60s through ‘80s always make me wonder. At what point did low-budget fare stop being often pretty good movies with a few obvious limitations, and become just lazy, nearly unwatchable junk?



At 11:57 AM, Blogger David Lee said...

I saw this movie at a dive theatre in Newark, NJ back in 1984. Maybe it was the vibe of the theatre (it was run down and scary looking in a run down and scary looking neighborhood) but I thought it was a pretty creepy movie. The scene in the school bathroom had me pretty freaked out.

At 12:12 PM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

Seriously, I'm not *that* old, but phrases like "I saw Mutant at a drive-in theater" really do make me weepy for a more golden past.

At 12:20 PM, Blogger Marty McKee said...

This one has been in my Netflix queue from the beginning. Hauser and Hopkins also co-starred in NIGHTMARE AT NOON, which is a pretty good action-filled zombie flick directed by Nico Mastronakis (I think I spelled the Greek director's name wrong, but I'm too lazy to check IMDb). I recommend it.

Aw, how can you say mean things about Jimmy Carter? I guarantee he would have only nice things to say about you.

At 12:31 PM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

That bitter old fart? I doubt it. He hasn't had a good word for anyone aside from brutal and often genicidal maniacs (Arafat, Ceausescu, Kim Jong-il, Chavez, Tito, etc.) for the last twenty years.

The amazing thing is that Carter is an even worse ex-President than he was a President. That, at least, is an extraordinary achievement.

At 12:45 PM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

By the way, Nightmare at Noon is now in *my* Netflix queue. Thanks, Marty.

(Good grief, and it also stars Brion James and George Kennedy?! Why haven't I heard of this movie before?!)

At 7:58 AM, Anonymous the rev. d.d. said...

I've had Mutant lying around the house for a couple years now. Mom got it for me for a birthday...probably thought it was a monster movie due to the cover (not the one you show, the older one). I'd read about it in Video Trash and Treasures by L.A. Morse, and I hadn't really heard enough good about it to bother...there was always something more exciting to watch in my collection. Your review, however, makes me think I should dig it up this weekend.
If it hadn't been for that same book, I'd have never heard of Nightmare at Noon either. I've certainly never seen it anywhere. It seems to be very much like Mutant except the zombies aren't acidic. Naturally, Marty would know more about it, since it'd seem he's seen it.


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