Cheapo banjo music is for lovers of b-movies what the distant tinkling of the ice-cream truck is for children or what the shaking of a can of Pounce is for cats: An idiotic calling we are helpless to resist. As those first few notes are strummed, we find ourselves eagerly anticipating the menacing, slack-jawed yokels to come, the thirty-something yuppies traveling into the backwoods, the farm implements used as weapons, the chase through the forest, the ponderous dialogue about the true nature of man.
The opening credits of Savage Weekend, infused as they are with cheapo banjo music, would seem to promise all of these things. And indeed, the set-up is classic pseudo-_Deliverance_: Marie (Marilyn Hamlin), Shirley (Caitlin O’Heaney), Robert (Jim Doerr), Jay (Devin Goldenberg), and Nicky (Christopher Allport) leave the Big Apple and head to rural, upstate New York to spend the weekend at Robert’s cabin and check up on the progress of Robert’s half-built boat. When they arrive they find a dead bat nailed to the door-frame of the cabin, as if in ominous warning. They also encounter Mac (David Gale), who leers over his thick, ’70s-mustache at the women, and Otis, local handyman, weirdo, voyeur and obvious red herring. Otis, Mac tells the gang, was in love with his cousin and brutally attacked her and her lover. By the time the killer, wearing a creepy Halloween mask, shows up, Savage Weekend seems to have moved beyond Deliverance into the territory of Friday the 13th and other slasher flicks.
And yet the film isn’t quite so straightforward. Take the character of Nicky. At first he seems like a stereotypical gay man, a lazy, sashaying punch-line. He walks into one of the local bars, winks and smiles at the burly lumberjacks and mill workers playing pool, and orders a martini.
“What the hell is that?” asks the bartender. Men in trucker hats stare threateningly at him. The viewer expects something terribly homophobic and un-PC to happen. Then suddenly, Nicky grabs a beer bottle, smashes it on the bar and holds the shard up to the neck of one of the men.
“You come one step closer,” he tells the others, “and I’ll make a bloody Mary out of his face. I was brought up in the South Bronx, sweetheart.”
After pummeling some of the mill workers, Nicky leaves, no longer the prancing stereotype he was when he entered the bar. Then there’s Otis, played by the great character actor William Sanderson in one of his earliest screen appearances. He’s impossibly young in Savage Weekend, yet as greasy, twitchy and shifty-eyed as ever. Like Nicky, Otis should be a bad, possibly embarrassing stereotype, yet Sanderson brings a near-Method level of authenticity to his mentally disturbed hick, as well as something else—poignancy, maybe. He transcends the one-dimensional—something Sanderson has done in everything from Newhart to Deadwood to brief appearances on Lost and Life. We see Otis, early in the film, crouched over a grave, mumbling to his dead buddy Clarence. Robert’s half-built boat, it turns out, once belonged to Clarence.
“But that son of a bitch don’t care nothing about your boat,” Otis tells Clarence. Otis has been hired by Robert to work on the boat, but he can’t seem to bring himself to finish the project, as if in deference to Clarence’s memory. It’s a surprisingly touching moment in the film—strange, but touching.
Savage Weekend is fascinating for other reasons as well. There’s the long, slow buildup to the killing, which might recall the suspenseful but relatively subdued first half of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre if didn’t feature so many scenes of characters wandering around and speaking about oblique, existential matters. In some ways, it’s like Last Year At Marienbad performed by a community theater—and with more brutal slayings. There’s also the simple fact that Savage Weekend predates the slasher movies it occasionally seems to be knocking off. The film, after all, was originally made in 1976 as The Killer Behind the Mask, a full two years before Halloween and four years before the unlucky camp counselors of Camp Crystal Lake; it was first released in 1979, then re-released on video in 1981 to cash in on the popularity of the genre. There’s also a lengthy seduction scene involving cow udders, though the less said about that the better.
No discussion of Savage Weekend, however, would be complete without mention of its boom mics. Nearly every scene has at least one mic bopping down into frame over the actors’ heads. At one point we even catch a glimpse of the boom mic operator‘s hairy forearm in the corner of the frame. Later, we see some crew members in the background of one shot, looking over what seems to be a copy of the script. Is it amateurish? Sure. This was, after all, director David Paulsen’s first movie. Should all the obvious gaffes detract from the film? Probably. But somehow it doesn’t. You, the viewer, are actually witnessing the creation of this film as it happens. It’s as if you are there, with the cast and crew, trying desperately to piece together something, anything. Savage Weekend is, in many ways, an unclassifiable movie—tedious, scary, pretentious and low-rent all at once. There’s no real genre for it. The cheapo banjo music sets up certain expectations and the movie itself delivers something else entirely. Is it a work of art? Maybe not. Call it a work in progress, never to be complete.