The Butcher (2016), directed by Emir Skalonja.
Written by Emir Skalonja and Richard Thrift.
Starring Kay Baun, Elizabeth Becker and Sam Jindra.
The Butcher is one of the many, many horror movies that seem to have been inspired directly by the murderous antics of one Mr Edward Gein. For those inexplicably unfamiliar with his work, Mr Gein was a serial murderer who haunted Plainfield, Wisconsin in the late 1940s and early 50s. Though he was from a small town and his “career” lasted barely half a decade, Gein made himself a name in the serial killer community for the – how shall we put it? – joie de travailler with which he went about his work.
Almost all of the tropes beloved of the serial killer movie – the suit made of human skin, the mock-crucifixions, the skull crockery – have come from the details of Ed Gein’s trial. He inspired the characters of Norman Bates in Psycho and Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, along with countless others. It’s probably fair to say, with no fear of (and complete apathy towards) contradiction, that he is the serial killer most memorialised in fiction. It’s a cliché to refer to someone as “the modern-day Jack the Ripper”, but if anyone ever deserved that overworked epithet it was Plainfield Eddie.
As a low-budget short feature, LeglessCorpse Films’ The Butcher selects a small-scale view of Gein as its theme, focusing on the brutal end of his arrangements; as the name implies, it eschews much in the way of psychological treatment to look specifically at what you might call the business end of his hobby; the meat of the matter, if we must. The film opens with a montage of shots of the Butcher’s warehouse, and it’s handled in traditional grindhouse fashion, with metal guitar playing raucously over a variety of shots from the abattoir. A man in a mask made from the flesh of victims past is tooling around the place, tidying up or something. Body parts and corn syrup are lovingly displayed in both sharp and soft focus as the film-makers attempt to make maximal use of their (naturally) limited budget. The results are mixed; although great love and care has clearly been lavished on the dismembered limbs, they are clearly still the result of low-budget work, albeit by very able technicians. As a consequence, the carcass titbits on display are more likely to generate a sense of appreciation rather than awe or disgust; I found myself thinking “those are really rather good for the price” instead of “uuuUUUuuurrrgh”, which would presumably have been closer to the reaction LeglessCorpse wanted. The viewer’s immersion is not exactly perfect as a result.
In any event, The Butcher proceeds to serve up a hearty unvegan banquet of flying chunks of meat washed down with a thimbleful of unrefined plot. While our Designated Gein Impersonator is flaying bits of corpse to make a face mask with, somewhere in the city a girl is arguing with her gay BFF over the fact she doesn’t get enough action. He finally persuades her to sign up to Tinder and she arranges a date with a guy who, inevitably, turns out to be the titular Butcher. Her subsequent kidnapping, shoving in a basement with other hostages, and messy torture-porn courtship make up the remainder of the film. Will our plucky heroine finish the film as final girl or filet mignon?
As one would expect of an indie effort such as The Butcher, the cast’s acting is variable, with the central characters generally acquitting themselves better than the supporting cast. However, The Butcher seems to have made this particular deficiency more insurmountable than it needs to be, because they have either given the cast no time to learn their lines or, as I suspect is the case, attempted a sort of semi-improvised approach whereby they are given the gist of what to say and make their lines up as they go.
Now, one certainly cannot fault this approach for ambition, but fault it one can and must for its total lack of common sense. It might work well when you’re making The Thick of It and Peter Capaldi is running his mouth twenty to the dozen, but when you have an amateur group of untrained actors then the lack of a proper script is simply another blow to their confidence that they do not need. A prime case in point is Richard Thrift as the BFF; though showing real potential, he is visibly uncomfortable in his establishing scene, and it isn’t until he and Meghan Saramak, our leading lady, settle down to a fun session of dissing potential booty calls on his Tinder app that he relaxes and a more natural performance style emerges. It doesn’t help that is introductory scene suffers from a case of Rude Mechanical Syndrome, where a lot of work goes into explaining a detail – in this case, the Gay BFF’s English accent – that would probably have passed unnoticed had it not been so painstakingly explained away.
Even the antagonist, Sean Patrick Saramak, stumbles over the lack of script at times; having brutally inconvenienced one of his female prisoners in the middle of a manky basement, he catches another hostage watching the whole dispiriting process. “Got a problem?” he snaps at her. That the actress manages not to reply “Yes, I’m being held captive in a blood-spattered cellar by a headcase wearing a bacon mask” is a credit to her commitment, but these moments of unintentional humour could have been ironed out by more preparation, either in the scripting stage or during rehearsals. Bonus points, however, for a scene were the Butcher interrupts his charitable services providing wank-fodder for acrotomophiliacs in order to make a phone call to a work colleague, in which he has a perfectly normal conversation about cruising the bars to pick up girls which only sounds creepy because all the language used fits a serial killer just as well as it would a serial monogamist.
Still, I enjoyed The Butcher, if enjoyed is the right word to use; certainly it made me regret drinking fizzy drinks before watching it, because there are some stomach-churning scenes, which is quite an achievement given the technical limitations the budget imposed on the film. It’s churlish, I suppose, to scold an indie grindhouse horror movie for being unpolished, but I just wish that LeglessCorpse had lavished as much love and attention on the words as they clearly did on the visuals.