Thursday, October 11, 2007

The October Ordeal Day 10: Mutant

October 10th: Mutant (1984)
(Also known as Night Shadows.)

If there is one actor who’s truly captured the collective heart of Samurai Dreams, its Wings Hauser. The man is a maniac. The man is an uncontrollable force of nature. Wings doesn’t chew scenery, he eats it alive. Yet every now and then, Wings proves he can actually act. Check him out in Vice Squad, The Wind or Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance. And while Mutant is no masterpiece, Wings reins in his Wagnerian instincts enough to turn in an atypical low-key performance.

Low key or not, however, Wings is incapable of playing an everyman. Here he plays a man who’s written as such, but his idiosyncrasies as an actor override the character. Wings plays Josh Cameron, a guy with a strange sense of humor who’s on a backwoods road trip with his younger brother Mike Cameron (no relation to the prankster who famously wore a Pepsi shirt to school on “Coke Day”). Lee Montgomery plays Mike as a whiny city-boy, who’s happy to spend time with his brother after a messy break-up, but doesn’t trust the small-town roads. And with good reason. No sooner than they pass into one particularly insular town, the two brothers are run off the road by a particularly ornery batch of rednecks. Their car busted, Mike and Josh are forced to venture into town. Finding a few friendly folks, Mike and Josh decide to stay the night at a local bed & breakfast. Josh’s ordeal begins in the morning, when he awakens to find Mike missing from his room.

Josh finds allies in the town doctor, Myra Tate (Jennifer Warren, turning in a competent performance), local teacher Holly Pierce (Jody Medford as Wings’ love interest), and the inimitable Bo Hopkins as the soused Sheriff Will Steward. These four characters seem to be the only sane component of Goodland, GA, and that’s not just because toxic waste is turning denizens into cannibals. The evil town is a convention as old as the horror genre itself, one that surely predates film itself. How many horror films feature a city-boy learning all about country folk the hard-way? Plenty.

Josh soon realizes that the mystery of Goodland is deeper than the location of his lost brother. It seems like everyone’s coming down with a strange “virus,” and this may have something to do with a sharp increase in zombie activity. About mid-way through, Mutant becomes a somewhat different film. The desolation of Goodland is almost tangible, as more and more people fall off the charts. The deserted-streets motif is really attractive to me. This spooky convention helped to shape the aesthetic of many films; the Phantasm sequels for instance.
Once our gang figures out what’s going on, it’s too late to do anything except hide. In the film’s best scene, Josh and Holly find Doc Tate’s OR trashed, blood everywhere. Finding the Doc’s tape recorder, Josh plays back her last autopsy report, which quickly turns into the soundtrack to her murder. As tinny screams play on the tape, hand-held camera violently scans the wreckage of the destroyed room, Josh and Holly standing motionless. The frenzy of the sequence is remarkable. As artful at this scene is, it’s immediately followed by a poorly-lit (although my worn Vestron vhs may be the culprit here) zombie chase. This is the film’s downfall: something rather good is followed by something rather bad (the bad often a genre convention poorly played). This discord is eased by Richard Band’s dynamic score. I like Band’s Full Moon work, but this is subtler—and ultimately better—work.

The final moments of the film are overwhelmingly desperate. Things really do seem hopeless. In one scene, Holly and Josh share a quiet moment while making Molotov cocktails in an abandoned grocery. Wings’ presence in this scene is undeniable, and he proves that subtly isn’t actually beyond his ability. Its too bad the character is given almost no substance (via a back-story, a rounded personality, etc).

Even though the ending seems hopeful (the chemical plant responsible for the virus is shut down), the momentary victory of Josh, Holly and the Sheriff is shattered by the downbeat voice-over which ends the film: the company responsible has already begun building new plants across the state (despite this late edition to the film, it doesn’t seem justified to call Mutant a political film; there’s no explicit environmentalist theme). While the radio announcer’s message is bleak, the relieved smiles of the three surviving characters may not point to irony or pessimism, but ultimately the virtue of hope, no matter how fleeting. I can’t say if this is the right interpretation, but this is certainly how Wings plays it.

1 comment:

joly said...

whoa you actually make me want to see Mutant again. I love Wings Hauser.