Exploitation TV: Volume Ten

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming with a trio of lesser known slashers.

For cinephiles, the definition of home video label Vinegar Syndrome’s name is something like a secret handshake. The disease it references consumes celluloid. When film stock starts to degrade, it releases acetic acid, the key ingredient in (you guessed it) vinegar. This phenomenon became a plague during the 80s, chewing up prints of pictures improperly stored in hot, humid conditions. In many cases, where reels of smaller films were scarce due to budgetary restrictions, one bad case of vinegar syndrome could rob the planet of an artist’s work. 

According to a ‘12 study conducted by the Library of Congress, only 14% of nearly 11,000 movies made between 1912 and 1930 exist in their original format. Around 70% were lost completely. Coming in at a close second in terms of casualties is the Exploitation Era. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, as many of the weirder, more obscure movies made during these decades of disrepute are pictures we’ve probably never heard of in the first place. Thankfully, the Bridgeport, Connecticut boys at VS own a private archive, from which they’ve been pulling and scanning prints of overlooked horror, exploitation and smut cinema from all eras. To make it easier on all us degenerates, they’ve even established a streaming service, where you can log in and watch all the back alley oddities they’ve been uncovering and preserving, so that true vinegar syndrome doesn’t rob us of any more great trash art. 

For the tenth episode of Exploitation TV, we tune in for three very different, underseen slashers...

The Severed Arm [1973] (d. & w. Tom Alderman)

When discussing the history of the slasher film, many begin with John Carpenter's Halloween ('78), or note Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho ('60) as being the granddaddy of the subgenre (though many astute fans also cite Bob Clark's Black Christmas ['74] as the prototype). But there were also some rather strange anomalies before those stone classics, such as this twisty bloodbath, revolving around a group of miners who cut off one of their own's arm in order to avoid starvation. However, the workers are rescued shortly thereafter, leaving their now limbless colleague scorned and seeking revenge. It's a black-hearted play on vengeance, transforming the wronged into a savage monster.

What's particularly peculiar (and sets The Severed Arm apart from the pictures it predates) is that almost all the killers' victims are strapping men, not the screaming, helpless women these sort of stalk and slash forays would later offer up as sacrifice to their audiences. Writer/director Tom Alderman drapes his movie in long, dark shadows, as the murders aren't really inventive (like the giallos being made in Italy at the time, or the cash-ins that would emerge in the wake of Friday the 13th ['80]). However, there's an ample amount of blunt brutality on display, and a solid twist on who the killer turns out to be, marking The Severed Arm as a rather intriguing deep cut when discussing the beginnings of horror's more prolific subcategorizations. 

Frozen Scream [1975] (d. Frank Roach, w. Doug Ferrin & Celeste Hammond)

Perhaps a bit of a cheat, as this nigh impenetrable fever dream is hardly a pure slasher, though it does feel somewhat like a Halloween ('78) precursor, filtered through the belief structure of a 17th Century death cult that somehow survived into the mid-'70s. Frozen Scream is a frenzied no-budget psychedelic slaughter bonanza from producer/star Renee Harmon (Lady Street Fighter ['85]), who plays a mad scientist, obsessed with computer chips that transform people into zombies on Halloween night. All the while, men in robes hunt those closest to her. Or is this all happening in her recollections of the past, as a quest for immortality has manufactured an endless time loop of death, destruction, and a living, rotting nuevo populous. 

It's difficult to accurately describe the works of Renee Harmon in a few sentences, but when detached from frequent collaborator James Bryan (Don't Go In the Woods ['81], which this shares synth cues with) Harmon gets to indulge her more hallucinatory tendencies through director Frank Roach. Her movies exist on a wavelength entirely their own, transcending mere genre classification as they feel like sweaty reveries beamed in directly from her subconscious. Yet it's fascinating to watch how Harmon fractures several genre elements (slasher, mad scientist, and cult pictures), filtering them through a distinct point of view. It may not always (or ever) make sense (and the dubbing is utterly atrocious), but the aura it creates is hypnotic and unsettling, like a psychic ache being floated into your belly from outer space. 

Graduation Day [1981] (d. Herb Freed, w. Anne Marisse & Herb Freed)

Graduation Day is one of the premiere examples of a "slasher boom" capitalization picture, adhering to the whodunnit formula while delivering a hefty helping of what fans came to expect following the massive success of Friday the 13th ('80): copious teenage sex and violence. Only Herb Freed applies a workmanlike giallo sensibility to the story of a young track team being offed by a masked man wielding a fencer's sword. It's a gauzy, soft focus stab party that even brings along one of that country's better B-Movie stars (Christopher George, playing the overbearing coach) for the ride, feeling more at home amongst the knock-offs of Bird With the Crystal Plumage ('70) than its American peers.

Freed employs a rather disorienting staccato editing style (courtesy of cutter Martin Jay Sadoff), syncing us to the rhythm of the events onscreen before placing us in the shattered psyches of those who witness and endure these violent events. For all the lurid leering at young girls in their underwear, changing in locker rooms while discussing which parties they're going to attend that night, Freed and co-writer Anne Marisse make the whole movie about trauma (while also allowing the killer to stuff his sword into a football and javelin it into a player's stomach). The older sister (Patch Mackenzie) of the squad's recently deceased star returns home from the Navy to find out what happened to her baby sister, facing a boozy, abusive father, and the gaggle of men who drove her sibling to collapse on that hard clay. But is she the real killer? Or is it one of the others who saw the runner die that day? For a cheap cash-in (which this no doubt is), there's still a solid amount going on under Graduation Day's hood, even as the bodies begin to pile toward the ceiling.  

Tune in next week for three more picks from your new favorite channel. In the meantime, log in to Vinegar Syndrome’s streaming service to embark upon your own filthy adventures.