Brutal Massacre


Now available on DVD


David Naughton as Harry

Brian O’Halloran as Jay

Gerry Bednob as Hanu

Ellen Sandweiss as Natalie

Ken Foree as Carl

Gunnar Hansen as Krenshaw

Directed by Stevan Mena


Low budget, independent horror has traditionally been where the major seismic shifts in the genre landscape have taken place. Where would the horror genre be without the influence of films like Night of the Living Dead (1968), Halloween (1978), or The Blair Witch Project (1999)? Unless determined, innovative – and often desperate – filmmakers working outside the studio system had the stamina to realize their maverick visions, the horror genre would be a much lesser place. Unfortunately, the low budget field has also been where many of the genre’s most glaring failures have originated. For every Romero or Craven who’s become a cultural icon and fanboy hero, there’s hundreds or even thousands of less fortunate (or just less talented) filmmakers who have set out to make a horror history only to see their dreams die a grisly death. Making a movie in the low budget arena is a brutal ordeal and writer/director Steven Mena is out to mine that struggle for comedy with his eager but lackluster ‘mockumentary’ >o?Brutal Massacre.

Mena previously made a splash in genre circles as a writer/director with the generally well-received indie slasher film Malevolence (2004). An admirable example of resourceful regional filmmaking, Malevolence made Mena a name to watch. It also gave him a first hand view of the trials and tribulations of independent filmmakers (he reportedly suffered a minor heart attack during the making of Malevolence) as well as the specific trappings of being a genre filmmaker. So when he’s targeting that world in Brutal Massacre, through the story of once-successful horror director Harry Penderecki (played by An American Werewolf in London‘s David Naughton) and his efforts to reclaim his audience with a slasher opus titled Brutal Massacre, it ought to hit some bull’s-eyes.

Unfortunately, this is not the uproarious skewering of low budget horror that it aspires to be. The full roster of cult favorites in the cast – Naughton, Dawn of the Dead and From Beyond‘s Ken Foree, Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Gunnar Hansen, Clerks‘ Brian O’Halloran, and Evil Dead‘s Ellen Sandweiss – do their best but as a comedy, this is a strained effort. This is going for the style of a Christopher Guest mockumentary, such as This Is Spinal Tap, Best in Show, or Waiting for Guffman, but what’s apparent from watching Brutal Massacre is just how hard that style of comedy is to pull off. It takes a very deft set of actors and a director who knows exactly what tone to go for. You have to have a full slate of comic geniuses to make a movie like this succeed and, unsurprisingly, Mena and his cast just aren’t in that league. That’s not to say that Brutal Massacre doesn’t have its moments but let’s just say that no one’s going to fall off their couches in hysterics.

A major hurdle standing between Brutal Massacre and comic glory, unfortunately, is its cast. On the surface, it seems like a smart choice to populate this love letter to low budget horror with as many fan-friendly faces from the genre as possible. On its own modest commercial terms, its recognizable cast lends this an automatic level of interest among the cult crowd that casting it with no names wouldn’t have. But yet, I think casting some of these people in smaller roles, or even cameos, rather than in lead parts would’ve worked better. The kind of dry, understated humor that a movie like this needs to have where the lines aren’t (or shouldn’t be) obviously sold as jokes takes a touch that most of Brutal Massacre‘s talent aren’t able to pull off. Naughton, Hansen and Sandweiss all come off as being far too rehearsed and self-conscious. There’s a likeability to these performers that shines through (in Naughton’s case, especially) but as far as getting the laughs, their performances are just too affected. When it comes to the lesser-known actors in the cast, like Emily Brownell and Michelle DiBenedetti – as Penderecki’s lead actresses – the success rate is a little higher as they seem slightly more at ease and they occasionally earn an unforced laugh or two. At the very least, you can watch them perform and not constantly feel their awkwardness radiating off the screen. Of Brutal Massacre‘s cast, Foree is by far the best of the pack – and I also liked The Evil Dead‘s Betsy Baker in a brief appearance as Penderecki’s beleaguered casting director.

But even if Brutal Massacre had been cast with the sharpest comedic performers of our generation, they still would’ve had to find a way to pull the jokes out of Mena’s script – an act that would’ve been akin to pulling broken bodies out of a car wreck with the Jaws of Life. I knew this movie was in trouble from the first scene where Penderecki appears at a FANGORIA Weekend of Horrors convention and the first question he has to field is from an uptight female audience member – clearly not a horror fan but rather some kind of reporter – out to confront him about the controversial violence of his films (“Mr. Penderecki, can you tell us what inspires you to make such graphically violent films?”). I’m sorry, but this is a moment that has never happened to any director at any horror convention ever. While a director is out doing press for a new movie and talking to the likes of, say, Entertainment Tonight? Sure, I bet it happens all the time. But to have this occur at a horror convention hits a false note that tells the genre audience right away that this movie is not going to get it right. The real questions someone like Penderecki would be fielding at a horror convention would be twenty different variations on “Uh, when are we going to see Sasquatch At The Mall Part 2?” or “Are you involved in the Michael Bay remake of Bowel Movement?” And the only questions about violence that would be asked would be why his new films are less violent than his old ones and will he ever try and make a movie as bloody as The Fish Who Ate Flesh again. In fact, it might have been funnier if Penderecki was someone fed up with the genre, resentful of being stuck in that ghetto, who had tried to break out of the horror mold and do a Wes Craven-esque Music of the Heart drama only to see it tank and now his only option is pull a mea culpa and try to win his way back into his fan’s graces with Brutal Massacre.

From a battle-scarred insider like Mena, you’d expect Brutal Massacre to feel much more incisive, that there’d be some real spleen-venting involved. But Brutal Massacre feels curiously as though it was made by an outsider, someone forced to imagine what the world of low budget filmmaking is like, and, in lieu of real experiences to reference, going for a series of standard gags. Like horror, humor needs an element of surprise to work. If you can see a scare or a joke coming too soon, if the set-up is too obvious, then you’re not going to get a successful reaction. And nearly every bit in Brutal Massacre is that kind of on-the-nose humor (someone even gets doused with the contents of a septic tank at once point – and when you have to cover an actor in shit for a laugh, you’re officially scrapping the bottom of the barrel). What’s worse is that despite Mena’s personal experiences, the humor of this film rarely appears to come from any real observation.

Just compare Brutal Massacre to the real deal – Chris Smith’s 1999 documentary American Movie – about struggling independent auteur Mark Borchardt trying to bring his low budget horror film Coven to life. That film remains funny in a way that Brutal Massacre never is because there’s not a lick of phoniness to it. On the other hand, the truths that film reveals about the chasm-like discrepancies between talent and ambition are often too painful to face. Not just for the subjects of the film itself but for those viewers who harbor their own unpractical dreams. One almost has to wonder if Mena was subconsciously uncomfortable about cutting that close to the bone with Brutal Massacre, and that going for exaggeration was a psychologically safer route than exposing some unsparing truths about himself, his peers, and his audience. But without that willingness to go past harmless jabs (the terminally corny titles of Penderecki’s movies – such as I’ll Take The Ring Back And The Finger Too! – say it all), this Massacre fails to leave a mark. Maybe Mena should try returning to his roots with a straight-up horror movie next time around.

To use an appropriate Spinal Tap reference, Brutal Massacre only goes up to 5.