A discussion about one of the strangest exploitation movies ever made, 1972’s I Dismember Mama
The thing about director Paul Leder’s notorious American exploitation film I Dismember Mama is that it’s not actually called I Dismember Mama. Well, it is now. But when it was filmed and then released in 1972, it was known as Poor Albert and Little Annie, a far more appropriate handle for the sleazy, lurid thriller. The original title nodded to other dirty and blackly comic pictures that it mirrored, stuff like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Who Slew Auntie Roo, How Awful About Alan and even Harold and Maude. Here is a post-Psycho character piece that is also a road movie and sickly, politically incorrect love story of sorts. It certainly has nothing to do with the flashier and totally misleading I Dismember Mama moniker and yet, when it was re-released in the U.S. on a double bill with Vincente Aranda’s disturbing erotic vampire thriller The Blood Spattered Bride, it was saddled with that title.
Remember that lunatic trailer that was released theatrically to promote these mismatched movies?
And because of that title switcheroo, plenty of people ended up disliking the film. I mean, I don’t blame them, seeing as no mother actually gets dismembered. In fact, no one gets dismembered. I Dismember Mama (we’ll keep calling it that from now on) is not a slasher movie but is in reality a strange, slow, skeezy, funny and totally uncomfortable piece of awesome psychotronic trash that is as unpredictable as it is delightfully unpleasant.
An early indie potboiler from jack-of-all-trades fringe filmmaker Leder, the same man who a few years later brought us the daft 3D Korean King Kong rip-off A*P*E (more on that nutty flick another day) and whose daughter Mimi Leder would go on to direct such Hollywood fare as Deep Impact and Pay It Forward, I Dismember Mama starred then-rising young actor Zooey Hall (Fortune and Men’s Eyes) as Albert, a mentally-disturbed young man with a pack of sexual peculiarities. Poor Albert is locked up in a minimum security hospital for attempting to murder his wealthy mother and he’s not doing so well. After he attempts to rape and strangle a nurse in the film’s icky opening, he is scheduled to be shipped to a more locked-down institution, but then he slits an orderly’s throat and escapes. The beady-eyed, poof-haired lunatic then hits the streets, looking for a virginal woman to romance and then rapes and murders those who don’t meet his standards, all the while phoning his nervous mum and promising to come home and finish the job.
After meeting and murdering a sweet young single mother (one of the movie’s handful of upsetting sequences), he befriends the woman’s 11-year-old daughter Annie (Geri Reischl, who went on to star in The Brady Bunch Variety Hour and later had a thriving music career) and the two of them develop a kind of innocent courtship, with Albert telling the little girl that she is the “last pure girl” in the world and insisting they get married. When Annie keeps asking about the whereabouts of her mom, Albert swiftly switches the subject. He intends to keep his “bride” at all costs…
That synopsis sounds more vulgar than I Dismember Mama really is. Sure, watching the deranged young Albert rough women up is yucky, but it’s supposed to be. But unlike say, David Hess’ Krug in Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, Albert is not evil. He’s sick. Really, really sick. He’s like an 11-year old himself, really. A spoiled rotten and totally narcissistic 11-year old who has a cartoonish vision of reality and wants what he wants when he wants it. We don’t excuse his behavior, but Leder (and writer William Norton who also penned William Girdler‘s Day of the Animals) makes it clear that his anti-hero is to be pitied as well as reviled. In many ways he reminds me of John Amplas’ Martin in George A. Romero’s same-named 1977 masterpiece. In fact, the movie kind of reminds me of Martin too. Now THAT film would be the ideal mate for a double feature, not Aranda’s dreamy, dark and decidedly European sex shocker.
And when Albert meets Annie, despite the implications of pedophilia central to their connection, they more or less feel like equals. Like two children innocently playing house. Except one of the kids has, you know, raped and murdered the other’s parent. When we remind ourselves of that, we’re jerked back down into the darkness and when the frothy ballad “Poor Albert” begins to play over a Love Story-esque montage, we aren’t really sure what to feel.
I Dismember Mama was first released to VHS via Video Gems in a charming big box. At the header of the movie, the single worst burned in video title appears: “I Dismember Mama” in boxy font that looks like it was generated by some monolithic early ’80s camcorder. In the stand-alone trailer for the theatrical engagement of I Dismember Mama, the fonts were lovely. I have no way of knowing if these titles were made to mask the title on a print of Poor Albert and Little Annie that Video Gems got their hands on for distro or if these awful fonts were indeed on the theatrical re-release prints. Any insight into this bit of sidebar obsessive thinking would be welcome…
I Dismember Mama has been bootlegged to death and is on YouTube for free if you look. Or you can upgrade and get a proper DVD, though I have no idea what that DVD looks like or if the transfer is just a dub from the Video Gems VHS. I still have my lovely big box VHS with me and I pop it up all the time. I love the film. It has a curious, volatile energy and, despite its sensational storyline, a distinct lack of sensationalism. And Hall (who is now known as David Hall and is an acting coach) is absolutely unforgettable as the sickly, misguided and misogynistic Albert. It’s another one of those Oscar-caliber performances you occasionally find here, at the bottom of the exploitation film toilet.
Give it a look when you can…