Murderlust (1985)

Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley was long gone by the time of 16mm and SOV backyard filmmaking. But his rule regarding quacking ducks applies: If it looks like an SOV and quacks like an SOV . . . well, I’ll call that 16mm bird an SOV duck.

So, yeah. Technically speaking, Murderlust isn’t a shot-on-video water fowl that falls under the “SOV Week” theme week we’re rolling at B&S About Movies, as it was shot on 16mm film in the 1:33:1 aspect ratio and released in a direct-to-video format by Prism Entertainment — the home of the (annoying) side-opening VHS box (give me clam-shells, give me a “Big Box” with the crinkle-plastic tray, or bottom-loading sleeves, but not side flaps).

As with the work of Don Dohler — who also shot on 16mm (and seen theatrical releases with his films; see The Alien Factor), but is name-dropped often in discussions regarding SOV filmmaking — Donald M. Jones shot in 16mm (but seen only direct-to-video releases), but all of his film — from their VHS images on the tape to the artwork encasing the tape — ooze the same SOV sleaze of films shot on 3/4-inch U-Matic tape via broadcast ENG and Ikegami cameras. Courtesy of that video-tape technology, Boardinghouse* (1982) became the first shot-on-video feature-length horror film. Shot direct-to-video tape, Boardinghouse was transferred to 16mm, then blown-up to 35mm for limited theatrical exhibition. David A. Prior — who’s a pretty big deal to us Allegheny County cubicle farmers on the celluloid pastures — shot his debut feature film, Sledgehammer* (1983), on video and released direct-to-videotape.

The grainy, 16mm documentary vibe of Murderlust that we watched on VHS didn’t receive its less-than-stellar, grainy “atmosphere” from being “road showed” via Drive-In reels emulsion-scratched to hell and back again, and again (or from cinematic incompetence; it’s actually well-shot and edited). It was because of that cover — and the subsequent write-ups in our pulpy horror movie mags, Murderlust (like Blood Cult and Spine issued in 1985 and 1986), received its celluloid battle scars courtesy of its incessant rental-replays on the ‘80s home video market beating it to hell and back again, and again. Murderlust was a movie, with one, singular-stocked store copy: always rented out, damn it — the in-the-plastic sleeve-cased box perpetually perched on the shelf with no VHS tape tucked behind it. As with Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead, the “to hell and back again” consumer processing (first via drive-ins, then UHF-TV, then VHS for Romero’s zom’er), lent, more so, to the documentary-grainy quality of Murderlust — and left it looking oh so SOV-ish . . . even through, er, that bird ain’t a duck.

Paul Zamarelli of VHS Collector comes through with the clean image of the original cover.

It was the hazy, grey days of filmmaking, adrift somewhere between 16mm giving away to video tape technologies, while drive-ins felt the financial pinch of the burgeoning home video market — with its confounded contraption called a “VCR” that played something called a “VHS tape” — that provided a more cost-effective and marketing-effective format. The new format was so effective that Christopher Lewis wowed us VHS dogs when he shot his debut film, Blood Cult, on video for exclusive direct-to-video distribution — a pioneering first. Films such as Cliff Twemlow’s GBH and Justin Simonds’s Spine were marketed on “mainstream” imprints backed by porn producers to get in on the home video horror game, as well.

Unlike most SOV filmmakers, director Donald M. Jones managed to make more than just one self-financed backyard film. “Backyard,” if that term is new to you, is a pre-SOV term — one that also came to encompass shot-on-video films — reserved for films shot on Super 8 or 16mm that were produced on shoestrings with friends, relatives, and neighbors — each lacking in their own levels of disciplinary professionalism — that were literally shot in the backyards of the filmmaker and whomever was shanghaied into the film. In the case of Murderlust: the “backyard” was California’s Mojave Desert, while scenes in the church and bar were shot in and around metro-Los Angeles — on the sly sans permits, which is a part of the “backyard” modus operandi.

Jones got his start with Deadly Sunday (1982)**, then followed up Murderlust — his best known and distributed film — with Project Nightmare (1987), and Housewife from Hell (1993) — then vanished from the home video tundras until the direct-to-video release of Evil Acts (2015). Unfortunately, as with John Carpenter, Don Coscarelli, and Sam Raimi before him — and stymied by the direct-to-video marketplace — Jones’s slasher ’80s-era films failed to achieve a Halloween, Phantasm, and The Evil Dead-styled connection with horror audiences (the fate that cursed the really fine The Redeemer issued around the same time). Only fans of the most obscure low-budget horrors remember Jones with the same celluloid-cum-analog vigor as David A. Prior, who’s noted for the aforementioned Sledgehammer, or John Wintergate’s Boardinghouse and Christopher Lewis’s Blood Cult.

Overseas VHS issue. Nah, too giallo for a film that’s not a giallo and looks like a past-his-prime Fulci or Martino romp. Give me the ol’ U.S. sleeve.

Murderlust is a movie that takes this QWERTY warrior back to days of those cardboard-musky vinyl repositories of old, aka, record stores, when we purchased record albums — primarily metal albums — strictly for their cover art, with nary a clue as to the band’s lineage and backstory. And we rented — or aftermarket purchased — VHS tapes on the same principles. And sometimes the music under the artwork (such as buying the New Jersey-indie After the Bomb by Hammers Rule) was just as “meh” as the movies inside the VHS case.

Such is Murderlust: the cover is great, but the movie is a hard slice of dry, white toast with no butter and hold the grape jelly packet. For a cover that shows a woman violently strangled, there’s very little strangling afoot, here — and none of the sleazy n’ scuzzy, over-the-top SOV splattering after taste of the Snuff Kill variety. Our resident murderluster is no Mancunian cutting a GBH swath across London, well the Mojave, in this case. Instead, we get two strangles, with the rest of the kills off screen and bloodless (our killer buys a newspaper with the headline: “9 bodies found in the desert”). Instead of John Carpenter giallo-suspense (Halloween) or Sam Raimi graphic-to-dark comedy (the first The Evil Dead, not the meh remake-sequel), we get a character study. To pinch Alice Cooper, “the man behind the mask,” as we “study,” is a psycho who doesn’t enjoy, but struggles with, his “murderlust” of kidnapping, raping, and desert-dumping women — while he maintains a (crappy) job and even begins a “normal” heterosexual relationship.

And that’s the sole strength of Murderlust: Steve Belmont, our church-attending security guard who serves as a Sunday School teacher and elder tortured by his psycho-sexual impulses, isn’t just some mindless, supernatural hockey-masked maniac who cuts a Krueger swath across the Mojave. Screenwriter James C. Lane — who penned all five of Donald M. Jones’s films — intelligently ditched the slasher-blueprint to give us one of the slasher ’80s best-arced, non-trope characters. Belmont is a man who Jekyll and Hydes as he’s denied sex by his dates (he’s a nice guy, but a security guard at a guard gate — “. . . you’re cool and so is your job, but you’re just a DJ,” they’d preamble their R.D-dump), he’s plagued by financial issues, his cousin’s criticisms grind him down some more, his boss enjoys writing him up, and he’s accused of sexual misconduct by a misguided teen at his church when he’s promoted to a counselor’s position.

For whatever reasons, Jones made an artistic choice not go nude or graphic, as is the case with American slashers and giallo-imports in the ’80s — be them SOV or 16 mm backyard. (While graphic, not “going nude” — considering its porn-linage — is what scuttled Spine; going “nude” and “uber-graphic” is what made Blood Cult a hit.) While that artistic choice makes for a pseudo-boring film, it also leads to an authentic, grimy film. But grime is not goo and strangling is not slashing (unless it’s Don Dohler’s red cloud-infected, strangulation killer in Fiend) and, without the goo and the slash, we’re in a damsel-in-distress “final girl” finding-her-inner strength flick that, today (under the eyes of Fred Olen Ray and David DeCoteau!), are pumped out at ad nauseam program-replays on Lifetime (David D.’s most recent is The Wrong Valentine). And since those telefilms are void of grime and never go “goo,” well, you know how a Lifetime flick goes: yawning from unknown Canux actors (sometimes in vanity projects, pushin’ themselves, if not their Kardashian-sytled brats) frolicking about Toronto masquerading as Anywhere, U.S.A., ensues (such as the channel’s 2021 “Shocktober” entry, Seduced by a Killer).

In the end, while actor Eli Rich is head and shoulders above most backyard and SOV-era actors to sell the inner struggles — and everything is decently scripted and well-shot — Steve Belmont is no Frank Zito cutting his own mannequin-murderlust swath in the best of the Carpenter-inspired slashers: William Lustig’s Maniac (1980). If Murderlust went for that Maniac-styled depravity, we could have had a precursor to John McNaughton’s truly chilling Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). That based-in-reality film bastardly-birthed out of the exploits of Henry Lee Lucas; Murderlust chillingly predicts the backstory of Dennis Lynn Rader, a church elder and common working man (ironically: home security systems) who lead a secret life as the B.T.K Killer between 1974 to 1991. (Gregg Henry of The Patriot and Hot Rod chilled us with his portrayal of Rader in a 2005 CBS-TV movie.)

The VHS of Murderlust was highly edited (and I never found an uncut version, if there even was one) — which degraded Steve Belmont’s secret life to a serial killer cut loose in a TV movie (even a police procedural TV series; thus our Lifetime comparison). The Severin restoration reissues the film with those scenes intact. I’ve haven’t the pleasure to see this “as intended” version, so perhaps those restored scenes may pique your interest to add Murderlust to your DVD/Blu collection. Plus, you’ll learn more about the film courtesy of writer James C. Lane’s commentary track.

You can view the Serverin Films’ age-restricted trailer and 1985 VHS trailer on You Tube. You can stream a VHS rip of the 1985 version of the film, also on You Tube. There’s also an upload on Tubi (which runs non-aged restricted) — with the Severin rebooted artwork as the upload avatar. However, the You Tube and Tubi uploads are both fuzzy and washed-out and of the same running time — and the same ’80s VHS cut of film.

* Those whole enchiladas of Boardinghouse and Sledgehammer are on the way, so look for ’em! Put in the effort and use that search box, buddy. (See, we did ’em! No searchin’ no more. Click the links!)

** Not be confused with the revenge-seeking pastor romp that is Dark Sunday (1976).

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.

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