Mill Creek Drive-In Classics Week: Savage Weekend (1976)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Benjamin Merrell lives in Seattle, WA. You can check out his blog at cestnonunblog.com and follow him on Letterboxd.

Several Manhattan yuppies escape the city for a nice, relaxing weekend in the hillbilly-infested Appalachian hills of…Upstate New York. Little do they know that their weekend of fun is about to turn deadly…

Recently divorced Marie has a new stockbroker boyfriend who just bought a farmhouse upstate and is in the process of building a boat on the property. So they, along with Marie’s sister and her gay best friend, leave the city to check on the progress of the boat and enjoy a pleasant weekend out in the country. But not long after they arrive at the farmhouse someone puts on the gruesome Halloween mask Marie’s sister bought as a joke and is now killing them all one by one.

The possible suspects are numerous; too many if you ask me. The biggest weakness this movie has is how they handle the mystery of the killer’s identity. The whodunit aspect relies heavily on having way too many red herrings, especially considering there aren’t even that many characters in the movie. They want you to believe that anyone could be the killer, but the overabundance of potential suspects only succeeds in making it more obvious as time goes on who the killer actually is. There’s a scene towards the end where three of the potential suspects are running with weapons through the woods after Marie. They could have built this moment up as a real nail biter of a finale where Marie (and the audience) would have no idea which one of them was the real killer and which was her savior, but unfortunately by that point in the story the killer had already been long revealed, which sapped a good deal of the tension out of what could have been a really great finale set piece for the film.

The two most obvious suspects for the masked killer are Mac, the guy providing lumber for the boat, who is way too comfortable sexually harassing Marie (who, to be fair, hasn’t been doing a particularly great job of showing that she’s not interested) and Otis (played by the always fantastic William Sanderson), whose father was the previous owner of the farmhouse and is currently helping with the construction of the boat. Mac, who gives off his own creeper vibes, tells them a story about how Otis attacked a couple, almost beat the guy to death and then branded his girl with an ‘H’ (for ‘whore’. Otis is not the brightest bulb.) It’s never really clear if there’s any truth to the story or if Mac was just making up the whole story about Otis, but regardless Otis definitely is a creepy motherfucker. Of course, Mac is no saint either. After telling his story he then enjoys the hell out of watching his big city boss step on a fishhook.

They aren’t the only ones the movie casts suspicion on though. Could it be Jay, the gross boat engineer whose hands have been all over Marie’s sister all weekend? Or what about the gay best friend, Nicky? This is the red herring I find the most questionable. Nicky is actually pretty badass at the start of the movie. The first thing he does after they get into town is he tries to order a fancy martini at the local watering hole, much to the confusion of the bartender, who has apparently never heard of a martini before, and the local hicks who don’t take kindly to gay folk in their small backwoods town (despite the fact that they’re both dressed like reject Village People). Nicky has a pretty good grasp of the situation though, and he handily kicks their asses before they get a chance to gang up on him, and he looks pretty cool doing it. But instead of using that to set him up as a character who can take care of himself when the killer eventually shows up, the rest of his character arc quickly becomes a lot more problematic. Some unfortunate gay panic was definitely slipped into the script because from then on he’s portrayed much more like a sexual predator than a potential victim, despite not having really done anything to deserve that portrayal. Everyone in this movie has to be at least a little suspicious though.

Released in the late summer of ‘79 as one of the early proto-Slashers, but shot in 1976, Savage Weekend definitely has more in common with 70’s grindhouse sleaze like The Last House On The Left or Deliverance (both released in 1972) than the more kill-focused slashers of the 80’s. The gore factor might be a little disappointing for an audience raised on 80’s slashers (forget gore, there’s barely any blood), but Savage Weekend actually does a great job of making that violence feel visceral and real, even if they don’t end up showing much. Most of the violence lives, not up on the screen, but in your head long after the scene is over, and much like with Texas Chain Saw Massacre, you’re probably going to walk away from this movie thinking it was a lot gorier than it actually was.

This does make sense, as people were much less obsessed with gore in the mid-70s and much more obsessed with sex, which this movie has in spades. Everyone’s constantly getting naked, or hooking up, or getting naked and hooking up, or watching someone get naked and hooking up. Every aspect of the movie feels constantly sexually charged, which leads you to believe there’s going to be more of a psychosexual aspect to the killer that never really pans out. Horror usually reflects the fears of the era it was produced in and Savage Weekend is no different. Fears of sexual liberation, female empowerment, gay liberation, and divorce all have roots in the themes of this film.

Savage Weekend isn’t perfect. The writing is sloppy and unfocused. It tries to do too much with too little, and the small budget limitations definitely show at times. But it also captures a little magic that not all of its contemporaries can make claim to. There’s a reason Savage Weekend has a cult following. It has a very unique quality to it that’s hard to pin down. It has this odd rhythm to it that really draws you in, so even if the whodunit aspect of it turns out to be a real bust, there’s still a real mystery hanging over its atmosphere that makes this movie a real blast to watch for fans of the genre.

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