I love genre cinema. I will always have a soft spot for horror, action, sci-fi, and all the subgenres that exist inside those larger categories. What I have never felt any real connection to are those films that exist in the realm of pure sleaze. You know the ones: the films from the ’70s and ’80s, filled with ugly violence and sex that is the opposite of titillating, usually shot on cheap film stock with semi-amateur casts. But knowing these films have a large following and several companies devoted to restoring them makes me wonder what I am missing. So, armed with a subscription to Vinegar Syndrome’s Exploitation TV, I am going to do a deep dive into the world of sleazy exploitation. This is My Exploitation Education.
While it was shot on 16mm film, 1987’s THE SOULTANGLER shares a lot of the same issues with even cheaper SOV flicks. The cast is made up of amateurs who look like they want to celebrate when they make it all the way through a bit of dialogue without flubbing a line. The blocking of action makes it impossible to tell what is happening half of the time. The editing is choppy with actors breaking character at the start and end of shots included in the final cut. The story is cobbled together from better movies (there are enough “homage moments” to 1985’s RE-ANIMATOR, in particular, that Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna might have a case for plagiarism). And very cheaply built sets unconvincingly bump up against lived-in locations. But I’ll be damned if THE SOULTANGLER doesn’t actually deliver with a gore-soaked climax that lives up to the promise of its weird premise.
Dr. Anton Lupesky (Pierre Deveaux) is a brilliant, insane scientist who has created a way to possess the bodies of dead people through the use of a psychotropic drug. Like any mad scientist worth his salt, Lupesky has a henchman (Bob Cederberg) and a loyal assistant (Louise Millmann)—who is not great at hiding her insane love for the doctor. Lupesky sends his henchman and assistant out into the wilds of suburban Long Island to kidnap young, “clean” women because he needs their “essence.” I watched the whole movie and I can’t honestly tell you what that means other than to serve as an excuse to include a montage where men out on dates with young women get brained with a hammer and scenes of Lupesky mutilating women with a scalpel.
On Lupesky’s trail is Kim (Jamie Kinser), a local journalist whose father died mysteriously under Lupesky’s care years before. As she gets closer to the truth and the cops close in, Lupesky grows more unhinged, leading to a finale that takes full advantage of the doctor’s ability to move his soul from dead body to dead body.
There is no way I am going to preach the gospel that THE SOULTANGLER is a micro-budget classic. What I am going to claim is that the crazed climax, the few moments of gory weirdness between interminable scenes of wheel-spinning, and Deveaux’s unhinged performance make the film actually worth watching and enjoying.
The decent straight-up weirdness and surreal comedy bits that make up the bulk of the film pale in comparison to the over-the-top climactic scene. I have seen much more slickly made films that fail to bring the goods the way that co-writer/director Pat Bishow does here: guts are ripped out of rotting, undead corpses; intestines are used to strangle people; an exposed brain is stomped into mush; a cleaver is used to mostly decapitate (the head hangs on by a stretch of skin) an unfortunate victim; and eyes are repeatedly gouged out (the only way to prevent a corpse from being taken over by Lupesky) with thumbs, medical instruments, and nails.
THE SOULTANGLER is one of the films rescued from obscurity by the American Genre Film Archive. No disrespect to any of the other films that group (which is really doing great, important work) has resurrected, but THE SOULTANGLER is the most entertaining film to which they have given a new lease on life. Even when the movie is rambling on in an extended bit of exposition (Bishow reportedly padded the film with extraneous scenes—largely of people occasionally mumbling something in voiceover while lighting and smoking a cigarette—to get it to feature length) in between gore gags, there is still something so off-kilter about the stilted performances and framing that it is weirdly compelling.
There are definitely better DIY horror efforts out there (THE DIVIDING HOUR springs to mind), but you could do a lot worse than THE SOULTANGLER (look no further than FLESHEATER for proof of that). It is sloppy, but has the eagerness to entertain and the kind of loopy internal logic that can only be found in the outlaw world of micro-budget genre filmmaking.
–Matt Wedge (@MovieNerdMatt)