Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
A firm guilty pleasure, the memorably named Shriek Of The Mutilated was directed
by Michael Findlay, whose career in exploitation cinema was abruptly terminated through
a 1977 helicopter crash. Most notably, he and his wife were also responsible for the
later Snuff (1976), one of the most notorious titles of the genre. A risible
concoction of false and reassigned footage, memories of that film's successful marketing
campaign still stir up howls of outrage from moral guardians. Less well known today,
Shriek is considerably more fun, a cheerfully inept production which never the
less manages to gain a lunatic momentum and absorption of its own by the close.
At the heart of the film is a yeti hunt. But this is no ordinary yeti hunt, off in its usual stomping grounds, but one set much more cheaply and conveniently in 'Boot Island' - apparently upstate New York. (One suspects an immediate confusion between the yeti and Sasquatch). Unperturbed by the gruesome failure of a previous such mission some years earlier, the peculiarly motivated Professor Prell (Alan Brock) is planning a new field trip with an assorted group of students. Shortly before setting out, the Professor takes Keith (Michael Harris), one of the expedition's most promising members, for a very distinctive meal at a favourite local restaurant. Meanwhile Keith's girlfriend, Karen (Jennifer Stock), enjoys an evening party with friends. Stock also appeared in another grisly cult favourite, the Sadean Bloodsucking Freaks (1976). After playing the electronic pop hit Popcorn - a deliriously incongruous moment which points up much of which to come - she and her colleagues are confronted by one Spencer (Tom Grail), the drunken relic of Prell's previous expedition. "Some say I'm still mad!" he opines before launching into a long, rambling, and fearsomely badly acted account of the events which took place that day, of which naturally he was the only survivor. Later, apparently driven insane by his painful recollections, Spencer attempts to slit the throat of his wife - before she returns the favour by electrocuting her spouse in the bath with a toaster.
But this is a distraction from the main thread of the plot: how the bickering group of students find themselves on a field trip in darkest Boot Island, staying at the residence of another mysteriously motivated character, Prell's friend, Dr Waring (Tawm Ellis). Waring reckons that the Yeti has been isolated on his island by the thawing snows and that his house would be the ideal base for the members of the field trip. There are a few disadvantages to this plan, not least of which is the unsettling ambience created by Laughing Crow, Waring's tall, hairy - and mute - Indian manservant. During their first evening the uneasy group starts to bicker but are treated to a rare meal of 'gin sung' - which, as it turns out, is the very same Indian dish enjoyed by Keith and Prell together on that last evening in civilisation. As an additional highlight, the student party is regaled with an impromptu song by one of their group, Tom Nash (Jack Neubeck): "People say that he's downright nasty/ he's mean and he's gruesome. He'll make your threesome into a twosome/ Now is your chance to make a break/ don't let a moment go to waste/ On the prowl, hear him howl, here comes the Yeti..." etc - which no doubt makes some of them feel that they would rather be back in the bosom of society enjoying Popcorn. Clearly someone with this much musical talent is doomed from the start and, sure enough, during their first trek across Boot Island, Tom wanders away from the main party. He's soon subject to the first attack by their elusive quarry: an aggressive, sheepdog-shaggy creature resembling an overgrown member of the Banana Splits...
Writing such a summary recalls the fun of a film that, for a Z-grade schlock horror of this type, has few longueurs and provides a good deal of amusement along the way. To do director Findlay credit, his work is reasonably well put together. Reverse angle shots and continuity elements are OK, and the editing is of sufficiently high standard so as not to prove a distraction, with a refreshing absence of stock footage. An early appearance of the monster is actually shown reversed out, an effective innovation. Whether or not this was a budgetary decision using accidentally over-exposed footage, it's an effective way of denoting terror in the abstract (There's a more recent, similar representation of the supernatural in Walter Hill's very different Wild Bill). Findlay has more problems matching day-for-night shots however, and some of the more clumsily staged scenes are glaring. One wonders if these, too, were intended to be reversed out, but not completed using that process. Also notable is the use of music during the film; the repetition of passages from Mussourgsky, Sibelius and Martinu give proceedings more class than less prestigious library tracks. Occasionally the choice is very apt, as when the ominous familiar Dies Irae theme plays over the arrival of the guests for the final feast, or the nervously skittering notes of Martinu accompany attacks. Elsewhere the soundtrack just seems heavy-handed, but its persistence still gives the film a peculiar atmosphere.
There's much to enjoy in a film that provides a walking bathmat monster, atrociously enthusiastic acting, a sneaky cannibal cult and some amateurish gore thrown in along the way. For most of the cast, whose woeful acting provides some of the most memorable moments besides the monster itself this was their first, and only, screen appearance. One particularly cherishes Prell bursting in upon the party from an encounter outside, with the breathless exclamation "So close! So close!" - before launching into a long and amusingly tedious monologue. What is surprising is that, by accident or design, Shriek does actually attain something of a horrific crescendo in its last sequences as, free of its unconvincing monster; the culinary conspiracy comes to light. There's a heightened claustrophobic terror, beginning with the final scaring to death of Karen by the fluffy fiend. At this stage she is also threatened by the hideously grimacing Laughing Crow who emerges, as if on cue, from her bathroom cupboard. Later on, as Waring shows Keith the yeti costume hanging in the closet, it's another apt symbol for our worst fears, springing from the dark interior of the subconscious. Once the film's ridiculous scares are put away, the rough edges and untidy interior compositions within the frame help increase an undeniable frisson to the Saturnalists' threats. Even if, as a character says earlier, it "may not make much sense to you; (but) makes sense to me" as the diners crowd in disturbingly, it remains a very entertaining mess.
Apparently the restored Region 1 NTSC DVD (90 minutes, rated 'R') from Retromedia reinstates some of the film's missing gore but, for copyright reasons, removes the sublime Popcorn moment - a loss of surrealism that fans will regret. This change aside, Shriek remains a highly entertaining if comparatively rare film (there's been no new release in the UK, for instance, for over 20 years) that should be sought out by lovers of the cheap and hilarious everywhere.