THE LOVE BUTCHER: 70s Nihilism Done With A 60s Naïveté

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One of the downsides that comes with watching thousands upon thousands of horror and exploitation oddities is that the impact of the strangest ones can be lost on veteran eyes. A movie firing on every cylinder, spewing insanity in droves, may not always leave the impression that it should, because in some ways I’ve probably already seen something like it before. That’s true of The Love Butcher, at least at the outset. Once you settle into this one, though, it’s really rather surprising.

I wish I’d found The Love Butcher earlier in life. As world-weary as I can be when it comes to cinematic curios, there’s enough insanity here to make it stand out. I first caught this late last year thanks to Code Red’s Blu-ray, and it stayed with me for several months. I knew I wanted to write about Don Jones’ ‘madman on the loose’ opus, but I didn’t think I could do it effectively without giving it a second look. I rarely re-watch catalogue stuff so quickly (mostly because my unwatched Blu-ray pile is as unwieldy as they come), but this one demanded the attention in order for me  to sort my thoughts. 

It’s a weird movie, and almost feels out of time for the mid-1970s. Aesthetically, it’s possibly the most 70s thing ever, with eyesore wallpapers that suffocate, and fashions that are anything but. All that’s missing are jell-o molds and fondue parties. But that veneer, bright colored, happy-go-lucky-ness, is shattered by the violent psychopath you’ll happily let into your yard but not your home.

One of the things that fascinates me about The Love Butcher is the temptation to write it off as a bad film. Most of the online reviews, even the positive ones, damn it with so bad it’s good praise that’s as faint as you can get, and it’s a disservice. Yes, there’s some clunkiness to The Love Butcher. It’s not particularly well-shot, the gore is as unconvincing as anything from the Blood Feast days, and the supporting cast leaves much to be desired. I think these things prompt much of the “it’s a bad movie” ammunition. Several of the performances are better suited for daytime soap operas, with ham-fisted delivery supplemented by dun dun dun accent music, just so you know what’s important.

So it’s easy to look at the rookie filmmaking on display and reach the same conclusion that many have. But The Love Butcher has a lot going for it, even if most of the plusses are spelled Erik Stern. Stern plays the dual role of Caleb and Lester, two minds trapped inside one body. Caleb is the mentally challenged neighborhood gardner who wears Coke bottle glasses, suffers from a gimped hand, and mumbles awkwardly to himself in a southern drawl. At night, he transforms into his deceased twin Lester, who sheds all of Celeb’s defects for the ability to walk without hunch, speak confidently and con his way into the homes of Caleb’s customers so he can murder them.

Stern inhabits both roles with amazing versatility. His transformation from a handicapped Larry David into a physically daunting Matthew McConaughey lookalike makes up for many of the film’s shortcomings. Like all great screen psychos who suffer from similar personality disorders, we’re treated to moments of disagreement between the two minds–scenes that bridge Celeb and Lester’s troubled past. Stern puts an authentic spin on both these characters, and I think it’s fair to say he rises above the material in some ways to make the mental struggle a compelling one.

Lester does more than just take over so he can quickly butcher his victims. He descends upon each with a series of increasingly elaborate disguises that he knows will get him through the front door. First as an air conditioner salesman, then as a  Texan motorist with car troubles, and even a hispanic record salesman! If Chevy Chase’s Fletch was a serial killer, he’d probably be a lot like this. It’s great fun that helps offset a somewhat repetitious story (Caleb gets his feelings hurt by one of his female clients, turns into Lester who then kills her).

The heroes are always a few steps behind the villain in a movie like this. Whether we’re talking about Dr. Loomis’ inability to notice the government issued station wagon down the street, or the bumbling cops in The Last House on the Left, who wind up hitching rides in pursuit of the bad guys. I’m not sure anyone’s quite as dense as The Love Butcher‘s police, however, who take nearly the whole movie to figure out the killer’s pattern is a small neighborhood and that his weapons are always gardening tools. It’s not even the police who make the connection, but a reporter who also happens to be the one to suspect the weirdo gardner at all.

There’s another subplot around one of Celeb/Lester’s would-be victims. The only one  who’s actually nice to the awkward gardner. Think Caroline Munro in Maniac, sort of, but without the absurdity of romantic interest. She’s also the reporter’s girlfriend and we get just enough for her to be likable. One of the strangest detours in The Love Butcher is a scene that follows her to work, where she argues with her boyfriend while her coworkers find ways of eavesdropping on their conversation. It’s a bizarre touch, one that ultimately proves these filmmakers put some thought into making even the most ancillary scenes interesting.

A lot of The Love Butcher feels like that, even though by 1975 it was already something of an antiquated film when compared to watersheds like The Last House on the Left and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This film becomes the literal segue from the already-receding style of H. G. Lewis gore cartoons, to the stark nihilism of its immediate peers. The Love Butcher may feel a bit at odds with itself as a result. The hokey, red paint blood must be placed into the proper historical context, and I think it’s easy to do that when the movie paints a genuinely interesting psychological portrait that’s bolstered by a terrific performance. It helps that the ending is genuinely surprising and unsettling, too. A sign of the times.

If you want to get your hands on The Love Butcher, and I recommend you do, then you’ve got to hit up Code Red DVDs Big Cartel shop. I believe they’ve got the rights to this bad boy in perpetuity. The disc looks great, considering the movie’s age. Yes, the transfer is loaded with print scratches, but anyone looking to own this is more than used to this type of thing, I’m sure. Besides, it’s still a beautiful widescreen print, with excellent colors and black levels. Code Red also has the rights to the director’s previous effort, Schoolgirls in Chains, which will eventually hit Blu, and I’ll be glad to finally see.

You can certainly make a case for The Love Butcher being a really good or very bad film. I love it, and while it can be clunky at times, its shortcomings never squelched my enthusiasm. Considering Don Jones went on to make the slasher disaster The Forest in 1982, it’s hard to tell if he just lucked out here, or had really bad luck on the later (I seem to recall the DVD special features suggesting The Forest was an ill-fated shoot for several reasons, but it’s been years since I last watched it). This film hasn’t gotten out in front of as many eyes as it deserves, and if it sounds like it might be in your wheelhouse then it probably is.

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