There is nothing particularly absurd about Joe D’Amato’s cynical exercise in slasher filmmaking; despite its reputation, it’s actually a pretty bog-standard affair. Gaining notoriety as one of the 72 ‘video nasties’ deemed unfit for public consumption, and even making it onto the list of 39 titles successfully prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, the film is a transparent derivative of John Carpenter’s Halloween, leeching off the movie’s popularity without quite figuring out what made it so effective. True to form, D’Amato delivers a brutal, curious movie, one that leaves you feeling dull and worn out rather than alive with terror, but that’s precisely the point.
The pre-certificate home video boom provided a new platform for independent filmmakers, and with so many under-the-radar movies flying off the shelves during the early 1980s, it was impossible for censorship boards to keep pace or indeed be aware of an overabundance of exploitative outings driven by depictions of graphic rape, the torture and degradation of women, real-life animal cruelty and what at the time were very realistic portrayals of murder.
The likes of Romero and Carpenter had shown us that talent and ingenuity can go a long way in covering up for a lack of financial clout, and given the right marketing strategy and technical nous, careers could be forged and a mint could be made. For those lacking the expertise and foresight necessary to succeed on their own merit, it was the marketing aspect that proved vital, and nothing attracts the masses like a little notoriety, something former hardcore porn distributor D’Amato had a long and storied history in.
As a consequence, investors were lining up to take part in the VHS revolution, leading to a period of exploitative, smash-and-grab filmmaking that eschewed creativity and technical panache for by-the-numbers imitations that set out to make their name based on shock value alone. One movie that can attest to the will of producers was John McNaughton’s notorious quasi-slasher Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. McNaughton was backed by a Chicago home video executive who expected a Friday the 13th clone for his meagre outlay. What he got instead was the kind of devastating character study that divided audiences and critics alike, a movie that was refused a release and damned to commercial purgatory along with a director who would struggle to find work on American shores. It didn’t matter that ‘Henry’ was superior to just about every low-budget horror to come out of the 80s. McNaughton was tasked with making a breadwinner, and, consciously or otherwise, he failed.
As director/producer of the equally controversial Absurd, D’Amato was under no such delusions. The movie was a tenuous follow-up to previous effort Antropophagus, another movie banned outright following the Video Recordings Act of 1984. D’Amato has directed so many movies (almost 200) that his output is the cinematic equivalent of Walmart, and for the most part just as efficient and unremarkable. The guy is no joke, he can direct just fine, and when it comes to nonsensical smut there is arguably no finer peddler, but as an effective horror filmmaker he lacks the charm and panache of some of his Italian peers, and Absurd suffers from some pretty serious pacing issues. Not that it mattered to horror freaks already knee-deep in the kind of under-the-counter scuzz that opened imaginations like a head-buried hatchet. Horror fans craved controversy, and in 1981 Absurd was on the tip of everyone’s tongue.
The plot is almost identical to that of Carpenter’s Halloween: an escaped maniac goes on a brutal killing spree before stalking two kids and a babysitter, and the similarities don’t end there. In 1978, Michael Myers had a very specific and believable reason for stalking Jamie Lee Curtis’ surprisingly resourceful babysitter. Absurd‘s rampaging boogeyman, Mikos, has no such rationality. He just randomly shows up. The movie is set in the United States, even though it’s quite clearly shot on location in Italy. In fact, everything about this movie is random, and the fact that we are never able to make a connection with any of the characters kills the tension dead. It’s murder for the sake of it; filmmaking at its most rudimentary and controversy-grabbing.
Like Myers, our killer is nigh-on indestructible thanks to a medial quirk that sees his blood coagulate at a quite incredible rate, giving him an almost limitless capacity for recovery. The crux is that the killer’s brain deteriorates at a similar rate, plunging him ever deeper into the realms of insanity, and it seems that only a priest (Edmund Purdom) has the knowledge to bring this madness to an end, performing his best Dr. Samuel Loomis impression for a pair of wildly dismissive detectives.
In terms of shock value and nihilistic imagery, the movie excels. A doctor’s drill, a bandsaw and an oven are just some of our killer’s weapons of choice as he lurches from victim-to-victim in a cotton shirt and sneakers, growling like a dull-witted mountain bear and exuding none of the mystery that forges the very best horror villains. Our killer is played by D’Amato go-to guy George Eastman, who would also pen the screenplay in the vein of an American slasher after rejecting the original script, which was a more direct sequel to Antropophagus in the Italian horror mode.
I dig some of D’Amato’s astronomical back catalogue. Movies such as 1983’s wildly dissonant, post-apocalyptic thriller Endgame (Bronx lotta finale) shining as deeply satisfying absurdities with the kind of smutty flourishes that leave your jaw almost perpetually agape, but save for some excruciatingly drawn-out kill sequences that still leave you in a state of amoral alarm, I was less enamoured with the more cut-and-dry Absurd. As a slice of primo nastiness, it’s hard to deny, but all things considered, I was a little underwhelmed by a movie whose reputation absolutely precedes it.
Technically, the movie is efficient but rushed, an indication of the director’s phenomenal output, and some of the film’s tension-building scenes were in need of some serious TLC. There are plus points: some convincing practical effects and a wonderful score by Carlo Maria Cordio, which really hammers home the nihilistic vibe, but time has deprived the movie of much of its outrage, and a twist ending, cleverly echoing the ‘video nasty’ hysteria of the day, seems to come out of nowhere and leaves no lasting impression.
Thanks to the furore surrounding the whole ‘video nasty’ scandal, the original Medusa pre-certificate home video release of Absurd is one of the rarest and most sought after artefacts for VHS collectors. Sometimes it really is what’s on the outside that counts.