Now, even though this column is called “Schlock & Awe,” and I definitely do look at some weird and obscure movies generally on the list of schlocky b-movies, in general I’ve been talking about films that I actually quite like. As I believe in balance in all things, I think it only right to talk about a movie that is so terrible, so awful, so absurdly, laughably inept in every way and yet so completely sure of its own prowess. This is going to be a pretty thorough dissection of this movie, that I hope most of you have never heard of let alone seen. I’ll say it’s full of spoilers, but as no one should actually watch this movie, there’s nothing to spoil. The film in question, heaven help us all, is 1987’s Killing Spree.
I chose the film, not because its premise involves a jealous husband going on a murderous rampage only to have his victims return as flesh-eating zombies, but because the lead actor has the improbable name of “Asbestos Felt.” Improbable, that is, until you see him. He looks like someone took the stuffing out of a number of old Care Bears toys, ones that have been discarded in a landfill for decades, and decided to fashion hair and a beard out of it. Killing Spree currently has an inexplicable rating of 5.1 on IMDb, which may seem high until you realize it only has 399 votes, 122 of which gave the film a 10. I’m guessing all of them were the film’s auteur, Tim Ritter, using assumed identities. The film was made on a budget of what looks like $45 and a pack of gum. More than 75% of the lines were visibly read off of something and, the leads aside, all the actors look like rejects from Doughy Loner fantasy camp.
In any intro to film class, you learn that you’re supposed show and not tell. Killing Spree hedges its bets by showing AND telling; it shows us things we don’t want to see and it tells us things we don’t need to know. We open with our “hero,” Tom Russo played by the aforementioned Mr. Felt, a nigh-emaciated man with big, bristly blonde hair and beard, returning home from work. By his general appearance, you might assume “work” for him is sitting all day under a bridge. Tom lives in a town house in the middle of nowhere with his wife, Leeza (Courtney Lercara), who is the scream queen equivalent of new drapes. Tom is upset to learn Ben is coming over for dinner. Who is Ben, you (didn’t) ask? Why, he’s Tom’s best friend and the best man at their wedding. How do we know this? Because Leeza says this, verbatim, for our benefit and no one else’s.
Based on Tom’s age and appearance, I got a mental picture of what Ben should look like: probably a gear head in his late 20s. In actuality, Ben is in his 50s, overweight, sporting a mean comb-over, with a voice like Alex Rocco. This raises a few questions that never get answered: like how did these two men meet? How did they become friends? And how much money did this guy pay Tim Ritter to let him in the film? More things we learn by being told directly are that Tom has forbidden Leeza from working and that Ben is dating an 18 year old. Tom is called away from the table by the nosy neighbor, Mrs. Palmer, and when he returns he thinks Leeza and Ben are being a bit too friendly. He flies off the handle, screams at Ben, and makes him leave. This is, in fact, Tom’s state of being throughout much of the film. It’s been said several times that George Lucas only had two pieces of direction on Star Wars and they were, “Faster,” and “More intense.” Based on Asbestos’ performance, Tim Ritter must have only offered “Angrier! Less Reasonable!”
The scene ends with Tom saying he gets so jealous because his first wife cheated on him, something his current wife should already know and not need to be reminded of, but since it’s in the script, he has to say it. Tom has a nightmare that he walks in on Ben and Leeza awkwardly lying on top of one another, more or less fully clothed, then Leeza’s face becoming a comically giant pair of rubber lips and giving Ben “head” by sucking on his cranium. This is an important scene in the film as it’s the first of 6284 times Tom’s tenuous sanity is illustrated by putting a red and yellow gel in front of the key light. Several times throughout the film, we can literally see the shadow of someone slapping on the gel as Tom snaps.
In the next scene we get to see Tom at work. It’s an airplane hangar at a small airfield where Tom is apparently an engineer. We’re treated to a meeting with Tom’s co-worker, Stewmaster. Something Tom has always wondered, but has chosen only this moment in time to ask, is how this chap got to be called “Stewmaster.” Well, funny story, when he was in the military, he worked as a cook and made just about the best stew anyone had ever tried. This is all told in close up like it is to have some great importance to the rest of the proceedings. As it happens, though, stew and the fact that this man holds dominion over it have zero bearing on anything that follows. In fact, Stewmaster is not in the movie again once the scene ends. We hardly knew ye. What IS important in the scene, though, is we find out that Tom’s getting a 40% pay cut (which doesn’t seem in the least bit legal) and will be forced to get a second job in order to make ends meet. His clearly capable wife could get a job and help, of course, but Tom vehemently denies her the opportunity to do so.
As if things couldn’t get worse for our scraggily-maned protagonist, he finds his wife’s diary casually left on the coffee table and reads in horror a vivid description of how she had made passionate love to Ben while Tom was at work. He’s so distraught by this that he goes and has a temper tantrum under a bridge by the ocean, which I’m guessing was filmed at Asbestos Felt’s own abode. When Tom finally returns home, Ben and his new girlfriend, a “punk” who looks like a Technicolor badger, come visit and Tom can no longer contain his rage. The gel is slapped in front of the light again and he decapitates the girlfriend and beats Ben to death with her severed head. He buries both of them in the backyard and calls it a day.
This begins the bulk of the film wherein various professionals are called over to the Russo house while Tom is at work, them having interactions with Leeza, then Tom reading about what a whore his wife is later in her diary. Then, one by one, he invites them back under false pretenses to brutally murder and bury them. One man gets the top of his head chopped off by a ceiling fan-machete machine; another gets his head lawn-mowed; still a third gets disemboweled by a chainsaw AND electrocuted. Each of these little scenes is worse than the last, but are not without their bright spots. The best line in the film comes when Tom drops a screwdriver into the head of a delivery man and says, “You screw my wife, I screw-drive your head!” Naturally. Stands to reason.
As Tom is burning the delivery man’s body in a conveniently placed oil drum, his nosy neighbor, Mrs. Palmer spies on him and reacts with disappointment and judgment. She scolds him for being so naughty and then threatens to call the police unless he kills her invalid husband for her. He’s such a pain in the ass, what with his not being able to fend for himself and being totally dependent on her love and caring after the decades of stability he provided for them and their children. What a pig. Tom doesn’t take kindly to this deal, unfortunately, and sticks a claw hammer in her chin and tears off her face, a cruel fate for such an annoying, exaggerated character. She too gets bagged up and taken inside.
This proves to be the last straw, however, as each of the murder victims comes back to life, claiming that they were all taken before their time and cannot rest until Tom pays with his life. Pretty common horror movie morality trope, but I was thrown by the explanation: they died before their time. Dying before one’s time is awful but is a fairly commonplace occurrence. Does this mean EVERYONE who dies before their time resurrects in zombie form or just people who are murdered? Car accident victims and cancer patients and people who choke on McRibs; are we to believe that they all come back until the reason for their death pays for their crimes? How many zombies would be outside of Marlboro headquarters right now if that were true?
The big surprise twist comes at the end when we find out Leeza didn’t actually have sex with any of these people; she was merely making up sexy stories about them to sell to an erotica magazine. And it works! She gets $1500 for her five stories and can now help pay bills without Tom having to get another job. She’s stood by her overbearing, chauvinistic, jealous, insane, murderous husband after all. She’s the best wife ever. Leeza returns home and is set upon by the zombies of her husband’s victims and she and Tom hide in the house. Eventually, after mind-numbingly awful dialogue by the undead, Tom slices his throat with a hacksaw, ending the curse. Leeza, through all of this, has reacted with as much excitement and fear as someone who’s recently disagreed with an article in the new Reader’s Digest.
The best term to describe Killing Spree is “God-awful.” Even though none of it really worked and my face became frozen in an irritated grimace for about an hour afterwards, Killing Spree did succeed in being scary on two levels: The first, for depicting mid-80s suburban sprawl accurately. The Russo’s town house is quite literally in a void, with vast expanses of flat, untouched land far off into the distance. The home itself had almost nothing on the walls and only the bare minimum of furnishings, giving the illusion that these people are squatting and just pulled in whatever sad pieces of décor were left on the side of a ditch somewhere. It’s the kind of area that was very prevalent where I grew up and I shudder to think of. The second successful scare is Mr. Asbestos Felt himself, who for all his poor line readings and overacting might actually be certifiably insane, laughing maniacally with the wide-eyed ferocity of a meth addict out for a fix. It had to be real; he couldn’t possibly be that good an actor.