When I started this column my main hope was to find interesting films that I had never seen before that I could review. I hoped that I would enjoy the majority of them, but I knew that in sampling such odd fare that it was inevitable that I would eventually encounter some duds. But I also held out hope, as naive as it probably was, that since I was watching primarily experimental films, that I would enjoy at least some aspect of these movies, no matter how terrible they might happen to be. I held out that hope until now. Until Mutant. I just wish this day had never come.
Two brothers, Josh and Mike (Wings Hauser and Lee Montgomery) from somewhere hip and cosmopolitan, are heading to a small southern getaway to engage in some much needed male bonding. It seems that have become estranged for some unexplained reason and this trip to a place that they hate, and hates them they back with equal fervor, will be the perfect place to solve all of their problems. That is, until the vampire acid zombies show up and ruin everything.
I’ve been trying to slog through Mutant for close to a month now. Considering I’ve watched any number of awful films in my day just what possibly could have made Mutant so difficult to sit through? The short answer is really rather simple. Everything. It is difficult to know just where to begin describing the failures of Mutant. It is the kind of colossal disaster that could destroy companies. Funny enough, Mutant did.
Mutant was released as Night Shadows in 1984 by Film Ventures International (FVI), a production company best known for putting out low budget exploitation films that were blatant rip-offs of popular blockbusters, often resulting in massive profits for FVI. Some of FVI’s best known films include the semi-classics Beyond the Door, Grizzly, Day of the Animals and The House on Sorority Row. But by the time Mutant was to be released, FVI was in dire financial straights.
FVI was run by the now notorious producer Edward L Montoro, a man so vile, even douche bags think he’s a douche bag. Montoro was a man clearly driven to make himself as much money as cheaply as possible, everyone else be damned. To do this he would routinely acquire cheap Italian horror knock-offs that he would then turn around and distribute in the US, and when that wasn’t enough money, he would embezzle funds from his own company.
Adding to these issues, in 1980 FVI was sued by Universal Pictures when they released the blatant Jaws rip-off, Great White. Universal won the lawsuit, causing the film to be pulled from release after only one week. As if that wasn’t enough, prior to the release of Mutant, Montoro was finalizing a divorce settlement with his soon to be ex-wife Joan, leaving Montoro and FVI fairly strapped for cash and counting on Mutant to bring in some much needed revenue to keep the production company afloat.
Mutant was filled with problems from the get go. The director originally scheduled to make the film, Mark Rosman, was replaced early on in the production by John ‘Bud’ Cardos, FVI’s regular director for hire. In addition the original script went through an extensive re-write, changing the primary premise from germ warfare to the more exotic concept of toxic waste poisoning. In addition to the plot changes the infected creatures were changed into slow moving, zombie styled creatures, and the script was adjusted to ramp up the violence while limiting the atmosphere, in complete contrast to the intentions of the original screenplay.
These last minute changes, not surprisingly, cause real problems with the film, as the biggest issue is the pacing issues that cause the film to seriously drag for scenes on end. I’m all for a slow burn film, but at an hour and forty minutes, you could easily cut a half hour of surprisingly pointless exposition that peppers the film and bogs down scene after scene with unfinished plot points. At least then the film would have some solid flow instead of the jarring stops and starts that shake you in and out of the film with each successive scene.
In one particular instance, in which Josh and Mike sit around and discuss nothing in particular yet somehow resolve all the issues of their estrangement, was particularly frustrating. Neither of these characters were compelling to begin with, and forcing me to sit in a room with just the two of them as they yammer on about I don’t know what was truly painful. And that their thin back story has no tie-in with the rest of the film, makes the entire scene completely pointless and brings the narrative to a crashing halt. It was a bad scene even when I thought it might lead to a mythical payoff later in the film, and in retrospect it should have been plainly obvious that it should have ended up on the cutting room floor.
The other primary flaw with Mutant is that it routinely breaks every rule it puts in place for the viewers. Vampire acid zombies are harmed by the light? Well, how about we just have one run around in the daylight. Acid comes out of the gashes in their palms? That is, unless sometimes we make any part of their hands acidic, except, of course, when their hands aren’t acidic at all. Or remember when the toxic waste infection took hours, even days, to fully transform someone? Well, except when it takes less then two minutes. And I could go on, possibly with a dozen more examples. Now normally I’m not one to complain one or two questionable cheats by a film, but when they are shoved in my face in seemingly every other scene I tend to grow a bit irritated.
Perhaps one could argue that the changes in the screenplay are to blame. But even arguments that claim they should have stuck to the original concept of an atmospheric horror film don’t hold much water, as the atmosphere that does exist in Mutant is poorly executed at best, or painfully non existent at worst. Our protagonists will walk around with nothing in sight, then turn to their left and see dozens of acidic zombie vampires just inches away. How did they creep up on them? Especially with that annoying house cat yowl they have.
Even worse is the one scene that actually attempts to have some atmosphere. Holly (Jody Medford) is sitting in the car, waiting for Josh to make a quick run into the gas station to buy some Funyuns. Inexplicably a wave of fog rolls in, this effect might have been better if you couldn’t actually see the fog machines under her car pumping out fog, causing Holly to be terrified at the thought of a mediocre John Carpenter film suddenly enveloping her. (I know the thought of being trapped in Ghosts of Mars terrifies me, and it isn’t because the film is scary.) But as the fog swirls, yes, it swirls, Holly thinks she sees something moving in the fog and it ain’t no putty tat.
Ok sure, the vampire acid zombie reveal is handled pretty well, but everything up until that is bungled so badly that it detracts any fear or enjoyment that might be gleaned from the scene. And yes, when the vampire acid zombies melt the car windows so they can attack Holly my interest was finally piqued. It is not only a great idea, but the effect is well executed. But it only takes a moment to realize that once again Mutant has made up yet another subsection to one of their arbitrary rules. If they could melt through the glass then why weren’t they melting through anything else during the entire film?
And that proves my point with Mutant, when it does stumble upon an interesting idea, and make no mistake Mutant has a few interesting ideas, it rarely executes them in anything resembling a competent manner. And this lackadaisical attitude translates to the audience as outright apathy. If the film makers aren’t going to invest any passion into their project then why would I as a viewer?
It seems both critics and audiences shared this sentiment with me when they watched this film way back in 1984. While not an outright bomb, when your film only costs $2.5 million it is difficult to bomb, Mutant was anything but the financial savior FVI needed to stay solvent. With mounting debts and a company on the brink of bankruptcy, Montero did what any sleazeball would do. He took $1 million out of the company coffers and promptly vanished … never to be seen again. One year later FVI followed suit when it filed for Chapter 11, sold off its assets, and disappeared into obscurity. If only Mutant followed both of their leads and escaped into the ether, saving everyone the horror of having to sit through this utter waste of time.