‘Worst Movie Ever?’ No way. But neither is Wayne Berwick and comic Jackie Vernon’s tacky cannibalism tale a piece of art. When I say it’s interesting, it’s more as a study item than entertainment. Bad movie — but a terrific restoration!
Blu-ray + DVD
1983 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 76 min. / Street Date August 16, 2016 / 34.95
Starring Jackie Vernon, Loren Schein, Al Troupe, Claire Ginsberg, Maria Simon, Lou Ann Webber, Anna Marlowe.
Cinematography Karen Grossman
Makeup Effects Robert A. Burns
Original Music Leif Horvath
Editor Steve Nielson
Written by Thomas Singer, Craig Muckler
Produced by Craig Muckler, Thomas Singer
Directed by Wayne Berwick
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
“Well, the only problem is, I can’t make love to a woman, unless I eat her.”
Just as there are celebrities famous simply for being famous, there are movies that are famous for being bad. Last March I took the curiosity plunge and reviewed the notorious Manos, the Hands of Fate; my recovery has been swift, and thanks for your kind cards and letters. This time around I have a better excuse. 1983’s Microwave Massacre has a triple-Z groaner reputation, but it was also given a shot at immortality via a listing in Hardy’s Encyclopedia of Horror Movies, where esteemed Brit genre critics lauded it thusly: “Overplayed for cheap laughs, even by the normally deadpan stand-up comedian (Jackie) Vernon, the film ends up by being neither horrific nor funny.” But what do they know? (Note: I checked, and Microwave Massacre doesn’t seem to be on any official U.K. Video Nasty list.
The other reason to write about Microwave Massacre is to exploit a personal connection. The film’s editor is a close friend, and I even visited the set one day before filming began. My much-biased account of that experience follows below.
For what it’s worth, the IMDB fumbles a number of facts about Microwave Massacre. It seems to have found some kind of a release in the UK in 1979, the year after it was filmed, but its official debut date on VHS home video didn’t come until 1983. Although none of the filmmakers went forward to stellar careers or sterling cinematic achievements, we film aspirants of the 1970s will cast no stones — while the rest of us tried to nail down jobs in the industry, the makers of Massacre went out and made movies. They weren’t too proud to aim at the exploitation bracket, as the titles of their previous work attest: Malibu High; Hitch Hike to Hell. They’d enlisted their UCLA teacher Irv Berwick to direct their T&A beach party epic; Berwick is well known to monster movie fans as the director of 1959’s The Monster of Piedras Blancas. [It is due in just a month from Olive Films, restored on Blu-ray.] Massacre is helmed by Wayne Berwick, Irv’s musician son, who also worked making educational and industrial films. Unlike so many woebegotten backyard movies, for what it is, Massacre is competently directed.
I would call the choice of title quite good, and even potentially commercial. Although microwave ovens were invented almost immediately after WW2, affordable models penetrated the market in the middle ’70s, when the costs came down. My first was a bulky item. That a miracle product that makes life so much easier can be so quickly taken for granted, is a criticism of our spoiled consumerist world. Everybody has one, nobody appreciates it. Back in 1976, people were still asking, ‘is it safe?’
Microwave Massacre exploits the new appliance in a wholly dumbbell story about cannibalism, modeled after Charles B. Griffith’s Little Shop of Horrors. Compared to this show, Little Shop is Hamlet with jokes by Noel Coward. Ready for the plot synopsis? Moronic construction worker Donald (comic Jackie Vernon) is so angered by the grotesquely inedible cooking of his wife May (Claire Ginsberg) that he murders her and stuffs her dismembered body in the freezer. While looking for a snack he accidentally munches on the remains of his Missus. Donald likes what he tastes and is soon providing special lunches for his buddies at the work site (Loren Schein & Al Troupe).
That’s basically all the rational thought that went into the film’s screenplay. A burlesque comic drifting in an undeveloped skit, Donald comes off as a nice guy at heart, an odd fit for a serial murderer. He moves on to the casual murders of a number of young women, for reasons that don’t add up. Microwave Massacre’s chance for coherence therefore hinges on whether it can attain a suitable level of comic absurdity. Although that’s far too much to ask, the movie does manage a consistent dirty-joke burlesque atmosphere: the whole movie is pitched as an off-color joke, of the kind once delivered by the awful emcees that performed the introductions in strip clubs. As utterly stupid as things get, the somewhat amusing deadpan comedian Vernon does hold our interest.
Don’t confuse that explanation with praise. Microwave Massacre isn’t so much directed, as it accepts the comedy pacing of its star Jackie Vernon, who plays every gag in that ‘wait for it’ halting pace we associate with Laurel and Hardy movies. Vernon does pull off a few decent comic double takes, either at lewd events happening off camera or to the camera itself. I suppose that proof of the form comes when one or two of these actually come off as amusing. The show needs its staging-pacing stylization, because the humor is so utterly dire. It’s as if Larry Flynt were told to invent infantile smutty jokes for twelve year-olds, to be printed on obscene Bazooka bubble gum wrappers. The construction site jokes involve a passing babe sticking her breasts through a conveniently shaped hole in a fence, and an Adonis who turns out to be gay. The bar girls and hookers that Donald encounters are aggressively sexual. Jackie Vernon is astonished by their smutty come-ons. He’s the typical sexless schlubb that can’t believe that these babes would be interested in him. One hooker (Lou Ann Webber) is named Dee Dee Dee:
Dee Dee Dee: “My mother wanted to name me Delia, but she stuttered. Hey, have you ever screwed in 3-Dee?”
Donald’s work pals speak their lines with unnatural diction, just like actors in a burlesque skit projecting to illiterates in the balcony seats. The joke with the black worker is that he has no sense of rhythm and can’t even snap his fingers. When the fantasy babe (Marla Simon) trots and bounces through the construction site in short-shorts and high heels, the boys naturally follow like hungry dogs. In true burlesque fashion, she answers their lewd suggestions with equally suggestive come-ons. It’s a spectacle, and funny only in the abstract sense: awful jokes, given a respectful serious treatment.
The gross wit continues when Donald interacts with May, his intolerably idiotic wife. They trade New York insult humor in slow motion, underlining painful punch lines with exaggerated faces. Again, it’s consistent in its awfulness. One-shot actress Claire Ginsberg fits in with the level of humor, it must be said; her grotesque mugging does complement Vernon’s deadpan disgust. If the filmmakers had been really lucky, some influential critic would have called it inspired and launched the movie as a fad. I mean, stranger things have happened: enough critics decided that Paul Morrissey’s movies were screamingly funny, to give him the benefit of the doubt. When Donald spits on May’s food, or urinates on the living room carpet, a kind of anti-comedy depression sets in that can’t be alleviated. “This is The Pits,” the movie seems to say. The current website this isn’t happiness uses a recurring visual theme with the motto ‘Sucking in the Seventies.’ Microwave Massacre achieves qualifying status with its visual of Donald and May’s awful living room sofa, which has a horrendous stain on its back. Back in our student days, it seemed that every crash pad had something similar.
The comedy peters out in repeated murders, all of which end up with body parts wrapped in tinfoil and tucked into the freezer. The art director Robert R. Burns (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) provides some so-so body part castings, but the movie lacks interesting gore visuals. The prop head representing May doesn’t look much like her. The oversized oven prop is okay, being big enough to display an entire rack of hacked-off body parts. Unlike old-fashioned schlubb comedy where the comic dope can look but not touch the bimbos, Massacre’s Jackie Vernon is seen enthusiastically groping one or two of his naked victims. But most of the film’s nudity is handled through cutaways, such as a running gag that sees a window-peeking Donald confused by what looks like a 24-7 orgy in progress next door. The actresses playing the various babes do deliver some effective gestures and leers, so none of this is blatantly incompetent. Then the humor throws in a camera angle that makes it look as if the squatting neighbor lady is urinating on her front yard, and we’re back to Sucking in the Seventies again.
If Microwave Massacre’s concept had gone the extra mile it might have added up to something. Nowhere is there a hint of satirical intent, as with a genuinely transgressive black comedy like Paul Bartel’s Private Parts or Eating Raoul. There are unexplored possibilities. One might imagine a nice twist in which May’s decapitated head inside the freezer talks to Donald telepathically, the joke being that even murder doesn’t spare him from being henpecked. Perhaps the film’s final form can be explained that the script was thrown out the day before filming, and what we see was cobbled together at the last minute.
The jokes are so unfocused that misogyny comes to mind only as an afterthought. When Donald visits his doctor and confesses to only enjoying a woman if he eats her, the doctor naturally assumes that he’s talking about oral sex. The delivery is so flat that smiles are out of the question, and things never get wild enough to take us into ‘how far can this go?’ territory. The screenplay instead references the disclaimer that came with early microwave ovens, which were reputed to be dangerous for people with pacemakers. When the end titles roll up, they’re presented in the style of a menu at a French restaurant. The little in-jokes in the credit scroll are cleverer than anything in the movie.
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray + DVD of Microwave Massacre is an eye-opener in that it surely looks a thousand times better than its original VHS release in old clamshell cases. The show was filmed in 35mm with proper lighting, and although the lighting is just so-so, a 2K scan from the original elements makes them look fairly amazing. Forget the misinformed IMDB ‘goof’ reports of boom mikes and unwanted hands poking into the frame; those are all matted away when the image is properly framed in widescreen. As unlikely as it may sound, the show looks great in HD.
Moderated by film armorer and makeup man Mike Tristano, producer Craig Muckler contributes an enthusiastic and somewhat rambling audio commentary that wants us to consider his show as a major discovery, when it is not much more than an historical curiosity. It doesn’t even give us an inkling of Jackie Vernon’s talent or what his fame was all about — many praised his act, Steve Allen promoted his career, and generations of kids know him as the voice of Frosty the Snowman in a perennial TV special. Muckler participates in the making of a featurette with actor Loren Schein and director Wayne Berwick. Of them only Berwick seems to have a clear head about what he did and didn’t accomplish. He comes off as a thoughtful guy and a competent director. We’re told that Microwave Massacre was originally conceived as a much more gruesome horror item, as opposed to a string of dirty jokes. It wound up as a curiously unpleasant silly-gore dirty comedy, stylistically an extension of the nudie cuties of the early ’60s, which sometimes used baggy pants burlesque comics. Once-notable comic Billy Falbo starred in Herschel Gordon Lewis’s The Adventures of Lucky Pierre.
Did I miss something in the commentary? The cameraperson credited on the show is Karen Grossman. Considering the movie’s dirty boys’ club ethos, I’m surprised the filmmakers don’t say more about their woman DP, if only to score diversity points. The cinematography is quite good.
The genial insert booklet essay is by Stephen Thrower, who must stretch a bit searching for ways to make Microwave Massacre seem more relevant. We learn that Wayne Berwick later teamed with Ted Newsom to produce the multi-format cheapie sci-fi spoof comedy The Naked Monster. Arrow’s Francesco Simeoni and Elijah Drenner have done a good job with this package. Arrow includes a DVD of the show; the presentation is given English subtitles as well. The reversible packaging carries alternate choice of ‘appetizing’ artwork.
Back in 1978 my best friend and fellow UCLA film school graduate Steve Nielson and I weren’t sure which of us was on the better job path. I was working on my second big special effects movie, but mostly as a glorified clerk and gopher. Even though I had done effects editorial work, the Union wouldn’t give me a Guild Card. Steve was already editing his third or fourth feature film. They were far from prestigious yet received wide releases — The Crater Lake Monster, the cult item The Girls Next Door. We considered ourselves lucky to have gotten as far ‘on the inside’ as we had. In the late ’70s editing was all done on film and required special skills. Access to the tools to gain the necessary experience was hard to come by. It was still a respected thing to edit ‘low budget’ movies, before cheapskate direct-to-video producers decided that ‘anybody could do it,’ and new videotape editing equipment made the craft so accessible that producers could have their boyfriends, their children, or their dog do the job.
Steve invited me to the set of Microwave Massacre sometime in 1978, on a hot weekend day. I didn’t see any filming at the house in Sherman Oaks (or Reseda?) where ‘Donald’ lived. The crew hadn’t yet arrived, and I helped Steve and one other guy set up a camera dolly track on the front lawn. It doesn’t appear to have been used. Director Wayne Berwick was there, a bearded, thin and slight fellow who walked with the aid of a cane. He seemed very intent, or perhaps was upset that the crew hadn’t arrived.
Like most of what he had to cut back then, Steve Nielson had few choices in the coverage, but found that the angles he had for Massacre were more than adequate. He soon realized that his cutting pattern would have to be paced to match Jackie Vernon’s performance. It’s good that nobody asked Steve to ‘cut around’ Vernon to speed him up or to try to make the material work in a different way (which happens A LOT). Steve liked Berwick and remembers the producers and co-writers as nice guys. Berwick talks about his love of editing and the long hours in the cutting room, but Steve remembered doing his cut mostly solo. Perhaps the director gave it a polish after Steve left. Steve tells me that Wayne has a solid music background; I’d like to get them in touch with each other again.
I’d also like to hear old Piedras Blancas stories from Wayne, who acted in the movie. He played a kid scared to death of the monster seen toting decapitated heads up and down main street. What ‘monster kid’ wouldn’t like that on their resume? Claims To Fame are where you find them.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Microwave Massacre Region B Blu-ray + DVD rates:
Supplements: Audio commentary with writer-producer Craig Muckler moderated by Mike Tristano; making-of featurette with interviews with Muckler, director Wayne Berwick and actor Loren Schein; promo trailer, art gallery, Illustrated booklet with essay by Stephen Thrower.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles:
Packaging: One Blu-ray and one DVD disc in Keep case
Reviewed: August 10, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson