Monday, October 21, 2013

Night of Terror # 21: 'Mardi Gras Massacre'

Tonight, another exciting guest spot, this one from perennial Nights of Terror contributor Ira Brooker, whose excellent blog you can find here. Here's his excellent piece on a movie I don't even like that much, Mardi Gras Massacre. It's not what you'd call a conventionally entertaining movie, but Ira has been obsessed with it for over six months now, and I can personally vouch for the fact that it's infectious. So, be careful before reading I guess. Here he is:

I like the concept of the hang-out movie, that semi-genre where the audience leaves the theater reflecting on how fun it would be to hang out with the characters, regardless of the film's actual narrative. The Big Lebowski is a hang-out movie. Pulp Fiction is a hang-out movie. Barbershop is a hang-out movie. And in its own perverse way, I'd say Mardi Gras Massacre is a hang-out movie.

That may seem an odd thing to say about a film whose protagonists are an abusive cop with a reputation for unlikability and a ritual murderer who disembowels prostitutes, but they're not the ones I want to hang out with. It's the folks in the periphery who make this movie seem like a desirable destination.

But let's back up and talk about this film's raison d'etre. It's the late '70s, it's New Orleans and it's carnival season. A well-dressed fellow with the bearing and precise diction of a less cuddly Tony Randall trolls a seedy bar in search of, in his words, the most evil girl in the place. The bar-side sex workers refer The John (the character has no name, so I'll just call him that) to a colleague whose very name is synonymous with sadistic depravity: Shirley. It probably goes without saying that The John has soon donned a Mayan-inspired gold mask, tied Evil Shirley to a makeshift altar, tortured her with a knife and extracted a fair number of her internal organs.

Meanwhile, down at the NOPD, a surly mustache in plainclothes gets briefed on the murder of Evil Shirley and hits the bars to investigate. Along the way he and his partner stop some jerk from beating up a call girl, who promptly falls for Detective Mustache. The now semi-retired prostitute and her charmless defender launch a deeply boring courtship that eats up a good portion of the movie's runtime.

Most of the film's middle third alternates between the two of them mooning around the French Quarter and The John picking/carving up further victims. The dude's not exactly subtle; he always employs the same "who's the evilest of them all?" M.O. he used on Shirley, and he has no qualms about running his game in front of a room full witnesses. At some point the viewer starts to wonder why the police don't just tell every bar in town to be on the lookout for a well-dressed creep looking for evil girls, but as a former New Orleans resident I can say that the cops' apathetic incompetence is maybe the most realistic note in the movie.

That all sounds like the makings of a pretty basic bad horror movie, and on the surface that's exactly what it is. But what makes Mardi Gras Massacre special to me is the lived-in quality of the whole thing. While the narrative shambles forward, the principals have regular run-ins with a weird menagerie of tertiary, distinctly New Orleanian characters. Given that their only purpose is to advance the plot or kick in some exposition, most of these folks are far more interesting than they need they need to be. I could probably devote an entire essay to Catfish the hippie pimp, a proto-Mitch Hedberg who sidles up to The John at a strip club and rattles off an astonishing circus barker spiel full of drugs and sex and goofy wordplay. I'm also thinking of the loutish bartender who's disturbingly amused by the notion of some nut job cutting up the neighborhood hookers, or the stoic Chinese delivery guy who gives the cops a vital tip complete with a half-hearted effort at extorting a bribe, or the cheerful little guy who takes a break from a Fat Tuesday "party for all the queens" to clue the detectives in to the killer's whereabouts.

In most '70s trash films – hell, in a good percentage of '70s mainstream films – those last two would be played as broad stereotypes and made the butt of at least one crass joke apiece. In the weirdly progressive (a highly relative term, given that nearly every female character is a sex worker and/or murder victim) universe of Mardi Gras Massacre, there's no frantic broken English or flamboyant mincing. These are just a couple of ordinary folks whose few lines of dialogue hint at interesting lives that exist beyond the scope of the movie. That's a rare trait in tertiary characters of any genre, and it's particularly odd considering what bland cyphers our purported protagonists are. (I'm excepting The John, an intentionally obscure figure played with impressive gusto by William Metzo.)

I presume these bit parts were played by local folks, quite possibly non-actors. That would make sense, as they lend the film its most distinctive New Orleans flavor. Other than a fairly extraneous sequence in which the masked killer wanders around a Mardi Gras parade, director and New Orleans native Jack Weis doesn't do a lot to capture the unique feel of the city. Familiar landmarks pop up here and there, but most of the action could take place anywhere. There's even an extended car chase through a near-deserted French Quarter, purportedly on Mardi Gras day. Having once navigated Fat Tuesday in the Quarter via bicycle, I can safely say this is an unlikely scenario. In a way, I'm glad that Weis went this route. I'd rather see New Orleans as everycity than as the usual Angel Heart hodgepodge of voodoo priestesses and wandering jazz bands and terrible Creole accents. Heck, the soundtrack here even eschews Dixieland and zydeco in favor of disco.

And so it falls largely on the supporting cast to make Mardi Gras Massacre a true New Orleans horror movie. By and large, they succeed. It's a friendly, sleazy city, personable almost to a fault and filled with wonderful weirdoes possessed of a refreshingly unpracticed quirkiness. The oddballs who emerge from the borders of Mardi Gras Massacre capture that perfectly and elevate the film from a scuzzy, charmingly inept slasher to a homey piece of regional horror that's peculiar enough to call truly memorable. Folks like Catfish the hippie pimp would probably be deeply unpleasant in real life, but I'd gladly hang out with their celluloid incarnations for another 90 minutes.

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