Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Undertaker

I’m going to miss Code Red when they close up shop next year. There aren’t exactly a lot of DVD companies out there that specialize in restoring rare horror movies, and while the overall quality of the movies they choose is somewhat hit or miss, without them it’s extremely unlikely that we would ever have gotten a release of this delightfully goofy mess.

The Undertaker is mostly known (by those rather few people that know it at all) as Joe Spinell’s (Maniac, The Last Horror Film) final movie. Indeed, a great deal of its overall weirdness comes from how the film was never truly finished due to Spinell’s death during filming, leading to a great many awkward stand-ins, new characters seemingly thrown in just to add padding and confusion, several musical montages (often to gym workouts), frequent clips of the old Bela Lugosi film The Corpse Vanishes, and quite a few breast shots, all in a thoroughly failing effort to distract us from how infrequently the film’s star actually appears.

The film doesn’t really have much of a plot, really, and what plot there is frequently doesn’t make much sense. Essentially Spinell is the undertaker (Hey! Like the title!) of a small town in New Jersey that also happens to be a necrophiliac. Upset by the lack of deaths recently (in a fairly inspired monologue where he bemoans Surgeon General warnings and drunk driving laws), he decides he’s going to have to drum up some business himself. For reasons beyond me*, he decides to make the local movie theater’s extended run of an obscure horror movie from 1942 his place to locate victims, picking out a new one each night for his dark lusts. Also, his nephew, the nephew’s teacher, the police, and a swarm of others are all trying to figure out who’s behind these disappearances, and despite the police knowing all the victims had gone to see the movie, and the one theater worker directly stating Spinell’s been there five or six times, and he’s probably the one behind all the disappearances, nobody can figure out what’s going on.

Now, while it’s always fun to see Spinell in a movie, and the film does earn some points for sheer nerve and absurdity, there are quite a few problems with the movie, and not all due to Spinell dying. Director Franco Steffanino (whose IMDB page lists this as his only credit) does a fairly terrible job, particularly with the editing. In the proud tradition of Ed Wood, several shots that have Spinell looking creepy and don’t have any dialogue are reused throughout the film, just to try to keep him onscreen as much as possible. There’s also a major issue with the cuts in the film, particularly in scenes where two characters are talking, as he employs the standard method of putting a camera on each actor and cutting between them while talking, but he starts each cut at the precise moment each character starts talking. The end result of this is that it makes each character look like a total prima donna, trying to talk over everyone else because they’re so much more important.

This really isn’t much of a film so much as it is a curiosity. Spinell is visibly in bad shape in the scenes he’s in, slurring half of his lines like he had had a recent stroke or something, and the efforts at padding are more shameless than nearly anything I’ve ever seen. Watching it, one can kind of see a decent movie buried in there, but there clearly was not enough worthwhile material to justify a full 90 minutes. Had Steffanino bit the bullet and trimmed the movie down to an hour, I think it would have been a much better movie.

Rating: * ½

* Okay, it’s not really beyond me. Obviously The Corpse Vanishes was chosen because it’s public domain so the filmmakers wouldn’t have to pay for it, and I’m pretty much 100% certain that all the footage of Spinell at the theater was intended for just the first kill, and they decided to stretch it all out when he died, figuring nobody would care.

Also, for those of you at work, watch out for the nudity in the trailer.

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