MAY 28 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : MARDI GRAS MASSACRE
WRITTEN BY OH-THE-HORROR.COM
The Mardi Gras celebration has always been a popular attraction for the city of New Orleans since its inception. With so much partying and merriment, it's pretty much an ideal scenario for a slasher film to take place. In 1978, a low budget grindhouse flick found its way into American cinemas which did aim to use one of America's favorite festivals as its setting. Armed with plenty of bare skin, gory FX, and a story about sacrificial murders, would the filmmakers behind Mardi Gras Massacre succeed in crafting a classic?
We open on a stern, yet creepy looking man in a bar picking up a prostitute. His voice is monotone to the point that he almost sounds like a robot. You immediately get the impression that there's something not quite right with him. In the next scene, as he takes the girl to his apartment, you immediately see that he is indeed...different. After asking the lady of the evening to disrobe and lay on some sort of altar-looking table, he steps out from behind a red curtain wearing some sort of bizarre gold mask and tribal get-up, while also brandishing a knife. Yes, folks...it appears someone is about to be sacrificed. After tying her to the table, he uses the knife to disembowel her alive. The next day, her body is discovered abandoned on a set of railroad tracks and the police make it their goal to discover the identity of the murderer before he can kill again. Soon, though, he finds other ladies of the evening to use for his forbidden sacrament.
What a waste of film. I really expected a little more out of this one. It was a video nasty in Britain after all. That's not exactly a sign of quality, but it it at least a sign that the film might contain something interesting enough to be worthy of someone wanting it to be censored. Everything about Mardi Gras Massacre just reeks of cheap. Sometimes this is a charming fact for low budget films, but here, it's truly a hindrance. The opening title card was printed on what appears to be a sheet of construction paper. I'm not sure if this was the original title card that was included with the film when it played drive-ins back in '78, or if it was added for the video release. It starts the film off in a cheap-jack way, regardless. The script, written by the film's director, is pretty laughable. The blatant use of phrases like "tricks" and "johns" in the opening scene over-telegraphs the notion "hey, we're discussing prostitution." They also make a point to name-drop the Manson murders as an example of a ritual killing by devil worshipers. The title of the film could've been pretty much anything, as we don't even find out that it takes place in New Orleans until about 45 minutes in. Even then, we never actually see Mardi Gras until over an hour and fifteen minutes in. Unless the point the filmmakers wanted to get across was that New Orleans is full of some of the sleaziest, most unappealing discos and strip clubs (with some of the most lumpy-butted and unappealing of strippers), they made very poor utilization of a potentially great setting. Really, this movie could've taken place in any city during any time. With such great potential for classic slasher scenes set amidst the backdrop of the fun and insanity that is Mardi Gras, this film is a disappointing missed opportunity.
Of course, the film pre-dates the early 80s slasher boom, so right up front you know that its inspiration isn't going to be Halloween or Friday the 13th. Oh, how I wished this film had something more substantial to rip-off. The title leads you to think it may rip off Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but nope. We should be so lucky. Due to the nature of the kills and the hokey Blood Feast type plot, the inspiration was more likely to have been the entire filmography of Herschell Gordon Lewis. The killer's motivation is some sort of sacrifice to an Aztec idol that he keeps on his wall (that bears an uncanny resemblance to a giant gingerbread man). It's never fully explained. Sometimes this can be praised as mystery, but here I think the filmmakers were just lazy. It's all pretty random, if you ask me. I'm not quite sure how Aztec sacrifice ties in at all with New Orleans or Mardi Gras, and I doubt the filmmakers could tell you either. The direction by Jack Weis (Crypt of Dark Secrets) is just as inept as his script. There are very few close shots or intercutting at all. Instead, we're treated to mostly long shots that play without breaking. In a way, it gives certain parts of the movie the feeling of a stage play. This would be fine, if the acting weren't paltry. See, the difference between most bad acting today and bad acting of the time period this film was made is that back in the day, a lot of the time, the actors in low budget horror movies really couldn't act. Many times, they were friends, family members, or investors in the film who were given roles for whatever the reason. Thus, you have scenes like the first scene between the three detectives working on the case, where they stumble through their lines like they're going to forget one of them any moment. Bad acting today is usually caused by overacting. An actor or actress is either too eager to impress or too coked up to deliver a decent, controlled performance. This kind of bad acting is annoying, but watchable. The kind on display in Mardi Gras Massacre is a true test of the viewer's will power to sit through. Take for example, the fact that I'm pretty sure one of the cops later in the film was reading his lines straight from a cue card.
The music relies heavily on synth, which if you know my taste in slasher movies, you'll know that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. The problem is that the score has no consistency to it. For all its repetition, some moments sound like synth mixed with some kind of air gun, while others sound too much like something you'd hear in a high school film strip circa 1973. I.E. not quite effective for a horror film. Several other pieces go off into the sort of awful disco and jazz hybrid that you would've heard in a porno film of the 70s. In fact, pretty much all of the music played in the bars throws off this vibe. And, being that the film came out only a year after Saturday Night Fever was a raging success, it's no surprise at all that that there is also a lengthy disco dance sequence. If the disco stuff in the original Prom Night had you tapping your feet with nostalgia, the truly dreadful musical atrocities in this movie will make you feel at ease that disco is long dead, never to return again.
Not all is a wash, though. Those looking for skin will find more than a fair share. You almost wonder if Weis would have rather just gone ahead and made an adult film. Also, the gore is pretty effective in a low budget way. Most of what we get is a close up of a blade entering a torso slicing open said torso, and a hand reaching in and pulling out an unidentified gooey body part (heart? stomach? intestines?). These scenes are unflinching and pretty graphic. The latex torsos themselves are pretty good if you can get past the fact that they (the victim) don't move around much, despite the amount of screaming they do. The only thing that tones down their realism is that the nipples appear to be the same exact color as the rest of the torso. To the effects crew's credit, however, given the fact that each death scene is pretty much exactly the same (killer ties girl to altar, sacrifices her), they could've probably saved a few bucks by using the same torso footage for all three murder sequences. Instead, you can tell that three different latex torsos were created, due to the difference in breast and nipple appearances (each specific to those of the girl that is being killed). I know this attention to detail wouldn't even be mentioned in most other horror film reviews (as using different props is pretty much a given) but for such a cheap movie to go the extra mile like this, well, I must give credit where credit is due. Most likely, though, the FX guys probably just wanted to have a reason to cast molds of the actresses nude bodies. Again, though, because each death scene is the exact same, once you watch the open 10 minutes, you've pretty much seen the entire movie.
The film has only seen three home video releases. Two VHS editions by VCI Home Video and Midnight Video and an unauthorized Region 1 DVD by Substance. The Substance DVD is full screen, and most likely is nothing more than a transfer of one of the VHS versions. I'm pretty sure it's uncut, as none of the nudity or gore seems to be shy whatsoever. As expected on an unauthorized release, there are no extras. Mardi Gras Massacre has far too many faults and shortcomings to recommend as a good movie, but as a trashy slasher to be watched for only laughs, I do think it has slight merit. If you can get through the tedium of the kills and the sleazy feeling that oozes from nearly every line of dialogue, I think there is a tiny amount of cheap fun to be had with this one. Not nearly enough, however, for me to actively recommend to someone. This one is for hardcore slasher addicts only...and even then, it's only so that you can say "I've seen it" and then move on to something much more worthwhile. If the real Mardi Gras were this dull, New Orleans would be bankrupt by now. Trash it!