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Shaffer: Gore hounds rejoice at ‘The Mutilator’ on DVD

By Josh Shaffer

In “The Mutilator,” a gut-splattered classic of the slasher genre, a lunatic slayer stalks six randy coeds on a beer-soaked weekend at Atlantic Beach, skewering one victim with a flounder gig, impaling another on a marlin gaff and pushing a third face-first into a roaring outboard motor.

Filmed in 1984 for a skimpy $450,000, the movie introduced horror fans worldwide to the murderous possibility of North Carolina nautical tools. Director Buddy Cooper created an oceanfront slaughterhouse so authentic, so locally flavored, that the carnage unfolded to a beach music soundtrack.

And even though the 86-minute film opened to sellout crowds in Morehead City, even though it screened in Times Square, it faded into cult nostalgia along with flicks of its gore-stained persuasion. But like a shot, stabbed and drowned killer who just won’t die, “The Mutilator” crawled back in February for fresh bloodshed – on DVD and Blu-ray for the first time.

Besides being the world’s only murder movie to employ a fishing sinker as a weapon, Cooper’s bloody opus owns three crazy distinctions. One, it stars a skinny-dipping Frances Raines, whose uncle Claude played Captain Renault in “Casablanca.” Two, its neophyte film editor Hughes Winborne went on to win an Oscar for “Crash” in 2004. And three, Florida crime novelist Carl Hiaasen wrote about it for the Miami Herald in 1985, calling it “one of the most abominable movies of all time.”

But I salute “The Mutilator” with a partially severed arm, welcoming its murderous return. It belongs in our state treasury, a psychotic “Dirty Dancing.”

“I always liked slasher pictures,” said Cooper, whose family owns the Oceanana Family Motel and whose son is Atlantic Beach’s mayor. “I think it’s about being scared in a safe environment. There was always a naked girl in there. That doesn’t hurt.”

The idea struck Cooper a few days after Labor Day, when the crowds had faded and the oceanfront stretched empty for miles. He considered the horror-show possibilities of being stuck on an island with no tourists and a nonfunctioning bridge. In those days, he was practicing law in Carteret County, so he pounded out the script for a few hours before his work as a small-town attorney, originally titling it “Fall Break.” Here is a sample of the dialogue, a favorite line of mine: “Hell yes, he’s dead! They’re all dead!”

Winborne, then working in New York, received a call from his father, the legendary Judge Pretlow Winborne, who’d gotten wind of the cinematic doings at the coast. He hired on as a sound editor but soon found himself handling the heavier load once the more experienced editor departed, deeming the film unworkable.

“I was bloody terrified,” Winborne said. “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now if it wasn’t for Buddy. He’s the one who gave me a job. It was trial by fire.”

The mechanics of gore are notoriously delicate, and “The Mutilator” came together despite a string of grisly mishaps. The crew packed a body cast full of artificial intestines and other goop, but the outboard motor wouldn’t cut through the thick latex. A stunt spear gun couldn’t finish off the topless starlet on her moonlight swim, so Cooper finally yelled, “Just drown her!”

“I loved making effects out of chicken guts and watermelon,” Winborne said. “We were dropping chicken livers on the ground when people’s intestines were falling out. There’s a scene where a guy gets chopped in half that’s totally created from other shots in the film. At one point, I asked the janitor to take a look.”

The filming took 29 days, working six days a week. Somewhere in there, the crew had a food fight, and somebody left a beer sitting on an heirloom piano, a stunt that got Cooper and the “Mutilator” gang temporarily kicked out of his family hotel. But it came together, a fact of which Cooper is still immensely proud. One thing that hampered the film though, was a long run-in with the Motion Picture Association of America, which refused to give the film a rating without slashing out some of the better slashes.

“It was made for the gore fans,” Cooper said, “and you take the gore out ...”

Now that the film is restored to high-definition, we lucky viewers can enjoy every decapitation, every corpse on a meat hook, every fountain of blood that showers our native soil.