The roots of the modern slasher movie can be found as far back as the early sixties in films like Psycho and Peeping Tom, but the subgenre really hit its stride in the late seventies and early eighties. The period that has come to be known as the Golden Age of the Slasher Film was spearheaded by the success of movies like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, but there were dozens (if not hundreds) of other masked killer movies flooding their way into theaters at the same time. The 1979 bloodfest Savage Weekend is one of these under-the-radar slashers.
Savage Weekend is about a recently divorced woman named Marie Sales Pettis (Model Behavior’s Marilyn Hamlin) whose new boyfriend, Robert Fathwood (James Doerr from The Journey of the Fifth Horse), has just bought a farm on a lake in the country where he plans to build a boat. Robert invites Marie, her sister Shirley (Kathleen Heaney, otherwise known as Caitlin O’Heaney from Late Phases), and their friend Nicky (Christopher Allport from Dead & Buried and Jack Frost) out to the place for a weekend of fun and sun. They are met at the house by Robert’s engineer friend, Mac (David Gale from Re-Animator), who is helping to design the boat, a delivery man named Jay (The Last Horror Film’s Devin Goldenberg), who is bringing the lumber for the project, and the former owner of the property, Otis (William Sanderson, better known as Larry with the brothers Darryl on “Newhart”), a local man with a checkered past who has stayed on to help Robert take care of the land and build the boat. Once everyone is in the same place, they find that they are being stalked by a murderer in a creepy rubber mask, and all the signs point to the killer being one of their group. The gang has to determine who is doing the killing before there’s no one left.
Written and directed by David Paulsen (who would go on to work on nighttime soaps like “Dynasty,” “Dallas,” and “Knots Landing”), Savage Weekend follows the typical slasher formula of a group of victims heading out to an isolated location, only to be systematically slaughtered one-by-one when they get there. Interestingly enough, the film was shot in 1976, two years before the release of Halloween, but was not released until 1979, a year after. Thus, Savage Weekend, which has also been known as The Killer Behind the Mask and The Upstate Murders, is actually a slasher pioneer instead of simply an imitator.
For as straightforward of a plot as it has, Savage Weekend has more than its share of “what-the-heck” moments. There are a handful of strange dream sequences that show Otis carving women up with a chainsaw, seemingly placed in the film for the sole purpose of leading the viewer to think that Otis is the killer (minor spoiler alert – he’s not). There’s also a strange dinner party in the middle of the film that seems to be a black-tie affair, with tuxes and formal attire, but some of the characters are dressed in period clothing and some look to be dressed in their work duds. Later that same night, Shirley puts on some crazy gypsy tango carnival music and does a dance to try and seduce Nicky, the only openly homosexual man in the house. And speaking of the sex scenes (of which, in typical slasher style, there are plenty), they are spectacularly un-sexy, shot with bad lighting from unflattering angles. In short, all of the film’s attempts to make the characters appear fun and eccentric just make them seem so weird that the audience roots for the killer (which is another trademark of a good slasher).
Another staple of the golden age slasher is hokey dialogue, and Savage Weekend has plenty of it. In some places, it’s used for cheap and easy foreshadowing, such as when a character says “I keep forgetting about that damn second cellar switch,” referring to the two electrical switches that are used to turn on the lights in the basement of the house, a point that will come up again during the climax of the film. Other times, it’s just used for silly on-the-nose dramatic effect, like when a character strikes a match and holds it in another characters face, saying “See that? That’s what you’re playing with!” There’s no room for subtext in the dialogue of Savage Weekend; writer David Paulsen makes sure that his audience doesn’t miss a single thing.
Yet another baffling element to Savage Weekend is the sound design. The sound was done by Rick Waddell (who, unsurprisingly, mixed the tongue-in-cheek audio for shows like “Tales from the Darkside” and “Monsters”), and it’s full of hilarious electronic effects, almost like arcade game noises, during some of the more surreal sequences as well as many of the kill scenes. The soundtrack actually fits in pretty well with the borderline corny musical score by Dov Seltzer (Night Terrors), a work that interweaves interesting backwoods instruments like out-of-time banjos in with the traditional film music. Strangely enough, the music and sound help give the movie some effective tension and suspense. They may sound silly, but the weird audio choices in Savage Weekend work well within the context of the film.
Despite all of the wacky aspects of the film, Savage Weekend does have quite a few scary moments. A couple of segments are downright cringeworthy, with fishhooks being stuck into feet and barbed wire pricking into hands. Other sections are chilling, such as the dramatic dressing of the killer and the dramatic reveal of the creepy mask. Finally, the film culminates in an awesome chainsaw-versus-machete fight – just the type of stuff that slasher movie dreams are made of! Savage Weekend may be a little campy, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t pack a terrifying punch.
When it comes to slasher movies, everyone knows the A-listers like Halloween and Friday the 13th. Dig a little deeper, and the B-listers can be found, movies like The Burning and The Prowler. Dig even deeper, and you’ll get to movies like Savage Weekend.