Having made a few myself, I have a bit of a soft spot for no-budget video films with that “cable access TV” look. There’s something endearing about a truly ambitious movie shot in a weekend with a group of friends and little but ingenuity and desire to take the place of funding and technical proficiency. In Razor Digital’s new action-horror release MUTATION, the body of one of the nation’s most infamous serial killers is accidentally taken out of cryogenic suspension and used to test a new serum which restores life to dead tissue. When the murderer gets up and begins his killing spree anew, mutating and getting stronger as he goes, it’s up to two detectives – one whose girlfriend works in the killer’s old stomping grounds, the other the one that put him on the slab the first time – to stop him. Though the film is wildly ludicrous, wholly illogical and without any real suspense, it succeeds in having the same appeal as staying up late to watch the “warts and all” efforts of aspiring filmmakers on one’s local public access station.
Writer-Director Brad Sykes is not a newcomer to direct-to-video horror. Since creating the CAMP BLOOD franchise in 1999, Sykes has made more than a dozen fright features for DVD, of varying quality. Despite his experience, his work on MUTATION is static and amateurish. His script asks the audience to swallow everything from tired cop movie clichés (two detectives enter the killer’s lair at 3:00 AM with no back-up and no warrant) to improbable coincidences (the hero’s girlfriend just happens to be supervising a bunch of female inmates doing community service cleaning in the murderer’s old hideout, on the night the whacko is resurrected) to the completely inane (the killer has been kept frozen for “brain research” but his cadaver isn’t marked with any paperwork or identification). On the directing side, Sykes shows little understanding of blocking or shot composition, and appears unable to build suspense in any of the slasher-style scenes. There are a couple of effective bits in the later moments involving the killer watching one of the ladies from across the street and a victim reaching a bloody hand into the foreground of a shot to try and get the attention of her friend, but most of the scenes are staged with all of the flair and flow of your average vacation home video. The cramped, limited locations don’t help his cause at all, making the whole film look like it takes place in three rooms and an alley.
Predictably, most of the acting is rather flat, due in equal parts to the inexperience of the players and the hackneyed script. John-Damon Charles and Jessica Moon are the lone standouts, playing the lead cop and his lady, respectively. Bryan Hanna (LAST ACTION HERO, GONE IN 60 SECONDS) is okay as an ill-fated detective, and Erin Holt (WITHIN THE WOODS) is cute and agreeable as a lab assistant who also doesn’t live to see the final reel. Otherwise, the cast is pretty unremarkable. You have to applaud their efforts and enthusiasm, but none of them is ready for stardom just yet.
The best element of the film is a pair of well-staged martial arts fights between Detective Gornick (ISKA Full Contact Kickboxing Super Middleweight Champ Brian Schwartz) and the mutating madman, “K” (Eddie Croft). Sadly, these are the only real action moments in the film, and they come at the beginning and the very end. It’s refreshing to see a good, old-fashioned martial arts contest in a movie that involves no wirework and no MATRIX-style CG, making one wish that Sykes had scrapped some of the slice-and-dice trappings and just let the maniac go on a monstrous kung fu rampage. Croft (who is too short and not menacing enough to play a Jason Voorhees type) and Schwartz are obviously not actors, with the former getting no dialogue and the latter butchering all of his, so they should have been allowed to just beat the hell out of each other a little more. Still, the fight sequences are the lone part of the production to approach a Hollywood level of technical proficiency, and they are fun.
As noted, the real strength of MUTATION lies paradoxically in its shortcomings, not its merits. The blood used in the film’s novelty gore effects is bright and colorful and completely unconvincing. The lumps growing on Croft’s face and head during his transformation are more silly than scary, and his climactic meltdown is a hoot. The girls trapped in his lair are equipped with a variety of sharp-edged weapons (presumably those once used by K on his victims), most of which look like they are made of rubber. In one scene, the heroine’s samurai sword can clearly be seen bending and wobbling as she swats at the murderer with it. The cops’ gun (as near as I could tell, only one pistol prop used by both men) looks equally phony and inoperable, its fire signified by a quick white flash in the camera and a firecracker sound. The ladies are the usual mix of tough girl stereotypes, and take time in between flat dialogue exchanges to have the clumsiest, most sexless cinematic catfight since 1951’s classic women’s wrestling exploitationer, RACKET GIRLS. Enhancing the amateurish action is the fact that at no point during any of this violence and bloodshed and “chain gang” labor do we ever see a single uniformed cop or police car. The female convicts don’t even ride in any kind of state-owned vehicle, and apparently have no curfew for returning to their place of incarceration. The whole production is like a high school play in a school about to be closed down for lack of federal funding.
While the film is only agreeable in an Ed Wood way, Razor Digital’s DVD release is actually quite good. In addition to the movie itself, Sykes devotees get the trailer (Why do direct-to-video releases refer to their previews as “theatrical trailers”?), commentary by the writer-director and producer Josephina Sykes, and a “Making of…” featurette that only serves to make the whole endeavor that much more charming in its ambition. Films like this should serve as an inspiration to aspiring moviemakers, and including these extras is a nice touch for those kids in the Midwest with a camera and the mistaken belief that only wealthy film school graduates can find distribution for their shoestring labors of love.
Frankly, MUTATION is not very good. It’s slow and stagy, with plot holes bigger than the sets it was filmed on. Built around a rather ridiculous premise (and one that has already been done twice by karate star Chuck Norris, in SILENT RAGE and HERO AND THE TERROR), the movie starts off on bad footing and tumbles downhill the whole way, providing laughs where there should be screams and yawns where there should be cheers. Still, like most films of this nature, it has a certain amount of entertainment value stemming from its inadequacy. Aficionados of auteurs like Phil Tucker and Al Adamson or the stars of local access TV will get a few good giggles from it, and I have to give the filmmakers a little credit for including a couple of decent fight scenes and not attempting to spice things up with gratuitous nudity and sex. Most viewers, however, will find the unlikely set-up and threadbare execution pretty unappealing, and will probably want to keep moving down the new release wall at their local video store.