Good grief. Readers of a certain age and certain inclination may recall VHS tapes of Satan’s Blade gathering dust in local video rental stores at the arse-end of the pre-cert era. Too insignificant looking to be caught up in the video nasty hysteria and sporting the kind of cover art that seemed impressive but usually suggested that the film itself would be a stinker, it was one of those movies that seemed to be everywhere, but which no one ever rented. This unexpected blu-ray release was the first time that I had seen the film, and frankly, I hadn’t been missing much. Sometimes, your instincts are right.
Filmed in 1981, completed in 1982 and released in 1984, Satan’s Blade is a second wave, second division slasher – the sort of low rent effort that came along after the initial slasher film boom spawned by Halloween and Friday 13th had died down. Shot on 35mm film by first time director L. Scott Castillo Jr, the film at least opens unusually, with a bank robbery carried out by two women, who then head off to a cabin in the woods to take their tops off and squabble over the split of the loot – one woman shoots the other, and is then herself offed by a mystery knife man.
This isn’t the standard slasher film opening, which is something – but it does set the scene for what is to come, with bad acting, bad dialogue, bad lighting and bad special effects (the gore scenes here are very much the ‘splash a lot of blood around but don’t bother with prosthetic wounds’ variety). Oh, and there is a parping synth score to drive you made as well.
The next day, the cabins are visited by two groups of vacationers – a pair of married couples and a group of young women. Despite there having been a murder the night before at the place, both groups are allowed to rent cabins – one of them the very place where the killings took place. A rather relaxed attitude to scene-of-crime preservation by the local police, you might think. Before they rent the cabins though, both groups are told – by the manager’s wacky old mother – about the legend of a Mountain Man who offs anyone who invades his mountain. But if actual murders the night before are not enough to put guests off, what chance a wacky old legend?
That night, we are treated to a dream sequence involving said Mountain Man stabbing some of the girls, and while not wanting to overstate its effectiveness, this might be the best bit of the film – it’s got a certain trippily unsettling quality to it that at least suggests – falsely, unfortunately – that the film might have something going for it.
Sadly, this is pretty much all that happens for the first hour. The rest of the film is taken up with dreadful actors talking endlessly, drinking, fooling around, flirting, emoting painfully and wandering around. The snow-covered woods look very pretty, but no one has bought a film called Satan’s Blade to watch people fishing or ramblingly discussing their marital woes. And this goes on and on and on.
Eventually, Castillo remembers that he is making a horror film, and in the last twenty minutes of so we get a frenzy of dimly lit, clumsily filmed stabbings by an unseen figure. It’s frenetic, if ineffectual and mostly incoherent stuff, and all the characters that have been built up as important are unceremoniously dispatched. To be fair, there are one or two shots here that are nicely done – well framed and effectively grim. But for the most part, it’s very haphazard and sloppy. The final revelation of the killer is not a great surprise, but makes no sense, and the sudden introduction of a supernatural element to the story is more irritating than anything else.
Arrow have done a fine job resurrecting low budget indie horror titles – most notably in the admirable American Horror Project – but Satan’s Blade is not a lost classic awaiting rediscovery. Not enough an example of outsider cinema to have the fascination of a Sledgehammer or a Dangerous Men, but too incompetent to pass as a ‘real’ film, it ‘s simply a boring, badly made effort that doesn’t even have enough blood ‘n’ boobs to appeal on a purely exploitation movie level.
Arrow’s disc is as good as you could hope for – not exactly a pristine print, but better looking that perhaps it ought to be. The film is presented both full frame, as shot, and matted to 16:9, as intended for theatrical screening. In keeping with the film itself, the disc contains what may be the worst featurettes ever – two badly framed and painfully awkward interviews with the director that have to be seen to be believed.