The 13th Floor

CINEMA IN EXTREMIS: Fire Up the VCR for “Lost” Splatter Epic HEADLESS [NSFW]

Welcome back, brave viewers and connoisseurs of outsider cinema! I hope you enjoyed our first journey into the darkest, dankest dimensions of the horror genre — because I’m just getting started. Rest assured, it’s going to get even weirder up in here.

If you recall, in my list of recent extreme-horror titles you might have missed, I referenced Scott Schirmer’s 2012 debut feature FOUND — an award-winning but highly controversial adaptation of Todd Rigney’s 2004 novel, in which a troubled young boy’s life takes an infinitely darker turn after he discovers his older brother’s secret life as a head-hunting serial killer.

After shocking audiences worldwide via festival screenings, FOUND amassed a large cult following, despite being banned and/or censored in a few countries and shut out from most streaming video providers for its strong graphic violence — some of which is shown to be racially motivated, as well as sadistically sexualized.

Oddly enough, fans of FOUND are particularly intrigued by the protagonists’ favorite horror film, HEADLESS — a fictional 1978 splatter flick that becomes a kind of “how-to” guide for his older sibling Steve, who adopts a similar M.O. to the movie’s nameless killer after repeat viewings of a stolen VHS copy. Eventually younger brother Marty develops his own obsession with the film, challenging audiences with the age-old question of whether violent images and stories could trigger latent homicidal impulses in the unbalanced mind.

The appeal of HEADLESS was so great, in fact, that the team behind FOUND were able to successfully crowd-fund a feature-length expansion of this “lost” film, which follows the exploits of a decapitating psychopath, interwoven with grim flashbacks of his tormented upbringing by an equally depraved mother and sister. Arthur Cullipher, who designed most of the grisly effects for Schirmer’s film, takes over directing duties for HEADLESS, with Schirmer acting as co-producer.

While FOUND has its share of extreme violence, the murders are not always explicitly portrayed; not so with HEADLESS, which never flinches from its sadistic subject matter. Body parts are slowly sawed off still-living victims with a rusty machete (the killer’s weapon of choice); eyeballs are spooned out of their sockets and messily eaten; and each victim’s decapitated head is ritually violated in the most horrific fashion imaginable before the rest of the body is finally consigned to a hellish pit of rotting, putrescent flesh.

While HEADLESS is presented as an obscure slasher/exploitation release, Cullipher and company don’t rely excessively on the digital “dirtification” effects we’ve grown accustomed to in the wake of Tarantino/Rodriguez tribute GRINDHOUSE; apart from some reel-change markers, vintage-style titles and a trailer for an unmade monster flick called WOLF BABY, the tone is more effectively captured through a muted, dried-blood color palette and some well-chosen rural locations. The killer’s lair is a particularly good example of the latter, and a knowing nod to films like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, MANIAC and DERANGED.

While the killer’s daily routine — awaken, hunt, kill, dismember, fuck, scream, sob and repeat — becomes a bit tedious after a few outings, it’s the film’s surreal and inventive flashback structure which saves it from becoming a purely derivative gore-fest.

Interspersed with the killer’s adult life — during which he begins stalking the staff at a roller-disco rink — we get glimpses of the abuse heaped upon him as a child by the only family he’s ever known. His hateful mother punishes him for his father’s absence by forcing him to live in a dog cage and eat raw animal parts (including a rabbit which she kills in front of him), and his sister’s torments evolve over the years from crude insults to more overtly sexual teasing.

The young man’s eventual freedom — as well as his first taste of human flesh — is encouraged by a creepy muse credited as “Skull Boy” (Kaden Miller), an imaginary manifestation of his childhood self, but with a skull for a head, communicating only in birdlike chirps and clacking jawbones. It’s a very creepy touch, with a hint of Jodorowsky-style surrealism.

The adult killer (played by Shane Beasley) is depicted as nearly subhuman; apparently incapable of speech, he communicates only in animalistic grunts, roars, screams, tormented wails and occasional sadistic laughter. Also, someone must have taught him how to drive… and that side-story alone would make an awesome short film.

As these glimpses of the killer’s nightmarish childhood begin to unfold, the audience comes to discover the inner demons which compel him to commit such sadistic acts, and may even grow to understand his motivations… but only enough to give the character some dimension; he’s still more of an inhuman monster than a damaged man-child, but there are a few rare moments when you might feel a stirring of pity for this impossibly damaged creature.

The parallel storylines collide violently in the film’s grisly, utterly demented final act, during which the line between delusion and reality is destroyed, and a triple torture-murder merges with the killer’s horrific hallucinations — which include a pale, mannequin-like woman with no facial features beyond exaggerated red lips; trees budding with human eyeballs; and his mother’s severed head continuing to spit insults at him through a mouthful of blood.

Ironically, the film doesn’t spend much time generating sympathy for the killer’s potential victims — downtrodden roller-rink employee Jess (Kelsey Carlisle), her snarky coke-addled coworker Betsy (Ellie Church), deadbeat stoner boyfriend Pete (Dave Parker) and incredibly skeevy boss “Slick Vic” (Brian Williams).

The performers do their best to bring interesting quirks to these roles, but in the end their characters are disposed of as callously as used tissues. Instead of the intimate, thought-provoking horrors of FOUND, Cullipher is clearly aiming for shock and exploitation — and while that’s not a bad thing, it might explain why many fans of HEADLESS are much less enthusiastic about the film which actually sired it.

In the end, the makers of HEADLESS know their audience well — and unlike many of the ‘70s and ‘80s slasher flicks the film celebrates, they deliver on their promises in bloody buckets. If you want to relive the ultra-sleazy, mega-grimy grindhouse atmosphere of films like NIGHTMARE, LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET or even THE HEADLESS EYES, you’ll find everything you need here.

 

x

Enjoying this article?

Sign up for our newsletter now and soon you’ll get the best stuff from Blumhouse.com in your inbox.

There was an error in your submission. Please re-type your email address.

Success

Thanks for signing up to our newsletter.
We’ll send you a confirmation email shortly.

Close