The US theatrical release date for this film is 1979 or 1980, but it was actually filmed in 1976 and then had trouble securing release until it was picked up by The Cannon Group after a near disastrous showing at Cannes. Turns out the photo lab had put it in the wrong aspect ratio, so director David Paulsen and his wife had to manually tape over individual frames to get the film to be the correct aspect ratio. Don’t you love low budget filmmaking?
That 1976 production date is vital to keep in mind for another reason however, because Savage Weekend is a proto-slasher. Proto-slashers are generally considered slasher-esque movie released before the horror subgenre’s defining release of John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978, though you’ll often see this delineation dropped for the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas, and occasionally even The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Why is this important? Because Savage Weekend doesn’t fit all the standard tropes of the slasher film. The “final girl” role is a middle-aged woman who has sex, the “heroes” are not necessarily good guys in their own right, and the case is a larger older group than the teens and college co-eds who typically run around. That’s not to say there aren’t some heavy puritanical vibes, but this movie instead tries to present adults dealing with adult problems as well as hicksploitation red herrings.
A handful of city slickers from New York City decide to go visit upstate New York. This group includes a a recently divorced woman, her younger sister, her openly gay best friend, a stockbroker who is now dating the divorcee, and his scummy stockbroker buddy. They arrive for a weekend of relaxation and working on a boat that the stockbroker owns, but eventually (and I do mean eventually) a guy in a mask shows up to kill nearly everyone off. It takes him over an hour to get started, but once he does, he comes up with a few creative ideas. Of particular note is one involving a buzzsaw and a light switch, but I won’t go into the gory details on that one.
Of course, along the way we have to get our share of ruses to mislead the audience, the main one being some of the local rural people, particularly one guy who has some kind of mental problem. Because these poor, prejudiced, dirty, backwoods people are obviously the murderous type. They must be if they don’t live in New York City. All except one, who is the kind of tough, farm-smart, rugged sexual mastodon that is of course the apple of the confused divorcee’s eye. Sure, the New Yorkers got street smarts, but this guy knows how to pull a fish hook out of your foot and milk a cow, so he must be an Adonis. Yeah, that’s the kind of movie we’re in. We’re watching a divorced woman in her 40s swoon over the local help and not enjoy her pudgy, soft stockbroker boyfriend. It’s a cheesy romance novel plot.
Yet the movie takes some pains to avoid certain stereotypes too. For instance, Nicky, the openly gay and flamboyant best friend, has a scene early on where he’s getting harassed in a bar (admittedly after doing his best to antagonize the locals) and then kicks the asses of two dudes who were going to pick a fight. And I mean he wipes the floor with these guys and then declares he grew up in the South Bronx. Nicky’s inclusion was berated at the time for being a stereotype and somehow trying to set back the Gay Rights movement, but he’s easily one of the best characters of the film, wiry and tough, always an outsider to the point it hurts him. The sister seems to be his friend but also seems at times to openly flirt with him as if challenging him in his sexuality, and these moments bring a pained expression of cruel understanding and perhaps even loathing to his face. He has a quiet depth that makes him the most interesting character to watch. When he dies (because of course he does), I nearly gave up because so many of the other folks were so uninteresting.
Of course, all of it falls back on the familiar mental illness trope: the killer is revealed as someone who had a nervous breakdown but also had held political power and can’t give up the idea of being in power. Yep, he’s a closet narcissist who got hospitalized for depression after losing his political power. Ah, mental illness, the grand excuse to kill a bunch of horny teenagers.
Considering it struggles with the tropes, had a late release, and probably wouldn’t interest most of the teenage fans slashers were usually geared towards, Savage Weekend has only achieved a small level of cult status over the years, which doesn’t really surprise me. There are things to like about the movie, and there is some creativity, though it doesn’t hold up against genre heavyweights.
Still, I’ve seen worse.