Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Carpenter


(Unrated; 87 minutes; 1988; Scorpion Releasing; street date: November 8, 2011; SRP: $19.95)

Wings Hauser made a welcome return to the cult cinema circuit in 2011 with Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber, confined to a wheelchair as a telekinetic tire went on a rolling rampage. Having toiled along as an El Lay musician and soap opera actor for the better part of the decade, Wings seized immortality with a swaggering, sleazy breakout role in Gary Sherman’s Vice Squad (1982) as Ramrod, the cowpoke pimp daddy who alternately referred to himself as “God almighty” and the “the Devil” before threatening hookers and bag ladies alike with uterus-slashing wire hangers and torch lighters. He also channeled an insane Edwin Starr impression as the voice behind that movie’s equally hyper-gritty theme song, "Neon Slime," as in "Bang bang, shoot ‘em up/Feeling just fine/Been baptized in the river/Of the neon slime!"

Equally wild-eyed yet cringingly charismatic performances would follow in such films as Mutant, Hostage (as Sam Striker), Nico Mastorakis' The Wind, and Brian Trenchard-Smith's The Siege of Firebase Gloria, but Hauser’s cruelly undervalued resume is cluttered with titles that made their only splash on VHS. 1988’s Canadian effort The Carpenter is one of them, the dubious reunion of Zombie Nightmare screenwriter David Wellington, here making his directorial debut, and producer Jack Bravman, who also brought you Night of the Dribbler and Snuff. The image on the U.S. video releases duly shows Hauser channeling his inner Gary Busey with a power drill shaped like a fucking machine gun! You start to imagine this might be a campy variant on the killer-in-the-house movie or maybe a slasher movie that simply lets mad dog Hauser loose a la what Maniac did for Joe Spinell. With a pedigree like this, is it too much to expect an insane flight on the Wings of madness from the team who brought you Jon Mikl Thor swinging homicidal home runs in the name of violent voodoo vengeance?

Let’s get real with this estate.

The Carpenter begins with lonely housewife Alice Jarett (Lynne Adams: Requiem for Murder, Johnny Mnemonic) experiencing a nervous breakdown that compels her to scissor up one of her husband’s business suits into makeshift handkerchiefs. Before you can sneeze, she's carted off to the cuckoo’s nest for a spell, where her roommate sings "Knock on Wood" in the monotone sing-speak style of Cristina Monet and her primary doctor is envisioned as a chainsaw-wielding loon. Her spouse Martin (Pierre Lenoir: An American Affair, The Day After Tomorrow) moves the two of them into a country house still in need of renovation, so he hires a union team of hockey-haired hosers to work cheap on putting the finishing touches on the place. Alice continues to waste away the days in isolation, with Martin going off to his day job professing folklore at college and the occasional late-blooming "faculty meeting," which of course translates to trysting with blonde student Laura Bell (Louise-Marie Mennier).

Then at 4 a.m. one fateful evening, Alice overhears one of the supposedly lazy laborers continuing to work down in the basement. She goes to investigate only to find a nameless Carpenter, played by the almighty Devil himself, clad in plaid and clearly a little mad. Maybe it’s his stoic devotion to the work ("Just gettin’ the job done, ma'am"), or perhaps it’s his propensity for sniping rats with his nail gun, but Alice sees something noble in this stranger’s bizarre commitment to odd-hour craftsmanship. We question whether or not The Carpenter is a phantasm until Alice is nearly raped by one of the boorish off-duty hosers, at which point Wings Carpenter fires up the circular saw and teaches that sorry Canuck to keep his hands to himself.

Newly empowered by this homicidal guardian angel, Alice lands an easy job at a paint store and takes it upon herself to help touch up her humble abode after a couple more mother-puckers screw with both the house and Hauser. The local sheriff even stops by for tea and donuts one morning, the better for him to deliver a mouthful of exposition regarding the previous owner, a fella named Ed who took out several unpaid loans in the process of single-handedly restoring the house and killed whatever repo men who got in his way. Since this is clearly a Canadian production, one can savor the irony in learning that Ed was fried in the chair as much as Sheriff Sweaty Backstory delights in those mini-donuts ("I love the sugar ones").

A similar delight can be felt in the moment Martin introduces his class to the legend of Paul Bunyan, whose mythical traits of masculinity parallels those of Wings Houser [sic]. It’s at this point The Carpenter suddenly becomes a potential precursor to Candyman. Wings’s enigmatic character believes in the homilies of hard work and honest, seemingly antiquated notions of hand-crafted perfection. This proves alluring to the unstable Alice, who comes to anticipate her encounters with the Carpenter with a kindred spirit’s sense of romanticism. She doesn’t even balk at the brutal actions of her possible paramour, who punctuates most of his killings by proclaiming his devotion to the artisan ideals ("Nowadays...people are lazy, people are soft, people are scared of work," he confides before demonstrating the softness by boring holes into a corpse). The dance between the two is manifested in a sublime moment where the Carpenter, dressed in formal whites, has a private ballroom session with Alice, although it ends with a subverted sick joke brought on by a sneaky, tranquilizer-induced nightmare. In a perfect world based on the lessons of exploitation filmmaking, this movie could be re-distributed as "Handyman."

The script is by Doug Taylor, who wouldn’t get another green-lit screenplay until Uwe Boll's In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale but who also recently penned Vincenzo Natali’s ambitious Splice. The Carpenter comes off like the middle ground between these two projects, marked by a certain incompetence in regards to craft, primarily due to the awkward editing and episodic transitions that suggest a made-for-cable effort, but with great potential as a batty genre effort that suggests Alice could possibly find true love with a maniacal phantom who represents fabled manhood in all its messy glory. But neither Taylor nor David Wellington (who proved himself a more assured director much later via TV projects such as Queer as Folk and Rookie Blue) come close to Bernard Rose’s seductive insanity, leaving The Carpenter to shamble along with left-field character introductions too quirky for their own good (Ron Lea as the aforementioned sheriff is a clumsy amalgam of Buford T. Justice and Brad Dourif) and plot points (Laura’s impromptu pregnancy) that drive the movie with little consequence.

B-movie aficionados might be chomping at the bit to ask me "But what about Wings Hauser?" My nostalgia for the scene-stealing supporting star of A Soldier’s Story and Tales from the Hood is immense, but his maniacal front sleeve pose sets up typically high standards that should not be believed. A few notably hammy moments aside, primarily a murder sequence involving a vice grip, the astoundingly handsome Hauser plays the role with a gentlemanly demeanor throughout, going for nuance even when firing off a one-liner or black comic screed. It’s a unique style of underacting that makes the Carpenter all the more unpredictable. Not easily forgotten is the moment when, after sawing off the arms of that blue-collar rapist, he holds the body away so as not to obstruct Alice’s path up the stairs and into her bedroom. Lynne Adams is equally dry and quirky as the heroine, who, despite her ratty hair and hallucinatory mental state, knows much better than to be is she who is MAD!

It’s a shame, then, that this silly low-budget effort wasn’t given a much stronger foundation. Taylor’s patchy screenplay presents too many one-shot caricature supporting players and forgets to put anything remotely saucy in their mouths. Put simply, you know you’re in trouble when My Bloody Valentine (one of my all-time favorite Canadian horror films to boot) presents a more effectively fictional working class environment on film. The editing is laughably tacky at times, which also has the poor effect of showing how poorly staged some sequences, even those involving dialogue, are. And the conclusion wherein Alice gets the upper hand over the Carpenter, although not before she learns how to fire a nail gun at pesky husband-screwing trollops, comes off as overly contrived and unsatisfying.

For a movie whose homely psychotic apparition extols the virtues of craftsmanship, The Carpenter is less bricks and mortar than Popsicle sticks and airplane glue.

Scorpion Releasing have acquired The Carpenter for their line of Katarina's Nightmare Theater DVD releases. In one of my first posted reviews on this site, I chose to jointly tackle one title apiece from the Elvira's Movie Macabre, Katarina's Nightmare Theater and Maria's B-Movie Mayhem catalogues. The Katarina of the title is Katarina Leigh Waters, a former WWE Diva and current TNA Knockout who wrestles under the name Winter. Please read that post if you wish to find out who won that particular triple threat match. Anyway, you can opt to watch the movie with or without Miss Waters, whose German/British accent is as pleasant as her body (evidenced in the introduction where she plays a handywoman in cut-off denim and white tank top). Her self-written input is more straightforwardly informative and critical rather than denigrating. In short, since this is the only real extra on this set (no interviews with any of the cast or crew, which is disappointing since Scorpion’s Zombie Nightmare disc was a special edition), there’s no reason not to ignore it.

Aside from the reversible DVD artwork that loses the KNT banner, there is a trailer reel on the disc for other titles in the series, including additional Canuxploitation efforts such as Humongous, The Pyx and The Incubus.

The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks sourced from a decent enough print, which is a treat since the film was released straight to video in America through Republic Pictures Home Video. Plenty of dirt and damage remain, with reel changes and several of the more clumsy edits demonstrating significant visual hiccups. The “uncut” label on the film integrates gorier unrated footage from a noticeably different source, perhaps a video master, and the a/v quality follows suit, with the some of more graphic scenes looking rather murky and the Dolby 2.0 monaural audio dropping out in fidelity. For the most part, though, The Carpenter looks well-preserved for its vintage, with muted if serviceable color saturation, natural grain and plenty of fine detail in skin tones and costumes. The English mono soundtrack handles the dialogue, sound effects and the thin synthesizer score well.

Movie grade: 2.5/5.
Video grade: 3/5.
Audio grade: 3.5/5.
Extras grade: 2/5.
Final grade: 2.5/5.

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