I went into viewing "Savage Intruder" in the best way possible--by receiving a copy from a friend who didn't get round to watching it and who pitched it in a manner making the movie UNPOSSIBLE for me to refuse: "I think this is some kind of hippie version of 'Sunset Boulevard,' but I'm pretty sure I'm afraid to watch it." Dear friend, I am delighted to leap bodily upon that grenade for you. In this case, my selflessness paid dividends in the form of one of my favorite genre cliches--that of the killer hippie. Bonus points for the fact that "Savage Intruder" passes that most nebulous of Tenebrous Quality Tests--I totally want to see this remade with an all-drag cast.
Much like my experience watching "Raw Force" (a movie that also has an alarmingly Rough Trade Title), I'm sort of glad I didn't
see the poster before watching the movie--while it's an honest poster, it also sets up certain expectations that might've oversold the product for me--this is a fun bit of trash cinema, but it's also very flawed. Let's cover the great bits first, shall we?
An awesomely moody opening credits sequence sets the mood--there are artistic shots of the decaying Hollywood sign accompanied by the sound of wind over creaking metal, and then--BAM--cut to the dismembered head and hands of a middle-aged woman resting at the foot of the Hollywood hills. I won't lie--it is an effective shock that indicates the kind of mean spirit that infuses this movie. Moving directly from this gruesome image, we are introduced to the murderer in action as he stalks an older woman and assaults her in her home. The violence in this scene is cringeworthy, moving from a botched electric knife mutilation to a murder by meat cleaver. By the time hippie drifter Vic Valence, played with a sneer by David Garfield, shows up at the home of faded actress Katherine Parker (Miriam Hopkins) with his doctor's bag in hand, we know that tragedy will ensue. Vic is hired as a nurse to attend to Katherine's needs while she is house-bound after an alcohol-induced tumble, and he quickly endears himself to the delusional former star, taking advantage of her generosity while arousing the suspicion of her elderly housekeeper and secretary. This film changes the "Sunset Boulevard" story arc, though--not only does it substitute seedy cruelty for the Gothicry of the Billy Wilder masterpiece, but we know going into the story that Vic is a deranged murderer with some serious Mommy Issues that are elaborated upon in a series of creepy fisheye-lensed flashbacks.
The movie derives its conflict from the battle of the hippie generation and the Hollywood establishment. Hopkins (a 1930s glamour gal herself) puts in a classic camp performance as Katherine, the attention-craving screen star, reminiscing about the shiny past of the town while a montage of seedy strip clubs and drug-crazed hippie parties provides a backdrop. Vic mentions acting in a Warhol movie, indicating his detachment from the traditional film-making landscape. It's interesting to note that "Savage Intruder" predates the Warhol-produced Paul Morrissey flick "Heat" by three years, since that film also focuses on a younger man/older actress relationship that yields tragic results.
The movie is extremely flawed, but it comes very close to psychedelic marvelousness at several points. Some of the violence is truly cringeworthy--the opening murder setpiece is shocking, and there are close-ups of a hatchet attack during Vic's flashbacks that induces some wincing. These flashbacks are extremely effective, with leering faces enlarged to full screen, giving a sense of lurid goings-on. The campy performances of the older actors are spot-on, inspiring some comparisons to "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane." I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the AWESOME hippie party during which Katherine relapses into alcoholism at Vic's urging--a midget drug-pusher, flaming queens, groovy babes and a skeletal Santa Claus are all present for no reason except to further the cause of weirdness! Also, my mannequin-fearing pals have reason to get the shudders here--I shan't reveal more, but life-sized dolls are used to creepy effect.
As mentioned above, the architecture of the story ultimately harms the film. Knowing Vic's homicidal urges early on makes it pretty easy to see where everything is going, and an ambiguous ending that might have worked in a less literal movie sputters here, when a strong ending or even a graphic image might have helped sustain the impact of the first two thirds of the film. Vic's character never achieves a level of nuance that would make him a chilling psychopath--he's just shown as a bastard who sometimes kills older women. There's never a vulnerability to him--instead he's just brimming with hostility, misogyny and occasional racism (the "no tickee, no washee" line he uses on Asian cook Greta is perceived by her as rakishly charming, in fact).
I have no problem calling "Savage Intruder" an almost-amazing film. With a little more finesse, it could be called an unsung classic, but alas it misses its mark by inches. Still, for fans of campy cinema, this is well worth the ninety minute investment.