FILMS FROM THE VOID: Aliens Invade Tulsa in 1986’s MUTILATIONS

Over the last week or so, I’ve watched writer/director Larry Thomas’ 1986 movie, Mutilations, twice, as well as digging into every single extra on Massacre Video’s 2016 DVD release. It’s been an experience, certainly. I bought the DVD on a whim when the Lawrence location of the entertainment chain, Hastings, was going out of business. Everything was discounted, and I basically raided the horror section for anything that seemed even passably interesting.

The Mutilations DVD sat on a shelf for a while until I wanted to watch something weird and, ideally, short. Sometimes, you just need a movie that’ll take up the time between now and when you have to leave the house, and a 70-minute low-budget monster movie shot in Tulsa definitely fit the bill.

I was not prepared for what I was about to see. I’m used to low-budget flicks, self-produced schlock, and grindhouse garbage, but the sheer colorful assault which is Mutilations is something else. As the back of the DVD describes it, the plot is pretty simple:

“Professor Jim McFarland has been noticing a string of cattle mutilations that have been tormenting a small southern town. He goes with his students to investigate these bizarre happenings. What they discover is worse than any of them could of possibly imagine.

Will Professor McFarland and his students attempt to escape alive when they are faced with violent invaders from another planet!”

If you’ve seen any ’50s alien invasion movie, you know the plot and you know how it’s going to turn out, but the fact of the matter is that watching Professor McFarland and his students’ adventure unfold in and around Tulsa, Oklahoma, on a budget under $100,000 is nothing short of amazing.

As director Thomas mentions in both the commentary and on a public access interview included on the DVD, he was looking to create his own homage to those three-strip Technicolor films — something like Rudolph MatĂ©’s When Worlds Collide from 1951, especially — and it really does work for the most part.

You get your prologue, when the alien ship lands in a small town and immediately has the alien attack a group of hobos in a junkyard. A scientist explains a lot of things to his students. They go look for the craft, meet the locals who point them in the direction of the local kook, meet the kook, and then everything goes straight to hell.

The whole point of Mutilations (and really, any monster movie) is to get to the monster. There are plenty of glimpses, although they’re pretty much limited to legs and arms, as well as a pretty decent glimpse of the alien craft as it crash-lands. We also get this glorious 90 seconds of alien attack once the action kicks into high gear.

The end of the film, once the professor and his few remaining students escape into the mine tunnels located underneath the kook’s house, reveals the alien in all its monstrous glory. There’s an amazing scene featuring the professor fighting a stop-motion alien which, while it might not rival any by Ray Harryhausen, certainly ups the production value of a 16mm film shot in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The end result is a film which has all the hallmarks of a classic monster movie, albeit with everyone dressed like they stepped out of a documentary about what not to wear, mid-’80s edition. It’s short and sweet, with that 70-minute runtime, really stripping the film of anything but prologue, action, and ending, and the effects are all practical, right down to building a mine in a studio.

Granted, the budgetary limitations are what led to the shortened run-time; we were supposed to spend a lot more time in the mines, including a scene dealing with a huge number of rats, but honestly, trimming all the fat seems to have worked in Thomas’ favor, leaving Mutilations to be all-killer, no-filler, for the most part.

Special effects creator John Fischner actually popped up on the Mutilations Amazon page to drop this knowledge:

“It was a hoot to work on. And now, low these many years later, it is a hoot to watch. I remember I had the miniatures camera ready long before principle photography began. So there was no delay from the wrap on live action and the start on the SPFX .Our producer, director was wise enough to shoot on a high grade 16 mm stock to accommodate the rear projection and other effects we would be doing.The star, ‘spaced out’ Al Baker was one of the main assistants on the miniature effects work and proved invaluable. We shot all the animation and other miniature set ups in about two weeks or so but ended up only doing about 50% of what was originally story boarded. Somehow, it looks reasonably complete now.”

Even restored for DVD as it is, Massacre Video’s Mutilations release is still a little hazy and fuzzy. It’s like viewing a pristine VHS copy: not bad, but still very “video.” Despite the fact that the film was shot on 16mm film, all that remains is the video master, meaning that it can get cleaned up and made to look decent, but there’s not going to be any hi-res version of Mutilations. As Massacre Video’s Louis Justin explains during the commentary with director Thomas, there’s no point in taking video and putting it on Blu-ray. You can’t enhance video.

That said, if you can track down the film, it’s definitely a fun romp. The DVD’s not cheap these days, with the few copies on Amazon going for $160 and up, and fetching similar prices on eBay. There’s a version on YouTube, but it appears to be a VHS rip, and it’s borderline unwatchable.

Nick Spacek

Nick Spacek writes about films scores in his monthly OST column for Starburst Magazine (http://www.starburstmagazine.com), and can be found talking about movie soundtracks via the From & Inspired By podcast (http:///www.fromandinspiredby.com). He was once a punk, but realized you can't be hardcore and use the word "adorable" as often as he does.
Nick Spacek
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