SAVAGE WEEKEND begins with a frantic handheld image of grass, rushes and mud while a twanging banjo tune plays on the soundtrack. It is revealed that this is a point-of-view shot of a woman, wearing a long white dress and her face covered in cuts and running mascara, who is fleeing through the woods from an unseen pursuer. Cut to shots of a chainsaw which is picked up from the ground by a sinister scruffy-looking man. The woman stands still, unable to move with shock, as he approaches her. The scene ends with a freeze-frame of the man, in close-up, grinning to the camera.
The film then goes back several days earlier to an apartment in New York City. A group of friends are preparing for a trip since wealthy stockbroker Robert (James Doerr) has invited them to his country estate: They are his neurotic lover Marie (Marilyn Hamlin), the woman seen during the opening credits; Marie's promiscuous sister Shirley (Caitlin O'Heaney, HE KNOWS YOU'RE ALONE); smug fellow stockbroker Jay (Devin Goldenberg, THE LAST HORROR MOVIE); and sharp-tongued homosexual Nicky (Christopher Allport, DEAD & BURIED). There is some tension when Marie's estranged-husband Greg (Jeffrey David Pomerantz), who has recently been released from a mental institution, arrives to pick up their son for the weekend and warns Robert to stay away from the boy in a threatening manner.
Once upstate there is further uneasiness, this time between the locals and the city folk. Nicky is attack by some rednecks but their inept bar-brawl tactics are no much for his fighting skills ("OK sweetheart you come one more step towards me and I'll make a bloody mary out of his face!”). Village idiot Otis (William Sanderson, FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE), the man seen during the credits sequence handling the chainsaw, is dismissed from his job of restoring a boat for Robert and replaced by Jay. Within the group things are no less complicated. Nympho Shirley enjoys outdoor sexual shenanigans with Jay while Nicky spies on them, disapproving of their coupling. Marie is torn between wanting to be attracted to Robert while secretly lusting after both the fantasy of her husband as well as Mac (David Gale, RE-ANIMATOR), a lonely and horny local farmer who tells her "If I had a woman who looked anything like you... I sure wouldn't let her alone”.
Unbeknownst to anybody is someone lurking in the woods who quietly observes these activities. One night the group settle down to a dinner and they decide to have some fun by dressing up in elegant evening wear. Mac borrows the car to bring his young daughter (an early role for Yancy Butler) to the movies, leaving the city folk isolated in the country. The voyeur dons a joke shop fright mask and systematically murders them one by one using an assortment of workshop tools and household objects such as a ladies hairpin shoved through the ear and someone being tied to a buzz saw table. After a night of torment Marie escapes and flees through the woods, and the story comes back to the opening sequence once again with Otis approaching her with a running chainsaw. But things are not what they first appear to be.
Completed in 1976 as THE KILLER BEHIND THE MASK, David Paulsen's SAVAGE WEEKEND is a curious anomaly since it is simultaneously dated yet also ahead of its time. With its upstate setting, neurotic New Yorkers and kinky bed-hopping antics, the first two thirds of the narrative plays as a sexploitation melodrama similar to an Andy Milligan film such as SEEDS OF SIN or THE GHASTLY ONES (aka BLOOD RITES). This style of filmmaking was going out of fashion by the mid-seventies which is possibly why no US distributor picked up the film at the time. On the other hand, the final third of the film predates the 'slasher' movie formula with a masked killer dispatching a group of people in a rural setting using a variety of makeshift weapons. This no doubt encouraged The Cannon Group to distribute the film theatrically in America in 1981 to cash-in on the current craze but those expecting a slasher picture will be disappointed by SAVAGE WEEKEND, while those who enjoy lurid soapy sleaze will discover a backwater psycho classic.
Paulsen, who penned the screenplay as well as directing, has a flair for hokey dramatics which serves the scenario well. The performances are, for the most part, nicely restrained but their motivations and the dialogue are ripe with cheesy sleaze since almost all the characters have sexual hang-ups, quirks or fetishes which boil to the service on the rural country estate. While Marilyn Hamlin's Marie is too neurotic and selfish to make a particularly sympathetic or likeable lead character, there is ample support from the supporting players. Caitlin O'Heaney (credited as Kathleen Heaney) plays a very different character to the innocent virginal one that she portrays in HE KNOWS YOU'RE ALONE and appears nude or dressed in lingerie much of the time and her scenes with Devin Goldenberg fulfil the titillation quota. David Gale, sporting a handlebar moustache, has great fun as the sexually-frustrated farmer while William Sanderson overplays (in the best possible sense, considering the material) the twitchy local idiot.
The screenplay also plays against the usual conventions of the rural horror/thriller since the filmmakers clearly side with the local community who, despite being portrayed in earlier sections of the narrative as bigoted rednecks, are not the perpetrators of the violence but actually come to the rescue of the heroine in the film's climax. This viewpoint is further emphasised by the lyrics heard in the song (co-penned by Paulsen) which plays over the closing credits: "You can't blame upstate folks from getting crazy in the mind, you buy some land and scratch the earth till midnight moonlight makes you blind. You miss one payment on the farm, you watch the bank foreclose, sell it to some city guy who needs help to blow his nose”. However, the screenplay is also incredibly frustrating since it offers up some potentially strong elements that ultimately go nowhere. Most annoyingly, the character of Nicky played wonderfully by Christopher Allport is established as a flamboyant and strong-willed homosexual (an unusual touch for a 70s exploitation picture) who takes on and wins a fight with a bar full of rednecks within the first 20 minutes of the film. But for the remainder of the narrative he fades into the background, brooding silently because of his jealousy towards Jay and Shirley's relationship, leaving Allport with very little to do.
Paulsen only went on to direct one more theatrical film, SCHIZOID with Klaus Kinski in 1980. In that picture he uses many of the same themes from SAVAGE WEEKEND neurotic heroine, estranged husband, characters riddled with sexual hang-ups, a killer methodically murdering a group of people but relocates the narrative to Los Angeles and centres on a therapy group. Both films were misrepresented by the slasher craze which hit America in the early eighties, but should be put into the context of low-rent exploitation of the previous decade. Paulsen had more success with his soapy melodramatics in television, being executive producer and occasional director and writer of television shows such as KNOTS LANDING, DALLAS and DYNASTY.
It is worth noting that, although intact on its 1979 UK cinema release by Entertainment Film Distributors (paired up on a double bill with Norman J. Warren's TERROR), the pre-cert video release by Hokushin was heavily cut and missing 10 minutes of footage. The American VHS release by Paragon is intact.
female:1 / male:4
1) Male strangled and hung
2) Male thrown through window and impaled on rack
3) Male with hairpin shoved through ear
4) Female has a buzz saw cut through the back of her head
5) Male has chainsaw cut through his back