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THE UNDERTAKER

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Film Details:

Director: William Kennedy, Steve Bono, Frank Avianca and Richard E. Brooks under the pseudonym of Franco Steffanio

Year of release: 1988 (year made though it wasn't released until much later).

Country of origin: USA

Running time: 88 minutes

DVD/Blu ray: Both

Tagline: "He'll love you to death" and "The maniac who terrorised New York City is back. This time he's a mortician who needs to beef up business in a small Jersey town".

 

 

 

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Casting the spotlight on the slasher genre

Story: This late eighties slasher is best known for being one of Joe Spinell’s (of Maniac fame) last films before his death.  It was unreleased for many years and pretty much not even known about by most until it eventually surfaced on DVD in a heavily cut format.  More recently in the last year or two it has enjoyed a Vinegar Syndrome Blu-Ray release.  This newer release is a more complete edition which includes some of the lost footage recovered from a VHS workprint spliced in.

 

The story follows small town undertaker Roscoe played by the aforementioned Spinell.  We quickly learn that Roscoe is something of a madman who enjoys stalking and killing young women the bodies of whom he then takes back to his funeral home laboratory.  Here he engages in some sort of bizarre wedding fantasy with the corpses as well as other perverted pursuits related to necrophilia.  Roscoe’s student nephew Nick begins to suspect his uncle is up to no good and attempts to enlist the help of his anthropology lecturer Pamela In an attempt to expose the villain.  We soon discover that Roscoe will stop at nothing to cover up his crimes and silence those who may be suspicious.  

 

 

 

Good points: *The Roscoe character is very watchable with Spinell’s charisma coming to the fore.  He helps buoy and hold together a film that is otherwise light on story.  The acting performance is a bit mixed with Spinell sometimes really hamming it up which is usually around the time of the kills to being a bit hard to understand speech-wise at other points.  In my case I watched the Blu-Ray with subtitles so it wasn’t a problem but is perhaps something to be aware of.  In one of the scenes with Nick Spinelll is purported to have been drunk as well though I found his performance largely enjoyable and found him fun to watch.  Just the way he looks is intriguing in itself.  Though there is no mask or costume other than his funeral suit or lab jacket, something I normally wouldn’t like, he remains interesting to watch just because of him being an older more heavyset guy than who we normally see in the killer mould.

 

I enjoyed the female character seen around the funeral parlour as well who I think was supposed to be Roscoe’s wife though he treated her more like an assistant.  She made a good impression on me in any case in a small role.  The teacher character Pamela was okay, decent at best but by no means bad and she was notable at least in the fact that she is a fair bit older than your typical final girl.  

 

 

*Most of the kills are good and along with the Roscoe character are the best parts of the film.  A couple of the better ones however occur towards the end in a section of the film that is recovered from an old VHS which unfortunately is not of very good picture quality.  Despite this issue though the kills in general still provide many of the highlights in particular a decapitation, an eyeball related murder, a face burning and my personal favourite which involves an injection to the ear.  

 

 

*The final positive I can pick out is the music which is effectively eerie throughout.  It helps create an atmosphere and a sense of foreboding but in a subtle way without ever being too over bearing or attention grabbing.  

 

 

 

Bad Points: *The story feels basic with not a whole lot going on and it feels like some parts were not fleshed out enough and have an unfinished feel to them.  I’m not sure if this was just a problem with the script initially or if certain stuff just got cut or lost and didn’t make it even into the Blu-Ray.  In one of the interview extras it was mentioned that several lighter scenes were filmed of Roscoe eating out in public which were later rejected and not used.  Including these may have helped things and perhaps in light of this there were other scenes that were also not chosen to be used which in their absence leave an incomplete feel.

 

The main thing I noticed that felt like it needed more by way of explanation was that we really don’t see why it is that Nick so suspects his uncle of murder and necrophilia.  All Nick really has to go on is that he overhears Roscoe talking to the corpses which though peculiar doesn’t implicate Roscoe as committing a crime and in itself shouldn’t unsettle Nick to the extent that it does.  At one point Nick also has a dream which takes him back to when he was a young boy.  Though the scene is extremely brief and appears incomplete it seems his uncle is trying to persuade him to touch a corpse.  Perhaps they were trying to indicate that Nick had been abused or tormented in some way by his uncle as a kid and then supressed the memories which were only now coming back to him in the present day.  The way it was presented though just came across as confusing and not properly fleshed out and elaborated on.  

 

 

*There was another area of the film which I found to be confusing which concerned those segments focusing on two police officers as they were discussing the missing women/suspected murders.  When they were discussing this I was never sure which victim specifically they were supposed to be talking about at any one time.  What didn’t help with this was that it was also unclear if Roscoe actually left the bodies to be discovered by the police and then he later gained access to them again when they were released to his funeral parlour or if he took them straight to his laboratory without the authorities ever seeing the body.  Well it was probably intended to be a mixture of both though it was never as clear it should have been.  The one in particular I was unclear on was the Mayor’s assistant.  In any case I was always a bit confused when the police were discussing the case as I struggled to put faces to names.  This could have partially been down to several of the victims not having much character development prior to their demise so instead just kind of faceless fodder and again it exposes another weakness in the script.  This whole issue that I’m referring to here however may be something that becomes more clear on repeated viewings.  

 

 

*Another weak aspect to the story is that no real background or backstory for the Roscoe character is provided so we never find out why he does what he does.  Usually we might get some flashbacks to a traumatic childhood or some sort of accident or whatever that warped the killers mind early on later driving them to murder but there’s none of that here.  It feels a bit lazy from the writing side as it would have been nice to learn more about Roscoe’s past and how he has managed to hide things from his wife/assistant for so long.  Maybe a backstory of a kind would have been established with more of the flashbacks/dreams young Nick was experiencing but if so the footage must be lost.  As it stands this is another area where the film comes across as too light and incomplete.  

 

 

*The film ends on an admittedly surprising but inconclusive note as we are left hanging at what seems to be a crucial moment  as two characters clash.  

 

 

 

Verdict: This is a nice film to own as part of a slasher collection purely because of its troubled history in remaining undiscovered for such a long time.  It’s a shame that it comes to us so light on story as this is really the only drawback but it’s such a noticeable problem that it does significantly reduce the enjoyment in watching.  That said Joe Spinell as Roscoe makes for a unique killer and most of the murders are solid.  Overall it’s nothing special but an interesting oddity which in spite of the plot failings and unfinished feel never descends so far to the point that it becomes a chore to sit through.  

 

5/10  46/50

 

 

Bodycount (contains major spoilers):

1)Woman with car trouble: Seen in Roscoe’s lab with throat slit.

2)Mayor’s assistant: Injected with a lethal dose of something in the left ear.  

3)Baby sitter: Tied to a tree and eviscerated.

4)Female neighbour of Pamela’s: Stabbed in the stomach and then has her face burned on a frying pan.  

5)Male cinema worker: Stabbed in the eye while in his car.  

6)Police Officer #1: Stabbed in the back of the neck.  

7)Police Officer #2: Throat cut with knife.

8)Mandy: Decapitated with a sword or machete.  

9)Pamela’s boyfriend: Struck on the head with a meat cleaver.

10)Pamela: Killed with machete/sword up against a wall.  

 

Note: I’m not counting Nick as though he appeared to dead and hung out to dry he proved to be alive as he made a grab for a surprised Roscoe at the very end.  

 

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