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Plot: who are the three on a meathook and who killed them?

The 1957 case of Ed Gein, the Butcher of Plainfield or the night ghoul of the graveyards, continued (and continues) to fascinate. In 1959 American novelist Robert Bloch wrote Psycho which formed the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). In between The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) on one side and Maniac (1980) on the other there were two other big screen adaptations loosely based on the life and work of Wisconsin’s most infamous son, Three On A Meathook (1972) and Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile (1974). Whereas Deranged (1974) was a surprisingly chilling slowburn of a character study Three On A Meathook is straight up grindhouse gunk. While there’s no denying that both have, deservedly or otherwise, fallen into obscurity they were (in)famously sampled by New York/Las Vegas death metal ingrates Mortician on their 1996 “Hacked Up For Barbecue” album and 1995 “House by the Cemetery” EP, respectively; for those who care for that sort of thing.

Somewhere in between the blaxploitation of Jamaa Fanaka, the rough 'n ready grindhouse gunk of Serafim Karalexis and Florida swamp dweller William Grefé lies the dominion of Louisville, Kentucky one-man industry William Girdler. Girdler made films fast, cheap and always had his finger on the pulse and the latest trends. He shot nine movies between 1972 and 1978. He wrote six of his films, produced two, and scored another three (two of which were his own). He worked where the money took him, whether that was Kentucky or the Philippines. His modest filmography runs gamut of genres and budgets, starred absolute nobodies as well as name actors of the day (including, but not limited to, Tony Curtis, Pam Grier, Austin Stoker, pre-comedy Leslie Nielsen, Christopher George, Susan Strasberg, Michael Ansara, and Burgess Meredith). In other words, Girdler was a consummate professional. Girdler debuted with the Satanic cult nonsense Asylum of Satan (1972) and this Ed Gein inspired romp.

From there he forged an alliance with American International Pictures for his next three blaxploitation pictures: The Zebra Killer (1974), the The Exorcist (1973) knock-off Abby (1974) and the Pam Grier thriller Sheba, Baby (1975). Abby (1974) cost a mere $100,000 and made a fortune at the box office and was sued by Warner Brothers for alleged similarities to the William Friedkin evergreen. All of William Girdler’s first five features were shot in his native Kentucky. He then moved shop to the Philippines where he shot the Leslie Nielsen actioner Project Kill (1976) which became an early hit for Troma. For his next two features Girdler allied himself with Film Ventures International resulting in the very lucrative Jaws (1975) imitation Grizzy (1976) (changing the shark for a grizzly bear and grossing an impressive $39 million at the box office) and the eco-horror Day of the Animals (1977). His final venture was The Manitou (1978) for Avco Embassy Pictures that cost a mere $3 million and made fortune, domestic and abroad. As is often the case Girdler’s life and career was tragically cut short on January 21, 1978 when he was killed in a helicopter crash while location scouting for his next feature in Manila, the Philippines. William Girdler was killed just when he was about to legitimize himself in the face of Hollywood. Giving it all an even more ominous spin is that Girdler allegedly was preoccupied with his death and had premonitions about dying at age 30, which is exactly what happened.

Filmed in about a month in Louisville, Kentucky in the spring of 1972 with a cast of regulars on a budget estimated anywhere between $18,000 and $30,000 (sources and accounts vary on the exact number) Three On A Meathook was a labor of love for all involved. Most of the budget came from realtor Joseph Schulten, Girdler’s trust fund and contributions from Lee S. Jones, Jr. and John Asman. Handling the special effects was local magician, horror host and friend to exploitation monument H.G. Lewis and Girdler, J.G. Patterson, Jr. As a thank-you Girdler scored his The Body Shop (1972). Most of principal photography happened in a farmhouse that also could be seen in Invasion Of the Girl Snatchers (1973). To the surprise of absolutely no one the property was later torched by religiously deluded arsonists convinced it was used by a Satanic cult. As an avowed Hitchcock disciple Girdler build Three On A Meathook on the Psycho (1960) model with only minimal adjustments to some of the variables. Typical of regional productions on a limited budget Three On A Meathook is rife with matter-of-fact cinematography including lots of static shots and amateurish composition. None of the visual are particularly arresting or well put together and Girdler has none of the visual flair that Tobe Hooper or Sam Raimi had. Girdler’s score is sometimes plaintive, sometimes pensive, regularly psychedelic and full of folksy guitars and harmonica. Not only that, there’s an entire song by The American Xpress that sounds like late 60s Tommy James & The Shondelles on a bender. The special effects are cheap but good considering how little they probably cost. The audio is of equal dubious quality with persistent echoes, jarring cuts, and extended periods of silence. Even though it’s called Three On A Meathook four women actually end up impaled on hooks. As legend has it Girdler used to show Three On A Meathook around Hollywood studios as a technical demo on what he could accomplish on a tight budget and schedule.

In some nondescript Midwestern town Debbie (Linda Thompson) wakes up topless in the bedroom of her middle-aged teacher-cum-paramour (Hugh Smith). She catches up with her three friends (Marsha Tarbis, Carolyn Thompson, and Kiersten Laine) and then goes for a trip in the country, which inevitably leads to the usual skinny-dipping. Meanwhile they are being watched from a distance by a suspicious young man (James Carroll Pickett, as James Pickett). When later that night their car breaks down the same somewhat shy country boy, who offers them bed and board at the secluded farm he lives in with his over-protective father Frank (Charles Kissinger). "so, uh, what are all your names?" the boy inquires to which Debbie yelps, "I'm Debbie, this is Christine, Bobby, and Carla." The gentle stranger smiles in return, and introduces himself with, "I'm Billy. Billy Townsend." Arriving at the farm one of the more perceptive of the girls keenly observes that “it looks spooky!” After being fed a proper meal, and shown to their rooms for the night, Debbie strips once again and sinks into the bathtub. As night sets on Townsend Farm the four girls are killed through stabbing, hatchet decapitation, pick-axe to the gut, two gunshot slayings, and a meat cleaver to the back. Paw assures Billy that he will take care of everything and sends him to Louisville to wind down.

Young Townsend goes to see The Graduate (1967) in the city and ends up getting criminally drunk in the nearest watering hole. There he meets free-spirited college-dropout-turned-cocktail-waitress Sherry (Sherry Steiner) and the two embark on a storming romance. The two spent a day in each other’s company in Cherokee Park. Sherry is so enamored by the naïve country boy that she can’t stop talking about him to her best friend Becky (Madelyn Buzzard). When the two girls then are invited by Billy to spent the weekend on Townsend Farm they are ecstatic. Billy’s enthusiasm is brutally tempered when Paw lectures him on why he can’t mingle with the womenfolk. By this point you’d imagine that Billy has put one and one together on the mysterious death of his late mother, the strange homicidal episodes he can’t recollect and the unseen assailant producing all the bloodshed and mutilated corpses. Things come to a violent, sudden climax when Sherry finds the titular three on a meathook.

Charles Kissinger, James Carroll Pickett, and Sherry Steiner were Girdler regulars, but the true star of Three On A Meathook is blonde bombshell Linda Thompson who plays the often naked Debbie. Thompson was Miss Tennessee-Universe 1972, and the winner of numerous pageants including Miss Memphis State, Miss Shelby County and Miss Liberty Bowl. She was one of the former partners of iconic rock ’n roll singer Elvis Presley (1972-76), who she aided in songwriting. Thompson was married to Caitlyn (then still Bruce) Jenner from 1981-1986, and has since written songs for domestic and international versions of Idol. James Carroll Pickett, another Kentucky native, appeared in Girdler’s The Get-Man (1974) also met an equally tragic end. He turned to activism in 1991 and founded the Artists Confronting AIDS group. He would pass of from AIDS-related complications, age 44, a brief three years later in 1994.

Carolyn Thompson later reinvented herself as Caroline Thompson the novelist. Her novel First Born managed to impress none other than Tim Burton. During pre-production of Beetlejuice (1988) Burton read her novel and was duly impressed. He hired her to write a spec script for his latest project, Edward Scissorhands (1990). William Girdler on the other hand was keenly aware of how he and his movies were viewed. In an 1977 interview in the Louisville Times he observed, "I know what my other pictures were. I know what was bad about them. I also know that they were pretty good when you consider how inexpensively they were made. Anybody should be able to make a good movie if they spend $20 million the way they did on The Exorcist. Comparatively speaking, for what we spent on it, Abby was probably a better picture than The Exorcist.” In the same newspaper he noted, “Other people learned how to make movies in film schools. I learned by doing it. Nobody saw Billy Friedkin's or Steven Spielberg's mistakes, but all my mistakes were right up there on the screen for everybody to see."

While Three On A Meathook may have ensured Girdler’s legacy in the cinematic pantheon of skid row exploitation horror it has not experienced the same kind of enduring longevity as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) two years year later, but it is remembered fondly by those with a knack for little genre obscurities. Closer in spirit to Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile (1974) than any of the later Ed Gein inspired cinematic exploits Three On A Meathook is equal part backwood horror as it is early slasher. As such it’s absolutely the last place to expect social commentary, especially on a subject as thorny and difficult as the ill-advised Vietnam War – but that’s exactly what transpires. Continuing the early 2000s trend of remaking old horror titles on ludricrous budgets, supposedly easier than re-releasing forgotten genre gems to a new audience, a reimagining of Three On A Meathook is currently in development with further details pending. When and if it ever will see the light of day remains to be seen. If one movie deserves a meticulous digital remaster/restoration, it is this little-seen William Girdler drive-in shocker. Hopefully one company, or the other, will rise to the occasion and give Three On A Meathook a much-needed second lease on life. Sam Raimi’s Within the Woods (1978) might hold more significance in light of his later horror exploits and Hollywood career, but Girdler’s packs far more punch.

Plot: busload of tourists is forced to stay overnight in a creepy castle.

Compared to the rest of Europe, Belgium has always been something of a silent force within the cinematic landscape of cult and exploitation. Often overlooked and forgotten in favor of other countries in the Old World that had a more established reputation in the industry of cinema. That isn’t to say that Belgium hasn’t contributed in its own way. The country famously hosts the Flanders International Film Festival Ghent and the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film (BIFFF) as well as co-producing the annual traveling extravaganza The Night Of Bad Taste terrorizing cinemas and cultural complexes all around Belgium and the Netherlands. Having never established a cinematic industry quite in the same way the neighboring France, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Italy did for many years the country’s contributions to the cinematic arts were minimal but not insignificant. Belgian filmmakers concerned themselves mostly with culturally important bigger and smaller literary adaptations, rural dramas, prestigious biopics, the occassional action-thriller and comedies (sports and otherwise) there’s plenty to like in Belgian cinema.

Flanders has brought forth a number of important directors, most prominent among them Marc Didden, Robbe De Hert and Stijn Coninx. Didden revolutioned the Belgian cinematic landscape with the gritty drama Brussels by Night (1983), De Hert is mostly remembered for his Ernest Claes adaptation Whitey (1980) whereas Coninx reigned supreme in the eighties and nineties with the Urbanus comedies Hector (1987) and Koko Flanel (1990) as well as the Louis Paul Boon adaptation Daens (1992). Dominique Deruddere became an overnight sensation with the drama Everybody Famous! (2000). Jan Verheyen, a cult/exploitation cinema aficionado and co-organiser of The Night Of Bad Taste, helmed a string of dramas and thrillers with the likes of Team Spirit (2000), Alias (2002) and Dossier K. (2009). Erik Van Looy briefly became a Hollywood hopeful thanks to The Alzheimer Case (2003) (released internationally as The Memory Of A Killer) and Loft (2008).

Felix Van Groeningen established himself with the dramas The Misfortunates (2009) and The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012). In the French part of the country Jaco Van Dormael helmed the drama Toto the Hero (1991) and a student-film-turned-feature Man Bites Dog (1992) from Rémy Belvaux became an international cult favorite shooting Benoît Poelvoorde to superstardom. At the dawn of the new millennium Walloon filmmaker Fabrice du Welz quickly amassed a modest but respectable resumé including, among others, Calvaire (2004) and Vinyan (2008). The oeuvre of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, darlings of critics and audience alike, are internationally renowned for a reason. The same rings true for the beloved animated feature The Triplets of Belleville (2003) from Sylvain Chomet. These titles and directors you might have actually heard of or read about, but Belgium has a something of a miniscule but not unimportant history in fringe horror cinema too.

Unlike France, Germany, Spain and Italy, Belgium was never able to spin a cottage industry from whatever trends or movements happened in European cinema. Neither does the country have, or ever had, a grand tradition in horror or genre cinema - a few notable exceptions notwithstanding. In the early seventies documentary maker Harry Kümel helmed the haunted house movie Malpertuis (1971) as well as the erotic vampire fantastique Daughters Of Darkness (1971). Belgium helped co-produce Jess Franco’s Female Vampire (1973), a valentine to Lina Romay. By the mid-to-late 1980 and early 1990s Kortrijk-based writer/producer/director Johan Vandewoestijne (as James Desert) singlehandedly put the country on the map with deranged shlock as Rabid Grannies (1988) and State of Mind (1994) (co-produced by that other The Night Of Bad Taste co-organiser, Jan Doense). After a long break Vandewoestijne returned to writing/directing in 2014 and has been unstoppable since. The most famous Belgian co-production, of course, is the ill-fated Dutch slasher disasterpiece Intensive Care (1991), a horror exercise so inept that not even a briefly topless Nada van Nie could save it. In more years Jonas Govaerts delivered the excellent Cub (2014) and Julia Ducournau debuted with the coming-of-age horror allegory Grave (2016).

1971 was a banner year for the European fantastique and vampire movie. That year offerings as diverse as Hammer’s Lust For A Vampire (1971) and Twins Of Evil (1971), Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971), that other famous Belgian co-production Daughters Of Darkness (1971), The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (1971), and Girl Slaves Of Morgana LeFay (1971) were released in cineplexes. This offered motivation enough for producers Pierre-Claude Garnier and Zeljko Kunkera to put together their own gothic horror revival production. Chosen to direct was Jean Brismée, a mathematician by trade, who worked as an instructor at the prestigious INSAS (Institut National Supérieur des Arts du Spectacle et des techniques de diffusion) in Brussels. Brismée was a specialist in short features and contemporary art documentaries. The screenplay for The Devil’s Nightmare was written by Patrice Rhomm and Brismée based on an original treatment by producer Garnier (as Charles Lecocq). For location shooting Garnier was able to secure the Chateau d'Antoing in Hainault, Belgium and a cast consisting of local talent (Jean Servais, Lucien Raimbourg, Daniel Emilfork, Jacques Monseau) with international name stars as Erika Blanc, Lorenzo Terzon, Shirley Corrigan and Ivana Novak and Alessandro Alessandroni providing the score. The Devil’s Nightmare (released back at home in Belgium as La plus longue nuit du diable or The Devil's Longest Night) was Corrigan’s big-screen debut after a number of decorative roles and she wasn’t informed of the snake scene until her arrival in Belgium. Whereas much of the talent on the production was Italian, The Devil’s Nightmare is a decidedly Belgian affair.

Berlin, 1945. Somewhere in Germany a Nazi general is witness to the passing of his wife during childbirth. The general is informed that long-desired kin is a girl, forcing him to do the unthinkable. He takes the freshly-born infant girl somewhere out of sight and stabs her with his bayonet. A quarter of a century passes and a group of seven tourists traveling in their single-deck 1952 Opel Blitz bus are forced to make an overnight stop in the environs of the Black Forest in southwest Germany. The road to their intended destination appears to be blocked and night is swiftly descending. The group – driver Mr. Ducha (Christian Maillet), cranky senior citizen Mason (Lucien Raimbourg), bickering married couple Howard and Nancy Foster (Lorenzo Terzon and Colette Emmanuelle), libertine adolescent minxes Regine (Shirley Corrigan), the ditzy go-go boot wearing platinum blonde and her firm-bosomed brunette friend Corinne (Ivana Novak) as well as seminarist Father Alvin Sorel (Jacques Monseau, as Jacques Monseu) – is lucky to happen into a strange looking local farmer who points them to the nearby castle Von Rhoneberg. Seeing no other option they head to the castle to seek lodging for the night.

At château Von Rhoneberg they are welcomed by butler Hans (Maurice De Groote, as Maurice Degroot) and the housekeeper (Frédérique Hender) who tell them they were expecting them. The butler escorts every guest to their respective room informing them of the sordid history of murder and death that comes with each. A few hours later they are invited to join the Baron (Jean Servais) at a bacchanalian banquet where he details the curse that has been looming over his bloodline for several decades. At the very last minute a mysterious eighth guest arrives in the form of Lisa Müller (Erika Blanc) who, despite protests from the housekeeper, manages to talk her way into the château. In no time Lisa worms her way into the hearts of each guest by indulging their every desire. Ducha is treated to more food than he’ll ever be able to consume. Regine treats herself to a warm, foamy bath before Corinne comes on to her strongly and the two soon find themselves in the throes of sapphic passion. Corinne has caught the eye of frustrated middle-aged Howard and before long they are in a tryst too. Nancy is informed about the alleged buried treasure in the vault, quenching her thirst for riches. As convention would dictate the Baron engages in alchemic - and occult experiments deep in the bowels of the château. What nobody seems to notice is that wherever Lisa goes death inevitably follows. As the guests one by one fall victim to Lisa’s considerable charms only the righteous and celibate Father Alvin Sorel can repel and cast out the unholy forces of evil at work in the château. Which only leaves the question: is Sorel’s faith strong enough to stop Lisa the succubus and Satan (Daniel Emilfork), her master?

What has given The Devil’s Nightmare its longevity is not only Erika Blanc’s fantastic performance but the screenplay's 7 deadly sins motif. Each of the seven visitors is given a creative death scene directly related to the sin they represent. While the premise is deceptively simple and the castle locations as brooding and atmospheric as any gothic horror worth its stripe is ought to be, the real star of The Devil’s Nightmare is Erika Blanc. What a difference a little black lipstick, nail polish and some minimal old-age make-up makes. Blanc does more with minimal make-up and a revealing evening dress than others do with every tool at their disposal. Blanc was a fixture in spaghetti westerns, Eurospy, commedia sexy all’Italiana and gothic horror whose claim to fame was that portrayed Emmanuelle in I, Emanuelle (1969) half a decade before Sylvia Kristel, Laura Gemser, Chai Lee and Dik Boh-Laai. While perhaps not nearly as famous as some of her contemporaries Blanc had that same regal demeanour as Helga Liné, Luciana Paluzzi, Dagmar Lassander and Silvia Tortosa. Among her most memorable appearances are her turns in Kill, Baby, Kill (1966), Spies Kill Silently (1966), So Sweet… So Perverse (1969), The Red Headed Corpse (1971), and The Night Evelyn Came Out Of the Grave (1971). As soon as Lisa Müller takes on her deadly succubus form, she transforms from an alluring ginger seductress into an ashen, decrepit looking killer. Blanc sells it with some great facial contortions and silent cinema body language. Had The Devil’s Nightmare been made a decade later it would have probably starred Cinzia Monreale instead.

Almost all of the gothic horror plotpoints are accounted as there’s a dreaded family curse, buried treasure, mad science and conveniently blocked roads. The only thing amiss are rubber bats on strings, an ominous portrait of a deceased ancestor and a hidden monster. Testament to its efficiency is that Johan Vandewoestijne would recycle pretty much the main plot in its entirety for his Rabid Grannies (1988) set in a castle in Kortrijk. The Devil’s Nightmare never quite reaches Italian levels of surrealism nor is it as erotic as a Spanish or French productions of the day. It might not have commanded the sort of budget that the prime Italian gothic horrors of the decade prior did but that doesn’t stop The Devil’s Nightmare from transcending its budgetary limitations frequently. While Shirley Corrigan and Ivana Novak steam up the few scenes they’re in, it is Erika Blanc who truly is the pulsating black heart of the feature. There never was a tradition in gothic horror in Belgium making The Devil’s Nightmare and Daughters Of Darkness (1971) pretty much the only titles able to measure themselves with the finest that Mediterranean cult – and exploitation cinema of the day had to offer. If there’s anywhere to start exploring Belgian horror cinema The Devil’s Nightmare is a good starting point.