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.