The Minstrel Killer, set in 1978, is a controversial slasher, thriller that features a killer in black face who descends on a community rife with racism and dark secrets. This indie horror film has the feel of a vintage grindhouse exploitation film. When a series of haunting murders plagues a small Texas town, law officers Tex Holland and Pike McGraw lead the investigation. The murders turn out to be the most shocking and vile acts of sadism to ever hit the once peaceful community. With a dangerous killer on the loose re-enacting slave punishment on his victims, the cops must face their own personal demons as the murder spree throws them into a dangerous world of mercenary hillbillies and inbred cannibals.
When a series of haunting murders plagues a small Texas town, law officers Tex Holland and Pike McGraw lead the investigation. The murders turn out to be the most shocking and vile acts of sadism to ever hit the once peaceful community. With a dangerous killer on the loose re-enacting slave punishment on his victims, the cops must face their own personal demons as the murder spree throws them into a dangerous world of mercenary hillbillies and inbred cannibals.
"The Minstrel Killer" Finally, a Michael Fredianelli film I can show my grandparents, my children, and a few lonely friends at the shelter. This epic work of horror (or more precisely, shocks-ploitation) from Wild Dogs Productions lives up to its box art testimonial: "Full of atrocities!" but surprisingly boasts a complex script with 3-dimensional characters (excluding hillbillies and cannibals) who surpass the deviants commonly found in most grindhouse flicks. Fredianelli, as racist cop Tex Holland, may not look like Stuart Whitman, but his internal conflicts with an unfaithful wife and a black partner manage to unfold compellingly amidst the plot contrivances of your average slasher-on-the-warpath scenario. Narrative can be put aside to concentrate on the acting and the editing; the movie's best assets. These impress, as well as Aaron Stielstra's lush, demented score which alternates between William Lustig/John Carpenter stabs and stingers to full blown compositions--be they acoustic ballads or one blues piece that serenades bloated pigs making love. Also commendable is the fantastic chicken performances that take place during the movie's most memorable bimbo homicide. David Brashear's camera-work is such an improvement over past Wild Dogs projects, the film, quite simply, resembles something akin to a 70s Jack Starrett movie, lending to the film's encouragement to take a shower after watching. Only the movie's outstanding shootout in a hillbilly camp would suffer being viewed on a sagging, vandalized drive-in screen. Top acting honors must be paid to Fredianelli, playing a complicated character with a fraction of decency suffocated by prejudice, an excellent Anthony Spears, as the lone, doomed detective of color with more intelligence and guts than the entire supporting cast, and Aaron Stielstra and Brendan Murphy, who capture the sad, scatological character of southwestern white trash so well as to be documentary subjects. Vanessa Celso's troubled and sympathetic wife character elicited as many tears from the grindhouse audience I saw the film with as she did drunken catcalls to take her clothes off. A notable accomplishment. Definitely the best Fredianelli movie since "Psycho Freak-Out". Isaac Wade's methamphetamine-addicted Father Hillbilly (his character defect evidenced by a constant nasal condition) also delivers the movie's best and most poetic line: "He ain't interested in that dirty old hand." Superb locations abound, yet, unfortunately, they can't redeem the film's early hillbilly performances that suffer from dreadful (and eternal) over-acting reminiscent of a bad "Hee-Haw" sketch. As the profound Down Under movie critic Jenesis stated about another recent genre flick, "See Naples...Then Die"--of which this movie shares much the same cast: "imminently re-watchable". Rated R.
**Major spoilers ahead!** Among the recent trend in retro-styled exploitation films, Michael Fredianelli's "The Minstrel Killer" is one of the most thoughtful and bizarre, even if a cursory glance at its general premise might seem like little more than an exercise in deliberate bad taste. A slasher film set in Texas during 1978, the film concerns a serial killer disguised as a blackface minstrel, who is stalking and killing the local female descendants of a white slave-owning family using the same barbaric methods that had been used to torture and kill slaves (e.g., whippings, hangings, etc.). Despite this provocative premise, the film is rarely played directly for laughs, instead maintaining a dramatic earnestness that exists in distinct tension with each ridiculously anachronistic appearance of the titular character. Tex Holland, a white, college-educated cop (Fredianelli) jumps to the conclusion that a black man must have been responsible for murders apparently committed out of historical grievance, but this suspicion is spurred by his own racism and his resentment toward his wife Carol (Vanessa Celso) for having an affair with a black man. Throughout the film, racism is figured as a threat to Tex's masculinity, as though prejudice has made him impotent. For example, after being saved from a family of cannibalistic rednecks by his new African-American partner, Tyrell Jones (Anthony Spears), in a long subplot, Tex begins tempering his overtly racist comments and resumes sleeping with his wife. He is deeply afraid of his own racism, admitting to Carol that he felt some satisfaction when he accidentally killed Tyrell during a failed confrontation with the minstrel killer. Yet, if Tex's masculinity is alternately called into question by his socially "backward" beliefs about race, gender, and sexuality, we are not encouraged to celebrate his bigotry as a desirable reassertion of straight white masculinity, but rather to recognize it (from our contemporary standpoint) as quickly becoming as anachronistic as the figure of the minstrel himself.
As a monstrous figure, the minstrel killer alternately evokes uncomfortable laughter and perverse threat in his very historical incongruity. The offensiveness of blackface from a contemporary perspective makes it difficult for viewers to unproblematically identify with him as an avenging figure of historical retribution, especially given the knowledge that minstrels were largely (but not exclusively) played by white performers. In this respect, it is all the more difficult to find his use of slavery-era torture techniques justified within the logic of the horror genre's more sympathetic monsters since, contra Tex's initial racist assumptions, these acts are presumably not being committed by an African-American man beneath the make-up. (In fact, the blackfaced killer is portrayed by Michael Nosé, an Asian-American actor, which complicates minstrelsy's history as a genre dominated by white performers.) The minstrel's obvious signification as a grotesque performance of race begs the question of whether his violent actions are more monstrous than the monstrousness of dominant white culture's perceptions of racial others which engendered minstrelsy in the first place; indeed, the fact that the killer is effectively re-creating historical acts of cruelty perpetrated by whites adds to our awareness of his deeds as a performance.
These reactions are further tested by the film's conclusion, in which the killer captures Tex in a barn and ties him up. As the film ends, we see close-ups of the blackface make-up, reinforcing the fact that the killer's appearance is a deliberate performance and not an inherent racial trait, and then transitions to the killer sawing off Tex's foot in a re-creation of a punishment used on runaway slaves. The film ends with a freeze-framed close-up of Tex repeatedly screaming racial epithets as the sawing continues, as if falling back on his misrecognition of racial stereotype as essential trait. The hysterical shouts continue over the freeze frame, suggesting that Tex's unresolved racism has fatally rendered him impotent to save himself from destruction at the killer's hands, the powerful racial epithets ultimately useless as either protest or solution to the threat. We never learn the true identity of the killer beneath the blackface, thus preventing us from personalizing the individual killer's motives in a way that might downplay the larger historical legacy of racism—a legacy evoked by archival images of slavery, minstrelsy, and lynchings that appear during the closing credits. With our troubled "hero" apparently killed and the perpetrator on the loose, this unresolved ending suggests that the horrors of racism are still out there--as unsolved now as then.
An impressive achievement on a small budget, and well worth seeking out. Its depictions of racism may be uncomfortable viewing at times, but not without purpose. Although the film may not provide clear answers to the dilemmas it poses, it nicely falls into the long traditional of exploitation films with serious social import lurking beneath the sleazy surface. 7cb1d79195
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