Color, 1974, 86m.
Directed by Larry G. Spangler
Starring Jack Elam, Jeff Cooper, Ruth Roman, John Kellogg, Diana Ewing, Richard Schaal
Code Red (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Brentwood (US R1 NTSC)
If you ever wondered what a slasher version of Little House on the Prairie might look like, here you go. Okay, they almost did make a slasher episode of that show once, but here you get the real deal: a fledgling western American town populated by a cute blond moppet and a crusty sheriff played by Jack Elam, but it's plagued by brutal knife murders committed by a maniac in black gloves. That's right, in the opening scene we see a hooker bidding her last john of the day adieu before someone skulks into her bedroom and hacks a bloody gash into her throat right over the opening credits.
Our story proper kicks in after said credits (which feature some nifty horror music definitely not appropriate to the wild west) as a private detective named Burns (Cooper, looking very out of place here with his shaggy Partridge Family hairdo) is enlisted to find the killer since one of the victims was the son of the town's most powerful family. The hard-drinking town sheriff doesn't take too kindly to the interloper, but it's clear some help will be needed when the crimes escalate including more women, more knives, a case of mistaken identity, a nasty hanging, and other mayhem before the villain is finally unmasked after the detective and lawman decide to join forces.
Anyone familiar with Cooper's unforgettably awkward performance in Circle of Iron will find he's just as oddly cast here. Fortunately he's easy to overlook when you have so many hams around to liven up the proceedings, with the always great Elam getting a rare leading role and making the most of it thanks to the film's one genuine character arc. Former Hollywood starlet Ruth Roman (The Baby) has a juicy role as well as the town matriarch, while Richard Schaal, a regular sitcom guest and former husband of Valerie Harper, pops up long enough to provide some weird comic relief, smack around folks in a shaky drunken fit, and get murdered in a barn. Other familiar TV faces like Diana Ewing (in a terrible wig), John Kellogg (Peyton Place), and western vet Gene Evans provide more color as the town residents and potential suspects, which means this often talky and very strange film will definitely appeal most to '70s pop culture junkies. However, if you're looking for sleaze there's a bit to be found here thanks to some bloody knifings and a truly unhinged climax that swerves violently into Andy Milligan territory. You won't believe it when you see it.
This one first hit American video in a brutally edited edition running 51 minutes under the title Jack the Ripper Goes West as part of Brentwood's cheapie, legally dubious Blood Bath 2 set along with Legacy of Satan, Blood Song, and The House That Cried Murder (later featured in Blood Rage!). Presumably these cuts were made so the film could be shuffled off to late night TV airings, though apparently it only ran once in 1986. The full version originally released by the notoriously shady Bryanston Pictures appeared to be lost entirely until the 2016 Blu-ray release from Code Red, sold exclusively through Screen Archives as a standalone disc or a triple pack with Eye in the Labyrinth and White Ghost. This version not only looks about a thousand times better than the prior DVD, but it's also the complete edition with all of the, you know, plot and character development fully intact. It definitely plays more like a real film now since it actually has something resembling pacing and narrative progression, though the tonal lurches are still pretty bumpy as we bounce between vicious knifings, detective procedural, and cute life lessons. The 35mm source material is in pretty decent shape with only minor damage here and there, though the scratchy sound won't have audiophiles doing cartwheels. The "Play Movie" option from the menu (which features that catchy "Evil Lady" song from the end credits) first confronts you with a confusing slice of comedy outtakes featuring Katarina Leigh Waters and that giant talking banana, while bonus trailers include Savage Streets, Brotherhood of Death, Mary Mary Bloody Mary, Ghetto Warriors, and The Redeemer.