Color, 1990, 80m.
Directed by Carlton J. Albright
Starring Edward Terry, Joan Roth, Stacy Haiduk, Thomas Mills, Jerry Clarke
Troma (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Troma (DVD) (US R0 NTSC), Astro (Holland R0 PAL)
The horror fan press had a field day when word got out about the production of this gory, country-fried slasher film, which finally put the spotlight on one of the carny circuit's most grotesque fixtures: the geek, a performer who bites the heads off of live chickens for the public's amusement. It was inevitable that someone would get the bright idea to turn a geek into the villain of a slasher movie, and fortunately this grotesque, blackly comic opus from director Carlton Albright (who wrote and produced the killer kid favorite The Children in 1980) delivers in spades. Unfortunately it also came out just as the theatrical market for indie horror films was completely collapsing, and short-lived distributor Quest Entertainment ended up dumping the film straight to VHS due to major financial (and, as it later turned out, legal) issues, leaving poor Luther to gradually build up a cult following as curious viewers sought it out in the privacy of their own homes.
While attending a live geek show as a child, Luther has his teeth knocked out by a catapulted chicken head (or so it seems; the execution of the scene is a little vague). Deeply traumatized by the event, he loses the capacity for human speech and, twenty years later, ends up in a mental institution after killing some innocent people. His good behavior and docile nature convince the board that he should be released again into the general public, a decision that makes no sense even after they debate it for over five minutes, which means Luther gets to hit the streets with his snazzy set of sharp razor dentures. He immediately causes a ruckus at the local supermarket by chugging down raw eggs in the middle of the aisle and accosting the customers, which gets him thrown out of the store. Before the cops can arrive he takes a bite out of the throat of an elderly woman at a bus stop (after she dares to drop an egg he offers as a gift), which sends him hiding in the back seat of another grocery store customer, Hilary (Roth). Soon he's been transported without her knowledge back to her isolated country house, where he chomps through the phone lines and proceeds to tie her down to a bed so he can terrorize anyone else who comes by including Hilary's daughter, Beth (soap star Haiduk), her boyfriend Rob (Mills), and a particularly dense passing trooper (Clarke).
Though he only made two films (this and The Children), Terry is easily the main reason to see this bizarre addition to the slasher canon. The idea of a disturbed, clucking maniac running around the countryside chewing people to death sounds stupid in the extreme, but his incredibly physical, threatening performance manages to sell the concept incredibly well. The early daylight scenes are especially chilling, and the execution is just odd and quirky enough to keep the viewer off balance every time it threatens to fall into typical stalk and slash territory. That's especially true of the incredible closing five minutes, in which Roth (who's mostly been terrified and cowering during the film) really comes into her own and matches Terry with an indelible finale that's still capable of leaving viewers in utter disbelief. Sure, the story's a bit illogical and most of the characters are so dense they deserve their nasty fates, but the surreal nature of the whole enterprise and the two main performances have managed to ensure that it stays in viewers' memories for decades.
After its largely overlooked VHS release, Luther the Geek turned up on DVD in two editions, first a meager Dutch one (with a trailer and gallery) from Astro in 2002 and a much more loaded edition from Troma in 2005. Both were derived from the underwhelming full frame transfer created for the VHS, which means blacks are mostly a pale gray, detail is soft, and the entire color palette looks sickly throughout. Here's a sample grab if you want to relive the horror. The extras are pretty solid, but more on those in a moment.
It seemed inevitable that Vinegar Syndrome would take a shot at this title in their roster of (pretty astounding) Troma overhauls, but few could have imagined how good the results would be here. Anyone coming to the film cold might think it just looks like a really nice transfer of a typical indie '80s film, but those who suffered through past video transfers will be blown away by how different (and far superior) it looks here. What once looked like a 16mm project projected on sackcloth is now colorful, crisp, and striking, with the dark scenes in particular now looking far more atmospheric and legible than before. The package comes with both Blu-ray and DVD options (with identical extras), but the Blu-ray is definitely the way to go if possible for obvious reasons. The DTS-HD MA mono audio sounds excellent as well with far more life than before (those clucks near sounded clearer!).
All of the relevant extras from the Troma disc have been ported over here (dropping only the irrelevant flotsam like a really tacky Lloyd Kaufman intro that's not missed at all): a 5-minute basic interview with Carlton Albright, a fun 2-minute interview with actor Will Albright (the director's son, who played Luther as a child), a trailer for The Children, and four separate segments with Carlton Albright talking about specific scenes: the old lady attack (for which they used a young woman in heavy makeup, made even more glaring in the Blu-ray transfer), the cop fight scene, the finale, and most infamously the shower love scene, complete with plentiful nude outtakes of Haiduk that have become quite the celeb skin favorite over the years. However, Vinegar Syndrome has also stacked the film with a nice slate of new material as well, kicking off with a hilariously candid optional 38-second intro by Albright before the start of the feature. (Don't skip it -- trust me.) Albright is also joined by Vinegar Syndrome's Joe Rubin for a new audio commentary covering virtually every single aspect of the production including cast members both major and minor, the reason for the rapid uptick in gore compared to his prior film, the radical change in the climate for horror distribution at the time, and the very rocky release history of the film. Actor Jerry Clarke gets to talk about getting cast in the film as the inept law officer in the 10-minute "Fowl Play" (ignore the erroneous title on the menu screen), showing off his paintings and chatting about how the film got him his union card and introduced him to the art of firing guns on a movie set. The 6-minute "A Conversation with Carlton Albright" is a slightly more extensive interview than the earlier Troma one focusing more on his background before this film including his friendships in the industry and the background of making The Children, with a bit of effusive praise for Terry at the end. Finally the set winds up with the effective original trailer in a vastly improved new transfer. A really cluckin' good release.
Reviewed on January 25, 2016.