Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Severed Arm

"Timothy, Timothy, where on earth did you go?
Timothy, Timothy, God, why don't I know?

—"Timothy," The Buoys, lyrics by Rupert Holmes

It's no exaggeration to say they don't make 'em like THE SEVERED ARM anymore. Unless there's a movie about cannibalism making the rounds I haven't heard about. Directed by Thomas S. Alderman, who doesn't appear to have made any films afterward, THE SEVERED ARM is a gruesome horror film that anticipates many other, more famous slasher pics, such as HALLOWEEN (with its use of killer POV shots), FRIDAY THE 13TH (individuals picked off one by one by a madman waving a sharp object) and WHEN A STRANGER CALLS ("the caller is inside the house"). I'm not saying that those films were influenced by THE SEVERED ARM or that Alderman invented these familiar aspects of the horror genre, but their presence does add interest.

Six men are trapped inside a cave. Three weeks pass without any of them eating a speck of food, and their water supply has just dried up. Jeff (David G. Cannon), a television writer, suggests they draw lots and the winners amputate and eat one of the loser's limbs to stay alive. Ted (Ray Dannis) is the unlucky loser, but seconds after his friends have sliced off his right arm, a rescue team arrives. Ted deliriously tells the doctors what occurred, but the other five men explain that his arm was crushed in the accident and had to be amputated to save his life. No one believes Ted's story, and he goes mad as a result. Five years later, Jeff receives a severed arm in the mail, and he and his accomplices, who also include detective Mark (Paul Carr), disc jockey Herman (Marvin Kaplan), contractor Bill (Vince Martorano) and doctor Ray (John Crawford), are stalked by a killer with a hatchet. Has Ted left the mental institution to gain revenge upon the men who drove him there?

Former Gidget actress Deborah Walley has top billing as Ted's daughter, who teams up with Jeff and Mark to track down Ted before he can get to them. Although Teddy (the Walley character) is initially depicted as not believing her father could be a killer, she seems unbelievably willing to help the men in their plan to capture Ted, even to the point of serving as bait. THE SEVERED ARM is successful much of the time, mostly because of Alderman's skill behind the camera, keeping it fluid and pointing at something interesting, even though he obviously wasn't able to shoot many takes. It's a low-budget movie, but not fatally so. More money would probably have let Alderman and co-screenwriter Darrel Presnell excise a couple of talky scenes and replace them with lengthier scare scenes. THE SEVERED ARM is never quite as lurid as its title indicates, but it doesn't waste time with characterization and subplots, and it builds to an effectively sick climax.

I'm pretty certain the print I saw was complete, but most DVDs on the market are reportedly cut. Despite its R rating, THE SEVERED ARM is not a graphic movie, and although the cuts would certainly harm the film, my guess is that it's still worth a viewing, so long as you aren't expecting anything like a masterpiece.

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