David Paulsen’s “Savage Weekend” is an underrated proto-slasher film from the late ’70s

By on October 25, 2017

Savage Weekend — an underrated proto-slasher film from the late ’70s, about a masked murderer who ruins the weekend with whatever workbench-type weapons are handy — is just one of the titles you’ll find in our newly-added “Horror Month on Night Flight Plus” section over on Night Flight Plus!

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Savage Weekend — first released as The Killer Behind the Mask and, later, as The Upstate Murders – pre-dates the filming of John Carpenter‘s 1978 slasher Halloween, and the 1980 release of Friday the 13th by a few years.

The film’s plot unspools slowly, at a measured pace, telling the story of recently-divorced Marie Sales (Marilyn Hamlin), who decides to spend a restful weekend with her new boyfriend, wealthy stockbroker Robert Fathwood (Jim Doerr), at his lakeside summer house in upstate New York, while trying to decompress and escape from her abusive and bitter ex-husband Greg Pottis (Jeff Pomerantz).

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The couple bring along Marie’s flamboyantly gay friend Nicky (Christopher Allport), and two others, Marie’s slutty sister Shirley Sales (Caitlin O’Heaney) and one of Robert’s employees, the smarmy sleazeball Jay (Devin Goldenberg).

Everyone gets down and dirty, unwinding and enjoying a little fishing, boating, suggestive cow milking, nude sunbathing and even some occasional R-rated hanky-panky (we rate it slightly NSFW, mostly for a spate of gratuitous topless scenes).

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The lakeside house is nestled in the remote woods — it was filmed somewhere in the Hudson River Valley — where we meet a number of hillbilly-ish and sexually-frustrated locals in this backwoods community.

These include David Gale (Re-Animator) as rugged logger Mac Macauley, and the local town weirdo, Otis, who helps Robert restore a 30-foot schooner which was originally owned by Otis’s father.

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Otis is played by the always amazing William Sanderson, who many of you will recognize from HBO’s “Deadwood” and “True Blood,” or as Larry on the early ’80s TV’ show “Newhart,” or from his many film roles, including genetic designer “J. F. Sebastian” in the original Blade Runner.

Angry, distrurbed and with apparent violent tendencies too, Otis doesn’t care at all for these arrogant New York City assholes who have snatched away property he feels rightly belongs to him.

He spends some of his spare time in a graveyard, chatting with his dead brother, and there’s a great scene where we learn, in the past, that this not-too-bright loser once used a red hot branding iron to burn an “H” on a girl’s chest (the “H” was meant to stand for “whore”).

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Before the weekend’s over, the vacationers will all be dealing with a ghoulish Halloween mask-wearing murdering maniac who — in classic slasher film style — starts dispatching the characters one by one, with a variety of garden tools and other sharp objects, but we’re held in suspense before the big reveal who the killer is, right up until the final frame.

Read more about Savage Weekend below.

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Savage Weekend was the debut feature by producer/writer/director David Paulsen, who had originally tried acting first, finding most of this work off-Broadway and in summer stock theater, in addition to appearing in commercials and documentaries.

He eventually segued into writing, and soon was working for Israeli producer Menahem Golan, which led to other opportunities in film.

After obtaining the limited financing (reportedly around $20,000) from a skittish film backer, Paulsen was given the chance to direct his first feature, if he could keep it under budget.

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Paulsen developed his original idea for Savage Weekend after remembering what had happened during a fishing trip he’d had a year earlier, when a hook got caught in his bare foot while he was out lake fishing.

After writing the script, he was able to scrounge up a little more financing (around $58,000 total), and he also called in favors, asking his movie biz friends (including awesome cinematographer Zoltan Vidor) to work cheaper than they normally did.

Some of the crew even took on small roles in the film (those belligerent rednecks who get beat up in a bar scene actually worked behind the camera!).

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Paulsen even got the actors to defer their pay plus a small percentage of producer’s gross, and the film was shot in about twenty days in 1976.

Unfortunately for Paulsen, his film — distributed theatrically by Cannon Films in 1979 — was originally shown in the wrong aspect ratio, which meant boom mikes kept appearing dangling down in shots which should have been cropped out.

Some of the first audiences — expecting a frightening slasher-horror experience — howled with laughter at these innocent mistakes.

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When the film was presented in its correct aspect ratio, Savage Weekend — released in 1982 on VHS home video by Paragon — was revealed to be a taut, plot-driven slasher film precursor which deserved a second look, as much now as then, which is why we’re happy to include it in our newly-added section of Horror titles.

An early Savage Weekend film poster, depicting a demented skeletal Grim Reaper pointing his finger straight at you, carried the tagline “You have been chosen. You are doomed. Prepare yourself for… Savage Weekend,” even though the image doesn’t quite seem to fit the tone of the film.

Another tagline — “makes Texas Chainsaw Massacre look like kid’s stuff” — feels more accurate.

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Paulsen also directed the 1980 horror film Schizoid (which featured a great cast, including Klaus Kinski, Marianna Hill, Christopher Lloyd, Craig Wasson and others) before he went on to huge success as the writer, producer and director of primetime TV shows like “Dallas,” “Knots Landing,” and “Dynasty.”

If you’re a ’70s-era exploitation horror fan, get a few friends together this weekend and watch Savage Weekend, it’ll be streaming with other newly-added titles in our “Horror Month on Night Flight Plus” section over on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.