There’s a charming, bumbling incompetence on display in The Thrill Killers. It’s the same high energy, passionate camp that flows through the veins of so much 1950s ans 1960s genre cinema: movies that lack polish, structure and relatable characters but more than make up for those deficiencies with a delightful “Let’s Put On A Show!” flavor. Movies like this get made only because the people making them really, really wanted to make a movie. It’s what allows us to laugh with Ed Wood films instead of at them: there’s a soul beneath the cardboard sets and wooden acting.
That same soul exists in The Thrill Killers — that soul just happens to be pitch black and oozing hateful, nihilistic puss, ready to stab a nun to death after burning down an orphanage. Come to giggle at the shoddy craftsmanship, stay for the sequences of soul-crushing evil.
It’s a simple enough tale. A Los Angeles housewife decides to leave her unsuccessful wannabe-actor husband after he blows their limited funds on a massive house party to promote himself (complete with a drunken motorcycle ride through the living room!) and takes refuge at her sister’s country diner. At the same time, a serial killer is stalking the streets, gunning down hard working immigrants and promiscuous pole dancers. And wouldn’t you know it? Also at the same time, three escaped mental patients are wandering about decapitating newlyweds with axes. Naturally, all of these parties manage to find themselves at the same place and that’s the part where things get interesting.
Stories of psychotic murderers performing their dastardly deeds on unsuspecting citizens is as old as fiction itself, but The Thrill Killers was made during a time when most on-screen deaths meant a quick fade-to-black after the killer/monster inexplicably falls on his victim. Director Ray Dennis Steckler, who also stars as the actor who must save his wife from the vicious band of killers, adopts an “ah, fuck it” approach to subtlety and human decency — if a woman is going to be decapitated, let the camera linger. Seeing such a coldblooded murder in a film that is the visual equivalent of the forgotten B-movies that pad out those awful Mill Creek box sets is odd and unsettling. Steckler’s nerve outweighs his technical incompetence.
Take an early scene, where a lone killer corners a young woman in her bedroom. The performances are broad and silly and the writing slapdash, but any laughs are soon drowned out when our villain begins to beat the woman. Over and over and over again for what feels like a very long time. It’s almost a relief when he finally grabs the scissors and stabs her to death. In many ways, the scene is oddly constructed. There is little suspense, we don’t care about the characters whatsoever and the scene is completely separate from the film’s flimsy plot, but it’s a lengthy murder shown in real time, leading to an inevitable and horrifying conclusion.
Did Steckler know what he was doing here? Did he realize that by removing any “chase” elements and just keeping the camera at arm’s length while we watched an innocent woman die would be this disturbing? Or was he was just trying to stretch out his running time? As a happy accident or an intentional decision, it works.
In fact, how much of The Thrill Killers is a happy accident? This is a B-movie through and through, following shallow characters on a threadbare plot that never really builds to anything before reaching an extended climax where all of our heroes vanish while unnamed police officers who only showed up a few minutes previously save the day. As a traditional movie, it’s a melodramatic mess that gives us nothing to invest in before dropping an insulting comedic epilogue on our laps.
However, there’s something else going on here. Under those B-movie trappings is something sinister. We may not know these characters well, but we spend a long time watching them die horribly, menaced to the end by raving psychopaths who only want to kill them, well, just because. You can call the performances from the collection of psychopaths over-the-top and in a traditional B-movie, where innocent women and their brand spankin’ new husbands had a chance of escaping from their captors with lives, they would seem silly. The Thrill Killers isn’t a traditional B-movie, though. It forces us to watch. It forces us to realize what it would be like to actually be menaced by people this “wacky.” The only thing more terrifying than being tormented and killed by a silent killer is being tormented and killed by a guy who just can’t stop laughing.
As expected for a black and white movie where people dramatically grab their bloodless chests and collapse to the ground after being shot, there was much laughter from the audience. In fairness, the movie kinda’ deserves some of those jeers, even though the victim pleading and screaming for his life prior to his hokey Hollywood gunshot death somewhat nullifies the humor for me. In any case, the film definitely won the audience over (big applause at the end) with the climax, which features the final killer murdering his way through a small army of police officers before being felled by the world’s most badass anonymous motorcycle cop. All of us agreed that Anonymous Motorcycle Cop was a true American Hero.