It is difficult to tell whether Donald Wolfe’s lysergic Savage Intruder is trying to say something meaningful about the surreal culture of the Los Angeles film industry, or whether it’s merely exploiting old Hollywood washouts, has-beens, and never-weres. Perhaps in its own cynical way it’s expressing deeper truths that it could never hope to approach were one to take the film at face value; it’s a derivative ripoff of Psycho through and through, down to its primal Freudian tropes and triumph of its nebbish male antagonist over the ineffectual forces of Good, but Wolfe’s stunt casting proves to be his greatest strength, which is regrettably not saying much. We have not one but three remnants of Old Hollywood violently colliding against the emerging forces of Exploitation: first and foremost, there is old stalwart Miriam Hopkins essentially playing herself, Blacklisted actress Gale Sondegaard giving her thankless role as much gravitas as can be wrung from an underwritten script, and the son of the late lamented John Garfield embodying the titular Intruder with as much smarm as humanly possible.
After a flurry of footage stolen from Singin’ in the Rain (look for the marquee advertising “The Dancing Cavalier”) and various MGM newsreels, there’s a rather effective credit sequence that segues from jazzy pomp and circumstance to a ruined Hollywood sign, with a profoundly creepy silence broken only by the creaking of wooden panels in flagrant disrepair. Beneath wooden panels flapping in the merciless wind, with twisted nails jutting forth in search of soft material to puncture, a shallow grave lies half-assedly dug with the dismembered mannequin-like remains of an old woman exposed to harsh daylight. Cut to a news reporter breathlessly describing the exploits of the anonymous Hollywood Slasher, whose identity is baffling the LAPD and holding the community in a grip of blah blah blah.
We see an old drunken lady being followed to her apartment by a menacing pair of bell-bottomed ankles. Soon, Garfield enters her ramshackle abode through an unlocked window and we see his full fearsome form: a pair of reflective Aviator glasses, a brown fedora that clashes violently with his black trench coat and a red velour mailbag that clashes violently with common decency and good taste. After knocking out the frumpy old maid with a lead pipe and dragging her into the bathroom, he removes a fearsome array of phallic instruments from a suitcase within the mailbag. Opting for an electronic filleting knife, he attempts to remove her hand without anesthesia yet she wakes up with a scream and the whole thing ends rather messily via the business end of a meat cleaver. Small wonder Garfield Jr. found his greatest success as an editor before dying an untimely death of a congenital heart defect exactly like his father; he’s most effective in this opening sequence when he’s totally mute.
Although, to be fair, it’s quite possible that it was a key grip or a rigging technician dressed in the bizarre costume and this little episode was haphazardly shoehorned in during reshooting to inject a bit of tension into the proceedings, as it doesn’t serve any purpose other than establishing the killer’s M.O., which is promptly discarded in favor of a bolder technique. The dismembered body beneath the Hollywood sign was some other old woman, this particular lady’s remains are never discovered (in addition to her lacking a family, friends, or basic social network outside the bar and tobacconist’s shop), and the identity of the killer is obvious from the very first second Garfield appears on screen without his disguise. Since this was filmed in 1969, his laughable hippie getup might have allowed him to blend in, but with the benefit of hindsight, an already creepy looking motherfucker looks the part even more. Hitching a ride to Miriam Hopkins’ pretentious abode on a hill, he hops off a Celebrity Home Tour tram driven by Shemp Howard (!) in a pitiful cameo role shortly before a little girl aboard the same tour bus disembarks with her mother and explosively vomits a few feet away from him. The tone thus established, he scales the monstrous fence with absurd ease and sets off on his mission.
Since he somehow knows that Hopkins drank a bit too much of her “liquid personality” during one of her frequent hallucinated parties, tumbled down the stairs and broke her tibia on the hard marble floor of her foyer, and is consequently in need of someone to carry her around her cavernous mansion, Garfield neatly converts his Jimi Hendrix headband into a tie (with a smart Windsor knot) and offers his unsolicited services as a live-in caregiver (with no extra charge for hand-removal service). Gale Sondegaard’s head maid, who resembles the psychotic Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca both in appearance and general temperament; she is known simply as Lez (!!) and she absolutely will not abide this slimy looking man tainting the sanctity of the household, and most certainly has no affection whatsoever for her elderly employer. But, alas, Hopkins decides that a man’s brute strength is necessary (never mind that wiry, shrimpy Garfield looks like he can barely heft a sack of potatoes), and there is no way at all she’s lusting after some much younger cock, and the flirtatious glances she’s getting from the dude do not indicate a weird Oedipal complex ripped from the pages of dime-store psychology books … not at all.
Not only had Hopkins been divorced for almost 20 years prior to shooting the film, and genuinely seems to love spending long stretches of time in intimate situations with Garfield Jr., (likewise, Junior’s smarm fades away during one of the countless scenes of pushing her around in a wheelchair, replaced by something resembling genuine emotion) she doesn’t even seem to be acting when her character eventually falls in love with her caretaker. Meanwhile, Lez and the delectable Asian housekeeper (with the incongruous name of Greta) witness this creepy love story unfolding with some combination of dread and horrified curiosity. Soon, Greta’s awkward flirtations with the new caretaker are stiffly reciprocated, a midnight garden rendezvous is planned, but when she shows up expecting a little action from Junior she is instead “mysteriously” dispatched by an unseen, “anonymous” slasher in a syrupy geyser of candy-apple-red stage blood. Then all the nutty psychedelic hallucination dreams/flashbacks start flying ad infinitum and illuminate very little save for the fact that Donald Wolfe seems to have purchased several sheets of the infamous brown acid. More “mysterious” deaths transpire, and several long out-of-work actors show up in brief cameo scenes before we go back to Hopkins in her pink boa, sniping at Junior for more interminable lengths of time.
Savage Intruder can’t decide whether it wants to be a murder mystery, a character study of a Freudian nutcase, a character study of a delusional alcoholic former silent-film star, a romance between these two characters, a commentary on the film industry chewing up and spitting out its former sweethearts, or a systematic dissection of Old Hollywood using Hitchcockian tropes through hyperstylized Italian giallo sensibilities. Instead of choosing one paradigm and going with it, the film tries to do all six things at once with the finesse of a blinded cerebral palsy victim attempting to juggle chainsaws. Not to say that the film is a complete failure: there’s a great deal of subtext in a story about wooden, psychopathic beefcake passive-aggressively softening up a bunch of old women played by washed-up actresses (and one bright-eyed Asian ingénue) before dicing them up with his compensatory phallus collection in some cavernous mansion in the Hollywood Hills. Also unremarked upon is the back story of this colossal manor. The lavish palace was a monument to excess commissioned by Norma Talmadge* at the height of her popularity in the 1920s; upon the advent of the “talkies”, her gratingly nasal voice cut short a meteoric rise to fame, her career ended in 1930 and she spent the rest of her days holed up in this mansion in complete ignominy.
Not only does the former Talmadge estate provide a perfect setting for the story, as muddled as it is, but also supplies an even more surrealistic background for a sequence where the mansion is besieged by a small army of drug-addled hippies. One memorable exchange occurs where a turned-on midget offers Miriam Hopkins a snifter of cocaine, to which she haughtily replies “The only trips I take are to Europe!” Sure, it’s a far cry from her work with Ernst Lubitsch, but Hopkins has no problem with devouring every inch of scenery around her, and ultimately, the movie itself. It’s probably not the kind of swan song the former beauty must have envisioned for herself but she goes out in high style, even working in a gratuitous topless shot (at the ripe old age of 66) before giving a final, horrified look at the camera and literally disappearing into the filmic aether.
No, the clapper was not supposed to be in the movie. Yes, they left it in there.
Perhaps the proto-slasher trappings, with the unseen maniac dispatching helpless women in a methodical fashion with an array of sharp objects and abrasive musical stings, are but a distraction from the most meaningful bit of subtext. The villain isn’t Junior and his hippie buddies, or the oh-so-mysterious Slasher in his ridiculous costume, looking like a cross between The Alchemist in The Holy Mountain and one of Torquemada’s scarlet-clad Inquisitors, or even the oppressively Lesbotronic housekeeper holding the house in a Draconian grip of terror. No, the industry itself is to blame for everyone’s woes; the brutal attrition of show business elevating mere mortals to the status of Demigods before violently ejecting them to a life of delusion and seclusion, and rejecting thousands of fresh-faced hopefuls daily like an infernal machine separating so much chaff from the wheat. It’s nothing that was said much more eloquently in Day of the Locust, but give Wolfe some points for accomplishing quite a bit on such a microscopic budget. To no one’s surprise, he never directed another film again.