The Grim Reaper / Anthropophagous the Beast / Man Eater / Savage Island / Antropofago (1980/1981) ***
The slasher movie has a much longer history in Italy than it does in the United States, and for the most part the Italian version of the subgenre adheres to a very different set of conventions from its more familiar American cousin. However, by the early 1980’s, a few Italian filmmakers began toying with the American approach to cinematic serial killers. The resulting films were, for the most part, still distinctly Italian in tone, but their transatlantic influences were nevertheless there to be seen by those who knew what to look for. Joe D’Amato’s Antropofago was one of the first of these hybrid slasher flicks, and though it is widely disparaged, even by its own director, it proved so successful abroad that it was released at least three times stateside in the early 80’s (under three different titles, naturally) before returning to make the rounds again on home video in both US theatrical and uncut international edits. And for all its undeniable faults, I think The Grim Reaper/Anthropophagous the Beast/etc. is one of the very best of the third-generation Italian slasher films.
The Grim Reaper betrays its American influence in the very first scene, when a pair of young German tourists on vacation among the Greek islands are unexpectedly attacked by a murderous POV cam while relaxing on a deserted beach. The girl is killed first. She swims out past the breakers, leaving her boyfriend to take a short nap and work on his tan (lots of luck, buddy— that overcast sky couldn’t give a tan to an Englishman!), and within moments, something pulls her down beneath the surface and dispatches her amid an enormous cloud of blood. At first glance, this looks like a shark attack, but I’ve never known sharks to come wading ashore to look for more victims, nor have I known them to kill their prey by burying a meat cleaver in its face. And because that is exactly what happens to the German boy, even someone watching this movie under the title Man Eater should now be thoroughly disabused of any notions that a Jaws rip-off is in the offing.
About a month or two later (another favorite trick of US slasher movies) a woman named Julie (Tisa Farrow, from Zombie and The Initiation of Sarah) finds herself forced to ask a favor of the usual group of attractive young people with really bad hair. Julie happened to overhear them talking about the boat tour of the Aegean on which they are about to embark, and she’d like to know if they would mind giving her a lift to a particular island. She’s supposed to be visiting some old friends of hers there, but she’s also been running late today, and has thus managed to miss the last boat. The vacationers talk it over for a bit, and none of them can think of any reason not to oblige Julie.
So lets meet the Meat, shall we? Alan, or Andy in some versions (Saviero Vallone, from The Dark Side of Love), is a medical student enjoying his last free summer before he dives headlong into residency hell. His sister, Carol (Zora Kerova, of Make Them Die Slowly and Warriors of the Wasteland), is the obligatory superstitious nutjob, meaning that we should look to her for forecasts of everything bad that’s about to happen to the rest of the cast. Danny (Mark Bodin, from an especially shameless Italian pseudo-sequel to Alien, called Alien 2: On Earth/Strangers) might be Carol’s boyfriend, but then again, he might also be the boyfriend of every female in this movie. Arnie (Bob Larsen) is one of those characters whose existence in the story is entirely predicated upon their relationship to somebody else in the cast, in this case, his very pregnant wife, Maggie (Serena Grandi, from The Adventures of Hercules). There’s also a man named Stephis, who owns and operates the boat they’ve hired for the tour, but he is the most expendable of Expendable Meat, and doesn’t even get his name in the credits.
On the way to the island where Julie’s friends live, Carol makes the first of her creepy pronouncements. She tries to give Maggie a tarot reading, but the cards come up as meaningless gobbledegook. As she later explains to Julie (who is understandably curious about the evasiveness of her answers to Maggie’s questions regarding what the cards predict for her), when the cards give an unintelligible answer to questions about the future, that means the person doing the asking has no future. A short while later, as the boat nears the island, Carol sees something so disturbing in the cards that she actually tosses them overboard!
Carol’s misgivings are corroborated by what the group finds upon landing. As they learn when they go to walk Julie to her destination, leaving Maggie and Stephis behind to watch the boat, the small settlement on the island is completely deserted, and most of the shops and houses are in such a condition as to suggest that whoever was using them last left in a big hurry. The only sign of human life in the whole village is a strange blonde woman (Rubina Rey) whom the travelers keep glimpsing through windows or disappearing around corners. And worse yet, when the vacationers return to their boat, they find Maggie and Stephis missing, and the boat adrift hundreds of yards out from the wharf. For lack of a better idea, the remaining five decide to head over to Julie’s friends’ place. It proves to be just as deserted as the rest of the town. Neither the middle-aged couple who own the house, nor their blind, fifteen-year-old daughter (whom Julie used to babysit when she was a teenager herself) are anywhere to be found.
Or at least they aren’t at first. That night, a fit of restlessness leads Julie and Danny to go wandering about the house while the others sleep. When Danny brushes up against the piano in the basement, a young girl (Margaret Donnelly) in a blood-soaked dress springs out from beneath it, and lunges at him with a carving knife! But strangely, after slashing him once across the shoulderblade, the girl doesn’t press her attack, but rather just stands where she is, swinging her knife. This is enough to set off a spark of recognition in Julie; this is Rita (or Henriette), her friends’ daughter. The sound of Julie’s voice convinces Rita that she is safe from whatever she thought she was swinging her knife at, and the girl collapses in her old babysitter’s arms.
Rita’s half-delirious rambling’s aren’t exactly the ideal source for answers, but she’s at least lucid enough to communicate that her island was gradually depopulated over the course of the summer, and that now only “he” remains. “He,” presumably, is also responsible for that depopulation, because Rita says she can always detect his presence by his distinctive smell— “He smells of blood,” the girl says. This is about when Carol loses it. Screaming that Julie is to blame for everything that has befallen them thus far, she runs off into the stormy night. Alan, Julie, and Arnie go chasing after her, further compounding the separation of the cast. That’s never a good thing to do in a horror movie, and The Grim Reaper is no exception. After a little while, Danny and Rita start hearing strange sounds coming from somewhere inside the house. Danny’s initial sweep of the place turns up nothing, so he returns to Rita’s room to lock the door before conducting a more thorough investigation. And when he does this, he either doesn’t notice, or completely misreads the girl’s phobic paralysis. Otherwise, he might have remembered what she said about being able to smell “him” coming, and taken a look behind the bedroom door before locking her in. Rita’s screams clue Danny in to his mistake, and though his subsequent rescue attempt does achieve its primary purpose of saving the girl’s life, it also has the unfortunate side effect of getting Danny killed, as “he” tears the boy’s throat out with his teeth. One murder at a time is apparently enough for “him,” however, and “he” is long gone when Alan, Julie, and Arnie return to the house with a contrite and bedraggled Carol.
The next morning, Julie remembers where she might have seen the mystery woman from the village before, and she leads her companions on a little excursion to what she believes is her house, an immense, ancient villa in the island’s interior. The woman turns out to be the island’s resident crazy, the last surviving member of the Weltmann (or Karamanlis) family. Her brother, Klaus (or Nikos), is said to have disappeared at sea with his wife and child many years ago, and she has never been the same since. And because she is the only person other than Rita who has managed to survive the depredations of “him,” Julie understandably believes she may know a thing or two about what the hell is going on. If so, she isn’t talking; she hangs herself in the villa’s main stairwell the moment she spots the crew walking across her lawn. Thwarted, Julie and company split up again. The men go back out, Alan to see if he can retrieve the boat and Arnie to look for the missing Maggie, while Carol, Julie, and Rita stay behind to see if they can’t find a clue or two in the villa.
I think you already know more or less what happens next. While Alan is busy with the boat, Arnie does indeed find his wife, but because he also finds “him,” it doesn’t do him a whole lot of good in the end. Alan, too, has a run-in with “him,” and comes out even worse from the experience than Arnie (though not anywhere near as bad as Maggie...). Meanwhile, Carol and Julie find enough evidence to prove that “he” is the long-missing Klaus Weltmann (George Eastman, from Porno Holocaust and Baba Yaga), but considering that part of that evidence takes the form of Weltmann’s hidden bedroom, the discovery ends up having just as deleterious an effect on them as Arnie’s success in finding the cave where Klaus had hidden Maggie. A good deal of gut-munching ensues before the last survivors can be certain of that survival.
That gut-munching is one of the things that sets The Grim Reaper apart from the run of the slasher mill. Joe D’Amato had dabbled in both the zombie and cannibal subgenres before tackling this project, so gut-munching was not exactly virgin territory for him. The other thing elevating this movie above the usual standard is the wholly unexpected presence of a couple of really effective scare scenes. The scene in which Danny locks Rita in her bedroom with Weltmann has some real kick to it. When the light is good and low, George Eastman’s makeup is seriously alarming, and it combines with the actor’s great bulk and extremely expressive eyes to make Klaus Weltmann one of the more genuinely threatening cinematic serial killers. On the other hand, it must be said that several of The Grim Reaper’s key scenes simply do not work. Maggie’s ultimate fate, for example, must have sounded great typed out as stage direction, but D’Amato shot the scene as though he were so disheartened by the failure of his makeup crew to render the effect convincingly that he didn’t feel like trying to compensate. The movie’s climax is also falls rather flat, mainly because it takes place in broad daylight, and Eastman’s makeup, creepy as it is in the dark, looks incredibly silly with bright sunlight shining directly on it. The daytime shooting also plays havoc with the movie’s final gross-out shot. But even so, The Grim Reaper is a hell of a lot better— and vastly more imaginative— than the bulk of American slasher movies, while the fact that its story mostly makes sense gives it the edge over many of its European peers. When you get right down to it, it’s a damn impressive showing, coming from a guy who mostly made porno movies.