The Severed Arm (1973) **
A while ago, I picked up a $5.00 triple-feature DVD calling itself “Great Cannibal Classics.” Right off the bat, let us note that this must surely be the first time I Eat Your Skin, The Undertaker and His Pals, and The Severed Arm have ever been described as “classics” by anybody. But the more interesting point is that, of the three films on the disc, only the second contains any actual cannibalism! I Eat Your Skin may have large numbers of zombies in it, but despite the title, it was shot a good four years before the walking dead added gut-munching to their repertoire of behaviors. And as for The Severed Arm, the plot hinges upon what might be called a conspiracy to commit cannibalism, but the would-be Wendigos are interrupted before they have a chance to make good their intentions. As we shall see, however, it is precisely that failure to follow through that gives the scene in question whatever bite it may possess.
It all starts when somebody sneaks into a funeral parlor, saws an arm off of one of the cadavers in the embalming room, and sends it to Jeff Ashton (David G. Cannon) via certified mail. Now most people in Jeff’s situation would instantly get on the phone to the police, but not this guy. Instead, he calls an old buddy of his, Dr. Ray Sanders (John Crawford, from The Devil’s Messenger and The Boogens), and arranges to meet him at his office that afternoon. No sooner have the two men exchanged greetings than it becomes apparent that they share some sinister secret.
How’s this for a skeleton in the closet? Five years ago, Ashton and Sanders went with four of their friends— Mark Richards (Paul Carr, of Ben and The Bat People), Ted Rogers (Ray Dannis, from The Corpse Grinders and— fancy that— The Undertaker and His Pals), Bill Who Doesn’t Have a Last Name (Vince Martorano, of The Candy Snatchers), and Herman Who Won’t Even Have a First Name Until Considerably Later in the Movie (Marvin Kaplan, from Snakes)— on a two-week trip into the countryside. The centerpiece of this trip was to be a spelunking venture into an abandoned mine. All six were trapped underground when the entry shaft caved in (within moments of the last of them going below, I might add), and while there was at least enough of a draft through the rubble to rule out the possibility of suffocation, that still left them with plenty to worry about. Most obviously, no one back home would be expecting their return for two whole weeks. But more pressing was the matter of their provisions— they had brought no food and only one canteen of water apiece. As the days stretched into weeks with no sign of a rescue party from upstairs, Jeff made a desperate proposal to his friends. All six were facing death by starvation as the situation stood, but if one of them would part with an appendage, it would create enough food to buy everyone— including the donor, assuming he survived the amputation— another few days. The donor could be chosen by lot, and the process repeated as necessary until the hoped-for arrival of a rescue team. Ted and Herman were both appalled by the suggestion, but the others saw immediately that it was their only apparent hope for survival. The first cruel irony came when Ted— a member of the outvoted anti-cannibalism party— lost the draw for the first amputation. Ted flipped out when he saw the losing lot in his hand, forcing his companions to cold-cock him in order to follow through on the plan; naturally, that meant he wasn’t able to choose which limb to sacrifice himself, but the other men plausibly selected his left arm as the most expendable of the lot. That brings us to the second cruel irony. Scant minutes after the operation was complete, Jeff and the others heard the sounds of a rescue party digging into the rubble from the cave-in. Cannibalism— even just planned cannibalism, for that matter— being generally frowned upon in polite society, the five guys who still had all their appendages quickly slapped together the following cover story: Ted’s arm was crushed in the cave-in, and his companions cut it off in an attempt to save him. He’d been delirious ever since, though, ranting about how his friends planned to eat the severed member to prolong their own survival. None of the men who went on that ill-fated vacation have seen very much of each other since.
Of course, if somebody— Ted being the obvious suspect— is now gearing up for a revenge bender, then it behooves Jeff, Ray, Mark, Bill, and Herman to get over their understandable aversion to one another and work together to avert catastrophe. First off, all five reluctantly agree to Jeff’s suggestion that no authority figures of any kind will be called in for protection. After all, any cop worth his salt would be very curious about why a person might want to mail Jeff a sawed-off arm. But the plan to handle everything themselves doesn’t go very well, for somebody lets himself into Ray’s house immediately after the men’s very first meeting has broken up, and slices off the doctor’s left arm. Ray survives the attack, but it looks like he’s going to be in the hospital for a very long time. Mark, who works as a police detective, arranges to get himself assigned to Ray’s case, but that still means the situation is now on official radar, significantly increasing the risks for everybody. And naturally, confirmation that they really are being stalked by an arm-chopping lunatic doesn’t exactly do wonders for anyone’s sense of security, either.
Now Ted has two adult children, and just as it seems likely that Ted is the one chasing after his former friends with a hatchet, it seems logical enough that one or the other of his offspring would have some idea where to find him. Jeff and Mark go to see Ted’s daughter, Teddy (The Bubble’s Deborah Walley), at the home where she had supposedly been caring for her old man since his release from the hospital. Unsurprisingly, Teddy (who has always leaned toward her dad’s “delirious” version of events down in the mine) is not inclined to cooperate, and one gets the impression she kind of hopes it really is Ted— whom she claims not to have seen in some time— causing all of the ruckus. What eventually changes her tune is a brief conversation with Ray’s wife when Jeff convinces Teddy to come with him to the hospital and see the injured man for herself. Teddy’s assistance proves not to be worth a whole hell of a lot, however, and one arm after another winds up in the psycho’s collection until Jeff is left to fend completely for himself.
The last five minutes of The Severed Arm are little short of brilliant. The problem is the other 86. Until that sudden and meteoric upturn at the end, the movie is minimally competent, but no more than that. The plot trundles determinedly along in its well-established rut, the actors (except for the one playing the killer, who can’t seem to remember which arm he’s supposed to be missing) manage to avoid embarrassing themselves, and the technical aspects of the production are no worse than they are in any low-budget independent film from the early 70’s. What this means is that your chances of actually making it to the end to witness The Severed Arm’s partial redemption are fairly low, and your chances of remembering anything except the concluding scenes (and maybe a vague sense that cannibalism was involved somehow) are lower still. We’ve all seen much worse, but it’s pretty hard to work up any excitement over this mostly humdrum effort.