Even among connoisseurs of “this sort of thing,” director Donald M. (not to be confused with Donald S. of The Forest and Schoolgirls In Chains fame) Jones’ low-rent straight-to-video slasher Muderlust has something of a checkered reputation for being nastier than the norm. Shot in California in 1985 for next to nothing, it was released straight to VHS in 1987 and quickly managed to raise a few eyebrows — among the few who were paying attention — for its downright gleeful misogyny, which reminded one youthful viewer (okay, me) of, say, what you’d end up with if Maniac didn’t take itself very seriously. But does that make this film less disturbing than others of its ilk — or more?
I gotta admit, having recently watched it for the first time since I was a teenager thanks to its recent addition to Amazon Prime’s streaming line-up (although Severin Films’ “cult” Intervision label has also recently released it on DVD paired with another Jones quickie, the almost-unfathomably bizarre Project Nightmare), I still don’t know the answer to that question. On the one hand, “star” Eli Rich is so clearly hamming it up as uber-woman-hating killer Steve Belmont that you can’t take much of anything on offer here too seriously, but on the other, if you have a conscience, then shit — shouldn’t this stuff bug you at least a little bit?
The character of Steve is clearly based on notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, a smooth-talking creep who pulled off a fairly successful pose as an upstanding member of society for many years until his nocturnal proclivities finally landed him in hot water. Steve’s not provided with anything by way of motivation of anything here — no troubled past, no fucked-up home life, nothing of the sort — so don’t bother looking for “reasons why” : he just hates women and kills ’em whenever he can. He’s not averse to fucking ’em, too, of course, but he doesn’t necessarily seem to need to in order to get his rocks off — it’s their dispatching and disposal that really turns his crank, and he’s gotten so prolific about it that his Mojave Desert dumping ground gets discovered by the authorities in fairly short order here. Not that he has any intention of stopping, mind you. He’s gotten a taste for it, and he seems to enjoy taunting both the cops and the community at large with his brazen what-by-all-rights-should-be recklessness.
The damn thing is, though, Steve’s such a fuck-up that he really oughtta get caught. He doesn’t seem to care about holding onto his shit security guard gig (and doesn’t for long once he starts threatening to kill a female customer right under the nose of his boss), he lives in a dump, he’s constantly borrowing money off his effete cousin, Neil (played by Dennis Gannon), he’s in heavy debt to his landlord (curiously referred to in producer/screenwriter James Lane’s script as his “realtor”), and he drinks like a fish. How this guy manages to get through the day without getting killed himself, much less being the one doing the killing, is downright dumbfounding. With extra emphasis on the “dumb.”
Still, they love him down at the church. Despite having no background in any relevant field, being a half-assed Sunday school teacher, and even being accused of molesting one of his students (a charge that Steve is, believe it or not, innocent of), he’s chosen by the church fathers to run their new so-called “Youth Crisis Center,” thanks in no small part to some very glowing recommendations from his quasi-love interest, Cheryl (Rochelle Taylor), and her mother, who are both completely fooled by his painfully transparent charm. Yessir, things are definitely looking up for ol’ Steve — until, in a rather delicious moment of irony, his extracurricular habits end up scuttling his plans to use the center as a means to find, sorry to use the term, fresh meat. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no direct connection made between Steve and the ever-growing pile of dead female bodies (yet), but the moneyed interests bankrolling the new outreach venture decide that it might be better to start helping young people out after they’re all done getting killed, and that’s when our “hero” well and truly loses his shit — okay, fair enough, that’s when he loses it even more.
It’s probably a heck of a reach to say that losing out on his dream job causes Steve to get sloppy, ‘cuz let’s face it, he’s been damn sloppy from the outset, but he certainly cans all that “nice guy” pretext and starts letting it all hang out, and once he does that, it’s only a matter of time. Again, if you can see the “humor” in watching a madman murder women just because, well, they’re women, then you’re gonna be in much better shape here as events careen toward their one and only inevitable conclusion, but even then you might be forgiven for feeling that Murderlust‘s admittedly fleeting “je ne sais quoi” has already fled. Rich naturally radiates a kind of dime-store lothario sleaze for the first 3/4 or so of this flick, but he’s markedly less convincing in “out of control psycho” mode, and there’s a very distinct sense in the film’s final act that everybody’s running out the clock as surely as the clock is running out for our protagonist. As a result, Jones’ little opus essentially flips the switch from “guilty pleasure” to “just plain guilty” without even bothering to pass “go” and collect its $200.
Which may not be too far off the mark from the actual budget of this production, come to think of it. Shot in just a few locations, with a clearly amateur cast, and displaying nothing like an actual sense of style, this is straight-up, no-frills, point-and-shoot stuff that has no other choice than to feel hopelessly dated at this point because, hey, a moldy relic is all it could ever afford to become. And yet the modern world had probably already left this one pretty far behind even as it was being made — I doubt, for instance, that you could still beat a child molestation rap by simply telling the girl’s father that his daughter is a filthy little liar, as Steve does here (albeit politely, of course) in 1985. Probably not even in 1958. So if this really is the “throwback to another time” that many view it as, trust me when I say it’s a throwback to a time that (hopefully, at any rate) never even existed.
And maybe that’s the one nearest thing to a “redeeming quality” that Murderlust has to offer. There’s certainly no blood or guts here to make the gorehounds happy. There’s very little nudity apart from the quick bit provided by the always-game-to-get-naked-for-a-paycheck Ashley St. Jon. And there’s no particular indication from Jones that he has any concerns as a filmmaker apart from getting this thing in the can on time and under its obviously ultra- low budget. As a result, then — and an entirely accidental result, at that — what we have here is a flick that is completely divorced from actual, demonstrable reality, yet just as completely devoid of both the resources and the talent it would take to sell you on a false one. It can’t be bothered to attempt to suspend your disbelief, and so takes the easy (and only available) road, settling instead for admitting it’s total bullshit from the start. That’s not what you’d call a recipe for cinematic success by any stretch, but it’s been more than enough to ensure that this film has remained a morbid curiosity for three decades now, and will probably continue to be seen as such for many more to come. After all, not only do they not make ’em like this anymore — truth be told, they never really did.