For as long as we’ve known each other, my friend Josh and I have endlessly talked about movies. Please enjoy these continued discussions of our random viewings:
Microwave Massacre (1983) – dir. Wayne Berwick
BEN: I’m going to be honest with you, Microwave Massacre is not a great movie. I know, I know. Shocker. But it does have a certain je ne sais quoi that’ll definitely appeal to a certain audience. I think by the time you finished reading the title you probably figured out if you’re that type of crowd. This corny Troma-like horror comedy feels like Married…With Children, if directed by John Waters. It’s cheap and silly and it doesn’t really have much of a plot. During certain sections I definitely felt my attention drifting, but then something truly bizarre would happen and I would go back to being riveted.
Microwave Massacre is about Donald (played by Jackie Vernon, best known as the voice of Frosty the Snowman in the Rankin/Bass Productions), an average Joe construction worker who can’t stand his wife’s cooking. She keeps making gourmet (?) meals for him in her brand new industrial strength microwave oven while his simple tastes would rather just have a bologna sandwich instead. At one point he makes a joke that their dog eats better than him, only to come to the realization that he should bring canned dog food to work in his lunch instead of his wife’s cooking. He’s so sick of eating her food that he ends up killing her in a drunken rage, only to forget he did so the next morning. Like any normal person that just discovered that he killed his wife while going through a bender, he decides the next best course of action is to chop her body up and put her in the freezer. Hungry, and looking for a snack, he accidentally starts eating her hand, only to discover that it’s the best-tasting thing he’s eaten in years. Wanting more, he discovers that he’s a pretty great cook of human flesh, and after sharing some of his wife with his coworkers the demand for his barbeque gets to be so great that he starts to find other women to kill. And then…that’s about it.
The script is really what kills the vibe of this movie. It’s super thin, less a three-act structure that crescendos in carefully constructed escalating tension and more a collection of loose scenes strung together that they probably shot as money/actors became available. Donald is never really in any danger of being caught for murdering people, and characters you’d naturally assume would be perfect victims never even become part of the main plot. His next-door neighbors are constantly having kinky sex and threesomes in their front window in clear view of Donald and the neighbor wife at one point is gardening with her vibrator (for some reason?) so you’d think they were being set up for some big kill later in the movie, but nope, they never become Donald’s victims. All of Donald’s victims happen to be random beautiful girls he picks up wandering around town (aka, they’re mostly, probably all, prostitutes) who just happen to be lustfully drawn to Donald, despite the fact that he self-admittedly hasn’t had sex with his wife in nearly two decades. Eating people somehow makes him irresistible to the opposite sex.
Microwave Massacre self-advertised itself as “the worst horror movie of all time”, so that should give you some idea of the level of quality we’re working with here. The production level I put somewhere between Blood Feast (1963) and Pink Flamingo’s era John Waters. Everything’s shot with lots of light, effectively washing out any potential horror elements from seeming all that scary. The film is a constant stream of corny one-liners straight out of a Catskill’s show. At some points the terrible acting helps the jokes land with their delightful absurdity, while at other times you feel like you’re suffering through a collection of someone’s worst dad jokes. The formula is pretty simple and summed up quite literally by the first three shots of the film: the microwave, a cooked head, and boobs. This movie loves boobs. The film’s opening credits play over a close-up on a woman’s buxom bouncing breasts. Later she lifts her shirt and sticks her breasts through a hole in the fence separating her from construction workers, who lear and try and grab them like cartoon characters out of an old Playboy magazine. No, none of this has anything to do with the plot.
While the plot is definitely threadbare, it’s the little details in the movie that make it fairly entertaining. I especially loved the bartender at the titty-bar Donald frequents who hates talking to the customers, and also, apparently, his job. Why does he do it, if he hates it so much? Apparently, he needs to stand all day so his hemorrhoids don’t flare up. What a reason to get a job! Also loved the scene where the white construction worker had to teach the black construction worker how to be cool and how to dance. It’s a dumb joke but played so straight that it’s actually kinda amusing. Apparently, the film was originally written darker, but when they got comedian Jackie Vernon to play Donald they decided to lighten it up and add a bunch of jokes to punch it up. It works, mostly. I just wish they spent more time tightening up the plot at the same time.
I told you earlier that I was really curious to see how you reacted to watching Microwave Massacre. So Josh, how was it?
JOSH: Microwave Massacre is a movie I found impossible to like, but also hard to fully hate. It’s a bad movie – a sleazy, trashy exploitation comedy that exists for no reason other than to exist, a gleefully demented vessel for a bunch of depraved sexual fantasies and half-assed satirical points about the battle of the sexes. It’s like 75% of the way to being a porno, but they forgot to include the hardcore scenes (not a complaint, there are enough scenes of crumpled human-shaped paper bag Jackie Vernon simulating sexual intercourse to turn one off from sex forever). And it was a little uncomfortable, in the weeks after the Kavanaugh hearing, watching a movie from 1983, about a man finding his place in a world by fucking, killing, cooking, and eating women at will, without consequence. I’m not one for assigning blame for bad acts to any kind of creative work – I don’t believe video games lead to mass shootings, for example – and I’m certainly not going to freight this dumb little movie with Kavanaugh’s alleged evils. But I couldn’t help but watch the movie thinking about the meatheads who would’ve watched it in the early 80s, and wonder how it might have reinforced the noxious notions already floating around in their heads, in between beer bashes, bar fights, and incidental sexual assaults.
But again, that’s overburdening this movie. The dominant feeling I had while watching it was boredom. The repetition, the banality of the writing, the lack of variation in acting style, shot selection, tone, anything, gives it a kind of grinding sameness that makes almost any individual moment feel irrelevant. There’s no tension, no drama, no conflict. At one point Donald experiences chest pains, and I thought for a second that might give the movie its much-needed boost. I really like stories about criminals who suffer some kind of debilitating setback mid-crime. It’s a central element of one of my favorite Stephen King stories, Apt Pupil, in which a fugitive Nazi turned serial killer suffers a heart attack in the middle of an attempted murder. And there is a follow up to that here, but… like, it’s just so half-assed. It’s really half-assed. So that was disappointing. This whole movie is so laid back you could almost call it Zen, except that requires discipline and focus and this is… not that. This is the opposite of that.
What minimal charm the film has – and it does have some minor smutty charm – is largely derived from the lead performance, and the degree to which the movie allows that performance to define the film. Jackie Vernon is most famous, as you mentioned, for voicing Frosty the Snowman, but he made his living as a stand up comic, a popular opening act for Judy Garland and Dean Martin, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show and Martin’s celebrity roasts. I watched a couple of his stand up bits on YouTube – they’re pretty funny – and he employs the same performance style there as he does in Microwave Massacre. Deadpan, self-deprecating, detached, bemused. But when I say it’s the same style, I mean that quite literally – Vernon does absolutely nothing to adapt himself to film. He delivers every line like a piece of his stand up routine, whether he’s alone cutting up a body, or in a scene with another actor. He waits for laughs that never come – that couldn’t possibly come. At times he feels completely removed from the movie he’s in, like he showed up to set, the director told him where to stand, and then asked him to rattle off a couple lines from his most recent set. At other times he acts like he’s reading the lines off a cue card for the first time.
All of which is to say, Vernon is a bad actor. But he does have an undeniable presence, strange though it may be. The deadpan seeps deep into the movie, so while a lot of it is very same old same old and gets kinda boring, there are times when Vernon gives a scene such an odd bent that it catches your attention. He gives Donald the feel of a man so totally divorced from reality that everything he does registers as basically the same thing – fear, joy, excitement, anger –and that in turn gives a weird innocence to Donald. Like he’s brain damaged and can’t process the consequences of what he’s doing.
Microwave Massacre does at times also muster a certain joie de vivre with some goofy comic moments. In addition to most of the smaller bits you mentioned, I also liked the half-assed runner with Donald’s dead wife’s head maybe still being conscious or something. Like, the head appears to move on its own at one point, and then there’s a stinger at the end that suggests that it might have had something to do with Donald’s fate. I wish there had been more of that, because the idea of a loser turned serial killer who is tormented by the head of his murdered wife – that’s a movie I might have had more fun with.
But as it is… yeah. I said it’s a boring movie, and it is, but that’s only really true if you can turn off your brain from the flotilla of really grotesque images and ideas this movie parades before your eyes. I know you’re not supposed to take this movie seriously – it’s just 76 minutes of sleazy, more or less intentionally crappy, fun. But that’s always my problem with these so bad they’re good, so shitty they’re fun movies. I usually can’t get past the shitty or bad part to get to the good or fun parts. Like sure, it’s supposed to be funny when Donald goes to a shrink, who tells him not to worry about his new sexual cannibalism kink because hey, anything goes nowadays. But… it’s fucking gross, man, and I don’t feel like I need to give it a pass just because of the scale of its ambitions or resources or accomplishments or whatever. So let’s say it half works about a third of the time, which would give this movie a grade of… 16.5% out of 100? That sounds about right.
Anyway, back to you. Is there even anything else to say about this movie??
BEN: While I wish there was more to talk about… there really isn’t. As I mentioned back at the beginning of the review, you’re going to know pretty quickly just by looking at the poster whether this movie is for you or not, and for the vast majority of the population it’s going to be an “or not”. It’s a pretty terrible movie that’s really only going to appeal to lovers of no-budget homemade movies and garbage-level horror trash. If you’re like me and that type of garbage actually appeals to you, there’s enough that’s unique and quirky in Microwave Massacre to have a good time. But I wouldn’t go so far as to put it into the “so bad it’s good” category because its badness never quite hits that tipping point that would make it a great film to make fun of with your friends. It’s just video store trash, pure and simple. If you’ve already seen every Troma movie, check this out. But if you’re the kind of person that’s never sat through a terrible horror movie in your life I’d probably skip this one, because this isn’t the film that going to suddenly make you a fan of this very specific genre. While I had a pretty good time watching Microwave Massacre, there’s probably a hundred plus movies I could name off the top of my head that would be a better way to spend your free time than this heap of shit.
Next time we’re going from cheap trash horror to Italian arthouse horror with Dario Argento’s Inferno (1980). See you then.