We’re all still reeling over the untimely death of beloved actor-director and all-around cool guy Bill Paxton, whose impact on genre cinema will never be forgotten.
His decades-spanning career began with early behind-the-scenes work on Roger Corman films like GALAXY OF TERROR and BIG BAD MAMA, and his first notable project as director was the bizarre 1980 short “Fish Heads,” based on the popular novelty song by Barnes & Barnes. His association with several ascending ’80s filmmakers led to legendary scene-stealing roles in films like ALIENS and NEAR DARK, and his first feature film as director, FRAILTY, garnered him critical and fan praise for his work on both sides of the camera.
But not quite as many genre fans remember Bill Paxton’s earliest forays into acting — which, as this article’s title indicates, include a couple of bizarre low-budget slasher flicks from 1983, both of which I had recently the chance to see on the big screen earlier this week courtesy of a packed double-feature at New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. I’d seen these films ages ago on VHS… but this was my first widescreen 35mm experience with both.
Topping that double-bill is one of Paxton’s first high-profile feature roles: Howard Avedis’s 1983 film MORTUARY, a low-budget slasher quickie in which Paxton plays a kooky college nerd named Paul Andrews.
While he’s not crushing on the film’s protagonist, Christie Parson (Mary Beth McDonough of THE WALTONS), or expanding his Mozart collection, Paul spends his nights working in the title establishment under the tyrannical thumb of his overbearing father Hank (Christopher George, in one of his final films).
Apparently Hank also has a side gig as an amateur occultist… and may somehow be involved in the alleged murder of Dr. Parson, Christie’s father and husband of Eve Parson (Lynda Day George, who co-starred with then-husband Christopher in PIECES the previous year), though the death was ruled an accident by the not-too-bright local police.
For those of you unfamiliar with MORTUARY, I should warn you now that I’m going to spoil a major plot point, so if you don’t want to discover this “twist” (such as it is), don’t scroll any further than the movie’s poster art below, until you’ve had a chance to watch the film…
If you’re still reading, I’m going to assume you’re prepared for maximum spoilage now. But to be honest, even if you’ve only managed to get through about the first 15 minutes of MORTUARY, you’ve undoubtedly sorted out the “shocking” reveal already.
Yes, one of Bill Paxton’s first major screen roles was that of an extremely flamboyant slasher villain — whose quirks go from hilarious to downright sleazy as Paul’s seemingly innocent crush on Christie escalates to acts of highly-sexualized violence.
Paul’s weapon of choice is a decidedly phallic embalming trocar — with which he brutally eliminates just about everyone he perceives as an enemy (a list of targets which includes nearly every major character). But when he begins to close in on Christie — the ultimate target of his twisted fantasies — Paul’s actions turn even more perverse and barbaric (in the film’s most violent scene, he stabs one female victim over a dozen times, while grunting and moaning in orgasmic ecstasy).
Among the film’s many flaws, foremost is a ridiculously inept attempt to “disguise” Paul’s identity; instead of giving the killer a mask, or hiding his face in shadow, the filmmakers opted to slather him in Alice Cooper-style makeup… so even in low light, Paxton’s distinctive features shine out like a beacon from beneath a loose-fitting black cape.
In my view, it might have added at least a tiny morsel of doubt if the producers had scraped together a couple more dollars for a cheap drugstore Halloween mask… but as it stands, McDonough’s look of shock as she suddenly “unmasks” the killer is at least good for a chuckle — in fact, it evoked a collective roar of laughter from the New Beverly audience.
With that said, I still enjoyed MORTUARY quite a bit — thanks mainly to Paxton’s complete commitment to his morbidly dorky character, whom he plays to the hilt in virtually every scene. He finally pulls out all the stops for the full-on crazy operatic finale, wherein Paul stages a macabre “wedding” for himself and the heavily-sedated object of his obsession, with his many embalmed, propped-up victims in attendance.
Apart from that final-act treat, the movie is padded with a lot of dull exposition, punctuated by repeat hysterics from McDonough — whose character is tormented by sleepwalking and nightmares in which she relives her father’s murder, followed by the same shrill insistence by Eve — who may or may not be gaslighting her own daughter — that it’s just her imagination.
Despite its many flaws, MORTUARY is worth at least a single watch for any slasher fanatic… but more importantly, it’s essential viewing for Bill Paxton fans looking for the first budding of on-screen talent which he would soon develop into a spectacular and memorable career.
I won’t devote too much space on this column on the night’s second feature, William Asher’s 1982 NIGHT WARNING… but for a specific reason. Not only is NIGHT WARNING a far more entertaining film than MORTUARY — it’s so unbelievably, awesomely bonkers that I’ll be dedicating an entire article to it in the near future (trust me, it’ll be worth the wait).
But since I’m focusing primarily on Bill Paxton’s slasher roots today, NIGHT WARNING is less relevant to the discussion — as Bill doesn’t receive nearly as much screen time in this one.
Billed here as “William Paxton,” Bill has a small supporting role as “Eddie” — a cocky, mean-spirited bully on the same high school basketball team as the film’s ineffective hero, star player Billy Lynch (Jimmy MacNichol), and mainly serves as one of many abusive obstacles in his path. But apart from some crass homophobic insults, a lot of bug-eyed mugging and a brutal schoolyard fight sequence, he’s only onscreen for about ten minutes in all.
Curiously, Eddie is an early example of how often Paxton worked out his darker side in antagonistic and just plain villainous roles during his first few years in front of the camera — continuing with his deeply chilling performance as a racist cadet in THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE the following year, followed by a memorable cameo as the punk who unwittingly adds the phrase “Fuck you, asshole” to the title villain’s vocabulary in THE TERMINATOR, followed by a hilariously over-the-top performance as dickhead brother Chet in 1985’s WEIRD SCIENCE.
Even at such an early stage of his career, it’s a testament to Paxton’s acting skills that he can take a clumsily-written villain role in a low-budget slasher like MORTUARY and truly make it his own, throwing himself into the part with wild abandon to such an extent that the film is almost always fun when he’s onscreen… and rather bland when he’s not.
Chalk it up to one more reason we’ll miss you, Bill.