“Life is about choices. Some we regret, some we’re proud of. Some will haunt us forever. The message: we are what we chose to be.”
Somebody named Graham Brown said that. I share it here – at the start of Day 3 of 31 Days of Halloween – because I did something I’m not entirely proud of: I watched Microwave Massacre. I’ll grant you, on the scale of life’s most regrettable choices, watching a sleazy horror movie barely registers. It’s somewhere way below eating at Arby’s and going on a date with a guy named Chad. (That’s right, Chad, I’m on to you.) Still, I have to live with what I did for rarely have I, in all my years, seen a movie as vile and tasteless as Microwave Massacre.
Here’s the thing: parts of it are actually funny. Intentionally so!
What’s It About?
A sad sack construction worker (Jackie Vernon) trades Catskills-honed one-liners with his wife like they’re on old Vaudeville team. She wants him to eat healthier. He wants her to die because at least then he might get a good meal. He, uh, pretty quickly gets his way, and with the assistance of the big, new microwave his wife loved so much he gives the whole “being a cannibal” thing a go. Turns out, he has a real – wait for it – taste for it.
Look, a middle-aged guy kills his wife, chops her up, cooks her in the microwave, and then adds hookers to the menu, thus ensuring the film has a steady supply of shameless T&A. It’s all quite terrible, not just morally but in the “you can see the crewmembers in certain shots” no-budget filmmaking way, but it has some good one-liners.
Why I Watched It
The most recent issue of Rue Morgue magazine includes a list of 30 slashers from the 1980s to check out if you’ve already seen the Jason, Michael, Freddy, Chucky, Pinhead, and Leatherface movies more times than you can count. As I recently explained elsewhere, I do feel kind of “over” the Friday the 13ths of the world but that doesn’t mean I want to leave the slasher behind. Plus, I love a good horror-comedy, and Rue Morgue’s description of Microwave Massacre made it sound either entirely hilarious in a campy John Waters kind of way or entirely awful:
Absolutely everything you need to know about Microwave Massacre is delivered in its opening shot, in which the film’s title is slapped across a pair of bouncing breasts. This broad, horny-minded slasher send-up stars Rankin/Bass’s own Frosty the Snowman – Jackie Vernon – as a construction worker who develops a taste for electromagnetically irradiated female flesh after microwaving his nag of a wife. Essentially 76-minutes of one-liners, the performances are what you’d find just a few exits past John Water’s Baltimore, making Microwave Massacre a deadpan, ruefully humorous cannibal comedy reminiscent of Paul Bartel’s Eating Raoul (1982), minus any art house pretense.Rue Morgue: 22nd Anniversary Halloween Issue
Rue Morgue is exactly right. Microwave Massacre announces its simple-minded intentions loud and clear with its opening close-up on Marla Simon’s ample bosom as she struts down a sidewalk like it’s her personal runway. It’s enough to make you think you’ve clicked on a Russ Meyer flick or maybe something with a couple more X’s in its rating by mistake, or else it would be if this wasn’t the film’s actual title card:
Simon, whose character is never actually named on-screen, breaks from her breasts-jiggling strut to stand next to a wall overlooking a construction site for, um, reasons. Wouldn’t you know it, her breasts are so large they get stuck in a knothole in the wall and her attempts to break free causes her top to fall off. The construction workers on the other side of the wall race to get a closer look, which is how we meet Donald (Vernon).
He’s so down in the dumps that not even this Penthouse Forum of an event – a woman with two bowling balls posing as breasts is flashing them, albeit not intentionally – can get a rise out of him, both literally and metaphorically. He hasn’t had sex since the Kennedy administration, a fact which haunts him every time he comes home and sees his young, voluptous next-door neighbor welcoming yet another gentleman caller. His sole pleasure in life – an old-fashioned, greasy American meal – has been cut off by his newly health-conscious wife.
It sucks to be him, basically. Not even his local bartender wants to hear his tale of woe. “See that license up there? That’s a liquor license, not a shrink license,” belts the surly barkeep.
Donald reacts to it all like it’s all one giant set-up for a punchline, always delivered with an inspired deadpan delivery. When his wife accuses of him coming home drunk, he corrects her, “I didn’t come home drunk. I’ve been drunk all day.” Later in that same argument, he drops his pants and urinates on the fireplace in a drunken display of defiance, prompting his wife to say, “There is something bothering you, isn’t there?” Looking back mid-pee, he dryl observes, “You know, May, you have a definite grasp of the obvious.”
It all has the timing and cadence of a much older comedy style, which is why it’s not surprising to learn the director, Wayne Berwick, practically grew up on the Universal film studio lots since his father was also a director. Moreover, Jackie Vernon was a stand-up from way back, first kicking around the country and working strip clubs before breaking through on Steve Allen’s Celebrity Talent Scouts in 1963. Regular talk show appearances alongside Ed Sullivan, Dean Martin, and Johnny Carson soon followed.
Filmed in 1978 and released in 1983, Microwave Massacre was Berwick’s directorial debut as well as Vernon’s first and only starring film role. Berwick didn’t make another movie until the early 2000s. Vernon only made one more acting appearance, on the TV anthology series Faerie Tale Theatre, before succumbing to a heart attack in 1987. Microwave Massacre might just be their lasting legacy, a rather dubious one at that since Anthem Pictures went with the following tagline when trying sell its 2006 DVD release of the movie:
As a result, Microwave Massacre went straight to the must-watch list for those cinephiles who subscribe to the so-bad-it’s-good movement, meaning it’s something to be watched ironically. It fails at being a horror movie. It fails at being a black comedy. Heck, it fails at being pornography. Every time Simon – who returns for a second scene and then disappears entirely – is on screen you do get the sense that a hardcore sex scene is about to break out at any moment, but it obviously never does.
But, truthfully, if you are someone who goes in for Vegas lounge lizard-style comedy or likes early John Landis (Schlock, Kentucky Fried Movie) Microwave Massacre holds a fair deal of unironic charm. There is a definite sense that much of its humor – I haven’t even mentioned its treatment of the gay construction worker – wasn’t really even ok back then and definitely isn’t now. However, its Mad Magazine/National Lampoon approach to sex and violence is too utterly cartoonish to truly offend, and Vernon leans on his decades of experience in the stand-up circuit to play the bits for the biggest laughs.
For me, however, the “you could never get away this shit today” throwback appeal wore thinner the longer the movie went on. Kim Newman, in his encyclopedia-like tome Nightmare Movies: Horror On Screen Since the 1960s, placed Microwave Massacre in the mini-trend of post-Texas Chain Saw Massacre cannibal comedies, joining the likes of Welcome to Arrow Beach (1973), The Folks at Red Wolf Inn (1972), and Deranged (1972). “The grisly good humor of awful puns about lady’s fingers gets a bit much, but most of these films manage a few belly laughs,” he argued. I have to agree. The same joke is thoroughly run into the ground by the end, but along the way, you might just laugh a couple of times depending on your tolerance for grindhouse T&A.
Did It Scare Me?
Not in the slightest.
Where to Stream
Random Parting Thoughts
- Double feature suggestion: Motel Hell, in which another Hollywood lifer, Rory Calhoun, slums it in a cannibal comedy about a deranged motel owner turning his guests into food to be sold in the gift store.
- Microwave Massacre is a better title than it is a movie, but at least this title makes more sense than Chopping Mall, a Jim Wynorsky no-budget mid-80s affair about killer robots that do not, in fact, chop anything.
31 Days of Halloween So Far:
Next Up: A feminist western-horror pitting a homesteader against something known as “the prairie demon.”