“Mister you don’t know how close you came to getting it!”
Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned. I’ll be shining a light in two directions — I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to.
This week’s pick is a slasher? Kind of? Characters are killed off by a madman with a hatchet, and as would become a common staple for the sub-genre in the following years, the killer’s motivation is one of revenge. Think Prom Night, Terror Train, I Know What You Did Last Summer, but with an older, less attractive roster of victims, and you’ll have a good idea what to expect with 1973’s The Severed Arm. Well, kind of?
Everyone likes getting packages in the mail, but when Jeff receives an arm-long box hand-delivered by the postman he’s shocked by what he finds inside. That’s right, it’s a severed human arm, and he knows exactly who sent it too. A few years prior Jeff and five other men were trapped in a mine after a cave-in. Days and weeks went by without rescue, and as their water supply came to an end the majority ruled that someone had to sacrifice his arm to feed the group. Ted drew the short straw, and despite his protestations the other men held him down and sawed off his arm.
They were rescued a few minutes later.
Ted was understandably pissed, and while he reported what happened the others claimed his arm had to be amputated due to injury. The five men went on with their lives while Ted went in and out of hospitals, but now years later it appears he’s gone missing and is no longer in a forgiving mood. The random human arm in the mail was just a warning, but after the men gather to discuss Ted’s return one of them is attacked and left one arm short. Can the other four find and stop their one-armed assailant before he strikes again? (Nope.)
Tom Alderman‘s The Severed Arm — his second and last feature as director — is an odd little slasher that moves from inspired setup to somewhat simple execution to a bonkers third act, all under ninety minutes. It’s a fun watch, and in addition to a pretty stellar finale it sees a couple beats serve as precursors to two far better-known slashers.
We’re told in no uncertain terms that an angry and disturbed Ted is the killer working his way through the other survivors, but if that’s the case why do we only see the attacker’s feet and hatchet-wielding arm? Suspicious! Enough information is offered early on to leave sharp-eared viewers confident and at least partially correct in their theories, but the eventual reveal is only half the fun. The film takes some interesting and fun turns whether or not you have the killer pegged before the reveal. A plan to lure Ted by making him think one of them is boning his daughter? A Disney joke involving “Beauty and Obese?” A lively score by a composer whose only other films are Messiah of Evil and Kiss of the Tarantula?
The acting and direction don’t do the film any favors, and they’re most likely to blame for its lack of wider praise., but that doesn’t stop it from being something of an inspiration for later slashers. It beats When a Stranger Calls by six years to the “call coming from inside the house” bit — granted, here it’s “the call is coming from inside the radio station,” but still, credit where credit’s due. We even get creepily-voiced phone calls a year before Bob Clark’s Black Christmas… which also featured a killer calling from inside the house. Fans of Stephen King and Clive Barker might even note a minor inspiration for two of their respective short stories (which I won’t identify to avoid possible spoilers).
The Severed Arm may not seem like much at first glance, but it takes hold early on and moves quickly towards a terrifically entertaining final twenty minutes. The mystery reveals itself, the pieces fall into place, and we’re left with a fistful of fun.
Follow along every Monday with Missed Connections — my appreciations of movies that failed to find an audience for one reason or another.
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