One of the amazing things about 1970s exploitation (cf: The Calendar Girls, Devil Times Five, The Toolbox Murders, etc) is that no-name writer-directors like Thomas S. Alderman – who would count as a one-miss wonder if the IMDb didn’t also credit him with something called Coed Dorm, featuring the owner of the severed arm (Ray Dannis) as ‘Dr Maurice De Sade’ and softcore legend Uschi Digart (the Austrian wife in Supervixens) as ‘Miss Melons’ – could sign up second-tier showbiz names to appear in the sleaziest, shoddiest, most downright peculiar horrors. Though this 1973 grindhouse movie toplines fallen-from-favour beach AIP party starlet Deborah Walley, and has roles for you-know-the-face types like Wally Berns and John Crawford (guest stars in dozens of 1970s TV shows), the weirdest participant is short, balding, squeaky Marvin Kaplan. You probably don’t know Kaplan’s a face, but his voice is unmistakable – among other cartoon characters, he was ‘Choo-Choo’, the whiny sidekick on Top Cat. So, to baby boom kids, it’s mind-blowng that Choo-Choo appears here as ‘Madman Herman’, a would-be hipster disc jockey who raises an ethical objection to surviving a disaster through cannibalism (‘we’ll have to hold off till tomorrow, I can’t eat meat on Fridays’) but still gets axed to death on the air by a vengeance-seeking killer. It’s as hard to imagine a career trajectory from Top Cat to dismemberment as it is to see how Walley (Photoplay’s Most Popular Actress of 1961) came to this from Ski Party or It’s a Bikini World (her next star vehicle would be the 1974 family hit Benji).
The grabber of an under-the-credits sequence has a shadowy figure steal a grey severed arm from the morgue, and send it gift-wrapped to TV writer Jeff (associate producer David G. Cannon), who is reminded by the unwanted gift of a trauma (perhaps inspired by The Buoys’ novelty hit record ‘Timothy’) that takes up the next twenty minutes of the film. In flashback, a bunch of middle-aged but macho types – a cop, a building contractor, a doctor, etc – go on a pot-holing holiday, and are trapped underground for weeks by a cave-in. They grow scabby beards and mutter about having nothing to eat. Jeff remembers a story he wrote about shipwrecked sailors and suggests they draw lots, with the loser donating an arm to be eaten. Ted (Dannis) protests when he gets the short slip of paper, but the others hold him down so the doctor (Crawford) can cut off his arm with a candle-heated knife. No sooner is the deed done than hammering noises reveal a rescue party is about to arrive, and the two-armed survivors agree to claim that the amputation was a surgical necessity as the now-demented Ted is handed over to his loving daughter (Walley).
In the present day, the cloaked, apparently one-armed morgue-robber stalks the survivors, mutilating or murdering them in muffed suspense scenes. The old ‘we’ve traced the calls and they’re coming from inside the building’ urban legend makes it screen debut in the staffed-by-one-man radio station sequence, there’s a feint with a building site buzzsaw before the hardhat guy gets hacked in the lift, and the cop is tossed off a cliff with a rope tied to one wrist so his arm is wrenched off. It’s assumed by everyone that Ted is the culprit, but the staging of scenes to conceal the killer’s identity is a tipoff that there’ll be a ‘surprise’ finish – which everyone will see coming a mile away. It is cheaply and poorly-made, some available versions are heavily trimmed to remove most of the gory money shots, the music is a hypnotic burbling drone (which, admittedly, I always like), performances are shrill and it’s never remotely suspenseful – yet, there’s something unnerving here, maybe the business of affluent 70s-look guys doing the whole trembling I Know What You Did Last Summer shared guilt trip or the obsessive Headless Eyes-esque insistence on a particular type of mutilation.
Alderman’s script is based on a story by Larry Alexander, associate producer on Scream Bloody Murder (in which a hand-severing in a tractor accident is the root trauma) and, like the unsympathetic protagonist of The Severed Arm, a writer with schlock TV credits ranging from Cannon through Man From Atlantis and Mrs Columbo to The Super Mario Bros Super Show.
The film is out on a great-looking BluRay from Vinegar Syndrome.