After the massive success of Airplane! (1980), the horror world decided to try spoofing the hand that feeds; in short order we were dealt Saturday the 14th, Student Bodies, National Lampoon’s Class Reunion, and Pandemonium (all from ’81 to ’82). Mileage may vary of course; comedy is completely subjective—you either laugh or you don’t. Needless to say, there are moments from each of these films that I find entertaining; from smiles to chuckles and sometimes even a laugh or two. But there is another film that no one seems to talk up much, and that’s Greydon Clark’s Wacko (1982). As uneven as the rest, it nevertheless boasts an impressive cast and an energy that wins you over; and now that Vinegar Syndrome has released it on a solid Blu-ray, you can enjoy every groan, titter, eye roll, and yes, laugh, in the privacy of your own home.
The story of Wacko is quite simple, keeping in line with the slashers of the day: the Lawnmower Killer terrorizes a town, wearing a pumpkin on his head and dispatching his victims with, you guessed it, a lawnmower. Flash forward 13 years, and Mary (Julia Duffy – Newhart) still has nightmares about the killer, as she witnessed her sister mowed all those years ago. But the big Halloween Prom dance is coming up, which is unfortunate as someone who was sent to the mental hospital 13 years ago has escaped. Could it be the Lawnmower Killer, and is he coming for Mary?
So it’s Halloween in structure, but kitchen sink in content; everything from Alfred Hitchcock to The Exorcist to The Omen is made fun of in often painfully obvious ways—the school is called Alfred Hitchcock High, there’s a pea soup reference, etcetera—which is the whole point of these parodies. Having said that, Airplane! had the jokes to back up their references, a feat which this entire crop of films found hard to do. But Wacko comes closest in spirit to the gag-a-second milestone, if not in content.
It tries hard, though, really hard; most of the cast is certainly game, with only Stella Stevens (The Manitou) as Mary’s mom going too broad (relatively speaking to the other cast members, none of whom are subtle, although Andrew Dice Clay’s Travolta impression is pretty spot on). All of these films are playing the ratio game; throw as many gags on the screen and hope enough land so audiences will forgive those that don’t. And honestly a good percentage of the jokes in Wacko don’t make it; either too sophomoric or obvious (or in the case of a running gag with George Kennedy’s peeping doctor, too icky), they offer evidence that comedy is the hardest genre to pull off successfully. However, Wacko sticks to its plot as well, and Joe Don Baker (Mitchell)’s detective out to solve the longstanding case pulls the viewer along past every groaner and eye-roll-inducing pun right up to the ridiculous ending. Somehow, the damn thing stays on its rickety tracks.
But the secret to Wacko working at all is Clark's (Without Warning) commitment to keeping the energy up, moving the film along so no joke, good or bad, lingers for too long. He’s clearly having a blast with the script by no less than four scribes (Dana Olsen, Michael Spound, Jim Kouf, David Greenwalt—check out their IMDb’s to see how far they’ve come), who give him plenty of hit-or-miss material to shape into coherence. Whether he does to the extent that you end up liking the film is completely in your hands.
Vinegar Syndrome, as usual, does what they can to enhance the collector’s experience; in addition to the great 4K scan, there are a few features for those wishing to dig deeper:
The commentary track by Clark is solid, if a little dry; if this is any indication, he makes Perry Como seem like Pee-wee Herman. Lots of good info on the production, though. The interview with Nicholas von Sternberg (Tourist Trap) is a short but entertaining look at the rushed shoot. You also get outtakes without sound and the original trailer.
Wacko will probably never sit in great regard with horror or comedy fans; both are hard to do well, and seeing the form elevated by the likes of Edgar Wright certainly doesn’t help matters, but Wacko is good-natured silliness that deserves another look, even while your eyes climb into the back of your head.
Movie Score: 3/5, Disc Score: 3.5/5