When does a slasher slip over into the surreal? Usually when you start with a boy emerging fully dressed from a lake, who catches a bus to a church, where a priest laments on the nature of sin while cross cutting to a group of six 20-somethings from all walks of (okay, North American) life? This is the first 15 minutes of The Redeemer (1978) folks, and you will get your bearings as the group of six gather for a high school reunion where they’re given a bloody TED talk on sin and redemption from a multiple-masked killer in the spirit of Terror Train (1980) - if that spirit had been around two years previous. Not only is it a touch prescient, it’s surprisingly creepy as hell through not only the killer’s various guises, but an insidiously Christian treatise on what it deems modern society’s “ills”. But, you know, in a fun way!
Distributed by Dimension Pictures (no, not that one; these are the people behind Kingdom of the Spiders and ‘Gator Bait) stateside in April, The Redeemer (AKA The Redeemer: Son of Satan!, and for home video, Class Reunion Massacre) was one of those flicks shown on the Dusk Til Dawn bill at the local drive-in, third on the roster with only insomniacs, the very amorous, or the very plastered still around to witness. But there’s always room for the really weird on the projected screen, even if it follows up Bruce Lee Rises from the Grave (everything pretty much did at the drive-in back then), and The Redeemer more than does the trick.
The main meat of the story is the aforementioned school reunion of six, and each of the players are introduced during the church sermon, all attributed a “sin” by the brimstone blast of the padre (T.G. Finkbinder): the successful gay actor, the unscrupulous lawyer, the lesbian, the well to do debutante, the jock, and the free spirited party girl all given a spin on the screen in their natural habitats before linking up outside the old stomping grounds. They all head inside to discover banners and catered food; what they didn’t plan on was being barricaded inside once they were there. Unable to ascertain a) why they’re the only six students present, and b) why they can’t get out, our cast each must meet The Redeemer for the punishment he sees fit to inflict upon them…
Essentially a morality tale then, The Redeemer wisely focuses not on the sin, but the sinners; and while the killer gives a speech before each dispatch, the performers are so likeable as to deflect any sanctimoniousness the filmmakers may be trying to convey through the characters. I’m not even sure audiences at the time would have bought into such an agenda; for all I know, director Constantine S. Gochis and screenwriter William Vernick were just looking to knock off a group of people in a creative fashion. However, having two characters punished for being homosexual sure sounds like judgement to me, intentional or otherwise.
Pushing that aside, The Redeemer deserves to be mentioned alongside other ‘70s oddities such as Tourist Trap and Phantasm (both ’79) as films that float free and away from logic at times to arrive at their own special space in the genre; the supernatural or unexplained certainly figures in all three, as do lapses in continuity that discombobulates the viewer. Our killer even possesses psychic ability to control a marionette, not unlike good old boy Mr. Slausen and his dilapidated museum of dusty mannequins, again staying ahead of that quirky curve. (The Redeemer was originally filmed in '76 but sat unreleased until ’78.) It definitely did stay in the times by implying with the Son of Satan! sub-tag that the killer was somehow demonic in the guise of the lake kid who transfers his evildoing to the priest and back again at the end of the film. But any kind of Damien vibes are quickly scrubbed as our priest does all of the heavy lifting, going from disguise to disguise deploying his biblical justice in creative, sometimes fantastical ways.
This is where The Redeemer earns its spot (and then some) on that triple bill, offering up not so much unique deaths, but ones that are eerily staged and performed to set them apart; a flamethrower, an overgrown Elmer Fudd, The Grim Reaper (scythe included), a grinning clown, and a Greek tragedy (Sword of Damocles included), all doled out by the outsized and remarkably creepy performance of Finkbinder. Everyone is surprisingly good, and part of the aura around the film that has followed comes from the unfamiliarity with the cast and crew; only Jeannetta Arnette has continued to thrive in show business, starring on TV’s Head of the Class, and appearing in several notable films including Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Pineapple Express (2008). For both Gochis and Vernick, this was a wild one and done, and kind of a shame too; certainly Gochis lays out an ethereal style that is always welcome.
It’s easy to entice a new viewer with what a lesser known film has inspired; it’s harder to impress that viewer with built up expectations that can be hard to meet. But much like the boy who rose from the lake, The Redeemer did as well, creating welcome and weird ripples that lapped upon the shores of horror. I didn’t even mention that the kid and the priest both have two left thumbs. That’s a ripple all of its own.
The Redeemer is available on Blu-ray from Code Red.