We all have fantasies, yes? Some are sexual in nature, some posit us as the hero, and some are us looking for comfort and safety in whatever form to protect us from a terrifying world. Enter The Carpenter (1988), a weird slasher that offers wish fulfillment to those who want to be rid of pesky disturbances, like cheating husbands or lazy construction workers.
Premiering at the Montreal World Film Festival in late August before heading direct to video, The Carpenter was written off as yet another (albeit late) entry in the hack ‘em up subgenre. So it was, as per custom, pretty much ignored to gather dust on discerning video shelves everywhere. However, it does hold a peculiar charm due its dreamlike structure and a typically winning performance from Wings Hauser (Vice Squad).
Martin (Pierre Lenoir – The Day After Tomorrow) comes home from work to find his wife Alice (Lynne Adams – Johnny Mnemonic) cutting up one of his suits and lovingly putting it back together on their bed. Deciding that Alice needs a change of scenery, Martin has her installed in the nearest mental facility for some rest. After a couple of weeks of R&R, he surprises her with a new home – well, not new exactly; it’s an older home being restored by a group of sleazy workers and their apologetic boss.
One night Alice hears banging coming from the basement; to her surprise she finds our titular villain, measuring twice and cutting once in an effort to complete the work as soon as possible. Speaking of measuring twice, he does no such thing before using a table saw to extricate the arms from a worker who makes a play for Alice. It becomes clear to Alice that Wings is on hand to not only complete the house (which he has a special connection with), but to eliminate anyone who gets in the way of his growing affections towards her. Will the house be completed with only one carpenter left standing?
The Carpenter is straight up odd, and really stood no chance of connecting with audiences at the time; while Hauser’s character is well defined with appropriate laborer quips for a persona two steps removed from Freddy, everything around him fights for space to breathe.
By turns a surreal slasher, a fantasy, a revenge flick, and a home renovation nightmare, The Carpenter spends a lot of its time dealing with Alice and her blood splattered journey through a very particular looking glass. (Blood splattered is a touch o’ hyperbole – the film is surprisingly fairly dry.) Since we start with Alice’s breakdown recovery, we’re left to wonder from the outset if the carpenter is a figment of a shattered mind, and that Alice herself is responsible for the killings.
That illusion is dropped though once other people interact with Alice and Wings in the same scene; while it may take away from the somewhat elegant premise, it does add a peculiar wrinkle to its mix: Alice starts to become attracted to the carpenter, and encourages his violence towards the other workers. Which brings to mind some questions – even though the carpenter is real, is Alice mentally unstable by associating with him? Does she because her husband is cheating, and this fantasy world is a retreat from the hostilities of her life?
It’s bizarre because it isn’t really a fantasy at all, yet presents as one; Wings is very much there causing violent damage by nail gun, saws, etc. while no one sees him except for Alice – at first. So the fantasy is out the window by the half way point, leaving the viewer with a guy in plaid plastering everyone to the wall or squeezing their heads in vises.
A pity, really; the short lived romanticism houses the majority of the weirdness, and gives the film a patina of Hallmark sincerity to accompany the carnage. Naturally, viscera win the day over romance. (As it should be.)
David Wellington (Orphan Black)’s direction and Doug Taylor (Splice)’s script makes sure to keep the focus on Alice and Wings as much as possible; after the fantasy dust has been cleared it comes down to a strong woman trying to rid herself of toxic elements in her life – even those from beyond the grave. Wellington isn’t particularly artful, but he keeps things moving as Taylor keeps piling body upon incredulous body (to eventual comedic effect). It turns out the film knows exactly what it is – tongue in cheek Harlequin Horror. (Bodice Ripping sold separately.)
None of this would work without the actors, who here manage to play it more or less straight (some of the hammy laborers deserve their nails to the head). Adams is very good at portraying mental passivity that grows into terror, and Hauser gives nothing less than his full on commitment; his carpenter is a little more relaxed than some of his other characters (hi, Ramrod), yet no less creepy or assaultive. Thank god he doesn’t know any better.
The Carpenter – two parts driller thriller, one part twisted romance, all parts constructed for maximum enjoyment. This is definitely an open house worth checking out.
The Carpenter is available on DVD from Scorpion Entertainment.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (1972)