Tracking down the scariest crap movie in the world

Traumatised by a horror B-movie as a child, one K! writer goes on a mission to track down the unknown gore-fest for a sense of closure and to find out if it’s actually that scary after all…

Tracking down the scariest crap movie in the world
Mike Rampton
Daniella Batsheva

The Exorcist is sometimes said to be the scariest film ever made. Others said to warrant that title include Hereditary, Don’t Look Now, Insidious and Host. But, for me, they all pale in comparison to a crappy movie I saw in a motel when I was 10. It was 1993, the first day of a family holiday to America, and I put the TV on while my family got ready to go out (10-year-olds don’t need to get ready for anything) and watched the last 20 minutes or so of the most distressing goddamned film I have ever seen.

The few scenes I remember feel indelibly etched into my brain. Some sort of mad scientist is paying an unhinged lunatic character to cut people’s faces off and put them in jars. At one point the unhinged lunatic makes a big speech to the scientist about how he won’t do it anymore, he’s sick of being sent out to cut people’s faces off and so on, and at the end of the speech the audience realises he is in fact addressing a jar containing the scientist’s face, freshly cut off. As he says the scientist’s name, Dr. Kropotkin or something, it shows a sticker on the jar: KROPOTKIN. This guy just can’t stop cutting faces off! I was terrified. It was lunchtime. I was a child. Faces in jars. Horrendous.

Then, towards the end of the movie, the hero is rushing around trying to save his partner, who has been abducted by the unhinged lunatic. A psychic has told him she’s holding a rose. He runs into a courtyard and sees a rose growing out of the ground. He picks it, and a hand comes with it – the hand of his partner, buried beneath it, her face presumably carved off. It was horrible. And that was all I saw. I guess I went and ate a hotdog or something.

“It’s the most distressing goddamned film I have ever seen”

I managed to banish it from my mind for the holiday, but over the years it kept coming back to me and bringing an overwhelming sense of dread. The bleakness of that ending, the total lack of hope, the feeling that there was no point in the hero even trying. It really lingered. The last few years have had their fair share of bleakness – dunno if you’ve seen the news at all – and the film has come back into my head a few times. I found myself wondering whether tracking it down and watching it as a grown-up might kind of exorcise it.

But I didn’t know what it was called, or who was in it, and had definitely not got the name of the mad scientist right. It was hard to know where to even begin finding it. Luckily, I have dorky friends, and even more luckily, they in turn have spectacularly dorky ones. Those few plot points, insanely, were enough for a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend to get me a title: Murderous Vision (1991).

Looking through the IMDb entry, it’s definitely the film, sporting the tagline “The Mind of a Killer, Through the Eyes of a Psychic.” It stars Bruce Boxleitner (best known for starring in Tron), Laura Johnson and Glenn Plummer, perhaps best known as the guy in Speed whose sports car is destroyed by Keanu Reeves. Dean Norris, now known as Hank from Breaking Bad, has a small role.

But it’s not the kind of movie that shows up on Netflix – it was never even issued on DVD. You can buy the VHS sleeve – no tape, just the sleeve – on eBay, and there’s one actual VHS tape available in Australia, but the hell with that. I’d also have to find a working VCR somewhere, and that seems like a lot of work.

However, the nice thing with this kind of stuff – largely-forgotten cheapo movies with basically no cultural footprint – is that the copyright owners aren’t likely to be particularly fussed about it. There’s not a lot of money to be made from bootlegging Murderous Vision 31 years after its television debut, even from hardcore Bruce Boxleitner fans.

All of which is to say, someone’s stuck it on YouTube.

So, thanks to the efforts of some kind soul with a VCR connected to their computer, I watch it. Will it be as hideously distressing as I remember? Will I feel crushed afterwards, all hope gone?

It’s… quite an experience. There’s plenty of extremely dated cheesiness – Bruce Boxleitner’s mullet literally shakes as his captain throws a dictionary at him, telling him to look his job up. There’s a Garth Marenghi-esque moment where a cop reaches for a phone just before it rings. Characters say things like, “You have to understand, I have nothing to lose,” and, “Let’s get this cop-killing maniac.” It’s oddly free of swearing despite involving incredibly grisly deaths – a severed face here, a son-of-a-gun there. Several one-scene characters deliver lengthy, rambling monologues, as though the filmmakers were worried the finished product wouldn’t be long enough.

Bruce, playing a cop trying to find a missing woman, keeps insisting that the case is a race against time and proceeding to walk and talk incredibly, infuriatingly slowly. He’s a completely terrible policeman. Glenn Plummer, as his partner, is written in a way where his level of commitment changes dramatically from scene to scene, risking his life and job and then making completely rubbish gags about how stupid it all is. It’s not a great movie. There’s a shot of a discarded wrecking ball that for some reason really made me laugh.

But I’m still drawn in. A scene in which the unhinged lunatic slices a teddy bear’s face off is oddly upsetting. A bit where he takes out his face-cutting tools and lays them out on a bloody rag is properly horrible. Even when delivering unwieldy lines like, “As I told you in our conversation three years ago, you can trust me,” actor Joe D’Angerio is intense as hell and really creepy.

“It’s super gross, but it’s also very silly”

But the scene that scared the shit out of me, which I was dreading, turns out to be really silly. Thank Christ. Most of the faces in jars look pleasantly crappy – at least a few look like they’re printouts that have been hurriedly stuffed in there moments before filming. It turns out I’d misremembered more than just the names. The unhinged lunatic is acting alone, having (unhinged-ly) murdered the doctor three years previously and hallucinated orders from him ever since. The missing woman isn’t the cop’s partner. The names on the jars are written in felt-tip on masking tape, while I could have sworn before that they’d been done with a label-maker. All these years I’d been haunted by a mangled, made-up version of the scene. It’s still pretty horrible and incredibly eerie, but at the same time, as he smashes a jar against a wall and the face inside it gets caught on a shelf and dangles there, it’s pretty funny. Joe D’Angerio does as good a job as anyone could, yelling at a rubber face and pretending to hear it answering back, but it’s all pleasantly daft.

The bit with the rose is still pretty bleak, but it isn’t the end of the movie. Rather than a hideously downbeat ending designed to make you question the point of anything, it leads into a climax I never saw due to being busy eating a hotdog. The climax involves the unhinged lunatic wearing one of his victim’s faces as a mask – looking a bit like Tortilla Man from Slipknot – and getting shot point-blank by Bruce Boxleitner about eight times. It’s super gross, but it’s also very silly.

And in the end, the goodies win. They don’t save everyone, but they defeat the baddie and live to fight another day. There’s hope among the desolation. Maybe, just maybe, there is a point to something, and the world isn’t unremittingly bleak. I don’t feel like an enormous wave of despair lifting from me or anything, but maybe, on this incredibly cold winter’s morning, watching a few faces get sliced off by an unhinged murderous lunatic has made the sun shine a little bit brighter.

Now read these

The best of Kerrang! delivered straight to your inbox three times a week. What are you waiting for?