The first time I came across Luther the Geek, I was around 15 years old. In an attempt to further my budding knowledge of genre cinema, I had just purchased Fangoria’s 101 Best Horror Movies You’ve Never Seen and I was doing my damndest to work through all the titles that I hadn’t prior heard of — for a 15-year-old, that meant that the bloodier it looked, the better. Luther immediately snagged my attention. The image of Edward Terry as Luther, a steel-teethed vagrant, deeply unsettled me. It looked violent, depraved, and just up my alley. While Luther’s initial release was undermined by the inefficient workings of their distributor, Quest International, years later the film film would find a second life when Troma picked up the slack and re-distributed it; this is probably how many reading this review were first introduced to this oddball, quasi-Slasher title. Now, about a decade or so later, Luther is making its way back into the minds of horror fans, thanks to a brand new Blu-ray restoration by the folks over at Vinegar Syndrome.
Luther the Geek opens in 1938 ‘rural Illinois,’ as a voice-over explains to audiences the history of one of the carnival’s most depraved of characters: the geek. While the name geek may conjure up images of pocket protectors, Casio calculator watches, and taped-up glasses, the terminology actually refers to a certain down on their luck individual that would do almost anything to fund their next drink…and that ‘anything’ often meant biting the heads off chickens and snakes for a buck. Shortly following this description, audiences get their first glimpse of the action, as a manic crowd gather around a disheveled, caged man and taunt him and call for his famed actions. It is not long before the ‘geek’ gives in, grabs a chicken, and proceeds to bite its head off — a ghastly act that equally disturbs and arouses audiences. Amongst the members of the crowd, is a young boy who, struggling to see the events, is pushed over and has his teeth knocked out as the result. When the boy rises and catches the attention of the caged geek, he becomes transfixed. He calmly walks over, sticks his hand in the fresh blood, and has a taste; a monster is born in a young boy named Luther.The opening of the film is interesting in that it offers a sort of origin story that audiences could expect from slashers of the era (and proceeding decade). The events seem to have an adverse effect on the young Luther, by first associating his own pain with that of the violence, as well as giving him his first taste of blood. It’s a clever way of explaining to audiences the concept of the geek and then expanding that horrific role into even more menacing territories. From here, the film cuts to modern day and police documents fill the screen in order to inform us of the ways that Luther’s life has turned violent. The film’s most ingenious contribution was writer-director Carl Albright’s choice to give Luther a set of nasty, steel chompers, getting the best of the prop early on by having Luther sharpening the horrifying looking teeth with a steel file — nails on a chalkboard don’t have anything on that sound. Yet, despite Luther’s violent past and abnormal dispositions, we learn that he’s been a model prisoner. With his parole hearing set into motion, the board rules 3-to-2 that Luther is ready to re-admitted into society. Once Luther is free, however, it is not long before he finds himself lusting for blood once again.
In one sense, Luther the Geek’s plot is rather aimless. Albright’s script is sparse, mostly figured around snapshots of Luther’s eccentric interactions in public. The film’s nearly halfway over before audiences are given any sort of character substance to feel connected to, and once it does, there isn’t enough time to really becomes aligned in any sort of meaningful manner. While these comments would certainly be criticisms for most horror films, Albright makes the film work. Luther is a character study of the darker variety. We spend most of our time with Luther, watching his strange mechanisms and seeing what makes him tick. Yet, by the end, it is hard to say that we know him any better. It’s a maddening interaction and one that really elevates the film beyond that of typical slasher fare. Here is a killer that is a monster but is also human.Luther isn’t a man in a mask, he is complicated and Albright shows an interest in fixating on these complications. Albright also contrasts this to the film’s more conventional plotting, where the events do play out in relatively standard slasher formula, with a dose of home invasion in the back half. The juxtaposition creates a sort of uneven familiarity, one that keep audiences in a schizophrenic alignment with the material.Despite Troma’s interest — and this can be said of many of their acquisitions —, the film is anything but cheap and cheesy and some may come to expect from the brand. It may not be the most well-crafted film but Albright turns in a sincere directorial effort. The camera is very dynamic, from the sweeping steadicam shots to more simple dolly shots on otherwise static compositions. Albright took a chance on a young camera operator named David Knox and offered him the role as cinematographer. The decision paid off, as Knox’s cinematography enlivens the film and gives it a greater sense of urgency, which, in turn, creates tension and suspense. Along those lines, the special effect work by William Purcell and Mike Tristano is quite good. Neither super gory nor anemic and pitiful, the work is bloody and realistic enough to really turn audience’s stomachs without feeling overt or silly.
There is something truly unsettling about Luther the Geek, and a lot of this should be credited to Edward Terry’s manic performance. Terry delivers a very dedicated turn as Luther, one that allows the otherwise ridiculous character to transcend the material. Terry’s clucks and spasms shortly before and after his violent outrages are absurd but they are also deeply unnerving. The rest of the cast all offer adequate performances, nothing to write home about but far and above what one may expect from a low budget horror flick.Vinegar Syndrome have once again proved their worth with this release. The film is stunningly presented in HD, and the faithful presentation only further highlights Albright’s talents as a resourceful and creative director, as well as Knox’s attractive cinematography. Some of the darker scenes are ambushed by a dense film grain but this is to be expected from the budgetary restraints. Everything is presented as it would look on celluloid and the result is a natural filmic presentation. There are absolutely no obvious flaws on the disc and stands as one of the companies best collaborative efforts with Troma’s back catalog.
In addition to the presentation, VinSyn have given us a wealth of ported-over features from Troma’s earlier DVD, as well as a brand new commentary track with Albright (moderated by VinSyn’s Joe Rubin), a brief interview with Albright, and an interview with actor/artist Jerry Clarke (who plays the Trooper in the fim). Finally, there is a very amusing, brief introduction to the film by Albright where he comically chastises Quest International as ‘crooks’ who nearly killed his film from the start.
Despite the prior efforts by Troma, Luther has remained a somewhat more obscure horror title but hopefully this release will work towards changing that. While the pacing of the film does leave a bit to be desired, it’s a short, depraved, and, most importantly, a fun film. All in all, Luther the Geek is a surprisingly well crafted b-movie and it’s a film that stands the test of the time; effective and unsettling even in the face of the sea of torture porn and gore-fests audiences are subjected to with modern horror.