Writer/director/producer Drew Hale’s feature debut Cut and Chop opens with Tom (played by Hale) sitting on the sofa reading Robert Lewis’ Method – or Madness? (1958), his girlfriend Esmerelda (Kari Alison Hodge) lying asleep beside him with her legs stretched over his lap. The title of this book, collecting Lewis’ famous series of lectures on the Stanislavski system of acting, might also be regarded as programmatic for the film. For Tom is preparing himself for a possible rôle in a no-budget horror film, and as he gets up and shaves off his prominent moustache, his transformation has already begun – although viewers will remain unsure whether this is just him gearing up for the part, or actually – like the murderous butcher that he will play – losing his mind.
“Tom’s strange,” comments Burt (Shane Woodson), the boyfriend of Esmerelda’s best friend Gladys (Varda Appleton), and himself boasting a large moustache like Tom’s former self. “Aside form the drool, I kinda like him. He’s creative, you know. I think he may be an excellent actor.” Tom is strange – intense and awkward, he likes to steal “odd invaluable objects from random places”, has a biting fetish that he is starting to take too far with Esmerelda and – yes – drools (and worse) after smoking pot. Yet he is devoted to his acting, constantly muttering his lines to himself and habitually observing a butcher (Sevan Aliksanian) at the local grocery store.
“What do you want tonight?”, Esmerelda asks Tom at the butcher’s counter. “You know what I want, baby,” he replies, suggestively. “Pork chops again?” she suggests. Here we see different kinds of carnality in clash, as the language of sex and meat get confused. Later, scenes of the butcher at work preparing his goods will be intercut with scenes of Tom and Esmerelda in a fleshy embrace at home – and their sex will climax with Tom drawing blood as he bites Esmerelda a little too hard. If Tom often watches the butcher at work, the only other man he regularly sees behind a counter is a liquor store owner played by none other Ron Jeremy, a one-time porn star notorious for the amount of meat that he packs. This confusion of eroticism and eating will gather pace even as Tom takes to standing over the sleeping Esmerelda with a kitchen knife in his hand – and when Esmerelda goes missing, we are not sure whether her unhinged boyfriend has chopped her up for the pot, or is merely rehearsing his latest role in his mind while she is back home attending to an urgent family matter.
The second half of Cut and Chop plays out like the film – also called Cut and Chop – for which Tom has just been offered the lead rôle (and with which Burt too has an intimate connection). Both Hale’s film and the film-within-a-film are ultra-low-budget genre films in which a deranged man goes on a rampage of slaughter. The question remains, though, where script and performance end and reality begins. In a key scene some way into the running time, Tom attends an audition for Cut and Chop in which he strangles, slices with a knife, and takes a bloody bite from casting director Lisa (Anya Bay) before a stunned but also pleased director (Art Roberts) and producer (Tony Olayinka) – and yet when Tom returns later that day, there Lisa is again, alive and entirely intact, and it turns out that Tom had in fact nailed the part in an audition conducted the previous week, and had merely fantasised, in character, his more recent murder of Lisa.
This disorienting, hallucinatory sequence shows that in the film’s presentation there is little clear boundary between Tom’s inner life and the external world. It is a lesson which decodes, but also further ambiguates, all the subsequent scenes in which Tom executes – or at least appears to execute – similar atrocities. For there too, it remains uncertain whether Tom really has been struck by madness, or we are merely seeing the imaginative workings of his method as an actor. Either way, we get to have our preferred prime cut and eat it too, in a work that is playfully metacinematic right from its title, and that cannibalises the familiar tropes of horror as it allows its protagonist to find, as the director puts it, the “antagonist in Cut and Chop.” If, like the film at its centre, Cut and Chop is a little rough around the edges, then it evokes the cheapo gorefests of Herschell Gordon Lewis in other ways too with its reflexive focus on performance and showmanship. And like its hero, this carnivorous LA psychodrama is deliciously strange.
© Anton Bitel