The Minstrel Killer ★★★

**My contribution to the The Ninth Annual White Elephant Film Blogathon**

Over the last decade Michael Fredianelli has been pinching pennies, stealing locations, and assembling a motley cast and crew who share both his intense passion for making movies and disinterest in making much money from them. Since 2008 the 33 year old has directed 16 features (point of comparison: Joe Swanberg “only” made 13 features in that time) with plots ranging from voodoo zombie cops battling the yakuza in Xenobites to an aquaphobic samurai’s quest to recover his murdered father’s sword in The Dry Blade. Fredianelli’s two films which seem to have left at least a few footprints on the cult cultural landscape are the ones practically begging for controversy: 2011’s abortion themed western The Scarlet Worm and - my White Elephant assignment - 2009’s The Minstrel Killer, just released on DVD in March and rechristened The Blackface Killer. Perhaps “Minstrel” sounded too arty?

The Minstrel Killer opens with a young woman in a 70’s era bikini laying out a blanket in some a Texas wheat field. A title card informs us this is 1978, but since this was made in 2009 the colors are washed out, and computerized dirt and scratches litter the frame; all to provide the same minimal amount of vintage authenticity the instantly tired technique did for other post-Grindhouse pseudosploitation movies. Fredianelli’s saving grace is that, unlike Black Dynamite or the Machete movies which condescendingly mock a straw man idea of 70’s genre film, he is coming from a genuine place of having something to say with limited means to say it, and is relying on the hope that an audience seeking cheap thrills will stumble upon his film.

Which brings us back to the bikini clad teen, the Killer’s first victim, who is hung from her feet and bullwhipped by the man in blackface. Following her murder is an interesting animated title sequence, and a dreadful first act that may alienate viewers hoping for something more than sophomoric jabs at cliched hillbillies. Wrapped in plastic, the bikini girl’s corpse is used as a target for two rock throwing inbred Texans who seem as authentically Southern as Prince Charles. Soon the cops show up and, as usual, one is a local veteran - Sheriff McGraw - and the other is an educated outsider - Tex, played by Fredianelli himself.

Tex is a cross between Wild At Heart’s Sailor Ripley, without the charisma, and Twin Peaks’ Dale Cooper, without the competence. Fredianelli’s portrayal of Tex is one of the first hints that there is more to The Minstrel Killer than a provocative title. Unlike so many movies, the local cops are better detectives than the outsider. Once Tex is exposed as an inept cuckolded racist, the movie stops feeling like a chore and becomes of actual interest.

Bodies pile up and each murder is shot with brutality, but the violence is never fetishized - whether this restraint is by design or due to budget limitations is never clear. After the bullwhipping, another victim is tarred and feathered, others gutted and hung from a tree, and one branded. The killings are committed by the eponymous Minstrel, or Blackface, killer. The film overly explains that the killings are reminiscent of slave era torture techniques, but keeps the Minstrel man’s origins obfuscated.

Is he just a guy enacting revenge on a family, and masking his identity and motive by dressing up in blackface? Dialog from two racist characters in different scenes suggest that being black affords on ninja qualities of stealth, so maybe he’s a guy using the town’s overt racism to throw suspicion off him and onto an unidentified black man. But why the minstrel clothes?

Is the Minstrel centuries of racist rage personified in form of light entertainments’ most hideous caricature? In one scene a white man plays Dixie on a banjo as the Minstrel walks past he begins dancing a jig as a disembodied audience laughs and applauds. But why wait until 1978?

Whatever his origins, Fredianelli uses the blackface killer to expose the many heads on the hydra of Southern racism. Tex’s wife has cheated on him with a black man. He is unable to forgive her, and internalizes the disgust he feels allowing it to feed his hidden racism. By the end of the film he is shouting “nigger” and kills a man to “hurt a black man like one hurt me.” Earlier Tex’s partner, Sheriff McGraw, warns him that he can’t sleep with his wife again now that she’s “tainted,” but also brings in a black cop he trusts to work the case. One couple are even more overtly racist. They mention that the last black man in their area was seen in 1942, and was shot on sight. They then describe the Minstrel as a “coon,” “pickaninny,” “nigger,” “boogy-boo” and an “ungodly scoundrel.” A descendent of a plantation owner describes her great-great-grandfather’s treatment of slaves as particularly vicious, that he tortured them instead of “merely” hanging them - which her tone suggests would have been totally acceptable.

The legacy of racism pervades each character but doesn’t define them. Not to suggest The Minstrel Killer is an Isben level exploration of the human soul, but the characters do come off as more than their racism. To Fredianelli, racism is more of a societal problem than an individual one. A disease infecting each white character in varying degrees. Or, more cynically, racism could just be a tool to provide edge for a cheap exploitation film. Without the complications of bigotry, would Killer be of any interest? Kind of. Fredianelli uses an impressively varied distribution of shots, including some terrific long-shots that allow his limited locations to seem more expansive. This distracts from the cheap mise-en-scène (a family of cannibals keep severed dolls heads on their table - you know, as cannibals do) and provides a sense of depth to make up for the flat lighting. The action scenes are also innovative, particularly a foot-chase across an open field with characters in close range firing shotguns at each other while trying to run.

Nothing about The Minstrel Killer sounded initially appealing, and I was groaning my way through the first twenty minutes; but the passion and inventiveness surprised, intrigued and won me over. The aesthetics of exploitation fit the film’s message and methods. I am curious to see what Fredianelli would do with a bigger budget and better actors, he has a genuine love of the medium and some talent too, but I’m also afraid everything that made this film better than it should would get lost in the upgrade. Instead maybe I’ll check out his movie about the amnesiac vampire with insomnia, or the one about Christian pizza boy framed for murder. The guy may not have money, but at least he’s got ideas.

[It was somewhat appropriate for me to get tasked with The Minstrel Killer, as I submitted Brotherhood of Death, a blaxploitation classic starring Washington Redskins players.]