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The Bluebeard story is kind of like an OG slasher. If you're not familiar, it is an old ass folktale involving a wife-murdering rich guy with a blue-tinted beard (hence the title). The first version I ever read was in inside a collection of “Irish Ghost Stories” that I was gifted as a child (because I'm half Irish and mostly creepy). That particular anthology’s telling (as far as I remember) started with a mysterious man rolling up to a farm on a horse. The man is butt ugly, and he starts shoving money in the farmers face, talking about needing a wife to take back home. All of the farmer’s young daughters are pretty much like “fuck this”, and they refuse, but the man throws his weight around or offers to save the farm from debt (or some shit), which I guess is enough for the farmer to come around to the idea of pimping out his daughter. The enigmatic, rich, ugly dude and his “wife” ride back to his castle, and he gives her the master keys with a warning not to enter a certain mysterious door. There she lives out the lifestyles of the rich and awkward for a while, but sooner or later, curiosity gets the best of her, and she opens the door to discover a room full of chopped up ex-wives. He finds out that she knows about his dead wife storage and decides it's a good time for her to join the collection. There is a scuffle, somehow she gets the best of him, and I think she kills his crusty ass. I don't really remember the end. I do remember, at the time, I got hung up on the fresh knowledge that, at some point, people just went knocking on doors to ask strangers if they had an extra daughter lying around-- like someone asks for a cup of sugar ( I was very young yet to have a social studies class or see Conan the Barbarian).  The moral I took away from the whole thing was that no amount of money makes someone less creepy --and not to sell your kids, but I may have been missing the original point. To little RevTerry’s credit though, there is some debate on the true meaning of the story, as it has been told by numerous cultures and has survived for ages.  The versions can range drastically from things like elongated curiosity-killed-the-cat type yarns to fables predicting the dangers of fully trusting a spouse. There are recurring themes and the base of the tale stays the same, for the most part, but the takeaway can vary with each rehash. Of course, every person retold it according to their values, and with each modification the original message was lost. Like many other fables, it can serve as a pre-made recipe for several mediums, from the most famous and lasting version, Charles Perrault’s 1697 entry in Histoires ou contes du temps passé, to necrophilia themed, low budget movies like the one I’ll talk about today, Dead Mate (aka Grave Robbers 1988).
The film opens to a nightmare involving living disemployment and surprise generic rock music. We then meet Nora Mae Edwards (Elizabeth Mannino), the woman from the dream and a graveyard shift diner waitress with a dark past. Once she has fully awakened, she reports to her job where she is greeted by a fellow waitress and her first customer, a greasy, abrasive man (Mark McCally) with a thin mustache. The self-proclaimed condom salesman (I guess that would be a thing) starts off the interaction with some light harassment, followed by a sales pitch/pick up line, of which our beautiful protagonist Lora isn't having any of. She is, however, (very) quickly smitten with the next customer, a cryptic stranger that arrives in a limo and introduces himself as John Henry Cox (David Gregory). John engages Nora with a creepy smile, does some vague talking, and in less than five minutes, asks for Nora's hand in marriage. Without so much as a thought about where he is from or what he does for a living, Nora agrees to the strange proposal and throws off her apron. The two quickly leave the diner and the lonely condom salesmen behind, and head for John’s mansion/house-thing in the small town of Newberry.  Once they have arrived, and John has revealed he is, in fact, the local funeral director, Nora is greeted by a house filled with the town's most influential people. Everybody seems inexplicably overjoyed to greet her. There is a lot of talk about how perfect her dimensions are, and one of the old ladies in the bunch lets it slip that Nora isn't Mr. Cox first bride. Having met everyone from the town priest to the bank manager, she is then whisked off to a quick candle-lit wedding and streamlined honeymoon. Aside from the breakneck pace, things already start out a little spooky when during the consummation she is asked forcefully to “be still, be very still” (which sounds like the most boring kink ever, really). When she awakes the next morning, she finds that all the previous wife's clothes fit her perfectly and puts some on. During John’s tour of the house, she learns that he is very secretive about his dead body business, and she is informed his workroom is off limits. Despite things getting increasingly weird, Nora figures that anything beats food service, says” fuck it”, and decides to spend some time exploring her new home. While she's looking around the house, she finds a loose segment in the (extremely thin) wall (?!?) that allows her to peer directly into John's locked embalming room. Before she can get a good look, however, she is startled by the mumbling man-servant/chauffeur/lurch-clone, Morley (Kelvin Keraga).  Elsewhere, on a nearby road, a young woman is driving recklessly when she notices her brakes have been cut and then crashes into a pond, dying in the process. The town's local emergency services spring into action, which for them means cracking jokes, feeling up the corpse and transferring it directly to John's funeral home. It is then that this community’s true nature starts to shine through, and Nora starts to notice that things might be more complicated than she can handle. It turns out that Newberry is kinky as fuck, and John is less a mortician and more some kind of fucking cadaver-pimp or something. Light body horror and passive aggressive smiles follow as Nora tries to escape an entire town of necrophile swingers, with down-home attitudes, not knowing who she can trust.
Outside of the obvious Bluebeard influence, Dead Mate's story plays out very much like a made for the tv movie or an extended episode of one of the less celebrated anthology TV series. Despite being an odd mix of The Lottery (1948), dead people fuckers, and an old french horror story, it seems very simple, for lack of a better word. It moves at an airy, but quick, pace and keeps a forward flow, until it drops off for an Animal House style epilogue at the end. The film manages to squeeze a little of the gothic and backwoods vibes into what is obviously a late 80s suburban town. Moments feel like classical horror tropes draped in dry modern (ish) clothing. It's definitely not a thinking film; the lack of logic makes it borderline otherworldly. There is little attempt to make the main character’s choices seem realistic, but the movie never dwells on their consequences long enough for it to matter. A lot of the times the story comes off undercooked. The townspeople's process of procurement and embalming is a mess of purposefully weird vibes and half divulged details that never really make a satisfactory whole, outside of the already established notion that they like to fuck around with dead people.  Newberry feels odd from the get-go, but the depictions never quite hit the quirky townsfolk level they try for. The movie doesn't ever actually fully realize any of the extremes it grabs for, never taking things far enough to make it really gross or shocking, and it ends up feeling confused about its place in the world. The story bottoms out completely there at the end, struggling to adapt any of the Bluebeard legend’s possible outcomes with the film’s custom set prices. Still, an efficient pace works well enough to connect its silly take on a morbid subject matter to the mediocre television vibe, creating an oddly engaging watch.
In a lot of ways, Dead Mate feels like a Lifetime Network film, or what I imagine one would feel like--written after a coke bender and a night of nothing but Jörg Buttgereit films. The lighting is very much the stuff of tv dramas, using mostly a soft universal glow and several bright daytime shots. The editing is competent but doesn't do the black comedy any favors. Its timing at the most comedic moments feels off or misaimed. The failed attempts at dark humor come closer to just being creepy, which ends up working in its own way. Most of the chuckles the film extracted from me were due to the strange juxtaposed soapy atmosphere and low budget body horror (the comedy of which may not have always been deliberate). The dialogue is terrible, but it's honestly one of the best parts, especially during the town “meetings” at the funeral home. It's filled with plenty of unintentionally humorous moments and one-liners for later (I guess you can't get AIDS from a dead body….the more you know). There are some definite higher points when the film parts clash in just the right way.  Some especially inspired scenes happen during the body preparation ritual, when it employs some kind of corny Duran Duran meets Jimmy Buffett jam to contrast the grotesque actions being implied or referenced on screen (it's got a strangely romantic vibe and the song is catchy). Dead Mate is at its best when it is most confused. The packaging of random, low energy tones wrapped around super science infused necrophilia is just weird enough to work for me. It is really light on the gore though, especially for the subject matter, mostly inferring the ghastly stuff. There is one particularly low point in the effects towards the end involving a car chase, but it makes up for that with the sheer absurdity of the scene. The film’s nudity comes in three flavors: softcore romance, dead chick, and swirled (in this particular case they overlap) but all are fairly tame.
Dead mate is written and directed by Straw Weisman. It marked his directorial debut after already having more than ten years in the film industry as a writer and producer. He continued to be a key player in mostly trashy cinema but wouldn’t sit officially in the director's chair again until 2002 with Man of the Year (a mostly improvised John Ritter movie). He continues to work on a wide range of films (including trashy, low budget and even Godsplotation) to this day. It also features work by Pat Jacoby, who was also instrumental in the classics Troma's War (1988) and Frankenhooker (1990), Dead Mate being his last known work. To seal the deal on its milquetoast technical motifs Katherine Quittner lays down a soft-pop soundtrack straight out of a bad movie about sad stuff you could have caught on cable in the late 80s early 90s.
It's not nearly as gruesome as it's premise, but Dead Mate is not the the bone dry tv-thriller it might first appear to be. I don't think it quite hits the mark on the dark humor it was trying for, but it definitely succeeds in being pretty fucking weird. Plus, it is entertaining and that's all I really ask for out of anything (entertaining weirdness that is). I never got it when other reviewers said things like this, but I feel like it's fitting here--it's a nice boring Sunday type of watch, though it probably doesn't give any insight into the original message behind the Bluebeard story. Honestly, the only thing I have really learned here is that rich people are usually creeps and have rooms full of dead people, and I already knew that.
 1h 30min | 1988
 Director: Straw Weisman
Writer: Straw Weisman 


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