Maybe this isn’t the best time for a movie called Three on a Meathook. It sure doesn’t sound promising, even if you’ve developed a growing appreciation for grindhouse auteur William Girdler, best known for the wigged-out 1978 horror-fantasy The Manitou, which stars Tony Curtis as a psychic who hires a shaman (Michael Ansara) to get a 400-year old medicine man’s spirit out of Susan Strasberg. As much fun as that is, how good can Girdler’s 1972 Ed Gein rip-off be? Much better than you’d think, and far more tender than one would ever imagine.

Despite its lurid title, Three on a Meathook is a personal and surprisingly poignant take on the infamous true crime story that inspired Psycho, playing like a backwoods Kentucky variation. It begins like a typical low-budget horror; on the way back from a weekend trip, four girls run into car trouble on a remote country road. They meet the gangly, slightly awkward Billy (James Carroll Pickett), who offers to take them back to his farm house where they can spend the night. Billy’s father (Girdler regular Charles Kissinger) is appalled: “You know how you get around women,” he reminds his son. But Billy, who seems like a good guy, ignores Pa’s advice.

It’s no surprise that the four women (which makes you wonder about the titular math) end up murdered during the night. If the p.o.v. makes it unclear whodunit, it’s clearly implied that Billy gave in to the urges his father warned him about. But here is where Three on a Meathook veers wildly from the standard-issue gorefest. As Billy wanders through the farmhouse and, in the clear light of morning, sees the girls’ corpses, the score (composed by Girdler) plays a fascinating counterpoint: instead of dissonant, unsettling music to emphasize the carnage, Girdler opts for a wistful tone, Billy’s dazed discovery undercut with a mournful harmonica.

Before the mystery and (fairly obvious, when you think about it) twist is resolved, for its second act, Three on a Meathook turns into a kind of coming of age drama. Back in town to get supplies, Billy meets Sherry, played by Sherry Steiner, who also appeared in Girdler’s 1972 debut Asylum of Satan. They strike up a tenuous romance, complete with pastoral walks through a field, a setting which seems perfectly appropriate for Girdler’s plaintive score. Yet because of what we know, or think we know, about Billy, it’s bittersweet; we don’t expect things to go well for the young man’s awkward courtship. When Billy invites Sherry and a friend to come stay at the farmhouse, we know all too well what will happen. Or do we?

Sherry and her friend Becky (Madelyn Buzzard) do stay with Billy and his pa, and the situation-horror setup gives the movie another chance to transcend its subgenre. Buzzard, in one of her only three movie appearances, gets a monologue that one admiring Letterboxd reviewer compares favorably to Robert Shaw’s fabled USS Indianapolis speech in Jaws. The actress tells a long story about a boy she met one summer, and builds up to the dramatic climax: “Then they sent him an invitation to die in one of their wars. And they sent me a telegram that he had. But they were only half-right: I died too. Take all the happiness you can. At best, life’s a short ride, and it isn’t always round-trip.”

Three on a Meathook, Girdler’s second feature, wasn’t a round-trip ride. Its resolution is taken in large part from Psycho, with slight variations, but the closing argument is for me more convincing than the expository monologue that tries to explain the mind of Norman Bates. It’s a conventional ending, but for much of the film, the director extracts a compassion almost unheard of in low-budget exploitation.

Girdler only managed to make nine films, many of them set in his hometown of Louisville, including the Blaxploitation Exorcist rip-off Abby (see Spectrum Culture’s social distancing feature for a blurb on his 1977 eco-horror Day of the Animals). Other than the mostly listless Leslie Nielsen vehicle Project: Kill, his films are all worth seeing. Sadly, Girdler was killed in a helicopter crash in the Philippines in 1978. He was just 29. Kentucky-born star James Carroll Pickett also met a tragic end. He made one more film for Girdler, The Get-Man in 1974, before moving to California, where he became an actor-activist, and in 1991 he co-founded the group Artists Confronting AIDS. Pickett died in 1994 from AIDS-related complications at 44. Far more than a gruesome knockoff, Three on a Meathook is a moving testament to creative professionals who, faced with a cheap premise and limited resources, made an unlikely work of art, capturing the best and worst of the human experience.

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