The slasher film, in general, is ruled by formulaic elements. There is the Final Girl, the mysterious prologue, some sort of remote or isolated location, sexual byplay, and ineffective law enforcement. The last of these ingredients has yet to be scrutinized in some detail.
How capable is law enforcement in slasher films? How responsible are the aforementioned “Fuzz” for the ferocious events that usually occur under their jurisdiction? And, why are they all so large?
There are many slashers with some kind of law enforcement in them. However, an alarming common denominator soon surfaces within these films’ depiction of the man deemed “Sheriff.” More often than not, this agent of the law is characterized by what is euphemistically referred to as “big boned” or, to tweak the term slightly, “fat boned.” He is The Fat Sheriff. Truly, a man who invites further study.
Presently, the characters and actions of six of the most corpulent Fat Sheriffs will be examined as they relate to the previously mentioned points. This list includes: The Sheriff from Don’t Go In the Woods, Sheriff Avery from House of Death aka Death Screams, Meagher County Sheriff from Honeymoon Horror, Sheriff Liggett from Silent Madness, Sheriff “Chief” Cash from Evil Laugh, and finally, Sheriff J. Chism from Offerings. For the benefit of those who may not remember the basics, brief plots of each film will be disclosed. Reasoning, however, will not.
We will begin with The Sheriff from James Bryan’s Don’t Go In The Woods (1982), in which a large hairy man with beads on his face slaughters groups of campers in the mountains of Utah. The Sheriff is in charge of county business, which implies that his jurisdiction is the woods where the killings are occurring. With the help of his noticeably lanky Deputy, The Sheriff sets out in search of the big killer.
The first time the viewer sees the Deputy, he has been warned that The Sheriff is “busy and asked not to be disturbed.” However, The Sheriff is playing golf in his office. The first thing a viewer thinks upon seeing the golfing Sheriff is, “Those are the largest pants I’ve ever seen!” This could be a true statement.
The Sheriff is presented as a man who is rather dismissive of the reports that come his way; “Another missing person’s report…It’s the freakin’ call of the wild!” But, he does investigate, including a ride in a small plane, which he seems to teleport into as they don’t show him climbing in. The trip involves this plane flying over the huge mountains while The Sheriff yells, “I’ll bet he’s not even down there!” All in all, it seems a mite ineffectual. However, when proof is presented to him, he forms a posse and gets all the gun totin’ hicks he can to help him find the maniac.
The manhunt is expansive. It lasts for two full days. The Sheriff gets off some of his best sweating here. But, in the end, even though all of this manhunting is occurring, the two leads, Peter and Ingrid, find the maniac and kill him. The Sheriff and friends show up to point guns. This may not be ineffective police work, but it certainly doesn’t spell success. The Sheriff sweats. He hefts his pants. He mops his brow. He doesn’t do much until the manhunt. None of this rates him high on the culpability scale.
Another point. At the height of the manhunt, The Sheriff tells the Deputy that he’s “going to the cabin.” Indeed, The Sheriff is seen strolling through the woods to a cabin where the maniac lives. Oddly enough, he doesn’t say, “Holy cow! A cabin! What’s this doing here?” Instead he yells, “Hello in the cabin!” and approaches it. To the alert viewer, this implies that The Sheriff knows of the cabin, knows it’s inhabited, but doesn’t connect it to anything. Does he not know who lives there? As the Sheriff, shouldn’t he know? Frankly, the Sheriff should have immediately come to the cabin and questioned the owner. Surely, if they wanted to catch the killer, a mailman could have been sent with a package needing a signature. When the madman came out to sign, they could have grabbed him. It’s this sort of thinking that could have saved lives.
The Sheriff is keen to investigate. He makes that plane ride. He does the manhunt. He yells at the cabin. None of this is, frankly, effective. The disappearances occur in the woods but, until proof arrives, the plane ride is all he has. Perhaps if they had gotten closer to the ground earlier in the movie, things may have worked out better. Perhaps not.
Next in line is Sheriff Avery, from David Nelson’s House Of Death aka Death Screams (1982). In House of Death, a killer attacks a bunch of partying 20-somethings as an end-of-summer carnival arrives in a small North Carolina town.
Sheriff Avery is not one who has to run a lot. His shape implies little-to-no-crime in his hometown. Yet he does nab a kid in a grocery store trying to sneak out a “nudie” magazine (this trend will also appear in Offerings). So, he is observant. He never actually wears a uniform-type shirt. All his tops are semi-fancy dress shirts with a badge pinned on. He’s a casual man; it suits where he’s stationed. The town is a very white piece of small-town Americana with carnivals, baseball teams and psychopathic killers.
Everyone seems to know the Sheriff. They joke with him, greet him warmly and one gentleman requests that he “Keep [his] powder dry.” (The actual words the man says are “How ’bout keeping your powder dry?”) This is said to Avery as he is mopping his brow during a particularly hot one. I’m informed by a source (Prof. Lorraine Hoover, author of Colloquial Carolina) that this implies Avery should keep clean and sweat free so he doesn’t stink up the place. The Sheriff also commands respect as the pot-smoking “kids” instantly cut it when he shows up. So, he does promote a message of “Say No To Drugs!”
To address the effectiveness of The Sheriff in House Of Death is simple. The large law is one step behind but does manage to arrive in the nick of time and kill the psycho. When we say “nick,” we mean only after five people have been killed and three are left. His investigation is a little slow, but his physique doesn’t lend itself to “fast.”
Unlike the other films discussed here, the majority of killings in House Of Death are in one big burst at the end. The Sheriff’s culpability is low. (Although, something else is going on in an odd subplot — more below.) The first couple killed, during the pre-credits foofah, are thought to have left town. The Sheriff insists that they’ll come back. This does not make the Sheriff culpable, as the couple really seem to have gone out of town. He couldn’t have prevented it and one doesn’t get the feeling that he could have done something there.
About that odd subplot — it concerns Sheriff Avery, Mona (the town screwaround), Casey (the town’s brain damaged inhabitant) and the Sheriff’s son (deceased). The Sheriff clearly hates Mona because of some car accident involving the “kids.” Apparently, Casey was driving and the Sheriff’s son was killed. Mona came out of it unscathed. If anything, her boobs got bigger. That might amount to something in real life, but not so for House Of Death. Sheriff Avery is after Casey, who goes missing. This leads Avery to the killer, but none of it touches the subplot. In the end, Sheriff Avery is indeed effective (and sweat free), although lots of people die.
Down on Honeymoon Island, Harry Preston’s Honeymoon Horror (1982) shares the story of charred killer Frank, his cheating wife and her new husband, and three honeymooning “sorority” couples who cross the trail of revenge. Meagher County Sheriff, presiding.
The Sheriff of Meagher County is a pear-shaped multi-tasker. Clad in onesie coveralls and bathed in buttocks sweat, The Sheriff makes the most of his time by licking cigars, eating hamburgers, grunting, sweating (see Don’t Go In The Woods and Death Screams), and talking on the telephone — often at the same time. The Sheriff’s routine patrolling is broken up with visits to the local watering hole. Here, he unbuckles his belt, itches his bare feet, and stares at the water, all while noting, “It’s so goddamn dull around here, even my rest breaks are boring!” In more ways than one, this man is not spread thin. The Sheriff, who is usually accompanied by rootsy harmonica riffing, displays an efficacious personality. This personality literally emits, “I know what’s goin’ on!” Sadly, this is not always the case.
When The Sheriff is first contacted via telephone of trouble on Honeymoon Island, he follows procedure. A woman has gone missing. The Sheriff notes that he “can’t do anything” for 24 hours, then licks a cigar. Proactiveness may have led to results in this situation, but fair is fair. As we’ve heard, it’s pretty boring around these parts. The Sheriff has no need for alarm.
The Sheriff is next notified (via telephone again) of a dock fire, which was set by crazy Frank. Here, The Sheriff’s actions (or lack thereof) come into question. Rather than launching an immediate investigation, The Sheriff replies, “I’ll get back to you right away.” It’s clear that he won’t. Replacing the receiver, The Sheriff tells Deputy Jerry, “A guy can’t get any sleep around here at all for crying out loud!” Then, he eats a hamburger. Over the next few hours, Frank disposes of most of the honeymooners. Not a good sign for Meagher County.
Expectedly, Frank is later dealt with not by The Sheriff, but by two shotgun-wielding husbands. The Sheriff, in fact, does not show up until the following morning, but only after locking his keys in a squad car. The facts speak for themselves. Despite his ability to wear many different hats, The Sheriff fails to display either effectiveness or culpability in the face of a threatening psychotic. Yet, he is only semi-rotund. Perhaps there is a connection to be made.
When a vacationing couple arrives at the gory crime scene, Meagher County Sheriff issues a friendly warning. He shoots his gun in the air and hollers, “Git! Git!” The Sheriff’s initial principles remain intact. If only his pot-belly matched the size of his heart, Honeymoon Isle might be a very different place today.
Bid hello to Sheriff Liggett from Simon Nuchtern’s Silent Madness (1984). Silent Madness follows the exploits of a wrongly-released asylum inmate, as he again stalks the sorority house which served as the site of an earlier bloodbath.
Sheriff Liggett is fond of his cluttered office. So much so, that he never leaves it. With good reason — there are sandwiches to be eaten and people to be insulted. Like his place of employment, Sheriff Liggett is a slovenly man. His hair is greased, yet unkempt. His voice is grizzled, yet theatrical. His pants are pulled dangerously high, yet his shirt hangs loose. While not the largest of Sheriffs, Liggett’s amplitude clearly prevents him from overexertion (such as leaving the office). That physical frustration may also influence his crude demeanor. Time will tell. It is within this framework that Sheriff Liggett puts his skills as a public official to the test.
Dr. Joan Gilmore is an attractive, middle-aged woman, who has followed the maniac’s trail to Sheriff Liggett’s town. Hoping to search police records, Ms. Gilmore finds The Sheriff asleep in his office. The Sheriff’s agitation is evident. He refers to the killer as a “sonuvabitch,” a “screwball,” and a “worm,” while pointing out a nasty neck scar, the result of an earlier confrontation with said psychopath. Liggett thanks Joan for the tip, but notes that he has to “check some things out” before letting her view official police files. Law enforcement is a full time job. Considering Liggett’s loyalty to procedure (and sleeping), it is possible that he may be a workaholic. A good omen.
Omens can be deceiving. Sheriff Liggett’s fact-checking leads him to believe that Joan is lying about the murderer. He, in fact, believes the killer to be deceased. As such, Liggett refuses to offer a helping hand on the case, spending the rest of his time sitting in the police station, eating, drinking Coors beer, and growing increasingly temperamental. “Don’t give me any of your shit!”…”Get the fuck out of my office and let me eat in peace!”…”Just because the broad is good lookin’ doesn’t mean we all have to think with our dicks!” These are not the sentiments of a respectable peace officer. Outbursts such as these are most likely related to a deeper rooted problem. A weight issue? An unfortunate childhood experience? Unfortunately, any study of effectiveness or culpability is now rendered moot.
Similar to the Meagher County Sheriff, Liggett arrives on the crime scene during the film’s aftermath. He walks tall, but speaks softly. “Well, I guess I arrested the wrong guy.” That statement rings true in more ways than one. Mental instability does not a responsible Fat Sheriff make.
Extend a warm hand to Sheriff “Chief” Cash from Dominick Brascia’s Evil Laugh (1988). When a group of college interns attempt to transform a haunted house into a Pediatrician’s office, it’s only a matter of time before the kids meet their maker at the hands of a giggling whacko.
Of all the men discussed here, Sheriff Cash is by far the most tragic. And, subsequently, one of the largest. Upon The Sheriff’s first appearance at the 35 minute mark, the viewer may think, “My, that’s an impressive abdomen.” As with the trousers in Don’t Go In The Woods, this may very well be a true statement. He’s a big ‘un. Cash’s globe-like shape is adorned in tradition. He wears the standard issue uniform, clings to a stogie (ala Honeymoon Horror), and speaks in a hushed, friendly tone. In addition, The Chief practices good hygiene and does not appear to sweat. You can tell a lot about a man from his grooming habits. Sheriff Cash is clearly a “good egg.”
A delivery boy’s disappearance may have something to do with the haunted house. Sheriff Cash arrives at the property by stating, “I never thought I’d enter this damn house again.” That’s a key point. Although the college students offer no help in the search, The Sheriff’s actions speak louder than his quiet words. He is familiar with the home’s history. This reassures everyone of their safety. He’s a survivor; a Sheriff that cares about his job. Returning to his car (which he has some trouble with), Cash informs radio dispatch that his next stop is “the old well.” This leads us to believe that a plan is in place. Thanks to The Sheriff’s preparatory work, the delivery boy will soon be found, and most likely, the killer will be stopped. Effective. Responsible. Amiable. That’s Sheriff Cash.
Three minutes later, this man is dead. Apparently, all the foresight in the world is no match for a slasher hiding in the back seat of a squad car. What does it mean when the most accomplished Fat Sheriff of all meets his demise within five minutes of his introduction? The belt may fit, but we wouldn’t suggest wearing it.
Finally, meet Sheriff J. Chism from Christopher Reynolds’s Offerings (1989). Offerings concerns an escaped asylum inmate who begins killing the kids that picked on him when he was young, while leaving “offerings” (an ear, a finger and so forth) to the only girl who was nice to him.
J. Chism is in charge of a small town in Oklahoma. He seems like a decent guy, although a kid who is hiding a “nudie” magazine fools him with the name “Ben Dover.” One imagines that this may be a new “goof name” in this neighborhood. The viewer imagines that the Sheriff is familiar with “Phil McCracken” or “Pat M’Groin.” The Sheriff’s job here is to act similar to the Sheriff in Halloween. Except, that Sheriff J. Chism is, frankly, larger.
At the film’s climax, Chism’s Large Arm of the Law shoots and kills the psycho. Once again it is in a “nick of time” manner (see House Of Death). Most of Chism’s time is spent following the killer’s psychiatrist, as he in turn hunts the killer. At the same time, the girl who is given the “offerings” also calls on The Sheriff. Chism posts an ineffectual cop outside her house but refuses to give her the skinny on what’s happening. In the end, he saves her, but none of her friends. Somewhat effective, no?
As far as culpability, one gets the feeling that Sheriff Chism should’ve told the girls a little more about what was going on. Kids are disappearing, body parts are piling up and his attitude remains, “Those kids just keep goofing around…no one worry.” It’s oddly presented because even the killer’s doctor implies that Chism should tell the girls what’s happening. But, he just doesn’t. He could have upped the ante on the “protecting the kids” issue. Strange.
Sheriff J. Chism. Honestly, the thinnest of them all.
This is obviously a very cursory examination of a very important issue. But, under the chosen parameters, all that has been sought out has been addressed. The Fat Sheriff is an important element of slasher films. Thanks to House Of Death and Evil Laugh we’ve seen that he is not as useless as erstwhile scholarly work has stated. Yet, in the films Don’t Go In The Woods, Honeymoon Horror, Silent Madness, and Offerings, The Fat Sheriff is even more ineffective than previously purported. Where does this discovery leave us?
At the end of the day, slasher victims can rest easy. The large arm of the law is always there to shoot a killer or two.
Although, not really. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.