31 Days of Horror 2021: “Welcome to Arrow Beach” (1974)

Largely forgotten by genre fans, the 1974 release Welcome to Arrow Beach was marketed with lurid posters promising graphic scenes of cannibalism. “You won’t believe what’s behind the meat locker door!” read one poster touting the film under its alternate title, Tender Flesh. The movie opens with the following title card: “There is a witch’s tale that once a man has eaten human flesh, he will do it again. And again. And again.”

The primal vicarious thrill of watching someone eat another human being, combined with more than a hint of incest, should have made Welcome to Arrow Beach a beloved drive-in smash. Movies like I Drink Your Blood and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre have received boutique Blu-ray releases. The audience for exploitation movies from the 1970s is alive, well, and (no pun intended) rabid. Certainly, a film like Welcome to Arrow Beach could benefit from a remastered special edition.

Seen through 21st century eyes, the real horror of the movie has little to do with flesh-eating or sister-banging. At its heart, Welcome to Arrow Beach is a film about police corruption, the inherent emptiness of political campaigns, and the cultural refusal to believe women who say crimes have been committed against them.

Meg Foster (They Live, The Lords of Salem) plays Robbin, a free-wheeling hitchhiker wandering through California. After a maniacal ride in a Model A that ends in a tumbling car crash, Robbin begins walking down the beach. Soon enough, Robbin finds herself on private property. As she frolics nude in the ocean, she is unaware that Jason Henry (Laurence Harvey in one of his final roles) is spying on her through a telescope.

Henry approaches Robbin and invites her to his palatial seaside home for a bite to eat. Robbin gladly accepts. Henry’s sister, Grace (Joanna Pettet), is not happy to see this young woman in her house. This isn’t the first time Henry has brought a girl home, and those visits have not ended well.

Through flashbacks, we learn that Henry survived a plane crash during the Korean War. While waiting to be rescued, he survived by eating a less fortunate fellow soldier. After that traumatic experience, Henry has developed the habit of bringing girls home, chloroforming them, and chopping them into bite-sized bits. Robbin discovers Henry’s secret and after a short but tense chase, she escapes with nothing but a deeply lacerated arm.

Local law enforcement officers don’t believe Robbin’s story. Why would they? It’s the word of a hippie girl against the reputation of an incestuous white couple that own land and pay taxes. Sherrif Duke Bingham (John Ireland), who is in the midst of a reelection campaign, only investigates the Henry home to ensure votees. Grace is also apparently working with Bingham’s campaign. Welcome to the class struggle, 1970s style.

At one of his campaign events, Bingham is confronted by a Black reporter from an underground newspaper. Bingham explains his views by saying, “I’m for anything that’s American. I’m against anything that would weaken the moral fiber of this great country.” That statement is both vague and accurate, a damning summation of the character.

Henry desperately tries to cover up his murderous tracks by planting drugs inside Robbin’s bags. When the police find it, they make very little effort to determine what the drug is. It as almost immediately assumed to be heroin. However, Robbin claims to have never consumed any drug harder than marijuana. Despite Robbin’s assertions that something weird is going on at the Henry house, her story is belittled by Deputy Rakes (Stuart Whitman). Rather than spend taxpayer dollars following up the claims of some drug-addled flower child, Rakes gives Robbin a bus ticket out of town.

The callousness of the cops is discouraging in its insidious banality, but not as sad as Robbin’s acceptance of her place in the social strata. She puts up a token fight with the police, knowing beforehand that she is facing a losing battle. Because of her gender and her way of life, Robbin realizes that if she’s going to expose the truth, she’ll have to do it herself without the help of rich white men.

Robbin’s sole ally, a medical tech named Alex (David Macklin), has a difficult time believing that Robbin isn’t a hardcore user of intravenous drugs. During one scene, Alex tells Robbin that “the places where a woman could inject herself with a syringe defy the imagination.” The insinuations within the statement are harsh and outrageous, particularly where Robbin is concerned. However, Robbin accepts Alex’s accusations. “You’re right,” Robbin says. “I never thought of that.”

The men in this film treat Robbin atrociously, a reality she doggedly accepts. For a woman who has hitchhiked from Connecticut to California, Robbin seems oddly non-liberated. She even attempts at one point to broaden the scope of Henry’s crimes. “Jason Henry kills people,” she says. “Girl people.”

That’s where the true terror of this story lies. In Robbin’s world, nobody cares about “girl people.” Not the police, not political parties, not even others who declare themselves to be friends. Welcome to Arrow Beach ends much as it begins, with Robbin walking alone down the beach. It leaves the viewer with the impression that Robbin has not learned anything from her experience with Jason Henry. Instead, she remains a solitary figure, frail, a person to be acted upon instead of willingly choosing her own actions.

As of this writing, Welcome to Arrow Beach has not received a proper physical media release. One hopes that someone at a niche Blu-ray label tasks themselves with finding the full uncensored cut. More horrific scenes of dismemberment and incestuous behavior were present in the original UK Warner Brothers theatrical version, but 15 minutes were removed by US distributors. By all means, that movie should be brought back to life and offered into the hands of 1970s horror fans.

But don’t fail to overlook the socio-political underpinnings of the script. The distrust and belittlement of women in Welcome to Arrow Beach, from the beleaguered pariah Robbin to the piteous sex worker at the local bar, must have reflected some attitudes of the time. Like most snapshots of tumultuous eras, it is not the differences between then and now that are striking but the similarities. Some cultural progress has been made in the almost 50 years since the initial release of Welcome to Arrow Beach, but not enough.

Sure, the clothing styles in the movie are decidedly not modern. The haircuts are funny. But in ways both profound and sublime, Arrow Beach and the unspoken mores and tenets that feed it are still open.

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