Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland, is home to homemade landing pads for UFOs, multiple haunted houses, a snaggle-toothed monster called the “Hodag,” mysterious Indian burial mounds, the magical House on the Rock (where, according to Neil Gaiman, the forgotten gods of the world assemble), serial killers Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer, and, of course, some fine, fine fishin’. So it’s appropriate that the state has its share of locally-brewed horror films, from Bill Rebane’s The Giant Spider Invasion to the evil-teddy-bear opus The Pit. However, it took one James Mallon, Mystery Science Theater 3000 co-creator and the UW graduate who relocated the Statue of Liberty to Madison’s Lake Mendota, to create a Wisconsin horror film specifically centered on the wonders of fishing. Muskie fishing.
1986’s Blood Hook begins with two groups of Illinois tourists traveling north to Wisconsin to attend Muskie Madness, which, in this film, has all the import of Woodstock. One is a suburban family from Oak Park; upon greeting the owner of Luedke’s Live Bait, the father offers a cheery hello: “What the hell is this supposed to be? Say, we’re looking for the CAMPGROUND.” Leroy Luedke, proprietor, answers in the indecipherable Wisconsinite language, “Well, that’s around the lake there. It’s about four miles now, yah.” The father responds, “Can’t you people put some signs up? I mean, that’s what tax money is all about, I mean why don’t you put up some good signs for crying out loud?” The slowburning regional tensions are gently diffused when Luedke offers the young son a stud finder for free. (“Merry Christmas!”) As will later be revealed, this is a key plot element. Before the bait salesman sends the outsiders away, he provides a somber word of warning, you betcha: “Remember, the lake’s not a playground. We have to treat the water with respect.”
Amongst our second group of tourists, five young twentysomethings, is a lad named Peter Van Cleese, whose grandfather died in a mysterious accident in Wisconsin seventeen years ago; they’re going to stay at his grandfather’s cabin. Peter is a music enthusiast, playing tapes of his favorite rock bands (actually just a song by a band called “Red Elbows,” replayed ad infinitum throughout the film), to the disinterest of his friends. As they approach Muskie Madness, New-Waver Rodney opines from the backseat, “This like hippie music makes me feel like I’m like full of chowder man, I mean like how long do I have to suffer, huh?” But Rodney, getting into the spirit of things, wears a giant fishing lure as an earring. This is foreshadowing of his evil fate. Of the other passengers: Finner is an expert fisherman; valley-girl Kiersten thinks fishing is “Rude!”; and Ann, who practices meditation, is interested in Peter, but he’s too distracted by thoughts of music, and haunted by memories of his grandfather’s death, to think about sex. (Blood Hook opens with the death scene…and witnessing an old man describe how a tape recorder works before suddenly grabbing his ears, making a scream, and falling directly forward into the water is very haunting.)
Once they arrive at Muskie Madness, Finner’s skills are put to the test, as he challenges local celebrity Denny Dobyns to a cast-off. The secret to Finner’s success: tassels.
They also meet Bev, a single mom and exercise enthusiast, who has the hots for Finner, and Evelyn Duerst (male), a shaggy-bearded, M16-toting conspiracy theorist. Evelyn’s father, Wayne Duerst, looks like Red Green, stands stock still and shouts phrases such as “You’re all crazy!” and “The whole world’s gone crazy!” and (directed to a boom box) “Turn off that goddamn headache machine!” Perhaps Wayne is so riled up because he’s caught his rival, Denny, force-feeding his own 40-pound muskie so that he can later “catch” it and win the Muskie Madness competition. Instead, Wayne steals it and dumps it in the lake, later to be caught…by Finner. How will Denny respond? With rage, with madness…with murder?
That night, the family from Illinois has a heated discussion about who stars in On Golden Pond, and the wonders of loons. It’s all building up toward a devastating tragedy.
The loon-obsessed matriarch of this family, storming out of the restaurant and down to the lake after her loon calls go unappreciated by her brood, is suddenly snagged by a hook–a blood hook–and spun about before being yanked straight off the pier. Immediately the viewer is left with a series of troubling questions. Is the hook self-animated, possessed by a demon, or perhaps the spirit of a muskie fisherman long dead? Was the fatal line cast by one of the many suspicious locals? One of the crazy Duerst clan? Or expert caster Denny Dobyns? Or that Leroy Luedke, yah? Or perhaps her own son, further infuriated that she cannot tell the difference between Peter and Henry Fonda?
But the dreadful occurrences do not stop there. Granted, it takes a while, but the hook does strike again. After a failed attempt on the life of Bev’s young child (tastefully, the infant is smeared with fake blood), the hook targets Rodney: a shocking murder in broad daylight, set to the trill of the cicadas.
Is it irony that Rodney is killed while listening to the very song he earlier declared “hippie music” which makes him feel “full of chowder”? Regardless, and somewhat remarkably, he’s quickly missed by his friends. Peter and the local sheriff inspect the empty boat Rodney was using and find blood and bullets, but no body. The sheriff is disinterested and greatly irritated, though Peter tries his best, asking:
“What kind of bullets are these?”
“.223. M16 rifle.”
“Okay, okay, I know who killed Rodney!”
“So who done it?”
“Evelyn Duerst with his M16.”
“I doubt it.”
After much haranguing, Peter finally convinces the sheriff that maybe, just maybe, they should go visit Evelyn Duerst; but his M16 turns out to be just a toy. Soon enough, the gang decides to cope with Rodney’s mysterious absence in their own way. Kiersten, wisely, goes sunbathing on an inflatable raft while listening to that terrific band, the Red Elbows, and that one great song they do. As the sound of the cicadas rises, she is suddenly, brutally snagged by a hook, and dragged off into the water.
Peter, pursuing his romance with local Bev, joins her for some exercise. Alas, Bev is an adrenaline junkie who takes marathon sessions up and down the North Woods, with a chaser of sit-ups. Luckily for Peter, she’s only three sit-ups into her routine when she starts to finally put out, and he pulls himself back from the brink of death to participate.
Finner and Ann are left to sort out the killings, but why go to the plot when the plot can come to you? Sitting passively on the couch, they are suddenly interrupted by Evelyn, who leaps in front of them and starts screaming about extremely low-frequency vibrations sucking the Agent Orange out of his cells (his convoluted explanation for the girth of his gut). But “shut up!” screams Old Man Duerst, who also plunges into the living room to berate his son and voice his own theories about what’s going on down by the lake. To which Evelyn responds, “You piss me off you know that! And don’t sneak up on me!” (Exit Evelyn Duerst.) Wally Duerst then tells the tale of Peter’s grandfather, whom Wally accidentally shot in the back with a copper slug while they were fending off a muskie that “got out of control.” But Peter’s grandfather never held it against Wally…he gave him a job instead. Tearfully, Wally leaves the living room. Finner and Ann are left to comprehend all this beneath the eerie presence of two plastic weasels.
Finner’s romance comes to an end when he spies Bev succumbing to the powerful pheromones of Evelyn Duerst. Shortly thereafter, Bev is nearly snagged by the blood hook while taking a midnight swim. Could it be the expert casting of a jealous Finner? Doubtful, since Finner is the hook’s next victim.
But Peter arrives at a theory. Toying with his keyboard, he suggests that the B-flat provided by the song sung by the Red Elbows, combined with the note found in the noise of cicadas, forms “the devil’s tritone, diabolus in musica! Classical music outlawed it for centuries because it made people crazy.” (Footnote: this is actually sort of true.) This theory is further embellished when they find out that old Luedke has a metal plate in his head…so discovered by the application of the stud finder from earlier in the film, remember that? So obviously the devil’s tritone is causing vibrations in Luedke’s metal plate, driving him to commit murder by fishing pole. It’s so simple…why didn’t it occur to them sooner?
Peter, Ann, and Evelyn head out to investigate Luedke’s bait-shack. While Ann waits down by the pier…meditating…alone…the boys open up Luedke’s refrigerator and find a bucket of bloody organs. “These are your friends, man!” Evelyn declares. When they return to the pier, Ann, unpredictably, has been kidnapped by the deranged Luedke. Conferring with Wally, they form a plan. Rather than, say, using that rifle Wally is holding to go and storm the shack and rescue Ann, they will bait the bait-salesman by sending Peter out onto the lake, listening to the Red Elbows to the din of the cicadas. But Peter, like a lowly coward, cannot bring himself to turn on the cassette player. By morning, their plans in disarray, they reluctantly attend Muskie Madness, trying to put poor Ann out of their thoughts. They are further demoralized when Luedke wins the competition. What can they do? Surely it would be too simple if they were to walk up to the shack while Luedke is at the festival, and let Ann out of the refrigerator? No, this has become personal now, as Peter reveals to Wally:
That’s right, Ann can wait. So that night, Peter once more sets out in the boat, and this time has the courage to listen to that one song by the Red Elbows. Like clockwork, Luedke arrives, and it’s a casting showdown…to the death.
Peter has passed out from his wounds, but once he’s dragged to the shack he quickly recovers. Finally letting Ann out of the refrigerator (she’s okay, thanks for asking), he confronts Luedke just as the sheriff arrives. Luedke escapes, grunting like the Frankenstein monster, and shambling out of frame.
As Blood Hook concludes, the camera pans eerily across the waters of the Wisconsin lake. Luedke is still out there…waiting…you betcha he is.