Thursday, February 17, 2011

Cult Film Faves Not On DVD: Open Season (1974) review


Peter Fonda (Ken), John Phillip Law (Greg), Richard Lynch (Art), William Holden (Wolkowski), Alberto De Mendoza (Martin), Cornelia Sharpe (Nancy Stillman), Helga Line (Sue), Frank Brana (sheriff)

Directed by Peter Collinson

"Ya' see, after you've hunted men, well...animals just don't rate."

The Short Version: Shamefully obscure and overlooked 'Hunting Humans' movie with an absolutely stellar cast. This international co-production comes from the equally underrated Peter Collinson. With no gore and very little blood, this psycho-horror-thriller depends on the build up of its characters for its galvanizing brutality and lingering death scenes.

A not so innocent couple are kidnapped by three ex-military men, hellraising weekend warriors who plan to take them up to a mountain cabin for games of degradation and humiliation. The couple are soon let go and viciously hunted down like animals by the bloodthirsty, former Vietnam vets.

This is yet another movie that features ex soldiers who bring mental illness back with them from their time in Vietnam. What makes this particular entry of special interest is that it's a British-Spanish-Italian co-production. Unlike other movies in this occasionally subtext heavy sub-genre, OPEN SEASON only uses the Vietnam device fleetingly focusing more on the three men and their propensity for unapologetic sadism. With its simply amazing cast of capable thespians, this film from British director, Peter Collinson is one of the most peculiar entries of 70s exploitation cinema.

Following in the shoes of fellow British filmmaker, John Hough, who was behind the wheel of the classic road/chase movie DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY (1974), Collinson helmed this borderline exploitation horror-suspense-psychological thriller whose roots lie with the oft remade THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932). Collinson was also responsible for THE ITALIAN JOB (1969), YOU CAN'T WIN'EM ALL (1970), FRIGHT (1971), STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING (1972) and, like OPEN SEASON, another international production with TEN LITTLE INDIANS (1974) based on Agathie Christie's classic murder mystery.

"Your license to kill ran out after the war...but they forgot to tell you."

What makes OPEN SEASON disturbing is the 'happy go lucky' attitude and constant smiling, laughing, joking and kidding of Ken, Greg and Art. They are cold and emotionally detached to the flagrance of their actions. It passes as normal for them. The film spends a decent amount of time getting to know them. Not long after they've begun their trip, it becomes quickly apparent that something just isn't right about our three 'Great White Hunters'. They all lead successful lives at home with wives, but once they take off on their yearly woodland excursion, they become veritable savages of the worst kind.

"Now you listen to me, Marty. I want 4 eggs...over easy. You got it? Four eggs...and some whole wheat toast...good boy."

The actual human hunt doesn't begin till a little over an hour into the movie. What's coming is foreshadowed when the three psychos head out one morning and blow away every creature of the forest in the vicinity. That night, they enjoy an ensemble performance of 'Run, Rabbit, Run' with Art (Richard Lynch) on accordion. Martin watches as both Ken and Greg begin groping an inviting and inebriated Nancy. Breaking the momentum momentarily, Greg looks up at Martin and says, "Did you finish the dishes?"

Greg inquires about Marty's chores in the kitchen

Peter Fonda is still playing 'Crazy Larry' here as Ken. He's constantly smiling, cracking jokes, gnashing his teeth and, like his two compatriots, certifiably insane. His performance is virtually interchangeable from his equally unlikable role in Hough's more well known road movie. Here, though, you're SUPPOSED to hate him. John Phillip Law is an unlikely choice for a villain, but he definitely excels at it. His scene on the lake shore ready to put down Nancy is masterfully edited and shot. Law shows he was just as efficient as a cold blooded killer as he was playing a comic book style hero. Richard Lynch was a pro at playing despicable characters and this one here is no different, only he's sharing the screen with two others. Lynch's character is more easily agitated than his two demented friends and also crumbles under fire once the tables have turned.

William Holden's role amounts to basically a cameo appearance appearing at the beginning and the ending. It isn't too hard to figure out what his purpose is in the film. At the beginning, we learn his daughter had been raped by three men whose faces, or names aren't disclosed. Some time passes and we see Holden's character again--this time escorting a little boy to Ken's home at a party the day before the three prepare to head out on their vacation. His appearance at the end predictably ties up a loose end. There's two shocks during the conclusion--one you'll guess and the other, concerning one of the protagonists, you likely won't.

Alberto De Mendoza (billed as Albert Mendoza) will be instantly recognizable to Euro western fans having played significant roles in such pictures as A BULLET FOR SANDOVAL (1969) and THE FORGOTTEN PISTOLERO (1970). He also starred in THE PEOPLE WHO OWN THE DARK (also with Paul Naschy;1976) and HORROR EXPRESS(1972) to name just a few. Prolific character actor, Frank Brana has a small role at the end as the sheriff. Fans of Helga Line will get a quick ogling of her during the party scene near the beginning playing Greg's (Law) wife.

Based on the novel by David D. Osborn (who also contributed to the screenplay), the script is quite good. The writers do something very interesting with the characters of Martin and Nancy. While they're the victims, they aren't completely free of guilt, themselves and the film explores this aspect of their relationship nicely. The film itself is a slow burn, but it plays better this way. Also, there's no gore and very little blood at all. The atmosphere, the crazed behavior and nonchalant attitude of the men towards their actions is what makes OPEN SEASON a grim viewing experience. Essentially, the same story was done again in 1994 as SURVIVING THE GAME, but was more of an action picture.

The violence, while not overly graphic, is unsettling in its depiction of death. The camera often lingers in close up on characters during the lengthy last moments leading to their final expiration. The editing and photography are also exceptional. Fernando Arribas's camera captures some sprawling shots of the wilderness that adds to the isolation of the victims and their hunters as well as giving off an aura that someone is watching nearby, a notion that becomes a reality towards the end. Ruggero Cini's music has a frequent and unusual American sounding style about it that emulates and perpetuates a feeling that we're in DELIVERANCE (1972) country. Well known British singer, John Howard, contributes a song, 'Casting Shadows' to this production.

A phenomenally grand cast was assembled for this criminally underrated movie from Peter Collinson, a director whose resume likewise gets little attention. It's difficult classifying this film as an exploitation movie. It's in a different category that belies the sadistic nature of the antagonists. It's the prolonged degeneracy and moral debasement that this film flirts with exploitation potentiality. Hopefully, Columbia (or whomever currently owns the rights) will see fit to remaster this movie announcing OPEN SEASON on its rediscovery.
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