Sunday, September 30, 2012

Act of Vengeance (1974) review


Peter Brown (Jack), Jo Ann Harris (Linda), Jennifer Lee (Nancy), Lisa Moore (Karen), Connie Strickland (Teresa), Patricia Estrin (Angie), Lada Edmund Jr. (Tiny), Tony Young (Bud)

Directed by Bob Kelljan (as Robert Kelljchian)

"How do you feel about forming a rape squad? We do what hundreds of women all over the country are doing. Look, there's an article about it right here..."

The Short Version: This colorful, and early representation of the notorious rape-revenge sub genre is a must-see for trash film fans; not necessarily in how good it is, but in its cast, its plotline and the fashion sense of the main antagonist. Kelljan's movie is both trashy and humorous and will possibly make you uncomfortable during some of the lowbrow moments the film occasionally revels in. A fascinating 70s curio, it never gets quite as down and dirty as it could have, but it definitely flies low where taste is concerned and is bound to offend some viewers with its many unsettling scenes of misogyny.

Linda, a beautiful young woman who runs a mobile catering stall, is raped by a man decked out in an orange jumpsuit and a hockey mask. Dubbed 'Jingle Bells', this rapist is so named for his fondness of hearing his victims sing the Christmas favorite as he rapes them. Having violated a growing number of women, and with the police proving impotent in catching him, the rape victims form a rape squad in an effort to combat violence against women till they can get their hands on their main target.

The director of the two official Count Yorga movies and SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM (1973) aborts stories of vampires and takes on the subject of rape in this AIP exploitation trash flick that modernizes the rape-revenge scenario of the 1971 westerns HANNIE CAULDER and FIVE SAVAGE MEN and adds a few extra hands in the process. 

It also recalls the popular Italian crime film plot device that originated in EXECUTION SQUAD (1972) about a secret vigilante force working outside the law. Only in Kelljan's film, these female avengers operate brazenly under the knowing eye of the law (1974s COLT .38 SPECIAL SQUAD utilized the vigilante unit as a civic funded operational unit). Kelljan's movie also tries to wrangle a three story arc within a 90 minute running time with varying degrees of success.

For the first 15 minutes or so the script focuses attention on Linda's plight and her subsequent dissatisfaction with the authorities' ineffectual methods to deal with rapists and law-breaking male scum. 

The formation of the title Rape Squad (apparently the only available source bore the re-release title; or possibly MGM were playing it PC safe?), their martial arts training and late night crime fighting operations form the second. 

Lastly, the sarcastic, ego-maniacal rapist himself, forms the third. When he isn't subjugating assorted females to verbal degradation prior to violating them, he's recording his thoughts in his 'Diary of a Champ' and plotting his next conquest.

While 90 minutes isn't long enough to satisfactorily explore these three topics, the film wholeheartedly succeeds in being an entertaining, if uncomfortable exercise in tastelessness. Linda's role as the sole protagonist gets lost in the shuffle by the midway point, although her leadership within the group and her crumbling relationship with her insensitive boyfriend remind us intermittently that she is in fact the main actress.

As per so many other 70s trash epics, women are simultaneously the object of humiliation and ultimately a powerful weapon against their transgressors. And like a great many of those movies (I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE is arguably the most notorious example), the women revert to using their bodies as the instrument to attain their revenge. The same applies here, too, but not always. 

These women operate much like a pest control service, or even a budget neighborhood Justice (Women's) League of America. Tired of brutish boyfriends forcing themselves on you? Fed up with your pimp smacking you around? Then give the Rape Squad a call! 

The best sequence in the films entirety that exemplifies their super-heroine-ism is where the tough gals are alerted to a pimps man-handling of his "property". The five girl rape squad are on the scene to smash up his car while their Karate teacher, the unofficial sixth member Tiny, is along to rough up Percy the Pimp. This is a really hilarious sequence with a perfectly comical coup de grace. 

"Someday I hope you run into a big, mean, 300 pound faggot killer and I hope that faggot rips off your clothes and sodomizes you right in your big, fat ass! And then after all that, I hope you run into some dumb son of a bitch like yourself and he has the nerve to say something about laying back and enjoying it."

Humor is present throughout; both intentional and otherwise. It's also the most uncomfortable aspect of the finished product. It's almost as if the scripters and director were nervous on how to shoot the picture. There's an honest, serious approach in dealing with rape, but it's jettisoned during the attack sequences as the camera lingers on naked bodies while Jack humiliates his victims before raping them. The sarcastic line delivery of the villain is also at odds with the execution of his crimes. Some of these scenes feel like they're trying to "lighten the mood", but come off even more disgusting in the process.

The dialog is also uproariously funny often times resembling the sort of vocal oration Quentin Tarantino is regularly given credit for making popular. Other times it's deliriously humorous almost reaching heights only Rob Zombie could attain with his "special" brand of word.

In spite of the squirm-inducing presentation of the subject matter, there's a subtle TV movie aura about this picture. Likely it's the familiar faces from various television shows populating the cast. The director himself worked extensively in television during the latter part of the decade and into the early 1980s.

"Now just to show me how grateful you are, how about you sing for me... oh, about ten bars of Jingle Bells."

The major shock is the lead antagonist; Jack alias Jingle Bells is played by none other than Peter Brown. Brown had a more than healthy career in television, but will likely be forever identified as his roles alongside John Russell in four seasons of LAWMAN (1958-1962) and in two seasons of the wonderful comedic western LAREDO (1965-1967). We don't see Brown's face all the much. It's mostly hidden behind a mask, or we see him from behind.

Brown had a short-lived stint in exploitation movies including Jack Hill's FOXY BROWN (1974). Considering his past roles, it was an odd fit for him. Part of this films peculiarity is imagining a western star playing a vicious rapist (dressing up in clothes later made popular by both Jason Voorhees and Michael Meyers) who makes his victims sing 'Jingle Bells' while he violates them. Why Jingle Bells? Possibly because of a line of dialog where he states he's opening a woman up like a Christmas present or in reference to "ringing a great many woman's bells".

Also look out for Stanley Adams as Bernie Drake, an obscene phone caller (who happens to be an investigator for a law firm!) who crosses paths with the Rape Squad. For STAR TREK fans, Adams will be instantly recognizable from his role as Cyrano Jones on 'The Trouble With Tribbles' episode.

The simply adorable Jo Ann Harris plays Linda, the leader and main protagonist in ACT OF VENGEANCE. Her career was mostly in TV and you've likely seen her somewhere before. She also featured as one of THE BEGUILED, the Clint Eastwood dramatic thriller from 1971. The hugely successful RICH MAN, POOR MAN (1976) mini series and also the underrated TV horror film, CRUISE INTO TERROR (1978) are among her credits.

Lada Edmunds Jr. owns the film in all her scenes. A shame she sits out the ending. Her Karate scenes are impressive when compared with martial arts in American made productions of the time and especially those performed by women. She's gorgeous and very well built. Too bad her film career was so short-lived.

Mixing elements of COFFY (1973), THE DOLL SQUAD ([1973] itself a low budgeted mixture of James Bond stylings and the trashiness of the GINGER series), and possibly even DEATH WISH (1974), Kelljan's movie is an enjoyably rough romp despite some ropey moments here and there. The title ACT OF VENGEANCE brings a far more serious film to mind even if it's not consistent in that department. RAPE SQUAD definitely suits the less than cultured appeal this picture has. It's worth noting Kelljan's film got something of an unacknowledged remake in 1986 as THE LADIES CLUB. 

While it never quite crosses the line, it flaunts itself on the outskirts of vulgarity that will appease a good many of this films intended audience.

This review is representative of the MGM MOD DVD.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Cabin In the Woods (2012) review


Kristen Connelly (Dana Polk), Chris Hemsworth (Curt), Anna Hutchison (Jules), Fran Kranz (Marty), Jesse Williams (Holden), Richard Jenkins (Richard), Bradley Whitford (Steve), Brian White (Daniel), Amy Acker (Wendy), Tim De Zarn (Mordecai)

Directed by Drew Goddard 

"I can only imagine your pain and confusion...but know this... What's happening to you is part of something bigger... something older than anything known. You've seen horrible things. An army of nightmare creatures. But they are nothing to what came before. What lies below."

The Short Version: This ferociously original homage to a host of horror classics and their cliches boldly goes where no horror flick has gone before. Goddard's movie is a bizarre 90 minute nightmare that's a gasp of fresh air within a cesspool of genre redundancy and noticeable lack of creativity. The film starts and moves along as a standard horror picture, although scenes here and there clue you in on the fact that not everything is as it seems. An Orwellian aura also adds to the darkly humorous tone the film occasionally entertains via an arcane reality show style backdrop wherein the "viewers" choose a "winner". In addition, the gore-soaked, Lovecraftian conclusion is a major highlight as are the doom-laden final moments that briefly explores some fascinating religious subtext.

Amidst a glut of sequels and remakes, THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is truly a treat for horror fans and a welcome change of pace from the typical mainstream terror fare. It often feels like an extended episode of NIGHT GALLERY, but with added sex and gore. Like a great many other movies creeping up on us at the bijou, this is yet another attempt at paying tribute to pass gory glories.

However, Goddard's movie (co-scripted with BUFFY and ANGEL scribe Joss Whedon) is far more successful than so many of the Great Pretenders that attempt to forcibly make horror fans believe they're Kool because they're simultaneously winking and referencing some elder horror mainstay. It's also a film that epitomizes going into it cold without knowing too many details. The trailer subtlely gives away a detail or two, but nothing too revealing; just enough to enhance curiosity.

As much as  I disliked SCREAM (1996), it took a familiar genre style and tried to make it hip by featuring a killer(s) that used the rules of slasher films to claim their victims, while at the same time, convincing viewers that all those slasher movies were populated with nothing but stupid people who supposedly did nothing but stupid things. If anything, SCREAM was successful in reinvigorating the slasher genre for the late 1990s paving the way for such franchises like the SAW series as well as popularizing the laziest, self-centered poster design style in cinema history.

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS isn't that sort of genre acknowledgement. It subverts the conventions without smacking you in the face with them. It plays with them in a self-effacing way that is both familiar and also presents said familiar territory in a way that's not been seen before. Once you realize what's going on, it's like you've been immersed in one of those 'Choose Your Own Adventure' stories; only here, it's a much bigger contingency pulling the strings and manipulating living, breathing people via a macabre Big Brother totalitarianism.

Without revealing too much, all hell literally breaks loose during the last twenty minutes following a string of surprises, shocks and strange details that will leave you scratching your head till all is explained during the final few minutes. Till then, it's a slasher-zombie ode to THE EVIL DEAD (1983) riding the coattails of what amounts to a viscera strewn love letter to the works of H.P. Lovecraft. 

The acting is fine across the board and the jokes are funny; particularly the bleak sarcasm permeating the film. The effects, many of which are practical creations, are top notch save for some dodgy CGI. The film is never quite scary enough, but David Julyan's score aids the superlatively spooky art decor especially during the sequences in the woods.

Take a long look at the poster, or gander at the holographic cover of the DVD (which reveals some of the creatures in the film) and that will give you some idea of the quirky and creepy little film you're in store for. If you played the original RESIDENT EVIL all the way through, that will also give you some insight into what this meticulously morbid movie has to offer. Abandon all expectations and try to enjoy the gruesome ride, just be wary of the consequences of taking a short cut down a dirt road, or venturing into a dark cellar.

This review is representative of the Lionsgate DVD.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Jaws, the Scariest Movie Ever Made and Why I Love It

Just about everybody has seen JAWS at some point in their life. The imprint it has left on millions of moviegoers around the world is undeniable. The first US blockbuster to make 100 million at the box office, JAWS is just as potent, just as primal, just as terrifying today as it was back during its premiere in June of 1975. It's about as perfect a film of this genre as you're going to find. So much has already been written about JAWS, I decided to approach the subject differently. This isn't a review, but what I like about Spielberg's movie and its best and scariest moments, inconsequential details, and how it's affected me over the years.


The very first scene immediately after the opening credits is one that recalls a similar sequence from 1954s CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. Only in that film, there was an air of morbid romanticism with the creature swimming just below Julie Adams as if it was choosing a mate. Essentially, the monster wanted to love the girl, not devour her.

In JAWS, a male islander chases a pretty young girl down to the beach to skinny dip. This being most likely a prelude to sex, this sequence foreshadows the same 'Have Sex and Die' scenario from countless slasher flicks that would emerge in popularity with HALLOWEEN (1978) and snowball with the release of FRIDAY THE 13TH in 1980. This scene, like most of the films scenes of terror, works because of what we don't see.



This slow zoom through the shark's jaws just as the Orca passes through the harbor is indicative of what will happen later. It's a strikingly symbolic image of man against nature. While Quint is an ace shark hunter, the time will eventually come where he will end up a catch in a fish's stomach.

"Well this is not a boat accident! And it wasn't any wasn't any coral reef...and it wasn't Jack the Ripper. It was a shark."


Upon Matt Hooper's arrival, he's shocked to find the remains of the young girl removed from a freezer in a small tray. We've already seen a tiny portion of what was left of the girl that washed up on shore covered in bits of hair and hungry crabs.

Hooper's scientific description of the damage done is somewhat lost on us, but the repellence on his face and his shortness of breath clue us in on what sort of damage this up to now unseen menace is capable of; as well as building a sense of dread leading up to the moment where the enormous beast is revealed much later in the picture.


"Look out behind you!" With JAWS, this popular line shouted out loud by just about everybody that ever enjoyed a scary movie in a theater or at home no doubt occurred here, too, when Hooper, with his back turned while inside the shark cage, gets an unwanted "tap on his shoulder".


 The scenes of Chief Brody interacting with the townsfolk successfully convey the day to day activities of this tiny hamlet even with the most limited of dialog. The script and the acting, including that of the incidental characters we see little of (as well as those that have no dialog at all), turn this New England township into a Northern version of Mayberry, NC; only sheriff Taylor never had to contend with a 25-26 foot man-eating Great White. 

In keeping with Spielberg's masterful hand at capturing great character moments, JAWS has a few striking moments of male bonding. The first is when Brody is at the table with his son, Sean. The little boy copies his father's body language--covering his face, hand motions, facial twitches--this makes for a touching moment that requires no dialog to demonstrate this father and son relationship.


Images of the various people populating Amity add an immeasurable amount of atmosphere to this film. It gives off this air of realism that almost places you right there with the rest of the cast. You can almost smell the salt of the sea in the air with the impeccably nautical aura Spielberg provides in his movie. The fisherman pictured above is a perfect example of this. Every time I see JAWS, I imagine this guy as the poster design for coastal living and then I have the POPEYE theme in my head for the next few days.


Later in the film, there's more male bonding, this time aboard the Orca. Prior to the three men--the sheriff (Brody), the oceanographer (Hooper) and the salt of the sea (Quint)--embarking on their search for the Great White, Quint and Hooper butt heads alluding to some rough waters ahead for this sea bound triumvirate. Quint is of the working class and sees the intellectual Hooper as inferior, that he's been "counting money all his life". 

Later, these two unlikely chums seem to slowly bond while Brody remains lost at sea as something of an outcast. At one point, Quint antagonistically gulps down a beer then stoically crushes the can. Hooper follows suit, but with a Styrofoam cup, all the while imitating Quint's motions much in the way little Sean Brody mimicked his dad earlier.

This makes for a light comedic moment which leads to another bonding scene where both Quint and Hooper drink to the scars they have on their legs. Yet again, Brody feels left out while skimming for some scar of note to share with the other two.


Why do they always end up hitting the shark's fin? Wouldn't it make more sense to hit them anywhere but in the fin? In JAWS, the big fish's dorsal fin is hit three times by Quint's harpoon gun. This happens in the other JAWS movies, too. Even in other movies about big, rampaging, sea-going creatures such as ORCA from 1977 the dorsal fins take lots of abuse. In the defense of the three main characters, Bruce the shark does take some punishment at the hands of Hooper's knife, Quint's machete and a long spear wielded by Brody. 

"Now look, fellas...let's be reasonable, huh. This is not the time or the place to perform some kind of a half-ass autopsy on a fish...and I am not going to stand here and see that thing cut open and see that little Kintner boy spill out all over the dock!"

The death of Alex Kintner was a shocking cinematic milestone. Kids had been killed in movies before, but in this instant, it was rather graphic and cruel in execution. It's also the first time we see a glimpse of the shark; even if it's only the fins breaking the surface of the water as it rolls and tears at the flesh of the little boy, dragging him down through the center of the geyser of his own blood. The gurgling sounds of the boys last screams as he'd pulled deeper into the oceanic abyss are also heard on the soundtrack. It's a particularly unnerving moment and one of a few gruesome bits that pushed the envelope of the PG rating.


At the end when the shark has been blown all to hell, its headless remains sinks to the bottom of the ocean. As it descends the blood-encrusted water, you hear a roar on the soundtrack; which was intentionally done as a nod to Spielberg's 1971 TV movie classic, DUEL, a film that had a similar premise.
 Speaking of this ending, the destruction of Bruce the shark also made its way into the alternate ending of JAWS: THE REVENGE (1987). For whatever reason, the extended shots of that films shark impaled on the boat's prow were removed and the shot of the headless shark from the original JAWS sinking below the waves was reused.

Among the great shock moments in horror history (and one of a few in this movie) is the grim discovery of the "cargo" floating around in Ben Gardner's nearly sunken boat. Hooper dives into the dark depths to investigate and finds a big hole in the boat's hull. Upon closer inspection he's greeted by the head of Ben Gardner, his face frozen in a visage of stark terror and an eyeball missing. I remember this classic jump scare affected me as a kid. It scared me so bad, that every time I saw JAWS from that point on as a kid, I'd cover my eyes till the music hit; then it was safe to look again.


"Brody...sick vandalism! That is a deliberate mutilation of a public service message! Now I want those little paint happy bastards caught and hung up by their buster browns!"
In every single 'Animals Attack' movie post JAWS, there's always some reputable civic figure who absolutely refuses to close the beaches, parks, lakes, or any other public recreation facility that provides a splendid buffet for a variety of hungry monsters.

This sequence was originally far more gory wherein the shark attacks Mike Brody in the estuary; but he's saved by a man that sacrifices himself to get the boy out of the sharks approach. The scene as originally shot (see cut scene above) had the man in the shark's mouth, carrying him through the water while still holding onto Brody. As blood erupts from the man's mouth, the beast descends the waves with its catch. 

Spielberg cut this gruesome bit of business and reshot it as the scene we're all familiar with now. It's still gory (we see a ripped off leg sink to the bottom) and also gives us a better, if shadowy first look at the enormous Great White as it latches onto the boatman, dragging him down as he screams his last.

I remember when I first saw my dad's Jaws Log book, there was a two page spread showing this shot of the shark with a man in his mouth and regurgitating blood. At the time, I wasn't so much interested in reading as I was in looking at pictures. I was struck by this image and was momentarily curious as to why it wasn't in the finished movie.


If you watch closely at 1:35:59, you'll see a falling star pass right behind Brody's close up (see above). And several seconds later at 1:36:11, you'll see a falling star (possibly the same one from a different angle) in long shot of the Orca come down from the upper left of the screen (see below).


"...Why don't you come down here and chum some o' this shit!" 

The first time we get a good look at the title "Jaws" is one of the great moments in horror. JAWS, as described in this article, is home to a few of them. The scene in question is akin to the shocker reveal of the Phantom in the original PHANTOM OF THE OPERA from 1925. Only instead of a scarred madman, it's a gigantic Carcharodon Carcharias.

In it, Brody is relegated to the dirty jobs around the Orca. One of those jobs is tossing chum into the sea as a means of luring the big fish to them. Little do they know just how big this big fish really is. Brody gets an eyeful leading to one of cinemas greatest, and iconic lines of dialog.


"...Another thing about a shark is he's got...lifeless eyes. Black eyes, like a dolls eyes. When he comes at ya' he doesn't seem to be livin'...until he bites ya'. Then those black rooooll over white and then...ahhh, and then ya' hear that terrible high pitched screamin'...the ocean turns spite of all the poundin' and the hollerin', they all come in and ya' to pieces."

 Arguably the single most unsettling sequence in the entire movie is the USS Indianapolis speech. Quint's delivery of that fateful ordeal still manages to elicit shudders all these years later.

Apparently some of the historical details are inaccurate, but it's a powerful oration just the same. The look on Quint's face with his slight grin as he meticulously tells his eerie recollection of the horrific incident is genre gold. One almost gets the feeling that Quint is slightly insane from the ordeal. His revelation comes off like a campfire ghost story; the subtle, yet ominous music giving it additional leverage while the vessel crackles and creaks as it rises up and down from the waves of the blackened sea.

It's also at this point that the extent of Quint's obsession, and fear of sharks is fully realized. This scene is so powerfully memorable, it led to interest in a film built solely around the historical true story about the sinking of the Indianapolis ship and the fate of her crew. That production has yet to be realized.


The shark's alarmingly frequent inability to work behind the scenes proved to be a blessing in the end. Where the huge fish couldn't be used, a POV was initiated by way of a simple fin breaking the waves, a chunk of a pier gliding through the water, or the shark pulling barrels shot from a harpoon gun substitute for the big fish moving just below the surface.

These early scenes where little to nothing is seen cause us to envision just what this shark looks like and how big it might possibly be. From another perspective, we're never quite sure just what this thing is. The title of 'Jaws' doesn't really say what the monster could be. We're told it's a shark throughout the movie, although it's stated that the damage the thing does is unlike any shark that is known. This, too, adds to the primal terror of what is out there in the ocean or just under the water that we cannot see. JAWS has went a long way in reiterating that what we don't see is often scarier than what we do see.


Of course JAWS would be far less effective without John Williams' seminal score. The main theme is arguably the most recognizable piece of music of all time and perfection in its simplicity. I remember regularly playing it on my grandmother's piano and I don't even know how to play a piano.

I think it's safe to say that the first time anybody ever got back into the ocean after this movie came out, that the ominous, two note main cue was somewhere playing within their minds.

The scariest memory I have related to JAWS occurred one summer while me and my grandparents were at Holden Beach, NC. This was around 1986 or 1987. It was Indian Summer. I was out a bit too far and baby Blue and baby Hammerhead sharks had been caught closer in from where I was by folks fishing from the nearby pier. Anyway, this big wave came and lifted me up into its crest. As it did, I felt something very long and coarse brush up against me. Needless to say, the first thing that popped into my head was that damn main shark theme from JAWS...and swimming for my life. 


The finale of JAWS bows with an astounding finish. After the maniacal Ahab that is Quint is finally consumed, it's up to Brody to eliminate the briny beast; the safe haven that was once the Orca quickly sinks after the huge beast nearly cracks in two. Managing to force a diving tank into its mouth, the shark being blown to smithereens by Brody is no doubt on the audiences mind as they barely maintain their composure at the very edge of their theater seats.

This last white-knuckle moment of mano-a-sharko resulting in a soundtrack crescendo just before an explosion of fish guts and water also yields yet another memorable line. I can't think of another movie before JAWS that did it, but Spielberg's film is most probably guilty of giving birth to the movie one-liner. Brody's last ditch effort to kill the shark is accompanied by the utterance of "Smile you son of a bitch!" From here on out, a great many movies have utilized a one-liner, or even abused it to the point the viewer becomes numb to its usage. Needless to say, it may feel forced in many other pictures, but this climactic moment still manages to bring a smile to this viewers face.
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