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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.

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