Saturday, January 10, 2015

Act of Vengeance (1974)

... aka: Rape Squad, The
... aka: Violator, The

Directed by:
"Robert Kelljchian" (Bob Kelljan)

College student and lunch truck driver Linda Schumacher (Jo Ann Harris, one of the stars of Don Siegel's underrated The Beguiled just a few years earlier) is getting ready for a date when she's attacked by a psycho decked out in a hockey mask and orange jump suit. He kicks her in the head, chases her into a barn and then punches her in the face before raping her. As if that isn't bad enough, this guy really gets off on humiliating her by making her say "Thank you Mr. Rapist for choosing me" before the rape, sing "Jingle Bells" (!) during and then forcing her to tell him "I loved it" afterward. A battered, bruised and hysterical Linda goes to the cops to report the assault and is treated like she's at fault by crude, condescending officers who insinuate her skimpy attire provoked the act. One of the cops even goes so far as to mock her by saying "I wished that would happen to me sometime. I'd just lay back and enjoy it." After discovering the doctors can't help either when no traces of semen are found, Linda goes to her compassionate boyfriend (Steve Kanaly) for comfort. Uh oh! He's a man too, so he just tells her she's a whore and possibly even a "diesel dyke." Yes, men sure can be pigs.

During a suspect line-up at the police station, Linda meets four other women - Nancy (Jennifer Lee), Karen (Lisa Moore), Angie (Patricia Estrin) and Teresa (Connie Strickland) - who've also been a victim of the same man and are clamoring for justice. Since the police won't really do anything, the girls decide to organize their own vigilante group called "The Rape Squad" in hopes of educating and protecting other vulnerable women in the city. This involves passing out flyers, manning phones, going to black belt Tiny (Lada Edmund Jr.) for martial arts training and sitting in a Jacuzzi tub naked discussing their future plans. The ladies raid a rapist club owner's apartment, destroy everything he owns and pretend like they're pouring sulfuric acid on his penis (which is actually blue dye to "mark" his manhood so he can be easily identified in the future). They also set an obscene phone caller (Stanley Adams) straight by humiliating him in public ("Let me see your wang!") and kick an abusive pimp's ass during a hilarious scene. For an encore, our heroines foolishly head out into an abandoned zoo late at night to meet up with their attacker (former western star Peter Brown), whose sexual assaults are beginning to amass a body count.

Oops! This ad got the "Teresa" and "Nancy" characters wrong.

With earnest performances from a cast somehow taking all of this completely seriously, laughable dialogue ("Just thinking of challenging a rapist gives me the chills!"), exploitative nudity at every opportunity and poorly choreographed karate fight scenes, this AIP release is impossible to ever take seriously. However, none of that really matters as it's undoubtedly a hell of a lot of fun watching a bunch of ticked-off women running around beating up men and spouting insipid one-liners. Adding greatly to the amusement factor is the fact nearly every single male character, right down the smallest of parts, is an exaggerated sexist jerk or perv. The girls can't even walk down the street without some guy chirping something like "A little rape every once in awhile should make life more enjoyable!" Though rape itself is hardly funny, that doesn't mean a film attempting to seriously tackle the subject and failing miserably to pull it off can't be!

Noteworthy also for featuring a psycho decked out in a hockey mask and orange jump suit a number of years before Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers entered the horror villain pantheon with their iconic looks, this was actor-turned-director Kelljan's follow-up to a series of successful low-budget genre films he'd made like the two Count Yorga films (1970-71) and Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973). Veteran character actor Ross Elliott plays one of the cops, Joan McCall (GRIZZLY) and Penthouse Pet Anneka Di Lorenzo (Caligula) have small roles and Jay Fletcher has a memorable bit as "Pimping Percy." The DVD is from MGM and it's well worth a watch for fans of 70s trash.


Heart of Midnight (1988)

Directed by:
Matthew Chapman

I love haunted house films, psychological horror films and especially combinations of both where one element is frequently at odds with the other and you're never quite sure whether there's an actual haunting taking place, the protagonist is going insane or both are happening simultaneously. I also love Jennifer Jason Leigh and think she's been one of the most underrated and undervalued actresses in Hollywood for several decades now. Unfortunately, this movie just didn't do it for me. It's the type of self-indulgent, needlessly cluttered 'art' film the gives me a headache because it was made by someone less interested in crafting an affecting, thoughtful movie than someone preoccupied with showing off how 'original' they are at every turn by throwing in random weirdness for the sake of random weirdness. In 1965, when Roman Polanski utilized surreal imagery to reflect the crumbling mind of Catherine Deneuve's character in REPULSION, he did so with purpose. direction and restraint. This movie attempts to update that same exact story and give it a kinkier whitewash as well as a last minute twist, but it all ends up succumbing to the director's own pretensions. This guy just does not know when to quit.

I mentioned Polanski's film for a good reason: This movie is slavish in its dedication to it. Like Repulsion, it features an aloof, attractive blonde with a history of mental illness possibly due to childhood sexual abuse. Both characters are named Carol and both begin hallucinating and going off the deep end once they're left alone to their own thoughts in a quiet location. This also swipes the cracking walls, the unnerving sounds of water dripping and clocks ticking, possibly imaged sexual assaults and the macabre time passage symbolism (Polanski used sprouting potatoes and a rotting skinned rabbit and this one uses an apple that begins to fester with worms) from Polanski's movie. Of course, so many borrowings could potentially place this in the category of 'rip off' but the director makes it all as blatant as possible because when you're really obvious people will claim you are 'cleverly referencing' a movie and not copying it. Hell, Quentin Tarantino has made an acclaimed career for himself out of just that for the past 20 years.

I won't go too heavily into the plot, just to say Leigh's "emotionally delicate" character, who's spent some time in an institution, inherits 10 thousand dollars and what she believes to be an ordinary, warehouse-sized nightclub from her late Uncle. Against her mother's (Brenda Vaccaro) wishes, she decides to move in and fix the place up. While the first floor of the building is indeed just a regular club under renovation, the second story of the joint is another matter entirely. Upstairs is a red hallway with flickering lights and walls lined with numerous multi- colored locked doors; behind each a room catering to a specific sexual fetish. Rooms have beach themes and library themes, some have mattresses lined on the floors, mirrors on the walls and cameras with monitors. TVs play porn cartoons and sex loops and there's even an XXX video game. The creepiest of the rooms which ends up having the most significance is a some kind of S&M chamber with chains, leather, mannequins and words like "Master" and "Obedience" painted on the walls.

Almost immediately after moving in, Carol begins having strange visions and meets even stranger people whose motivations and identities are unclear. The foreman (James Redhorn) working on restoring the building is reluctant to alter the dead Uncle's original plans but won't say why. A trio of guys (including Steve Buscemi) attempt to rape her, but a police chief (Frank Stallone) chooses not to believe her story because apparently she'd cried wolf in regards to sexual assault in the past. She's befriended by both a rape crisis counselor (Denise Dumont) and a mysterious man (Peter Coyote) who shows up pretending to be a detective but is someone else entirely. As that's all going on - set to a Yanni score no less - the director plies on the bizarre imagery right and left. Doors constantly open and close by themselves, apples appear everywhere, children's laughter is heard, a bicycle flies down a hallway, a giant eyeball crashes through a door and appears inside a water bed, etc. Oh yeah, and let us not forget the last minute appearance of a crazed transsexual for good measure!

Leigh is given an extremely difficult character to play here. She's a sexually repressed neurotic who constantly talks to herself, a chain-smoking former alcoholic, a survivor of sex abuse plagued by flashbacks, a near-hysterical woman suffering from paranoid delusions... the director really piles it on in this one and it's a testament to Leigh's brilliance as an actress that she manages to plausibly play this ridiculously complicated character regardless of all the crazy things going on around her. It's just too bad the performance is wasted in service of a subpar, poorly-scripted film few people wanted to watch then and even fewer want to watch now. The only way distributors were able to even sell this mess was by misleadingly marketing it as an erotic thriller, which it is certainly not.

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