Friday, February 1, 2019

Trial by Terror (1983)

... aka: Acusado sin culpa (Accused Without Fault)
... aka: Das haus (The House)
... aka: Notte di terrore (Night of Terror)
... aka: Traumstein

Directed by:
Hildy Brooks

I used to make it a habit to watch all of the Best Picture Oscar nominees every single year; a habit I eventually broke myself of thanks to movies like Precious (2009). What really killed that movie for me was just how much pain and misery got heaped on the title character. Obesity! Poverty! Abuse! Illiteracy! Incest! Rape! Teen pregnancy! Special needs children! At one point, after already watching Precious suffer through one hardship after another for what felt like an eternity, I sat there thinking "Jesus! What's next? Is she going to get diagnosed with cancer or AIDS or something?" and, low and behold... It was at that moment I started laughing. No, the content itself wasn't funny, and these are all serious issues many people face, but just how obvious it was that the director was intentionally trying to craft something that would hit all of the critical acclaim hot buttons certainly was. Due to how forced and calculated the film was being, I was unable to really immerse myself in it. Or believe any of it. And the fact it worked on many critics and Oscar voters says worse things about them than the movie itself. 

Even though I usually enjoy Lars von Trier films, I get a similar feeling from some of his work as he basically tortures his protagonists for two straight hours to the point where it becomes almost comical. While going absurdly over-the-top works when you're making an exploitation film, it typically doesn't when you're wanting to explore adult topics in a serious manner. This is also one of the biggest issues I had with Trial by Terror.

After saving every penny they've earned for five straight years, Greg Armstrong (Wayne Crawford) and his wife Karen (Kay Lenz) have just put down a down payment on a nice new home in the safe suburbs. Greg is doing well at the gym equipment manufacturing plant where he works and has just been promoted. Out of the workforce, Karen is looking forward to finally having children and starting their family. But their plans for the future are about to all come crashing down. The first bad omen comes during their housewarming party when they hear the sound of glass shattering only to find out their friend Buddy's (Joe Unger) car has been broken into and his stereo stolen. The cop (Rod McCary) who shows up to investigate seems less interested in the crime and more interested in hitting on Buddy's new policewoman girlfriend, Terri (Colleen Camp).

Later that night, Greg and Karen are woken by noises coming from outside. Upon further investigation, they realize someone has taken it upon themselves to dump all of the neighbor's trash cans into their front yard. The police are called again and the officer who shows up writes it off as "a little malicious mischief" and says they can't do anything about it. He does however let Greg know that if he doesn't clean it up they'll be cited and have to pay a fine for littering! Greg's best friend K.C. (Karl Johnson) suggests he get a gun, but Greg is resistant due to Karen's dislike of firearms. That resistance doesn't last long after Greg and Karen return home from a nice promotion celebration dinner only to find the punks have broken in, spray painted their walls, destroyed nearly everything they own and left behind a death threat. Firearm it is!

Of course the cops are called and, yet again, do absolutely nothing but nonchalantly talk about cars (?) while they're there. Karen goes to her next door neighbor to ask if she heard or saw anything. The widowed cat lady who lives there informs her, "Nobody's gonna protect me so I mind my own business!" Greg finally goes to the gun store to purchase a rifle and just in the nick of time as the intruders break into their home yet again later that same evening. This time, Greg shoots one of them dead. When the cops arrive this FOURTH time, the couple are victimized all over again when she's restrained and he's almost shot, thrown to the floor and handcuffed. And this is just the beginning of their troubles.

The couple are forced to go to a hotel for a few days, then try to return home only to be greeted by a chalk outline of the intruder's body and a blood-splattered wall. The fact they're being targeted by multiple punks also makes it impossible to feel safe there as one of them could return at any time for revenge. Back to the hotel they go. When they're finally forced to return, they receive anonymous death threats by phone and are hounded by the press, who question whether or not they used excessive force. Every noise becomes a potential intruder and the husband is haunted by guilt for killing a teenager. The district attorney is thinking about pressing criminal charges and then the dead intruder's mother decides to sue them for wrongful death in civil court, threatening to bankrupt them and make them lose the house, anyway. Geesh!

On the bright side, they find an ally in detective Jay Galen (Martin Landau), a 20-year homicide veteran, who talks D.A. Frederick Estus ("Allan Goorwitz" / Allen Garfield) out of prosecuting Greg for murder, as he's planning to do merely to set an example. Still, someone continues to lurk outside the couple's home, so they're forced to move to a trailer in the country that Greg's boss owns and lets them use. The faceless stalkers eventually track Greg down at work and try to kill him with a welding torch and then find out where the trailer is and go after Karen.

While there's not much "terror" in this obscure film, there's enough empty yapping and flat / unimaginative direction to make this feel like it was made-for-the-tube. A lot of action movies and thrillers made in the 70s and 80s were basically a call to arms for (usually white) "good people" to run out and buy guns to defend themselves against (usually black or Hispanic) killers, thieves and gang members. This movie starts out that way, but instead of becoming a full-fledged vigilante pic it tries to explore the legal / criminal / social repercussions of using a gun for self-defense. However, instead of tying up those story threads, this completely forgets about them and instead spends the last 20 minutes trying to be a thriller again, concluding with a big shootout. There's no real resolution to any of the couple's other struggles.

Though the acting is generally OK, it's easy to see why this one's been completely forgotten over the years. It can't quite decide what it wants to be and what little it tries to add to the conversation about guns and the necessity of taking the law into your own hands if need be was just as simple-minded and irrelevant back then as it is today. There's even ample evidence that the filmmakers themselves are aware that what they're doing here is steeped in stereotypes and even faintly offensive. 

In order to stave off potential criticism for making all of the criminals Mexican (and the non-English-speaking mother of the slain punk basically an extortionist) and a scene where Greg goes to the “bad neighborhood” and they show nothing but black people walking around, they cast a black extra for the party scene and a Mexican actress (Alma Martinez) in a nothing role as the best friend's wife. See! They aren't ALL bad! And just so they aren't accused of hyperbolic depictions of all cops as inept buffoons, they make sure one of them – just one – isn't so bad. The other 20 are depicted as rude, tone deaf and / or clueless.

This was one of many collaborations between star / writer / producer Crawford and writer / producer Andrew Lane, whose partnership stretches all the way back to 1975's God's Bloody Acre and includes a lot of other movies like Tomcats (1977; aka Avenged), Night of the Comet (1984), Jake Speed (1986) and Servants of Twilight (1991). The executive producer was Ed Adlum (Invasion of the Flesh Hunters) and the busy Robert O. Ragland did the score.

I could not locate a single theatrical poster or English-language VHS box scan for this movie so I have no idea if it was ever commercially released in the U.S. or not. However, CBS/Fox released it in a number of other countries, including France, Italy, Argentina and Germany. The quality of the VHS dupe I watched was awful and this doesn't seem like something that's ever going to get the deluxe DVD treatment.

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