Saturday, November 06, 2010

Let The Revenge Fit The Crime

The late Bob Kelljan was a very good director of low-budget action movies and television shows during the 1970s, in particular three vampire movies for American International Pictures—COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE and its sequel, as well as SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM (perhaps Kelljan became typecast in the genre, as he also helmed a STARSKY & HUTCH episode that guest-starred John Saxon as a killer who thought he was a vampire). One of his more obscure films is 1974's RAPE SQUAD, a sleazy thriller with a politically incorrect title and whiplash-inducing mixed messages of female empowerment and leering sexploitation.

Familiar television guest star Jo Ann Harris (MOST WANTED) toplines as Linda, a lunch-wagon proprietress who becomes the latest victim of the Jingle Bells Rapist (Peter Brown), an egotist in a hockey mask and orange jumpsuit who forces women to sing the Christmas carol while he assaults them. The police, represented by detective Long (Ross Elliott), are ineffective, so the victims decide to organize a “rape squad”—a vigilante group with a 24-hour hotline dedicated to capturing rapists, mashers, perverts, pimps, and even obscene phone callers. They take karate lessons from diminutive Tiny (Lada Edmund Jr.), who teaches them how to crush a mannequin’s testicles with a baton.

Soon, the newly empowered women are running all over L.A. at the drop of a dime, entrapping a sleazy club manager (Tony Young) with an eye for Harris’ curves in a see-through dress and beating a street pimp who smacks his girls around. Naturally, ol’ Jingle Bells discovers the women’s game plan to crush his jewels, and he plots a return match.

Like many exploitation movies of the era, particularly those from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures that teamed up three stewardesses, nurses, teachers, etc., RAPE SQUAD tries to have it both ways—to offer strong, independent female characters in control of their own lives, while still dishing out a healthy amount of nudity and violence against women. Rape scenes were frequently inserted into these films for their titillation value, as an excuse to provide its slobbering audience with a pair of bare boobs.

Of course, if the film doesn’t show rape as the horrifying and indefensible crime that it is, it runs the danger of not providing the drama with a strong motivation for the heroines’ revenge. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Perhaps aware of this, co-writer David Kidd used the pseudonym “Betty Conklin,” as he did on Jack Hill’s THE SWINGING CHEERLEADERS, to counteract any criticism of misogyny. Kidd’s screenplay with H.R. Christian (BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA) does its best to portray its rape victims with a certain amount of sensitivity, while still paying strict attention to AIP’s commercial demands for boobs and blood.

Give Kelljan credit for handling the difficult material with aplomb, delivering a suspenseful and occasionally thoughtful thriller that may not have set the drive-ins on fire on first run. RAPE SQUAD was re-released in theaters as the less incendiary ACT OF VENGEANCE, which is also the title on the Thorn EMI/HBO videocassette print and the MGM print available for instant streaming from Netflix.

Adding much to the film is Brown’s performance as the narcissistic rapist. Appearing in most of his scenes with his face covered by a hockey mask that predates the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies, the handsome television star (LAREDO), who also played the heavy in AIP’s FOXY BROWN the same year, is nasty, cutting off his victims’ clothing, brutalizing their breasts, and compelling them to sing aloud (why “Jingle Bells” is never explained) and compliment him on his “lovemaking” skills.

Harris, a beautiful brunette who began appearing regularly on TV in 1968, usually as a scheming vamp in episodic guest shots or as the lead in several unsold pilots (including the Jane Fonda role in a CAT BALLOU remake), gives an intelligent, sexy performance as Brown’s nemesis—a smart, self-sufficient small-business owner who risks her life and, in an unusual twist, the lives of her friends in her obsession with her attacker’s capture. Jennifer Lee, Connie Strickland, Patricia Estrin, and Lisa Moore are strong as Harris’ fellow vigilantes.

Where RAPE SQUAD has really dated—for the best—is its portrayal of the authorities’ investigation. Statements are taken by male policeman who insinuate that the victim may have invited her attacker to rape her, and the medical examination is shown as a cold, sterile, clinically depressing exercise. Thankfully, laws have since been passed that make it easier and less embarrassing for a rape victim to report her crime. It would be interesting to see a contemporary remake. The elements for a commercial thriller are certainly there, especially the notion of five sexy young women kicking the asses of men, who all are depicted in RAPE SQUAD as being sexist thugs.

Now that other unheralded ‘70s drive-in flicks like THE CANDY SNATCHERS and BONNIE’S KIDS, both well-made, offbeat thrillers that were difficult to see for a long time, have been given lavish DVD releases, perhaps it’s time for RAPE SQUAD—likely under the ACT OF VENGEANCE title used on Netflix—to receive its just due on DVD.

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