Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Act Of Vengeance aka Rape Squad

Busy 1970s starlet Jo Ann Harris (THE BEGUILED) earned a deserved leading role in this uncomfortable thriller with a politically incorrect title and whiplash-inducing mixed messages of female empowerment and leering sexploitation. RAPE SQUAD is quite good, though, with Harris believably vulnerable and confident and director Bob Kelljan (SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM) steering the sex and violence with steady hands.

Harris plays a lunch-wagon proprietress who becomes the latest victim of the Jingle Bells Rapist (handsome Peter Brown, also a slug in FOXY BROWN that year), 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 Ross Elliott (INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN), are ineffective, so the victims 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 Lada Edmund Jr. (SAVAGE!), who teaches them how to crush a mannequin’s testicles with a baton.

Newly empowered, Harris and her squad, which includes Connie Strickland (BLACK SAMSON), Lisa Moore (HARRAD SUMMER), Jennifer Lee Pryor (THE WILD PARTY), and Patricia Estrin (BABY BOOM), get down to business. They entrap sleazy club manager Tony Young (POLICEWOMEN) and beat up a street pimp caught smacking 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, 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 breasts.

Of course, if the film doesn’t show rape as the horrifying and indefensible crime that it is, it runs the danger of watering down the crime and not providing 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 the studio’s (American International Pictures) 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. Originally released to theaters and reviewed in 1974 as ACT OF VENGEANCE, the film was re-released a year later as the more salacious RAPE SQUAD in a bid for attention.

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, Brown 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, 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.

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