Sunday, February 19, 2012

58. RAPE SQUAD (ACT OF VENGEANCE, 1974)

This film is among the titles reviewed by Kim Newman in our next issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG (#167). It's as unlikely a title to attract him as it is to attract me, but I frankly couldn't resist the opportunity to see it after reading Kim's incredible description. Could there really be a rape revenge movie from the director of the Count Yorga films about a pre-Jason hockey-masked cocksman who makes his victims sing "Jingle Bells" as they are being attacked? Well, it's all true -- and so is the hilarious dialogue Kim cites in his review, which I'll leave to him to share with you, for the most part.

Peter Brown (Deputy Johnny McKay on TV's LAWMAN) plays Jack, the rapist, who has such a high opinion of himself that he makes his victims repeat that he's the best they've ever had, and documents his daily activities on a tape recorder under the heading "Diary of a Champ." His initial victim is Linda, played by Jo Ann Harris of THE BEGUILED, who is so deeply insulted by the police handling of her case (hilariously overplayed) that she gets together with other victims (Jennifer Lee, Lisa Moore, Connie Strickland, Patricia Estrin) to assemble a Rape Squad. They take some after-hours self-defense courses from a judo instructor (former SHINDIG dancer Lada Edmund Jr.); it took Lada ten years of hard work to get her black belt, so her advice to them is more along the lines of "Stick a hatpin in a man's vitals and you can bet he's had it!" One night, while soothing their collective muscles in a nude hot tub get-together, the Squad meet another health club patron who tells them she was once raped by an ex-boyfriend, which is all the evidence they need to entrap him into a severe beating and apartment trashing that ends with them stripping him and pouring blue dye onto his genitals from a bottle labelled "Sulphuric Acid." Like the cops, Linda's hippie boyfriend tries to persuade her to stop but he too lacks the necessary finesse to make a convincing case ("You're gonna get yourself killed if you don't stop trampin' around like some diesel dyke!").  As the ladies are girding their loins for vengeance, Jack continues his campaign of rape, this time crossing the line into murder. ("I actually killed someone," he reports in 'Diary of a Champ.' "Not a nice feeling. I'll have to find me a new one and get over that.") The squad's attempt to set a trap for Jack backfires and they are ultimately led into one of his.

Having signed his Yorga films as "Bob Kelljan," the director reverted to his birthname of Robert Kelljchian for this film -- probably to protect his reputation rather than to advertise this as a more personal achievement. This is very weak tea, containing none of the style or energy evident from those better-known endeavors, nor the conviction necessary to treat such subject matter in an honorable way. It's also not as funny as you'd think from its idiot dialogue, and not because the rape scenes are sobering, because they're not. Instead, RAPE SQUAD (which carries the onscreen title ACT OF VENGEANCE) is basically hornier vengeance stuff concocted in the wake of Michael Winner's DEATH WISH, fairly dripping with cynicism in the way it sniffs up the skirts of its actresses as they bend over hoods to tuck anti-rape flyers under the windshield wipers of parked cars. Furthermore, as more women join Linda's cause and the narrative goes behind the mask to focus on Jack, Jo Ann Harris loses her centrality as the film's protagonist and never regains it, which deprives the film of the sort of righteous finale a picture like this demands. She does exact her vengeance, but also goes beyond it -- yet she isn't stained or compromised by her commission of murder, which shows how quickly forgotten by AIP was the concluding message of Michael Reeves' WITCHFINDER GENERAL only a few short years after its release.

Viewed on Netflix, where the image was squeezed at 4:3 and required widening on my monitor to 16:9. It's also available as ACT OF VENGEANCE on DVD-R as part of the MGM Limited Edition Collection.

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