*Personal Note: I wanted to have this series done by the end of October but life, as it often does, got in the way. However, I am determined to publish all fifteen parts, so please accept my most heart-felt apologies that this did not hit before 10/31.
I love October. The weather, the leaves changing color, the candy, the Halloween decorations…
…and the movies. Goddamn, you get to be a horror fan without anyone looking at you like you’re some bugged out dude sitting by the playground. For one month, fright fans are granted carte blanche because it’s “in the spirit of the season” (unless you’re watching the GUINEA PIG films, in which case you’re still just a “weirdo”).
In short, October is badass.
When I kept a personal blog, I used to watch a horror movie each day in October and then write about them at length, just like everyone else who isn’t the Osiris of this Horror Shit, Brian Collins of HMAD. Before that, I’d usually just jot down a list of the films I watched and on what day (fuck your judgement, I like lists). Now I bring this tradition to Very Aware, only I’ve put a bit of a spin on it.
Thirty double features in October — that’s what I’m going to bring you. The dual bills of horror, cult, sci-fi or exploitation that I’m using to ring in my favorite month. Most of these pieces will be quick (a meaty paragraph or so) while others will be full-blown reviews. It all depends on how much I love (or hate) the films.
All of this leads up to my favorite day of the year: the Exhumed Films 24-Hour Horrorthon (October 27th and 28th); an entire day where, from noon on Saturday to noon on Sunday, 35 or 16mm prints of great (or horrifyingly awful…depending on the group’s mood) genre films from the 60s, 70s and 80s are projected nonstop with trailers, shorts and other oddities in between. It’s all courtesy of the fine folks in Exhumed Films (Dan Fraga, Jesse Nelson, Harry Guerro and Joseph Gervasi), who have been putting on unbelievable double features for the past fifteen years, and the 24-Hour Thon for five.
Features twenty-five and twenty-six are both spent riding along with the OG of DIY justice, Paul Kersey…
Feature #25 & 26 – 10/25/12 – 10/26/12 – Tales of Conservative Vigilantism — The Paul Kersey Files (DEATH WISH I – V [1974, ’82, ’85, ’87, ’94])
It seems fitting that I pick the DEATH WISH series a mere three weeks before one of the biggest elections of my lifetime (the re-acceptance of Barack Obama’s second term and his liberal idea of “Hope” vs. the reversion to corporate, capitalist politics in Mitt Romney), as the original movie is rooted just as much in right wing, fear-mongering hate as it is in vigilante escapist fantasy. To fully prepare for the series, I even picked up Brian Garfield’s novel, which I had read is an even more explicit condemnation of liberalism and “soft-heartedness”. And while I found this sentiment to be true, I also discovered that the film series starring Charles Bronson is something much more inherently mean-spirited. Where Benjamin’s text doesn’t even attempt to hide it’s hatred of bleeding hearts, Michael Winner’s exploitation opus (or opuses, really, as he directed the first three movies in the franchise) revels in nastiness as it chronicles Paul Kersey’s descent from decent, NYC development engineer who sympathizes with the poor and under-privelaged to a crime control conservative who doesn’t just advocate vigilantism, but picks up his gun and hunts down those he thinks have clogged his city’s streets with filth and degradation.
After his wife is killed and his daughter raped and left comatose during a brutal home invasion carried out by a group of street thugs (led by a very young and slimy looking Jeff Goldblum), Kersey believes that the justice system will do its dilligance and bring the men their deserved punishment. In fact, his reaction to the horrific events is almost preternaturally calm, but once he starts making inquiries as to how his wife and duaghter’s case is progressing, the detective in charge very non-chalantly replies that the criminals are more than likely never going to be caught or see trial. Kersey remains stoic, but the cracks of his craggy exterior begin to show as he begins to view the city in a way he never had before. At night, Kersey gazes out his window and sees a car on his street being burglarized, but instead of intervening or calling the police, he simply draws the shades and disappears into his home.
When his son-in-law suggests that they move to the Connecticut suburbs as a means of escape, Kersey is repulsed. He asks if there’s a label for those who “cut and run” and his kin-by-way-of-marriage simply replies “civilized?” But Kersey isn’t about to have the dregs of NYC run him out of his own home. Instead, he stands up and begins to shed the way that he viewed himself and other victims of urban crime. One night, he takes a roll of quarters and wraps them in a sock before walking the streets and being attacked by a mugger. But where most would’ve handed over their belongings, Kersey opts to crack the criminal with his homemade weapon and flees. Upon returning home, he’s shaken and uneasy, but not because of his brush with becoming a victim. It’s his use of force that has unnerved him, as the use of force has liberated the once docile man and made him experience power instead of helplessness.
It isn’t until Kersey takes a business trip to Arizona and meets with a local developer who advocates guns and self-defense as a way to fight off crime that the old liberal is put to death in favor of a flourishing, conservative monster. While target shooting at a local club, the developer asks Kersey whether he served in either WWII or Korea, to which Kersey replies that he was a conscientious objector and served as a medical officer during Korea. However, the Arizonian isn’t going to give up that easily, and futher inquires how a “conscientious objector learned to shoot so well”. Kersey explains that his father was a “gun nut” but was killed in a freak hunting accident, and that it was his pacifist mother that raised him into adulthood. Before Kersey leaves the West, the developer gives him a handgun as a going away present.
I’d like to take a moment to pause and point out now that, at this point in the film, DEATH WISH has ceased being just a right wing piece of fantasy and has moved into much more sinister territory. Not only is the film rejecting the liberal values that promote fair punishment and understanding toward the not only the poor, but the criminals of society, but it also seems to be rejecting the nurturing love of motherhood. Paul Kersey’s “soft heart” is due in part to his mother’s fostering ways and the pacifist attitude that she has bestowed upon him. Once his father died, we are to infer that Kersey stopped being able to defend himself and his family because he was educated by a kind hearted female as opposed to a male aggressor who was obsessed with weapons of violence. It’s a misogynistic viewpoint that is absent from the book, but becomes a highlight and focal point of the film, as Kersey reveals that he must shed the very “feminine” way in which he was raised.
The gun almost seems to be a “graduation present”, as Kersey now goes from merely being a passive defender against injustice to a full-blown vigilante, roaming the streets as he seeks out crimes to thwart. As he aimlessly prowls the dank alleys of New York, another mugger assaults Kersey and he shoots the man to death, prompting yet another bout of physical unease (manifested in actual vomiting), but he fights through it to continue his personal crusade. It’s at this point that his politics are treated as a disease that must be very literally expelled from his body in order to become stronger. Killing hardens him as he purges the “feelings” for criminals after every violent act of vigilantism, and once Kersey murders three more men in the streets, his transformation is complete; the liberalism he once used as a shield is replaced by his bearing of actual arms in the face of tyranny.
Kersey’s vigilante acts inspire other New Yorkers to stop trusting the criminal justice system and take the law into their own hands, and the wave of self-made policemen becomes so widespread that City Officials tell the investiagtor in charge of bringing Kersey to justice that they don’t want to see the perpetrator arrested, as it would only lead to him becoming a martyr in the eyes of his newfound army of do-gooders. DEATH WISH ends with the detective finding a wounded Paul Kersey in the hospital and offering him a truce: “leave town and no charges will be brought against you”.
Before I go any further, I should point out that there’s a reason that the original DEATH WISH spawned FOUR SEQUELS: the movie is really, really fucking good. Its gritty representation of New York in the early seventies feels authentic and lived-in and Charles Bronson brings an iconic edge to Paul Kersey that is undeniable. Politics aside, the film just works. It wasn’t until long after the credits had rolled that I started to ponder the moral and political implications of the first film, and how it was really acting as a right wing manifesto masquerading as an exploitation film. Toss in a jazzy score by famed musician Herbie Hancock and you have yourself one of the decades most iconic pieces of cult cinema, just dying to be rediscovered and evaluated in the light of today’s political climate.
DEATH WISH II wouldn’t come until eight years later (1982) and, like every other sequel after it, would shed the overt politics in favor of simply being a standard revenge thriller. Paul Kersey has moved to LA and seemingly picked up the pieces of his shattered life, and once his daughter, Carol, comes out of her comatose state, his existence is seemingly complete. But after a run-in with a group of muggers (no one could ever accuse this series of really having an original thought following its inception), Kersey, Carol and his Spanish housekeeper (who is viciously gang raped, bringing back the series’ almost fetishistic fascination with sexual violence against women) are all attacked. After Kersey is knocked out, the muggers kidnap his daughter and rape her in their hideout. Carol attempts to escape, jumping out of a window and impaling herself on the railing below. After the funeral, Paul Kersey gets his handgun out of the closet and brings his vigilante ways out of retirement, setting up shop in a dilapidated room downtown. Not long after that, he’s methodically mowing down the men who killed Carol and brought his violent tendencies back to the surface.
The exploitation turn the franchise takes isn’t surprising at all, seeing how the rights were purchased from Paramount and producer Dino de Laurentis by Cannon Films. Originally intended as a directorial vehicle for the infamous Menahem Golan (of the Gloan and Globus producing team behind Cannon), the film was eventually given back to Michael Winner at the insistence of Charles Bronson. Winner and Bronson had a long working history together, as the director had helmed Bronson flicks THE MECHANIC, STONE KILLER and CHATO’S LAND. But he Cannon stamp would be put all over the series from this point forward, as both DEATH WISH III and DEATH WISH IV: THE CRACKDOWN follow the male fantasy/revenge route instead of having anything else to say politically.
However, DEATH WISH II continues the franchise’s trend of being vehemently “anti-woman”, as Michael Winner ups the rape and boobs quotient to an almost uncomfortable level. Even for a seasoned exploitation viewer, it’s going to be hard to move past the fact that DEATH WISH II seems to want all of its female characters to suffer at the hands of male oppressors and be violated over and over again. Hell, the very idea that Carol is raped a second time in a DIFFERENT CITY is kind of ludicrous when you think about it, and the voyeuristic way Winner shoots both this and the gang rape of Kersey’s housekeeper is unsettling in a way that would make I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE or HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK blush.
DEATH WISH III ups the violence considerably and turns the franchise into one of the all-out action extravaganzas Cannon Films were known for by 1985. Completely devoid of any kind of subtext or actual roots in realism, DEATH WISH III belongs in the same kooky, mid ‘80s action sub-genre as films like COMMANDO and AMERICAN NINJA, where the men are seemingly indestructible and able to kill numerous people without taking a single scratch (usually due to their enemies’ inexplicably bad aim). If viewed through the lens of any kind of objective film criticism, the film is fairly terrible, yet still wholly enjoyable. Bronson has become a sort of cartoon caricature of Paul Kersey at this point, gleefully taking out street thugs left and right while grinning the entire time. Watching the films back-to-back reveals that the filmmakers obviously didn’t give a shit about the “conservative bias” of the original, but rather just wanted to create another unstoppable killing machine in the image of John Rambo and Matrix.
There are moments in DEATH WISH III where the “bad cinema lover” inside of us all should be cackling with joy. A young black kid who seemingly appears out of nowhere during various moments of the movie to cheer every time Kersey dispatches a “creep”? A rape victim dying of no cause whatsoever in the hospital after Kersey is told over the phone that “she only had a broken arm”? A love interest that goes nowhere and is punched in the face and then sent into a firey car wreck? It’s all here, and it’s all bad but, at the same time, it’s not (if that makes any sense whatsoever). DEATH WISH III is the moment that I started to have serious fun with the series, as I knew there wasn’t any logical thought being put into the product. The film is simply a product of Golan and Globus’ impeccable sense of exploitation, and they deliver an awful action film for the ages.
Along with the director and star, Cannon Films also kept the franchise’s trademark of having a star composer in Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page for both DEATH WISH II and III. But where Herbie Hancock’s jazzy riffs felt inspired and fresh, Page layers on guitar riff after guitar riff in what becomes an almost comical bit of “rawkness”. On paper, inviting the guitar God to bring the noise probably sounded like on of Michael Winner’s better ideas, but the execution of the score is so laughably bad (and laughably dated at this point) that it’s more than a touch distracting.
Unfortunately, DEATH WISH IV: THE CRACKDOWN and DEATH WISH V: THE FACE OF DEATH are where the fun stops completely. THE CRACKDOWN was the last entry released by Cannon Films, and is signifigantly cheaper looking that DEATH WISH III and far less over-the-top. In fact, THE CRACKDOWN feels like where the series should have ended entirely, as even Bronson looks like he isn’t having any fun whatsoever. The film follows a fairly routine blackmailing plot as Kersey receives a very I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER feeling note and is thus forced out of retirement back in LA to fight the drug trade (the flip-flopping of locales has also gotten stale by this point following the third movie’s return to NY). What follows is a pretty by the numbers action flick that, when compared to the third installment, really pales in comparison in both the scope of the insanity (i.e. there’s very little) and the hilarity in which it is doled out.
What’s especially sad about THE CRACKDOWN is that J. Lee Thompson (who took over the franchise after Bronson expressed his distaste for Winner shooting extra gore moments when the star wasn’t on set) is a pretty incredible and diverse director. From CAPE FEAR to CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, Thompson has proven that he knows his way around the genre block quite well. But he seemingly has forgotten every trick he learned, because THE CRACKDOWN comes off as one of the most pedestrianly directed movies I’ve ever witnessed. Not one frame of the film seems inspired or interesting and, in the end, its nearly 100 minute running time (making THE CRACKDOWN the longest film in the franchise) seems to drag on for an enternity, threatening to never end.
DEATH WISH V: THE FACE OF DEATH came out after Cannon Films went bankrupt (it was released under Menahem Golan’s 21st Century Film Corporation) and finds Kersey being pitted against a bonafide mobster, Tommy O’Shea (played by the inimitable Michael Parks) and also shows an attempt at returning a return to the serious tone of the original film. The problem is that THE FACE OF DEATH has too many weird “action movie” moments that clash with the stone faced seriousness director Allan A. Goldstein (who would go on to helm the super awful Brian Bosworth vehicle VIRUS) brings to the proceedings. But where the tone of the movie showed an effort to return to the original film’s grit and grime, the silliness is distracting and takes the viewer out of the picture. THE FACE OF DEATH is like many final installments in a long running franchise: full of interesting ideas that the producers and filmmakers wanted to use to keep the film feeling fresh, but ultimately a letdown in terms of entertainment value.
The DEATH WISH series is an interesting animal, as what started as fascinating political commentary devolved into just another bit of insane Cannon Films nonsense. In many ways, the most analogous franchise to this one is RAMBO, as what started off as an interesting “coming home” war film with FIRST BLOOD, quickly turned into a “one man army” string of meat-headed bullshit. While Paul Kersey may have never gone overseas in any of the DEATH WISH films, his spirit is linked to John Rambo’s in the sense that they’re both men who were pushed to violence. But where John Rambo was a trained killer who embraced his inner warrior when he needed to, Kersey shunned the stone cold killer inside of him in favor of a liberal bias. It isn’t until criminals show him the error of his compassionate ways that he picks up a gun and decides to take the law into his own hands.
In the end, the DEATH WISH films certainly serve a purpose in the larger landscape of cult filmmaking by offering us a legendary actor making one last run at showing us why he’s an icon. It’s just a shame that the franchise runs out of gas by the time THE FACE OF DEATH was released in 1994 (and you really can’t even be mad about that, as the series officially reached twenty years of age with its final installment), because what began as an interesting political statement devolved into mush headed silliness. While the films are entertaining, I’d say that most viewers should simply end their DEATH WISH run with the third part, as anything beyond that just feels like your grandfather rambling on at the dinner table about the “good old days”.