02 June 2013

SUMMER OF BLOOD: VACATION, MEANT TO BE SPENT ALONE

The operating theory that we'll be sticking with for the foreseeable future is that Canadian horror films, taken as a whole, demonstrate a certain maturity and honesty about character psychology that's mostly absent from their U.S. counterparts, taken as a whole. That might not apply to each and every movie made on either side of the 49th parallel, but it's a good rule of thumb to explain in a succinct way why e.g. Black Christmas is better than e.g. Silent Night, Deadly Night. It's also a theory which can be defended with an unusually strong case study in Death Weekend, a 1976 production perhaps better-known under the subtler but also more derivative title The House by the Lake. For Death Weekend, in no small part, wanted a little bit of that sweet Last House on the Left action for itself, as so many movies did in the mid-'70s, and this brings me to the very heart of my contention: there's nothing quite as relentlessly crass as the Last House on the Left cash-in picture, but Death Weekend is, within that dubious company, almost certainly the best one that I've ever seen, owing in huge part to the seriousness and complexity of its central character, played by the comically overqualified Brenda Vaccaro, whose Oscar nomination for Once Is Not Enough happened right around the time that this film was in production. That must have led to some weird on-set conversations.

Let's hold onto that thought for a little bit, and consider Death Weekend for what it is: it begins on a shot of undulating, rural highway, where fashion model Diane (Vaccaro) and oral surgeon Harry (Chuck Shamata) are out for a drive. Incidentally, in best cheap horror movie style, character names don't necessarily come until long after you've gotten used to whatever cute nickname you'd assigned to them, and if I tell you that for the beginning chunk of my notes, Harry was marked down as Rich Douche, I believe I have successfully implied the chief element of his personality that the film wants you to care about.

So, these two are ambling along in the quieter, less-populated corners of Ontario, when a red car full of probably intoxicated young men breaks into their idyll, following them with a menacing closeness that rather niftily recalls the vehicular threat of Steven Spielberg's five-year-old Duel. Harry starts to freak out immediately, but Diane, adroitly noting that his mindlessly expensive sports car can easily outrun the hooligans' battered-up piece of junk, and proceeds to drive with a recklessness that would be terrifying if she weren't so good at it, good enough to eventually send the assailant into a ditch. Cars being an extension of the soul for such thuggish bros as these four plainly are, it's not much of a surprise that the group's apparent leader, Lep (Don Stroud), or "Denim Jacket" immediately promises to get back at the pair.

We subsequently find out that Harry is taking Diane to his gigantic house on 10 acres of woodland, right next to a pristine private lake; we further learn, as he swaps the sports car out for something a bit more rugged at the local gas station, that this is very nearly a weekly ritual, and it's never with the same gorgeous piece of eye candy twice. Suffice it to say that by the time the romance is meant to begin, Diane has firmly concluded that Harry is a colossal prick, and she'd much rather leave, thank you. And that's without knowing that he has the place rigged up with two-way mirrors, with which he took photos of her showering.

Surly and cock-blocked, Harry tells her that she can walk, and he storms out to the boathouse. That's where he's sulking when who should finally arrive but Lep (having convinced the more soft-brained of the old salts at the gas station to tell him where the rich guy and the hot woman went) and his three cronies, Runt (Richard Ayres), Frankie (Kyle Edwards), and Stanley (Don Granberry). How I wish, beloved reader, that I knew for certain which of Long Hair, Dweeb with Glasses, and Fourth Guy matched which name and actor, but there does come a time when any research into Death Weekend is more than you can conceivably justify according to any code of responsibility or ethics. But as I was saying, the four pissed-off brutes are looking to make things as unpleasant as they possibly can for Diane and Harry, and they do so with great relish.

One finds that Death Weekend is frequently called a rape revenge thriller, but that's not accurate. There is an act of rape, but only by one of the men, and it's not unfair to say that, as depicted within the film, Diane permits that rape to go on as far as it does in order to get the rapist in perfect position to use the knife that she's managed to smuggle into bed with her. That is, the revenge actually precedes the rape. What the film really turns out to be is a home-invasion thriller along the lines of Straw Dogs, and like that film, it adds a measure of sexualised violence to make everything nice and slimy. Though in its defense, Death Weekend's rape is fully clothed and shot without a trace of exploitation.

Sexualised violence in a home invasion thriller is still pretty grotty stuff, even if Death Weekend ends up being one of the classiest films ever made that could be described that way. One thing you could never successfully accuse it of being, then is feminist, or female-empowering. That being said... The most striking difference between this movie and every other film I know that shares broadly the same narrative structure is that the "good guy" male character, Harry, is every bit as reprehensible as the four murderous thugs that break into his house, though in a completely different way. Like them, he has no ability to recognise women as having any kind of agency or real worth, though since he is rich, that means he is able to treat women as acquisitions to play with in whatever warped, psychosexual manner he wants to. But even if he never comes closer to raping Diane than by taking unwitting dirty pictures of her, he's still unambiguously conflating sex, money, and power into one impulse: have the biggest house, fuck the prettiest women, treat everybody who can't match you with contempt. Meanwhile, the invaders are plainly lashing out from a place of masculine shame and impotence: Lep can't stand that "a broad" outdrove him, and that, even more than the damage to his car, propels the movie.

A sleazy movie with an opportunistic rape it might be, then but the really shocking thing is that Death Weekend connects rape with the desire to dominate and control rather than with lust, which simply isn't done that often in movies of this sort. It's not a message movie, or anything, but it's surprisingly intelligent about how distorted, angry masculinity can be destructive and venal in more and less obvious ways.

And then there's Diane herself, or more correctly Vaccaro's performance of Diane: a willful, resilient fighter who remains able to think and act at all times, but with enough obvious desperation that she doesn't come across like a bland superhero. It's a better performance, frankly, than the movie deserves, though I'm not sad that Vaccaro pushed herself this hard in what could easily have been a routine bottom-feeding grind house flick. It's the strength and intelligence that the actress, as well as writer-director William Fruet, invests in the lead character that mostly sets Death Weekend head and shoulders above its tawdry origins.

That's not the same thing as declaring that Death Weekend is, accordingly, a great thriller, just one that is more intelligent and dignified than you would ever imagine, sight unseen. Greatness would require a bit more discipline in the construction of the opening sequence, a hatchet job of erratic editing probably designed to hide the film's low budget in the big car chase bit; greatness would require a middle section that either moves faster or feels more like a slow burn and less like a failed attempt to build a cat-and-mouse situation between the attackers and the victims. Greatness would definitely require that any of the actors besides Vaccaro feel like they're playing a person, and not a single characteristic. Lep, maybe, is a strong adversary, but the other three don't have a personality trait between them, and Harry is so transparently scummy that it's hard to see why the opinionated, outspoken, self-respecting Diane would have ever thought for a half-second that going on a weekend trip with him was anything but a monumental mistake. Fruet isn't half a bad director: the very opening of the car chase, when the red car is still just a low-key threat, and most of the final act, when Diane is finally able to break free and start to figure out how to survive until daybreak, are classically tense; he is not, however, much of a screenwriter, not based on this.

Ultimately, this is a moderately decent, frequently chintzy, always tacky thriller that happens to have a dynamite central character and performance that makes it all seem like it should be better. It's at least as frustrating as it is exciting that Vaccaro's Diane couldn't be in a more consistent movie than this, and though it is an impressively complex invasion/revenge thriller, it's surely not a transformative one. Still, it puts enough pressure on its genre to be better than its lowest common denominator that it doesn't deserve the relative obscurity it suffers from, in comparison to some of its slimier cousins.

Body Count: 7, a rather impressive percentage of the total number of people who show up onscreen.

5 comments:

Rick Rische said...

Brenda Vaccaro is my pick for Most Talented, Likeable Actor in Shitty Movies. The 70's were particularly hard on her. This, "Once Is Not Enough" and "Airport '77" all benefit by having her in the cast.

I wish she had fired her agent.

Not Fenimore said...

Seven? Jesus, you only *mention* six actors. o.O

Kevin J. Olson said...

"That's not the same thing as declaring that Death Weekend is, accordingly, a great thriller, just one that is more intelligent and dignified than you would ever imagine, sight unseen."

Yup. And, to return to your point at the beginning of this essay, this sentence seems to describe a great many Canadian horror film, especially the Canadian slashers.

This was one of the few titles you're covering this year that I haven't seen. The whole, "this is more like Straw Dogs than Last House on the Left" vibe you describe here intrigues me.

I'll have to check this one out.

Mike Gibson said...

While watching this last night I kept thinking 'Straw Dogs but not as good'. I think the villains even have similar rapist-y hairdos in both movies!

Still, better than expected for a movie I've never heard of. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!



Robert Burgless said...

Tim, you ever seen Repo! The Genetic Opera? That might be right up your alley, depending on your taste level.

Kind of a boring film, this one.