I don’t know how familiar anybody is with William Lustig. The guy is no genius. He made the MANIAC COP series. He made the picture UNCLE SAM which is a decent holiday slasher picture with subversive Gulf War themes, but it’s kind of a bummer because there is almost no use of stilts after the initial appearance of the Uncle Sam costume in a parade. Anyway after many years of directing bad horror pictures this guy started that company Anchor Bay which put out alot of better ones on video and DVD.
But there are some pretty good ones in his filmography, especially the first one, MANIAC. That was a sleazy, brutal horror picture about a sweaty New York pervert who kills women, staples their scalps to a mannequin, handcuffs himself to the mannequin and cries. Then during the daytime he puts on shades and tries to make it as a hip fashion photographer. It’s a real sick movie with ridiculous gore effects by Mr. Tom Savini. Not recommended for anybody unless they like that kind of crap, which in this case I do.
VIGILANTE is not as good but it’s sort of like what you might expect in a DEATH WISH type revenge movie from the director of MANIAC. It follows the completely stripped down revenge movie formula with the occasional bit of more gore than you expect. Good ol’ Robert Forster plays an everyday type dude with a wife and young son. But he lives in New York City and they got lots of ’70s/early ’80s style crime. One day while he’s out drinking with some car work buddies, his wife has a run-in with some asshole Hispanic gang members in berets (they must’ve seen THE WARRIORS) who spray gas on her, then follow her home, stab her repeatedly, and blow the baby son out the window with a shot gun. At least in the director’s cut that’s available on DVD, this is a real brutal scene. I couldn’t believe they actually blew the kid away. I don’t want to sound like a prude but I don’t care if some lady insulted you at the gas station, you don’t shotgun a cute little kid like that. It’s just not right, in my opinion. Cut it out, babyshooters.
So anyway Robert takes these guys to court but the judge is a real dick and plus we all know what type of a picture this is so the leader of the gang gets off on a lesser charge and Robert has a big outburst in court: “This guy killed my son! You’re letting him get away with it!”
The biggest twist here is that not only does the killer get off, but the victim gets sent to prison for two years for his outburst! (On the commentary track Lustig calls this ridiculous method of audience manipulation “throwing more wood on the fire.”) Robert doesn’t fit in in the joint either, he almost gets punked in the shower, but fortunately Woody Strode helps him out.
Meanwhile, Robert’s buddies including Fred Williamson are on the outside executing some vigilante justice against weaselly motherfuckers in denim vests selling drugs to kids. Fuckers. There is alot of chasing and climbing around shit and jumping off roofs involved. I wouldn’t want the Hammer chasing after me if I was that little white bitch.
But the one classic scene in the movie is when Robert gets out of the can. It shows him leaving and then walking directly to the playground where the vigilante gang hang out to play handball with at risk teens or something. Robert just walks up to Fred Williamson and says, “I want him.” They all stand around, not saying anything, just looking intense. Then suddenly the badass music comes in and they are on their way for revenge.
As you know, I love that kind of shit. What else needs to be said? Nothing. The rest of the movie is completely what you expect (they kill the people responsible, the end) but it gets some kind of a kick out of being introduced in that simple manner.
This is about as simple as a movie could be, following the formula with almost no extra flourishes at all. I mean there’s just nothing there. But it’s such a good formula, though. With the charisma of Forster and Williamson, it’s hard not to enjoy it at least a little bit. I get kind of a kick out of the heavy-handedness of the movie. It opens with Williamson in a basement giving a big speech about how we need to fight back against the “scum.” When it’s Fred it sounds a little less fascist and a little more cool.
When I see this kind of movie I have to wonder – is that really how people saw the world back then? I don’t really know. It seems like in the movies you can’t walk down the street without some corny black or Hispanic gang pulling a switchblade on you and trying to rape your wife. And the fuckin bureaucrats man, and the red tape and what not. Getting off on a technicality. And there’s no choice but to go Abu Ghraib on the motherfuckers, I guess. I can’t really remember if that was the general mood at the time or just during the 90 minutes that you were watching the movie. My guess is that at one point there really were people that had experienced that type of victimization and were so emotional about it they couldn’t see criminals as anything more than subhuman “scum” and “slime” and “dirt” and “filth.” But then the movies tapping into that got popular so a bunch of people who really didn’t give a shit either way started copying the movie version of criminals until the rest of the world really started to believe in them.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.