Review Date: November 18, 2011
Released by: MGM
Release date: October 12, 2011
Widescreen 1.85| 16x9: Yes
The rape and revenge subgenre is not surprisingly popular with men but there are precious few of these films that truly take the side of the women. Oh, they’ll usually pay lip service to empathize with the victims in rape but, more often than not, it’s a woman who winds up taking revenge for the attack, seeking vengeance on behalf of his wife/girlfriend/daughter/whathaveyou. This gives a lot of the films an undercurrent of sexism that goes beyond the exploitative depictions of sexual assault; it shifts the seriousness of rape from a violation of a person to, essentially, a property crime. In films like Death Wish
women are denied the opportunity to seek their own justice on their own terms. This has always been the most troublesome aspect of the subgenre for me. Act of Vengeance
(originally titled Rape Squad
) is different in that regard: this is a film that tries to consider its subject from the perspective of the victims. While it adheres a little too much to the sleazier tropes of the subgenre to really be fully successful as a female empowerment fantasy, it’s still more sensitive and tasteful than most rape-revenge films from the period. This is an effective early entry that helped set the template for a disreputable subgenre.
Pretty Linda (Jo Ann Harris
) is a university student working her way through school running a lunch truck. One night, while visiting her boarded horse, she’s attacked by a man in orange overalls and a hockey mask. Though she puts up the best fight she can, she’s no match for the bigger, stronger man. Her attacker flaunts information about her and the implication is clear: he’s been stalking her for a while. He rapes her on the floor of the barn and, to further add to her degradation, forces her to sing “Jingle Bells” while he does it. Linda proceeds directly to the police to report the rape, but is dealt with callous insensitivity. The officer handling her case, Sergeant Long (Ross Elliot
) conducts her interview not in private but at his desk, within earshot of the entire department. He forces her to answer degrading questions and vaguely implies that she was at least partly responsible for what happened before even offering her medical attention. Linda is galled (and rightly so) that he would make such insinuations when she finds out that at least four other women have reported similar attacks. The doctor who eventually does attend to her, Dr. Schetman (John Pickard
), isn’t much better; he’s all smiles as he tells her to “close your eyes and try not to think about it…it will be over in a minute.” No wonder the poor woman feels like she’s been raped again, this time by the system that’s supposed to protect her.
Her asshole boyfriend Tom (Steve Kanaly
) doesn’t exactly offer her a sympathetic shoulder, either. The meathead doesn’t even bother with insinuations, he flat out tells her to her face that she asked or invited to be raped. Linda and the other known survivors are called into the police station for a lineup, which turns out to be Sgt. Long’s prickish way of trying to make a point: because he was wearing a mask and didn’t ejaculate inside his victims, there’s little to no chance to of him getting caught (makes me ever thankful for advances in forensic science).
Not wanting to be victims again, the survivors enlist in a self defense martial arts class. Relaxing afterwards and swapping stories in a hot tub, they decide to form a vigilante “rape squad.” The aim of the squad is to find and take revenge on the Jingle Bell Rapist, but also to offer women who have been raped or otherwise assaulted recourse when the police fail to adequately deal with their cases. Their first assignment: a sleazy nightclub owner Bud (Tony Young
) who raped a woman and then had his defense lawyers dig up dirt to humiliate her at trial. Linda catches his eye at the club and accepts his invitation to go back to his place for a drink and to watch footage of skiers. Needless to say, he tries to force himself on her after she shuts down his boorish advances. The squad bursts in, kicks his ass, tears up his place and then dyes his dick deep blue (in a nice bit of psychological torture, the vial of dye is labeled “hydrochloric acid”) as a warning for any woman unlucky enough to see him naked.
The squad seems to be doing great but, when one of their friends is raped and murdered by the Jingle Bell Rapist, dissention starts to spread in the group. Some think they’ve gone too far but Linda remains steadfast in her resolve, a resolve that will be tested when one of the squad is kidnapped by the Jingle Bell Rapist and the women are drawn into direct confrontation with the man who violated them.
When I was looking up some background on this movie (how can you not want to know all there is about a film that was titled “Rape Squad
?”), I found that it was actually reviewed in its initial release by Roger Evert himself. Interestingly, Ebert observed that the women’s provocative dress obfuscated any feminist point the film might have been trying to make. While that may have been true back in 1974 - and honestly, it’s a dubious claim that altogether misses the point of the movie - changing societal mores have actually helped the film to age well in that respect. What may have seemed like an extremely short skirt or an excessive amount of cleavage in 1974 would qualify as office wear at most workplaces today. By the heroine’s mode of dress slipping into irrelevance the feminist points are driven home much clearer. Had they dressed modestly by the standards of their day, they would play as nuns or Amish today. Ironically, the fact that the filmmakers were trying to up the sleaze factor has helped the age far better than I’m sure anybody ever dreamed it would.
Even the assaults themselves are…not tasteful or restrained…but let’s say not as exploitative as they could have been. I know that sounds like damning it with faint praise, but considering that sleaze is usually what sells movies like this that it’s not poured on with a ladle is a bit refreshing. The rape scenes disturbing (as they should be) but, in terms on screen nudity, you see less of the victims than you do in A Clockwork Orange
. Instead the film gets its thrills through scenes of the rapist stalking potential victims and his musical m.o. I’m not sure if the whole Jingle Bells thing was meant to be fun, it’s been suggested, but that’s definitely not my read on it.
What is fun, though, is seeing the women take charge and fight back. The handling of these scenes is entirely earnest, yet comes off as enjoyably camp. When one of the squad calls for reinforcements when she sees a pimp slapping one of his stable, the girls pile into the Volkswagen van and arrive at the scene still in their karate gis. Having them shout: “Girls! To the Rape Mobile!” would not seem totally out of place and because the audience doesn’t have the taste of horribly graphic rape scenes lingering on our palates and the revenge scenes aren’t overwhelmingly brutal, it’s possible to enjoy these scenes as campy fun.
The movie’s single biggest fault, and one that’s not at all surprising, is its one-dimensional portrayal of men. Every man in the film is a lout, a rapist or an insensitive pig. Linda’s boyfriend insinuates that she invited her rape. The police officer who interviews her after the assault does so in the middle of a crowed police station, within earshot of all the other officers and suspects, and before she’s even offered medical care. When she finally is allowed to see a doctor, the language he uses (which is intended to be reassuring) sounds achingly familiar to what a rapist might say to her: “Ly back and closer your eyes and it will all be over soon.” I can understand the purpose of these scenes, to hammer home the feeling of victimization Linda feels. But why the scene in the parking lot with the two louts eating their lunch and making totally inappropriate jokes about how fun rape is. THAT scene doesn’t ring true. Why isn’t there a single scene allowed where a man stands in solidarity with the squad, even if it’s only a symbolic gesture? I’m not going to hang the film out to dry for this oversight since it’s kind of part and parcel for films of the type and vintage, but the inclusion of a single likable male character would have helped immensely. Without it the film feels more one-dimensional than it needed to and undercuts the feminist message it’s trying to convey.
Also standing in marked contrast to its surprisingly progressive attitude towards women’s issues is the film’s blatant homophobia. While the majority of the film espoused female empowerment, the characters cavalierly and shockingly throw out homophobic slurs without a second thought. Again, this is not terribly surprising given the age of the film, but that doesn’t excuse it, either. It’s a sad commentary that no matter how hard a group struggles for rights or recognition, it seems difficult for them to empathize with the struggle of other minority groups. The fact that so many groups don’t stand in solidarity when demanding recognition and respect is probably the single biggest contributing factor to the excessive length of time it takes for them to achieve their aims.
I wasn’t expecting much when I popped Act of Vengeance
into my DVD player, but I was pretty much blown away by the visual presentation it received, especially considering that no re-mastering was involved in bringing it to home video. The source material is in surprisingly fantastic shape. Even the opticals during the opening credits, where you would usually expect to find imperfections, look shockingly clean. The film is a low budget affair from the seventies and exhibits all the visual hallmarks you’d expect: colors are muted, there’s a lot of grain in night scenes and some shots seem slightly out of focus. Still, this is a strong transfer that looks like it was created from source materials that were well taken care of.
There’s some clipping of high end which registers as a popping sound during the first ten or so minutes of the movie. After the first ten minutes, it subsides for most of the feature, but intermittently returns without rhyme or reason. It never obscures or seriously intrudes on the rest of the audio, but it is a continual annoyance. When it’s gone, however, the sound is actually quite good. The dialogue is clear and audible, and the ambient sounds and score display a surprising amount of presence. This would be an above average audio track were it not for the recurring popping noises. Shame.
Unfortunately, MGM was apparently unable to unearth a trailer for inclusion on this disc. Too bad. It would have been amazing to see how American International marketed this movie, especially under the title “Rape Squad
.” Would they have played up the seedier elements or tried to sell it as a feminist empowerment drama?
It would be easy to dismiss Act of Vengeance
as pure exploitation, but doing so would be a mistake. Sure, some of it is dated but, for the most part, the film has aged surprisingly well. This is due in no small part to its progressive and forward thinking attitudes about sexual politics and gender equality. It’s unfortunate that this film has languished in obscurity. Hopefully this manufacture on demand release will help the film build the reputation it deserves.
Movie - B-
Image Quality - B+
Sound - C
Supplements - N/A
- Running time - 1 hour and 30 minutes
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital 2.0