Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Silent Rage (1982) dir. Michael Miller

Logline: Chuck Norris vs. a genetically modified, indestructible slasher villain. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Crime in the Past: More of a crime in the immediate present, but it's important because it bestows upon us our monstrous killer: a psychologically disturbed man boarding with a shrill family is driven crazy by their kids running around shrieking so takes an axe and, after lazily swinging it at a pile of wood, decides to chop up the mother and father instead. The cops are called, Sheriff Dan (Norris) arrives, he tussles with the killer, apprehends him, killer breaks free, is shot up to high heaven by the other cops on the scene. Cue the doctors and their desire to try out their experimental genetic modifying serum on a near-corpse.

Bodycount: 10, most going out silently.

Themes/Moral Code: The standard dangers of irresponsible science and reckless experimentation spiel. We have a doctor, Dr. Spires (Steven Keats), with a very serious Frankenstein complex, who is obsessed with "advancing science" without ever bothering to consider the cost or, y'know, morality of his actions. Though, unlike the good Doctor Frankenstein, Dr. Spires is in denial over his creation's monstrous nature (when Kirby shows back up at the Institute covered in blood and riddled with bullet holes, Spires assumes that it must be because people were attacking him). This blind faith in his monster's inherent "goodness" leads to Spires getting his neck snapped while trying to embrace the killer-- yes, justly, science is held accountable. Here is a series of representative quotes spouted out by the three prominent doctor/scientist/psychiatrist characters supporting this theme: "you going to talk to me about 'souls' and 'playing God'?"; "he's as grotesque as anything created by man"; "we're scientists, not moralists"; "nobody's going to give us a Nobel Prize for murder."

Killer's Motivation: The killer is John Kirby (Brian Libby), a "social mutant" who at least has enough self-awareness to know to call his shrink before he's about to flip out and start murdering people. His motivations are totally unclear. Perhaps he kills the family in the opening because they're so darn loud (and, as we're assured by his later muteness, this is a man who prizes silences). But later on he kills the Genetic Research Institute staff indiscriminately, so who knows. He's not very compelling on this level, so the filmmakers try to spice him up with some boogeyman attributes. Once he's on the Institute's slab and is injected with a serum called something like "Might-A-Gen 35," he gains the ability to regenerate and heal wounds instantaneously, Wolverine style. This ability, paired with his tremendous strength and predilection for silence, renders him a suitable match for the Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers category of indestructible super villain-- a similarity that the filmmakers are all too aware of (like Myers, he wears a blue jumpsuit and takes a tumble out of a high window (which he survives); like Jason, he becomes horrifically burned and pops out of standing water (twice)).

Final Girl: The sort-of final girl is Alison (Toni Kalem), a young woman who cannot resist the Norris charm. She and Norris' Sheriff Dan carried on a relationship precisely 5.5 years prior, but Dan ditched her for some reason that's never made entirely clear, that rascal. She spends most of the first half of the movie protesting that they'll Never Ever Ever Get Back Together before we hard cut to a scene of them rolling around in bed, which then segues to her telling him that she refuses to see him anymore. She's rather indecisive, but whenever Dan does something irresistible, like lightly stroke her chin while she's driving a car, how can she refuse his natural magnetism? Unlike a lot of final girls, she is allowed to have lots of sex and isn't punished for it (though the sex is more of the cheesy romance montage variety than the steamy, lustful, passionate kind-- the apex of eroticism between Dan and Alison is when we see them eating from an apple and champagne gift basket together in bed, shortly before lounging and laughing in a hammock). She runs and hides from the killer on multiple occasions, and helps Sheriff Dan in the final brawl by jumping on the killer's back and holding him at bay. She's nice, but, let's not mistake the real final girl for anyone but Norris.

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese:  If there's anything that can almost match my affection for the horror film, it's the big dumb '80s action film. Silent Rage-- be still my heart-- is both. While it never totally embraces either genre to the extent it would need to in order to prove itself as a classic, it still demonstrates enough skill in each sensibility that it winds up as a supremely entertaining hunk of brainless genre mashup. The first half of the film dedicates itself to the action side of things, but is rather aimless throughout, only really punctuated by an excellent barroom throw-down, in which Sheriff Dan single-handedly pummels about twenty rough-and-tumble bikers. It's at the midpoint that the genetically-enhanced killer is set loose and the film transforms itself into what is impossible to mistake for anything other than a slasher. In fact, this final forty-five minutes stands as a blatant condensation of the locations and scenarios of both Halloween (1978) and Halloween II (1981)-- it begins in a dark domestic setting, in which the killer chases the final girl around a house wherein he's arranged the bodies of his prior victims, before shuffling quickly to these same characters running about the Institute (which is in no way distinct from a hospital setting), where the killer continues to chase that final girl around and even kills someone with a syringe. If you watch this second half imagining the killer as Michael Myers, Alison as Laurie Strode, and Sheriff Dan as Dr. Loomis, then you have expended the same amount of mental effort as the filmmakers. The final minutes attempt to blend the action and horror elements, with Sheriff Dan and John Kirby squaring off mano-a-mano. It's a decent fight, but it ends (confusingly) when Sheriff Dan throws Kirby down a well, and then seems totally convinced that he's finally vanquished his indestructible foe (after having already shot him, burned him, and thrown him out a window, all to no lasting effect). I suppose he's a sheriff who lives by the code of the three act story structure.

And let me not neglect to speak briefly about the performances, which in a situation like this require a good deal of flavor to carry us through the quieter moments. To its advantage, Silent Rage keeps its characters weird and silly for the duration. I like Brian Libby as the killer-- he manages to infuse the rather bland job he's required to do with a physical awkwardness, manifested through bizarre body language and facial contortions, which I found compelling. More noteworthy is that Chuck Norris is more charming and likeable here than I've ever seen him before; he's a soft-talking, tea-sipping, lady-loving sheriff who cares about his stetson, his flannel, his jeans, and soft rock, in that order. He has only a smidgen more dialogue here than usual (which is still next to none-- he's one of the rare '80s action stars who doesn't sport a goofy accent, and yet he's almost always given the fewest lines to deliver), and he smiles through most of it. His romance with final girl Alison is very hokey, but I couldn't have enjoyed it more (seriously, if you ever wanted to see Chuck Norris swinging in a hammock and laughing joyfully, here's your ticket). Otherwise, Norris is accompanied by an almost unreal supporting cast of character actors (William Finley, Ron Silver, Steven Keats, Stephen Furst). Of these, Stephen Furst goes the most all out, as Norris' roly-poly, mildly mentally-deficient deputy, who manages to say a lot of bizarre things over the course of the movie, with the most horrifying being a heartfelt story from his youth that he relates to Norris about the time that he deep-freezed (and so, murdered) a puppy that he accidentally got all dirty because he thought doing so would clean it. Silent Rage lets a lot of questionable things like that story slide by without comment or reflection, so it only seems fair for me to do the same for it.

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