There’s always a question of how much violence to show in a movie that is ostensibly against violence. There are very violent movies, like I Spit On Your Grave, that depict extreme sexualized violence in a context that never lets you forget that the point of view of the film is against it. Then there are things like Pulp Fiction that invite the audience to revel in how very hilarious it is to see a guy’s head be blown off [and etc], then deliver a disingenuous anti-violence message at the end as an excuse for what it’s been inviting you to get off on for three hours. And ultimately I think this movie is one of the latter types.
This came as part of my 50 Chilling Classics boxed set, and is apparently otherwise hard to find. I did a survey of all the movies in the set to get an idea of what they hold in store, and this one was summed up as “intense slasher.” Intense, yes, but it’s not really slasher in the standard sense, as the killer has all his women captive in a room and just takes them out to torture and kill them at his leisure, with very little stalking suspense to speak of.
The first 30 minutes are very strong. We see the main character enter a church. A few seconds later the back of the church explodes. The killer is unfazed, and watches dispassionately as others run around helping the wounded. At last one of the priests says to him “Well, do something! Help!” and the killer makes a grudging effort to look like he cares. He lifts a wounded man and takes him out into the hallway—and the next time we see that guy he’s dead. The vet then casually lights a cigarette.
We are in war-torn Belfast at the end of the Vietnam war. Our main character is a vet diverted to Belfast on his way back to America, who finds that he’ll have to hang out for a week before he can catch a ship home—for which he doesn’t have the money. There is much comparison, via television and newspapers, of the two war zones, Vietnam and Belfast. The movie does an excellent job of depicting the stress of living in a war zone, one that I found particularly chilling considering the future our own country seems to be headed toward, which one can’t help but think of when one sees billboards that say things like: “If you are suspicious, dial.…”
The Vet sees eight nurses arrive at a small house across the street from this pub. He sleeps in a dorm-like hostel which is akin to an army barracks. A Vietnamese man sets down next to him, and the Vet shows him the medal he received for “killing a lot of gooks.” But it seems that prejudice CAN be overcome, because not too long later the two of them are hanging out and talking as the very sinister and feminine Vietnamese guy is eating a sandwich in a very disturbing way. The Vet tells him that his best friend in Vietnam got discharged before him and went home and slept with the Vet’s wife, for which he is more than a little bitter. From this his Vietnamese friend intuits that he’s “scared of women,” and says “you don’t have the guts to touch your bitch wife, with your tool or with your knife.”
In here is a somewhat shocking sequence as one of the nurses is turning a corner and is blown back by an explosion. Then shooting breaks out in the street, forcing everyone to cower in a doorway. The nurse decides to make a run for it, with a woman shouting after her “Come back! You’ll be killed!”
The Vet then encounters an old hooker on the run from two guys. The woman claims that the guys were attacking her and refused to pay, while the guys say that she stole their wallets. The Vet returns the men’s wallets, apparently siding against the hooker, but she still thanks him and offers to do him for free, since because of him she won’t get beaten. She takes him to a room and disrobes [definitely for those into Granny porn], and he asks her to dance for him. She laughs, then he pulls out a knife [quite scary]. She dances for him [excruciating], and after a long, tense scene, he leaves. She calls him a “God damned pansy.”
That Pansy business is not alone in the movie. People are always remarking about how “pretty” the Vet is, and he REALLY doesn’t seem to appreciate it. He goes to the back door of the nurse’s house and asks one of them for food. He pulls out a picture of his wife and little girl, saying that one of the two nurses who sees him looks like his wife. They both disagree, but one says “the little girl looks like you.” I thought that this movie was going to have the Vet’s wounded masculine pride as a subtext, and I guess it does, but it doesn’t take it very far and is in fact dropped from here on out.
Now up until now, 30 minutes in, I was totally into this movie. It very successfully set up the kind of desperate, grim, dangerous life in this war zone, and did a good job of comparing the carnage in Belfast to the situation in Vietnam. By the way, I hadn’t yet mentioned the frequent and prominent “stop violence” signs we’ve been seeing everywhere, and how a lot of the news discussions we hear are about the toll of violence. So it was exciting, visceral, and had ideas.
SPOILERS > > > But you know, you just don’t make a movie decrying violence that contains a 45-minute extended sexual torture sequence as its centerpiece. The Vet breaks into the house [interrupting the lesbian love one nurse is declaring for another, who seems less than interested], gathers all the women upstairs in a room and ties them up. Then he takes one downstairs, makes her strip, rapes her, and jams his knife into her throat. Then he takes two downstairs [perhaps the lesbian and her friend from earlier, it was hard to tell the women apart] and forces them to strip and for one to kiss the other’s pussy, then for one to kill the other. Then he generally stabs a number of them, and finally watches as the pregnant nurse drives a knife into her own belly.
He leaves in the morning, and comes back to watch the bodies be carried out of the house. He listens to the comments of the observers as they talk and are interviewed. Finally, he slits his own wrists, but he lives. The doctor sees his “Born For Hell” tattoo, and recognizes him. We hear someone talk about how the killing is emblematic of the “violence overtaking the world.” We see slides of the eight nurses killed, and that’s it. < < < SPOILERS END
A reader was kind enough to point out that this film is an enactment of the Richard Speck case, in which he broke into a house and systematically raped and murdered eight student nurses. You can read the Wiki article about it here. Basically everything about the murders is the same, with only the first 30 minutes of the movie here being entirely original. In retrospect, I think the film is trying to posit that the violence in the larger society created killers like Speck.
I ain’t buying it. Positively, however, I don’t think anyone else will either. This is obviously vicious sexual sadism dressed up in an anti-violence message in order to excuse the audience’s enjoyment at watching hot women be tortured. This is a bit like my thesis in Is the Final Girl an Excuse?, which focuses on slasher films, about how having one women survive psychologically makes amends for the pleasure the audience got out of watching the women be raped, tortured and killed for the past few hours. Here, the “anti-violence” message assuages the audience’s guilt over the serious rape and torture that is at the heart of this movie.
Compare this movie to I Spit On Your Grave, another movie that features LONG scenes of rape and torture, and is often decried as exploitative. What sets that film apart is the extensive time it spends in showing the heroine’s mental anguish at what has happened, focusing the audience on the consequences of the act in a way designed to make us feel horrible and ground the entire crime in realism. Here, the point of view is of the killer, and through his eyes we watch the attractive women writhe in torment. We don’t really share the women’s anguish, nor do we see the consequences—mostly because they’re dead. But the film throughout this section is focusing on the breasts and the forced lesbian action, and one never gets the feeling, while that is going on, that is being in any way condemned.
It’s too bad, because I was so into the first 30 minutes. The movie was quick and intelligent and sharp right up until the torture scenes—so sharp that I really wracked my brain to think if I was somehow missing something in the torture scenes that would make me re-evaluate. Maybe, but I don’t think so. It’s too bad, because the director is obviously very talented, and those first 30 minutes deserve more than to be merely the justification for 45 minutes of sexualized torture.
I wouldn’t. The first 30 minutes are riveting, but overall it’s just not all that good, and is a little disgusting.