Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Executioner, Part II (1984): or, Just Say No to Drugs

As you might well imagine, the quest of a trash movie fanatic is frought with danger. For every nugget of 70s Eurotrash gold you unearth in a 50-movie budget pack, you're likely to suffer through a dozen or more movies so terrible that even laughing at them is impossible. For every candy-colored goretastic brain-burner from the 80s you stumble upon, you trip over that many more shot-on-video disasters with all the technical skill and enjoyment potential of a public-access broadcast of the local school board meeting. Sometimes you spend weeks and many dollars slogging through pile after pile of cinematic excretia, until the very hope of actually enjoying a movie again starts to look like an impossible dream.

But then the magic happens: you come across a thing of such gleeful, over-the-top batshittery that it bypasses your brain's logic- and taste-containing crenelations and strikes deep into the movie-watching pleasure centers, flooding your system with trash-movie endorphins and reminding you why you put in all that time in the first place.

So thank you, Executioner, Part II. Thank you for reminding me what it's all about.

By 1984 the heyday of the grindhouse phenomenon may have been well past, but thank God nobody told director James Bryan (Don't Go in the Woods, Lady Streetfighter) before he turned out this gritty, low-budget, and completely INSANE paean to vigilante justice. From its hamfisted stabs at social relevance ,to its earnest but clubfooted acting, to its sometimes shocking displays of slimy deviance, The Executioner, Part II is a movie that succeeds by getting everything WRONG. If you can't understand the zen truth cocooned in that little exploitation koan, well then, this is not the movie for you.

She Built This City

The plot is equal parts The Punisher and First Blood: in a 1980s Los Angeles where crime is rampant and hobo-patterned red bandannas are ubiquitous, the people cower in their homes, praying for a savior. Police lieutenant Roger O'Malley (Christopher "I'm trying to be tough guy like my dad AGAIN" Mitchum) spends his days hanging out with musclebound mechanic war-buddy Mike (Antoine John Mottet), to whom Roger owes his life since Mike pulled his ass out of the fire in 'Nam. As a small business owner, Mike is paying protection to crime lord Mr. Cassalis (Dan Bradley, maybe? imdb is unclear), an incredibly oily character known to local hookers as "The Tattoo Man," since he gets off by cutting his sexual partners with a knife and burning them with cigarettes. Meanwhile O'Malley's daughter Laura has become hooked on the drugs (probably because her old man's never around) and her dealer Pete wants to turn her out as a prostitute in exchange for keeping the supply end up.

Against this seedy background, a vigilante dressed in black stalks the night. Actually he stalks broad daylight too, rescuing women from rooftop bandanna-gang rape by cutting the punks' throats with broken bottles and sticking grenades down their pant legs! Dubbed "The Executioner" by gadfly German-American reporter Celia Amherst (Renee Harmon, the model on which Ariana Huffington must have based her entire personality), the vigilante is bringing the crime rate down in LA through outright terrorism, much to the dismay of Mr. Cassalis and his pet Police Commissioner (a never-been-more-blustery Aldo Ray). While Celia sings the Executioner's praises on television and urges the police to leave him alone and let him keep blowing punks up, O'Malley is assigned by his corrupt boss to bring the Executioner in, dead or alive. But when Mike starts displaying increasingly erratic behavior, the lieutenant wonders if his old friend has found a novel way of dealing with his absolutely monstrous case of PTSD.

"Mike! That's NOT the chocolate gun!"

First things first: The Executioner, Part II is *not* a sequel; The Executioner, Part I does not exist. The best anyone can figure, the filmmakers and production company hoped to capitalize on the success of another movie, likely 1980's similarly themed The Exterminator. Why they didn't just go all out and call it Dambo 2: Mike's Revenge is beyond me, but the point is moot. (It's not really a spoiler to reveal Mike as the titular vigilante--while the director does try to inject a little detective mystery into the proceedings at the beginning of the movie, that effort is quickly abandoned once Mike starts having his incredibly over-the-top flashbacks to Nam.)

The joy in this movie lies more in its individual parts than in the overarching whole. For instance, early on Mike and Roger are having a beer at the garage when they notice a gang of thieves stripping down Mike's Executionermobile outside. The leader of the gang is a smartly dressed thug rocking the blond hair/black beard look, dressed in tight jeans, a white button-up shirt knotted at the navel, a black leatherette vest and the required red neckerchief. (Only in the early 80s could THIS guy be the gang leader; the lowest Shark or Jet would laugh him out of the rumble for his fashion sense.)

The Vets run the gang off after a lengthy and moderately exciting brawl, and you'd think that'd be the end of it--but no, the Necker-Chief returns later--alone--to rob the garage, this time putting up a good fight against Mike before getting his head slammed in a car door and giving Mike the goods on Mr. Cassalis. Not enough yet? Well, your favorite gangsta and mine returns yet again later for a final confrontation with Mike in the abandoned building where the gang has its HQ. I don't know who played this role, but he lights up the screen every time he appears, so kudos.

Baddest Man in the Whole Damn Town

Even better is the subplot involving Laura O'Malley's unfortunate addiction to weed and coke. Laura is not what you'd call "classically beautiful"--in fact, she looks more like Roger's overweight sister than his frail little girl. Despite this, Pete the Pusher finds her irresistible and just can't wait to add her to his stable of hookers, after which he plans to offer her as payment of his own debt to Cassalis. When he learns that Laura is a virgin, you can almost see the dollar signs in his eyes.

A lot of odd details flesh out the characters and add to the overall strangeness of the movie. For instance, Pete has a predeliction for Jimmy Buffet-style shirts and 60s doo-wop, and his apartment looks less like a drug den than like the set of Three's Company. He enlists the help of two of his hookers to break Laura into the business (he can't do it himself since he wants to preserve her valuable virginity for his boss), crooning to them, "Girls, meet my new CHICKAY!" However, when they find out Laura is a virgin, the whores rebel and hold Pete down while she makes her escape. His cries of "Get back here! You're letting my virgin get away!" while rolling around with the two call girls could be the end of a John Ritter sketch, the way it's staged. And his bedroom, adorned with a movie poster for Hot Teenage Assets, samurai swords, and a Black-and-Decker drill on the bedpost (?!) just amps up the weird.

Reporter Celia Amherst is another strange character--despite frilly, flower-print grandma dresses and her almost impenetrable German accent, she gets a lot of on-mike interview time for the LA Television station. She gets almost as much attention from Roger, who puts on the moves while she pumps him for information at a local bar. (The entertainment at said bar is a single dancer in a sequined top and white spandex pants, accompanied by a tinny piano--I guess the Weimar vibe makes Celia feel at home.) Celia also seems irresistible to one of Cassalis's goons, who late in the movie ties her down, pumps her full of smack, and molests her as she trips.

Pete the Pusherman: Nothin' but Class

As for the main characters, Mitchum has a hard time acting his way out of damp paper bags on his best day, and here he's pretty much a monotone line-reading machine. Mottet does a little better as Mike--his over-the-top flashbacks and near-verbatim "back-from-Nam" Rambo speech late in the film are highlights. But the real standout here is Mr. Cassalis, the Tattoo Man. The actor here is so slimy and imposing, so brimming with asshole confidence, I totally buy him as the type of guy who would get off on burning whores with cigarettes. His wife, self-described as the Tatoo Man's "Pussy-Wussy," is another cipher.

However, my FAVORITE character in the whole movie has to be Laura's friend and fellow dope-addict, Kitty. Blonde, giggly, irrepressible, and gloriously stoned throughout, Kitty is a bright spot whenever she's onscreen. She's introduced while smoking pot with Laura at Roger's apartment. "I wish this were coke," she snickers, toking a joint. "Oh, heavenly coke!" Then she proceeds to sing the praises of the hustling-for-drugs lifestyle, using peer pressure to convince Laura it's okay. "Kitty, I don't think I can go through with it!" Laura demurs. Kitty sympathizes: "Yeah, that's what I said at first. But as soon as the first sleazeball comes along and slips you a $20, it's a breeze!"

This last sentiment is part of the aforementioned hamfisted social relevance portion of the show: the message is, apparently, that once you're on drugs your life is hopeless and bereft of value. Early on Pete tells Laura she should go ahead and be a whore herself out: "Dope, sex--you already screwed yourself anyhow!" Kitty echoes this thought later on, in her typically mirthful style: "Listen, Laura's on drugs, like the rest of us! Once you're on drugs, just SCREW the rest!" It's actually a rather bleak point of view, meant to bolster the film's other argument: that in a world full of drug addicts and Tattoo Men, the Executioner's methods are really the way to go.

Find a new tattooist.

There's so much more I could go into here, but in the interest of space-saving I'll boil it down to a bullet list:
  • On the technical side, we have overdubbing that steps all over itself, two-shot phone conversations that don't match up at all, and clearly-detectable reflector flares on the sets behind the actors; however, in spite of this Bryan does manage a dirty, gritty, bleak aesthetic that at times almost works.

  • Aldo Ray seems to be improvising most of his dialogue. Also, drunk.

  • The bandanna gangs are kind of awesome, breaking into Dairy Queens and pouring milk on the staff, dangling screaming women from rooftops for kicks, and boosting batteries at will. Plus, bandannas.

  • The Tattoo Man preparing to meet Laura while blowing meaningfully on a lit cigarette is actually chilling. Too bad the high-school misfit decor of Pete's bedroom lessens the effect a bit.

  • Also lessening the Tattoo Man's effect: his shameless begging for his life once Mike shows up. "I'll do anything you want!" *smack* "I'll pay you!" *smack* "I'll WRITE YOU A CHECK!"

  • Celia saves herself from molestation by grabbing a samurai sword off the wall and running her assailant through, pinning him to a couch with the blade. Better yet, he tries to follow her out of the room, with the couch still stuck to his back!

  • Mike's finale in an abandoned theater: Rambo of the Opera.

I fully understand that BATSHIT CRAZEE is not a high recommendation for everyone, but if it is for you, then The Executioner, Part II has everything that you want. Sure, it's inept and poorly put-together, but it's also as strangely gleeful and enthusiastic as Kitty on a coke-binge. Works for me! I give The Executioner, Part II a satisfied 2.5 thumbs. Check it out. And just say no to drugs.

Unless Kitty's with you. Then, what the hell--go for it.

"Oh, Heavenly Coke!"


Tenebrous Kate said...

I blind-viewed this one as part of the "Grindhouse" box as well, and can attest to the... erm... WOW-ness of this movie. As in "wow, I can't believe I'm watching this and--WOW--I can't believe I'm having this much *fun* watching this!" I was pretty much *raised* on 80s action flicks (HBO used to screen some real barrel-scrapers with commercials that included the timeless catchphrase "It ain't Bergman, but things blow up") and this has some of the kooky energy of the weirdest of those movies. The 'Nam Flashbacks are particularly amazing--I especially love the unmistakably deciduous-forested "jungle" sets. Killer write-up of this little nugget of weirdness, sir!

The Duke of DVD said...

Wowee. Yes, I must watch this. It sounds like Rambo crossed with Westside Story crossed with Death Wish. I love how 80's movies always have the dudes dressing in what would now be considered gay at best. I'm reminded of Sleepaway Camp, in which all of the jocks dress in cut-off jean shorts and knotted t-shirts and/or muscle shirts, and generally look like they are rent boys who just walked out of a bar called A League of Extraordinarily Horny Gentleman.

Props on the great review, Vicar. I must add this one to ye olde DVD collection.

Karswell said...

I unleashed some bat shit this week too, haha... The Kings of Batshittery. It's what all the cool d00ds are saying these days.

Not sure I've ever seen this one either, box art looks a little too much on the action oriented side of the isle for my tastes but I do likie the bat shittamous.

No to drugs. Yes to Kitty.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Kate--I thought about mentioning the Backyard Nam sets, but I ran out of space. :) I liked the way explosions were indicated by someone blasting a flamethrower from just out of frame, too!

Duke--You DEFINITELY need to see this one. Knowing your early-career Stallone fixation, this knock-off will warm the heartles of your cock...or something.

>>I do likie the bat shittamous.

Are you high RIGHT NOW? :P

Anonymous said...

"The plot is equal parts The Punisher and First Blood: in a 1980s Los Angeles where crime is rampant and hobo-patterned red bandannas are ubiquitous, the people cower in their homes, praying for a savior."

I recall few people huffing of the Exterminator as a Punisher rip-off. Well, "we all live in glass houses"....

Yes, the Punisher came out in 1973, and the Exterminator came out in 1980. However, I seriously doubt that they had the former character in mind when this film came out. In any event, somebody got ripped off.

"Basically, the Punisher always seemed to me a very direct rip-off of the Executioner, the lead character of a long series—eventually over three hundred of them—of pulp drugstore paperback books starting back in 1969. Mack Bolan was a Vietnam special forces vet, his family was killed by the Mafia, and used his combat skills to kill, ultimately, thousands upon thousands of mobsters. Frankly, I’m amazed there was any organized left in this country by the time he was done.

The Punisher was basically the Executioner, a murderous sorta-hero awkwardly inserted into the Comics Code-supervised Marvel Comics superhero universe back in a 1974 issue of The Amazing Spider-Man. It wasn’t until later, when Wolverine of the X-Men confirmed a taste for anti-heroes, that the Punisher started getting his own series (and by now he’s had quite a few). In these the superhero aspects of the universe were downplayed in favor of often baroque but straighter killing-the-gangsters stuff. I’ve never really been sure why Marvel was never sued over the Punisher. Perhaps he floated around so long as a minor character that when he hit it big, it was too late to retroactively sue for copyright violation".

A helpful book by Brad Mengel will detial the paperback original adventure series trend, including the vigilante characters, with a release date in June.

Gerry Conway also admitted the influence of the Shadow.

Anonymous said...

The original Shadow had more than a little in common, attitude-wise, with writer Don Pendleton's popular (and much imitated) "Mack Bolan" character, whose bloody, one-man war against organized crime is chronicled in the EXECUTIONER paperback series. While I've never been overly enamored of Mr. Pendleton's creation, myself... even he deserved far better than the wholesale swiping of his conceptual mainsprings enacted by comics scribe Gerry Conway (during his lengthy tenure on Marvel's SPIDER-MAN series), re: The Punisher.

Quite simply: "Frank Castle" (a.k.a., The Punisher) was lifted, wholesale -- origin; motivation; and motif -- straightaway from the better-known (and immensely popular, at the time) EXECUTIONER series of novels. A man whose family is wiped out during a "mob" crossfire; the near-psychotic obsession with (and totemization of) "the holy, cleansing power of firearms"; the hag-ridden quest to rid the world of all gangsters, everywhere -- preferably, one bullet at a time. "And so" (in the words of the immortal Vonnegut) "it goes."

Stuff this shameless and opportunistic goes well beyond any reasonable definition of the word "homage"... particularly when the original creation (to say nothing of its author) is never afforded so much as a tipping of the hat by latter-day parvenus. Were I Mr. Pendleton's legal counsel... this sort of thing would have occasioned a hefty little lawsuit decades ago.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Anonymous--thanks for the exhaustive scholarship on the subject! Even if the subject of the scholarship is not in actuality the subject under discussion in this review.

Whether THE EXTERMINATOR ripped off the PUNISHER is not really my concern here, since I'm not reviewing THE EXTERMINATOR. It's mentioned here only b/c it seems to be the movie distributors were hoping moviegoers would think THE EXECUTIONER, PT. 2 was a sequel to--though as stated clearly above, it was not.

I mention THE PUNISHER only as a point of comparison to what the vigilante in this movie is up to, not to make any claims as to whether it or THE EXTERMINATOR came first, second, or fifth. I stand by my claim that the plot is PUNISHER-esque, as much as it's RAMBO-esque.

Thanks for reading, though! Stay vigilant!

Anonymous said...

The book Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction will cover this Vietnam Vets to Vigilantes trend. It tended to peter out after the 1980's, with 1985's The Annihilators as one of the last examples.

By the way, oddly enough, in the first Exterminator film, a policeman accidentally calls the Exterminator "The Executioner".

Anonymous said...

Did you notice that they never attempt to explain how the Executioner finds so many crimes in progress? He just pops up on cue. Even the best policeman rarely, if ever, just stumbles upon a crime in progress.

Other writers realized the incongruity of this, and set about solving the problem.
In the sequel novel to Death Wish, Death Sentence, Brian Garfield realized this.
Page 38

"Long ago Paul [the Vigilante] had learned not to waste time in fruitless search for felons in the act of committing crimes; the odds were too long. A robbery took place in the city every three minutes.....but it was an enormous city and there were three million potential victims".

Paul Benjamin, besides using himself as bait, comes up with the idea of shadowing the court houses. After all, criminals often are repeat offenders who have to show up for parole hearings, methadone treatment, etc. So, he tails them from the court house. See page 56

In Hero At Large and The Exterminator 2, we see the protagonists listening to a police scanner.

Anonymous said...

I should note that while the Punisher had debuted before this film came out, he had not received his own series until after it came, only appearing about a dozen times in the interregnum, so I doubt the makers of this film had that property in mind. Of course, the Executioner (as in Don Pendleton's Mack Bolan; this film does not officially adapt those books), reprints of the Shadow, etc. had steadily shown up in bookstores.

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