Saturday, October 5, 2013

DEATH WEEKEND (1976) movie review

Death Weekend (aka The House by the Lake) (1976) d. William Fruet (Canada)

Lothario dentist Chuck Shamata lures comely model Brenda Vaccaro away to his secluded woodland getaway under the false pretense of a grand socialite party. A lover of expensive toys, he flaunts his flashy sports car, only to discover that she’s the superior driver after he smugly obliges her request to take the wheel. Unfortunately, a carful of drunken joyriding hoodlums come along the same stretch of road and before long, the two vehicles are locked in a thrilling duel that concludes with the idiots careening into a ditch. The thugs’ enraged leader (Don Stroud) vows revenge; he and his cronies set about tracking the couple to Shamata’s opulent mansion by the lake, subjecting their quarry to an evening of torture, humiliation and rape.

There’s no denying its influences, but this unsung Canucksploitation bastard child of Straw Dogs and Last House on the Left soars on the strength of its central performances by Vaccaro and Stroud, who bring more to their standard roles of “victim” and “tormentor” than most other likeminded imitators. Vacarro’s whiskey-voiced heroine is capable and strong, yet human and vulnerable, while Stroud’s tightly coiled rage machine allows for moments of genuine insecurity and pathos. The other thugs are fairly interchangeable in terms of behavior (obnoxious giggling and smashing), but still succeed in bringing the unease and terror.

Oddly enough, it’s Shamata’s character that proves the most thought-provoking. He is presented as a shallow misogynist, taking clandestine photos of his prospective conquests through a two-way mirror in the shower and expecting them to genuflect to his elevated financial station. But when he encounters Vaccaro, a beautiful woman with brains and substance, he’s clearly stymied when she doesn’t respond to his wealth and cheap passes. In spite of how pathetic he is, Fruet and Shamata have created a three-dimensional character in Harry; it’s easy to imagine his sexually frustrated and bullied youth. He’s done everything he can to fortress his fragile ego, only to watch it be torn down around him.

Writer/director Fruet (helmer of other underrated efforts such as Funeral Home, Killer Party and Blue Monkey) deserves a goodly amount of credit as well, developing a complex indictment of sexual politics and materialism amidst the violence and mayhem. Due credit must also be given to stunt coordinator Denver Mattson for the dazzling race along the backwoods dirt roads (and for his cameo as the unfortunate law officer taken for a drag).

A true diamond in the rough, one still shamefully absent from DVD or Blu-ray.

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