Death Wish II (1981)

Repugnant, poorly made shite. 

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Death Wish, despite not being in the same calibre as other hugely controversial 1970’s films like A Clockwork Orange, The Devils, The Exorcist and so on, was a pretty effective, debate-worthy thriller regarding vigilantism, well made, and considering Charles Bronson has got to be the most stoic actor ever, well performed. It was directed by Michael Winner, who regularly hovers near the top of Worst Director Ever lists thanks to his tacky, exploitative, wooden approach. He mostly sticks to insurance commercials and restaurant criticism these days, but in his late 70’s-late 80’s ‘heyday’, he made hugely crass, censor-baiting and frankly awful piles of trash, none more exploitative than 1981’s Death Wish II.

As far as censorship goes, this has got to be one of the most controversial films in British history. In an era when nearly everything finally gets passed uncut or has their bans lifted, Death Wish II still has nearly four minutes missing. I’ve read up on the missing minutes too, and it’s easy to see why they’re not present in the UK version. The chief offenders are a couple of rape sequences near the start that I’ve never seen in their complete version, and you know what? I’m not exactly pining for their re-inclusion. Now, and let’s get totally obvious here, rape is horrific. It happens, and it’s horrible. So is murder. Yet, murder can be presented on film in ways that are strangely poetic, spectacular, funny, intense… we can watch murder on screen, and it can be artistic. Rape on the other hand, is far less acceptable, and there’s no real way of presenting it other than the way it should be presented; horrifically. Any attempts to justify the rape, side with the rapist, or film it in a way that’s sexy, and you’re in trouble. You just can’t make light of it, or make it something that it isn’t. And you know what, I’m fine with that. Some things should remain taboo.

Does that mean I approve of censorship? Now we’re in tough territory. It’s easy to say that all censorship is wrong, but what happens when the film really does appear to be totally irresponsible? The thing is I haven’t seen Death Wish II uncut, so I’m really in no position to comment. The judgements I pass on this film are towards a version that is not the same one the censors got so angry about. So, maybe I should be quiet. However, it’s pretty obvious from even the cut version of Death Wish II that rape is being used as nothing more than a spectacle, a set-piece. This is a sequel, and for more or less the SAME THING to happen again to Bronson’s family/loved ones just smacks of cash-in/exploitation. To quote Die Hard 2, ‘How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?’

In the first gang-rape sequence, involving Bronson’s housemaid, Winner’s just giving the public more of what they (don’t) want. It seems designed to up the shock of the first film, in the same way that horror sequels need to make the deaths gorier and more outrageous than before to pull in the crowds. And that’s just the cut version. In the uncut version, this sequence goes on far longer. Nudity is expected in a rape scene, but Winner lingers on the details way too much. Was there really a need for a carefully posed (in other words, we see everything) dead naked body? The second rape, involving Bronson’s daughter, is almost well-directed at the start. Bronson’s daughter was raped in the first film and has been left mute and stuck in arrested development. Before she is raped, it’s chilling how she doesn’t even externally react, left numb by the horrors she has experienced, and is now experiencing again. But the film spoils it all by lingering on her breasts like we’re watching a soft-core porno, then goes way overboard by having her jump out of the window and land on a set of railings horror-movie style. As films like The Omen, Saw and Final Destination shamefully but entertainingly show us, death can be a special effect. Rape can’t be the same thing. These two scenes are ugly (as they should be), but worryingly, they feel ugly from a directorial and scriptwriting viewpoint too, in a way that the rape scene in the first film didn’t, because that wasn’t some cash-in sequel that takes a very sensitive subject and literally defiles it. Compare this to something like 1988’s The Accused, which presents rape in the only way it really should be shown (sorry to be a prude, but there you go), and that’s in a realistic and straightforward way.

What’s more insulting than the rape scenes themselves are the way the film carries on like nothing has happened. Now, a defender of Death Wish II could claim that Bronson’s near-total lack of emotion at the scenes we have just witnessed could be to do with the fact that he has already been rendered numb by the events in the first film. Or, it could be that Winner just does not give a shit about anything like that and that these rape scenes were included to give Bronson another opportunity to kick some ass. Seriously, the lack of empathy is almost alien. He treats his daughter’s death like some minor inconvenience. After the ugliness of the first act, Death Wish II settles into regular trash cinema and doles out the violence which, as horrible as it is, is a lot more palatable than what we’ve already seen in the first act. Bronson wears a woolly hat and books a room in a dingy hotel in a dingy area full of pimps, prostitutes, piss-heads and more rescue missions than you’d think was possible on a single stretch of high street. Bronson tracks down each member of the gang, kills them, moves on, has an awkward scene with his real-life wife Jill Ireland (who can’t really act at all) to pad out the running time, and then does some more killing. He tracks down the last of the gang, gets him electrocuted, walks out, and roll credits. Now, some of the deaths in this film are quite funny – two stand out in particular.

One of them involves a horrifically bearded little shit of a rapist who is making some deal with some other criminals in some abandoned dive – Bronson comes in, kills one of them, tells the others to get lost but demands the little shit stay put. He looks scared, as he should be, and Bronson notices he’s wearing (and clutching) a cross around his neck. Bronson asks him if he believes in Jesus, to which the shit whimpers ‘Yes, yes I do’. Bronson literally sighs the reply ‘Well, you’re gonna meet him’ (he’s more or less asleep during the film) and shoots him through his hand, through the cross and through him. Just for good measure, he shoots again, making the corpse hilariously re-animate like a bloody zombie or like when a patient is buzzed with one of those defibulators that make them leap off the operating table. Now, you might notice that I’m making light of death, laughing at it, in a way that I wouldn’t do with a rape scene. Jesus, I even found the supposedly funny rape scene involving a naked woman and a severed head in Re-Animator more messed-up than funny, though some claim to find that scene hilarious. You can laugh at death. You can’t laugh at rape.

OK, back to the death, and the other one that got me howling with laughter was the one that is inflicted upon Laurence Fishburne III. That’s right, he’s dropped the ‘Larry’ from Apocalypse Now, added some Roman numerals, and with this film, effectively soiled his career for a few good years, after which he’d go back to Larry, and later on back again to Laurence, though without the ‘III’. Anyway, Bronson’s in stalking-mode, spying on Larry and his scum-buddies dancing pretty badly to ghetto-blaster music, all of them looking more like the rejects from Fame rather than the sicko criminals we saw earlier on in the film. Bronson follows them as they meet-up with some more target practise-fodder, and they’re all blown away, but none more spectacularly than Larry, who attempts to shield his face from an incoming bullet by holding the ghetto-blaster in front of him. The bullet goes clean through the boom-box and gets Larry RIGHT IN THE FACE, after which he spits out loads of blood, and I swear, even a tooth. That’s right, Winner is such a stickler for accuracy he made sure that his incisor spilled out, because it’s that kind of movie. Realism counts.

They’re the only two worthwhile elements in this sequel, which aren’t enough to elevate the film into hilarious bad-movie territory. We’d have to wait for Death Wish 3 for that (why is the second film spelt with Roman numerals but third with a number?), which really is an amazing experience to behold, up there with Commando and Stone Cold in the realm of gut-bustingly hilarious B-movies. That film also features a rape scene, but somehow, in the context of the film, it’s nowhere near as offensive as anything in Death Wish II, just another schlock element to add to the proceedings. The cop who investigated the vigilante killings in the first film re-appears in DWII to track down Bronson, but he doesn’t last long, taking a round in the belly as soon as he gets involved in the action, but surviving long enough to tell our comatose hero to ‘go get the motherfuckers’. It’s almost like the equivalent of the cook taking forever to get to the hotel in The Shining only to get literally axed as soon as he arrives, but here it’s nowhere near as tragic – here’s it’s just, oh right, whatever.

Death Wish II is crass AND boring, an astonishing feat to pull off when you think about it, but you can always trust Winner to not deliver the goods. Incidentally, the wildly erratic soundtrack comes courtesy of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, and it veers from sentimental string-swept rubbish, to dated rock-funk to an admittedly very effective ‘growling’ theme for whenever Bronson’s walking and stalking the streets. It’s the only genuinely great bit about the film.

The Devils (1971)

One of the most controversial films ever made. It’s a classic.

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Plot synopsis: Loudon, France. The 17th-century. Urbain Grandier, a promiscuous but passionately political priest is instrumental in ensuring his town is independent from the rest of the country, much to the anger of Cardinal Richelieu, who wishes to gain complete control. At the same time, an outbreak of apparent ‘possessions’ amongst the local nunnery, specifically that of sexually repressed Mother Superior Jeanne (who obsessively desires Grandier) gives Richelieu the opportunity compromise Grandier’s rule of Loudon by accusing him of witchcraft…. (based on true events)

The Devils is one of the most controversial films ever made, and all because of the touchiest of cinematic subjects – religion. The film is violent (near the end) and sexual (mostly around the halfway point), but in terms of volume, containing nothing near the kind of violent and/or sexual content you get in films these days. Yet, when the most notorious scene involves a group of hysterical nuns sexually ravishing (in effect raping) a life-size model of Christ, you know the film’s in trouble. For viewers of a certain religious inclination, this could be the most shocking scene in cinema history, and you won’t see it in the new DVD release of The Devils. Other versions of the film do feature it, but not in a print as amazing as the one for this scrubbed-up 2012 re-release, and that’s a shame, because Ken Russell’s masterpiece really is one of the most visually striking films ever made, and yet without the ‘Rape of Christ’ sequence, the film is neutered as a result. This edition is the original UK ‘X’ version, which also suffers from other cuts, little snippets here and there, an important scene at the end removed, though for fans of the film, it’s a start that this version is available – hopefully, we’ll get a version closer to Ken Russell’s own director’s cut (given a limited release in 2004) further down the line.

The film got some appalling reviews on release – sick, filthy, degraded, disgusting… the whole grotty spectrum of negativity was unleashed onto it, but these days, it’s difficult to see what the critics got so offended about. It’s an ugly film for sure, yet for all its controversy, this is a film ABOUT sacrilege and blasphemy, and is not necessarily a sacrilegious or blasphemous film. The infamous dream sequence where Jeanne has a vision of Grandier as Christ, with whom she proceeds to lick his wounds and roll around in the mud, is an audacious, stunningly weird, bold moment, and moments like this (sexualising Christ) was going to infuriate some. The scene feels as forbidden to us as it is to Jeanne, and that’s the point. Of course, Ken Russell being the outrageous director he was, the ‘Rape of Christ’ scene certainly intends to shock, thanks to the wild camerawork, uninhibited performances and intense music, but it’s not just shock for shock’s case – then again, this was far beyond what audiences were used to back in 1971, and the likes of A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and so on would only contribute further to the seventies being the most challenging decade in cinema history in terms of what was permissible on screen. There is (even in the ‘X’ rated version) disgusting things to behold, but it doesn’t feel excessive or gratuitous. It does however, repel, and that’s what it’s supposed to do.

When I was growing up, Oliver Reed was little more than a comedy drunk, the one who loved to dance on chat shows, or (less amusingly) make sexist comments to feminist critics. Oh, and he was one of the Musketeers. Before re-watching The Devils, I knew he’d made some respectable films in the sixties, and he was an undeniable screen presence, but his off-screen antics threatened to overwhelm his cinematic achievements. As for Ken Russell, I knew him as an outrageous, over-the-top director whose only films I’d seen were the ones he made in the Eighties and Nineties – stuff like The Rainbow (decent DH Lawrence adaptation – decent as in it’s a decent film, I haven’t read the book), The Lair of the White Worm (ridiculous, almost bad, but fun), Whore (just bad) and his TV adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (very, very appealing, but I was sent upstairs because it was too rude – fair enough, it was too embarrassing to watch with my family). When I first saw The Devils, I thought it was good, great on a purely visceral level (even if I was too young to know what the word ‘visceral’ meant) but was arguably too young to really appreciate it. The thing is, there wasn’t much of an opportunity to revisit the film, as it more or less got withdrawn from Warner Bros.’ release schedule, the big-studio clearly getting cold feet over releasing such a controversial film. So even though it’s a Warner Bros. film, it’s the British Film Institute who have released it on DVD, albeit in the compromised UK ‘X’ cut (be thankful it’s not the butchered US ‘R’ cut).

The film is almost an embarrassment of riches – the confidence and sweep of the film is breathtaking – I haven’t seen many of Russell’s other highly rated films (I’ve only seen the badly rated ones), but I’ve heard that this represents him at his peak, and Derek Jarman’s sets are totally striking, using white to a startling and intense degree, while Peter Maxwell Davies’s atonal, near avant-garde score only helps to hammer the horror further into your mind. As for the performances, Reed is just brilliant in this – the screen just eats him up, his presence commands your attention; and his acting during his unbearable torture scenes is worryingly effective– the film’s almost too painful to watch during these moments, and it’s more to do with his performance than any on-screen violence. Vanessa Redgrave also gives a wildly abandoned, deeply impressive performance – the best I’ve ever seen her give, frankly. Hysterical madness and the like is a tricky thing to pull off on screen – it’s all too easy to go overboard into laughable silliness, but here it works. It’s a fearless performance. It’s also weird to see familiar TV faces in the likes of this, such as Dudley Sutton (from Lovejoy), Georgina Hale (from kids TV show T-Bag, and she gets naked in this, which feels wrong to watch for some reason) and Brian Murphy (George and Mildred), but they acquit themselves very well, especially Sutton, who is particularly loathsome as Richelieu’s deputy. There’s also Michael Gothard, who’s probably best known as the silent killer in For Your Eyes Only; as the witch-hunter assigned to ‘prove’ the demonic influence in the convent is real, he’s brilliantly manipulative and extravagant, stirring things up no end. Finally, Gemma Jones (as Grandier’s clandestine bride) adds some much needed purity and innocence to a film decidedly bereft of such things.

This is a film of its time, but for all time too, sadly enough. The film’s handling of corruption and those it brainwashes and victimises leaves one drained. It ends on a particularly grim note, and seems so dispirited with human nature that it’s a sad experience overall. It’s also one of the most remarkable films ever made, and anyone who can handle it should watch it.