Originally written for Hell Broke Luce
I confess that I’ve always been one of “those” weird people who’s always had a morbid interest and curiosity when it comes to serial killers. I’ve done my fair share of reading over the years on most of the “big” ones (you know, Ed Gein, Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Zodiac, Dennis Raider (BTK), and Gary Ridgway (the Green River killer) just to name a few) not to mention having watched countless interviews, documentaries TV specials detailing their cases, trials and the frenzy that usually comes with them. Can’t help it, there will always be something fascinating to me about what makes these people tick, and I’m obviously not the only one when you consider the extensive and more often than not sensationalistic media coverage these types of cases normally get. William Friedkin’s criminally (pun intended) under seen Rampage was loosely based on the real life case of Richard Chase AKA “The Vampire of Sacramento”. I knew next to nothing about Chase and his crimes, but that didn’t matter one bit in regards to me wanting, wait, scratch that, needing to see this film. As if a film about a blood drinking serial killer directed by Friedkin wasn’t enough, add the fact that Ennio Morricone did the score and you’ve got material that needs to be seen much sooner than later. Friedkin fan’s have been all about Rampage for years, although as most fans will tell you, much like the majority of Friedkin’s post-Exorcist (1973) output, Rampage is a film that still needs to be seen much sooner than later by a greater number of people.
During the Christmas season of 1986 in the community of Stockton, California, Charles Reece (Alex McArthur), the seemingly normal all American boy next door type, snaps and goes on a murderous rampage, killing four people. As a result of suffering from paranoid delusions, Reece drinks his victim’s blood, mutilates the bodies and harvests the internal organs. He is subsequently captured and brought to trial. The defense is claiming insanity, although the prosecuting attorney Anthony Fraser (Michael Biehn) isn’t buying it, fearing that if Reece is found not guilty by reason of insanity there is a risk of him eventually being falsely declared “cured” by psychiatrists and re-released back into society. When faced with the brutality of Reece’s crimes and after meeting with the husband and son of one of the victims, Fraser vows to never let that happen and decides to seek the death penalty, going against his liberal beliefs, all the while coping with a personal tragedy of his own that has resurfaced as a result of the case.
Part psycho-thriller, part courtroom drama, Rampage packs one hell of a punch. It’s a very balanced film in the sense that it gives us not only the visual horror of Reece’s crimes and their after effects, but the emotional horrors inflicted upon the victims (the time between Fraser and the husband of one of the victims is well spent) plus the moral tug of war we see Fraser go through by having his legal beliefs turned upside down. Fraser’s personal tragedy angle is played just right, giving us just the right amount of need to know information without interfering with the main storyline. For a film dealing with topics as heavy as the death penalty and the insanity plea, the film never comes across as preachy to me. Rather than being pro or anti, Freidkin treats the viewer as if they were a juror in the case, giving you the facts and having you form your own opinions regarding such issues. Friedkin presents everything with an in your face realism that’s quite raw and at times can downright nasty, mixed with moments of high style giving us a glimpse at Reece’s hallucinations where we briefly see though his eyes, and an expertly photographed scene taking place inside a church which makes particularly memorable use of the color red (the whole film makes particularly memorable usage out of that color as you can probably guess). Never once during the courtroom scenes did it feel like I was watching a movie. One scene always sticks out is when the defense attorney is grilling a psychiatrist testifying for the prosecution asking him if it’s true his nickname is “Dr. Death”. It may sound like a very cinematic and scripted line but I can totally see some hotshot lawyer making a statement like that hoping to get a sound byte or be quoted on the evening news. Morricone’s surprisingly subtle yet somber and unnerving score works hand in hand with Friedkin’s visuals, amplifying the grim feelings of loss and grief felt throughout the entire film.
Something tells me Alex McArthur studied interview footage of real serial killers because everything from his mannerisms to his delivery is spot on. There’s almost a childlike quality to Reece which only fuels the question of his sanity in the legal sense of the word, but then there’s also the way he calmly states, assembly knowing full well just what he’s saying, how he loves to cut people with a knife and watch their faces turn white, all the while with a smile on his own face. What’s even more striking is the resemblance he bears to the “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez (who was captured two years before the film was shot) in the beginning parts of the film, what with the long hair and aviator sunglasses. Damn eerie. One of the greatest, most unheralded serial killer portrayals that’s for sure. Michael Biehn really gets to show off what he’s made of here, and I’d go so far as to call his performance in Rampage his finest hour. You’ll not only buy into the inner debate his character is going through, but feel it, particularly when his past comes into the picture. He especially shines during the trial sequences, always passionate, yet never once does he spill over into melodramatic territory. Totally pro. One of the coolest things about Rampage is it’s supporting cast which is made up of some pretty familiar faces such as legendary character actor Billy Green Bush who plays the judge overseeing the trial. To me though, he’s always be Jay Brown from the original Critters (1986). Twin Peaks fans will no doubt geek out over the presence of Grace Zabriskie, who plays Reece’s loopy prescription drug addled mother, and of course the son of one of Reece’s victims is played by Whit Hertford, probably best known to genre fans as Jacob, the titular “Dream Child” from A Nightmare on Elm Street 5 (1989).
Rampage had quite the release history. The film was shot in 1987 but before the film could make it to American theatres it’s distribution company De Laurentiis Entertainment Group went bankrupt which caused the film to be shelved. It wasn’t until 5 years later in 1992 that the film actually saw a theatrical release and even then it seemed to fly quietly under the radar. Before the film made it to cinemas, Friedkin went back and re-shot parts of the film and changed the ending. Having seen both versions, I can say that I much prefer the later version, as I felt the original ending was somewhat out of place and didn’t really mesh with the rest of the film and it’s harsh realism. Of course the film isn’t officially available on DVD in North America, only in Poland and I have no clue what version of the film is used. Normally I’m a pessimist when it comes to things like this, but there was a time when fans thought the chances of Friedkin’s infamous Cruising (1980) making it to disc were slim to none, but that finally received a worthy DVD release a few years back, so I’m a glass (of blood) half full guy when it comes to Rampage hopefully receiving the digital treatment one day, and I know I’m not alone in thinking that it’s long overdue. Rampage is a real kick in the balls, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s rare to see a film tackle such subject matter the way this film does, and closely mirror reality in the process. Maybe even closer than some would rather admit. It isn’t always pretty, presenting you with things that I’ll wager a good number of people would rather not even think about, but I wouldn’t expect anything less from Friedkin.
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