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Every Thursday throughout 2014, we’ll be looking at a film from 1989 that wouldn’t otherwise get a grand 25th Anniversary Celebration. These films may be overlooked, obscure, or downright invisible, and while only a few are undiscovered would-be classics, together they form a look at the psychotronic cinema landscape of a quarter-century ago.
David DeCoteau has directed a lot of movies. IMDb credits him with 113 since 1985, so that’s an average of nearly four a year, and with the number of psuedonyms he’s used (Ellen Cabot, Julian Breen, Victoria Sloan, Richard Chasen, David McCabe) it wouldn’t surprise me if there are even more out there. In the time it’s taken me to write this paragraph, he may have also directed 1313: A SEXY KILLER PUPPETMASTER VS. TALKING HANNUKAH REINDEER!?!. I can’t keep track of his comings and goings.
Over at UK Horror Scene last week, Matty Budreqicz opined that DeCoteau’s PUPPET MASTER III: TOULON’S REVENGE (arguably one of his best films) is linked thematically as part of a “Vengeance Trilogy” with two of his earlier films, 1988’s LADY AVENGER and 1991’s STEEL AND LACE. It’s a statement almost made in jest, but Budregicz is on to something.
But the third film in the trilogy shouldn’t be PUPPET MASTER III – it should be 1989’s AMERICAN RAMPAGE. All three films are cinematic spectacles featuring wronged women out for revenge, and willing to go through an endless supply of blood squibs to get it. It’s not just a “Vengeance Trilogy,” it’s a “Badass Women Vengeance Trilogy,” and it works whether or not DeCoteau intended it.
Now, this doesn’t speak to whether or not AMERICAN RAMPAGE is good. Or coherent. I only promise that it does have an ass-kicking lady cop out for revenge.
That lady cop is Samantha “Sam” Roarke, a vice cop played by Kary Jane. “Who is Kary Jane?” you ask. I have no idea. She never appeared in any other films, so the name may very well by a pseudonym. All I can tell you is that she had short-cropped blonde hair in the late ‘80s and she doesn’t mind doing nudity.
Sam and her new partner Ryan (Thomas Elliott), outfitted in the acid-washed jean jackets so commonly worn by California cops at the time, and the pair are assigned to take down an international drug cartel run by Matt Palmer (the improbably-named Otis T. Longhorn), an ex-CIA operative who now runs “Palmer Enterprises,” which, from what I understand, deals entirely in heroin. His only competition is an L.A. drug seller, though a porn filmmaker named Nigel is also involved. There are also two other cops involved, and the captain just wants to “squelch the drug war that’s been brewing in the streets of Hollywood.”
How do I know all of this? Not because the movie is great at exposition, but because after the film’s first sequence involving a convenience store hold-up and car chase scene featuring Sam and Ryan taking down a pair of the most enthusiastic robbers this side of a DEATH WISH sequel (one of them constantly yelling “I love this!”), we get a slideshow presentation featuring an unseen narrator that presents and introduces every character in the film and their relationships in such a rapid pace as though the audience was supposed to be taking notes. Hell, I couldn’t keep up and I was taking notes.
It’s especially problematic since it’s never clear when in the timeline the presentation is supposed to take place – it references events that happen during the film but doesn’t seem to take place after the film is over, as it doesn’t reference some pretty major happenings. The film makes just as little sense without it, but hell, it’s strangely weird and entertaining.
Sam and Ryan check out the porn filmmaker, who ends up dead afterwards when his car explodes in footage that may very well have been from another movie, as he enters his car at night, and the explosion suddenly makes it daytime. Meanwhile, our drug lord Palmer is starting to gather the troops and suggests “advanced networking and steady opportunity management” in order to woo them in. He also kills a random “green carder” girl (offscreen) after having sex with her (offscreen) in order to show his badassness. A topless Michelle Bauer looks on.
After a bit more sleuthing, our detectives end up in bed together, or more specifically, Ryan’s bed, which seems to be in a teenager’s room. The next morning, the the pair go to a BBQ with Ryan’s brother Jack and his wife Jamie, because the kingpin “won’t be moving anything on a weekend.” (Drug dealers work 9 to 5, just like the rest of us!) They announce that they’re dating (after one night!) so you know it’s all going to go to hell pretty soon.
We also learn that he was partially responsible for the murder of Sam’s parents. In a normal film, this would be crucial information. But AMERICAN RAMPAGE is determined to subvert the exploitation genre, what with jolting editing cuts during sex scenes and music cues from Bob Mamet’s heavy synth score, sub-plots that go nowhere and a confusing amount of characters that keep referring to other characters to the point where you have no idea what’s going on. It’s transgressive, really.
Ryan is soon murdered at a strip club (of course!) and Sam is reassigned with a new partner, Bart North (B.J. Gates), who doesn’t like Ryan’s “Chuck Norris” attitude and demands that “We’re not eating at any place that has ferns.” The two go out to further their investigation, and then Bart is killed, proving Sam is the worst partner ever.
Troy Donohue is in the film. In fact, the film begins with proclaiming TROY DONOHUE in… AMERICAN RAMPAGE. (The “Surfiside 6”’s ‘80s filmography reads like a bargain bin VHS lover’s wet dream, with films by Fred Olen Ray, David Prior, Chuck Vincent, Leo Fong and more – RAMPAGE is one of 11 films from 1989 in which he appeared, so this won’t be the last time you’ll see him pop up in this column.) Donohue plays a police psychiatrist (whom Sam sees often for obvious reasons) and his appearances are confined to one room and are often performed solo, just talking into a phone. (I bet the Troy Donohue fan who rented this felt really ripped off!) He makes her promise to not keep a gun in her house, which sounds like a really great idea for a cop who’s being targeted by a drug lord who, in the meantime, has invited all of the other local drug folks to his house again to prove his badassness. Again.
Linnea Quigley shows up briefly to take a shower and get killed in a scene that may not even have been shot for this movie. Johnny Harper (Roger Burt), the investigating officer to her death, is then assigned to be Sam’s newest victim partner, and the pair do some more heroin investigation after going out to eat and talking about their backgrounds and THE GREAT SANTINI.
We then cut to Jack and Jamie (whom we haven’t seen since the BBQ), and Jack decides to investigate his brother’s death. He then gets killed. It doesn’t have any impact on anything. Pathos!
It’s been fifteen minutes since anything bad has happened to one of Sam’s partners, so as soon as Johnny takes a never-nude shower, he’s kidnapped by Palmer and taken to a barn in the middle of an apple orchard. Apparently finally having her fill of dead partners, Sam goes to rescue him, and there’s a big stand-off in which all the bad guys get filled with blood squibs. A van explodes. Credits roll. Happy music plays.
(There’s no big final confrontation with Palmer, Sam just shoots him in the middle of the battle. Take that, traditional climax structure!)
Kary Jane’s very deliberate reading of the likes of “That’s tampering with evidence on the site of a police investigation,” making sure that she gets every word out clearly leads me to believe she’s not really an actress by nature, but she’s certainly not the worst female action lead. At least she comes off like a semi-convincing police officer, someone who could wield a gun without the benefit of special effects. And it’s good to see a heroine that actually kicks ass, saves the day, and doesn’t even get sexually assaulted for it.
AMERICAN RAMPAGE was one of four films DeCoteau directed that was released in 1989, and some of the cast show up in the others, most notably DR. ALIEN and MURDER WEAPON, as well. In most of DeCoteau’s work, the tone is never overly dark, even with all the bullets flying around and the characters getting murdered, and the sleaziness and misogyny that populates a lot of low-budget exploitation films isn’t apparent here. AMERICAN RAMPAGE is no exception, and maybe that’s why it manages to be relatively fun today.
Like a lot of DeCoteau’s other late ‘80s films is that they’re not dull. They may be perplexing, nonsensical and have some questionable acting, but you won’t be bored. It’s partially due to the editing (which is often confusing but never slow), and partially due to DeCoteau not being afraid to move the camera, utilizing handheld shots and doing a good job of framing the events on screen so that, even if you have no idea what the hell is going on, it’s still totally watchable.
There are plenty of blood squibs, donut jokes, gay references (Sam’s from San Francisco!) and dialogue like “this place looks like a squashed armadillo on a Texas interstate!” AMERICAN RAMPAGE feels like several different movies squished uncomfortably together into one, with Jane stuck in the middle desperately trying to hold it all together, and it doesn’t feel the least bit coherent, but it’s still an enjoyably stupid way to kill an evening, especially when you stop trying to make any given five minutes of the film connect to any previous five minutes.
Previously on the 25th Anniversary Project:
Rebecca De Mornay and Paul McGann in DEALERS
Richard A. Haines’ pulpy sci-fi flick ALIEN SPACE AVENGER
Paul Bartel’s all-star sex farce SCENES FROM THE CLASS STRUGGLE IN BEVERLY HILLS
Robert Forster takes on a crossbow-wielding prostitute hunter in THE BANKER
Paul Benedict peers through things in THE CHAIR
Lynn Redgrave tries on some amazing outfits at horror hostess MIDNIGHT
Shannon Tweed plays the Most Dangerous Game in LETHAL WOMAN