Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Film Appreciation - Marines vs. the Manson Family

Thou Shalt Not Kill... Except is a cult movie in more ways than one, and Cody Hamman has Film Appreciation for it.

I'm always slightly envious when I hear that a filmmaker started making movies when they were a youngster and were able to repeatedly gather a group of willing friends to act out their stories in films that would sometimes even have successful screenings in front of audiences. I tried to make movies when I was a teenager, but each attempt was a miserable failure. I couldn't find enough cooperative people to make it work. I only managed a few tries because my friends were either too busy or completely disinterested in what I was trying to do. Why make movies when we can just hang out, smoke cigarettes, and see if we can scrounge up some alcohol? So I'm even more fascinated when more than one film career comes out of a group of friends who grew up together.

Josh Becker made his first Super 8 short when he was just thirteen years old. On his way through high school, he would meet other kids who were shooting Super 8 shorts as well, fellow teenage directors named Scott Spiegel and Sam Raimi, a guy named Bruce Campbell who could act pretty well. This bunch churned out short after short over the years. Becker's interest in film eventually led him to move out to Hollywood when he was one month shy of his 18th birthday in the summer of 1976. He was still living there in July of '79 when he came up with the premise for Thou Shalt Not Kill... Except.

It began with Becker wondering what group would make good villains for a story, and the Manson Family and the horrific home invasion murders that some of its members had perpetrated in 1969 soon came to mind. The year those shocking events hit the news, the United States was in the midst of the controversial Vietnam War, and Becker decided his heroes would be soldiers who fought in the war. He now had a very pitchable concept: "Marines vs. the Manson Family." He took the idea of Marines coming home from Vietnam just to find themselves in another conflict, this time with a murderous cult, to his friend Sheldon Lettich, who came up with a title: Bloodbath.

Becker and Lettich proceeded to write the script together, but it turned out way too long - in the 185 to 200 page range - and much darker than Becker wanted it to be. Lettich had fought in Vietnam himself and wrote serious real world issues into the story that Becker felt took it off track. Characters were dealing with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, you felt bad for the soldiers when they got home and then ashamed for what they did to the cult members... But the script was finished, and with it done Becker and Lettich went off in their own directions.

Becker moved back home to Michigan just in time to join the crew of his old buddy Sam Raimi's feature film endeavor The Book of the Dead, which would go on to be known as the horror classic The Evil Dead. While he worked on Raimi's movie from November '79 through January of 1980, the Bloodbath idea remained stuck in Becker's head, as evident in the journal he kept during the process. By the time filming wrapped at Evil Dead's cabin location in Tennessee, Becker had come up with a different way to approach the concept - "a totally American, John Wayne treatment". Becker and Bruce Campbell rode back to Michigan together, and during the drive Becker told Campbell the new take on Bloodbath and the two spent their interstate journey brainstorming and reworking the story.

When Raimi was trying to get money for Evil Dead, he had shot a smaller version of the idea as a short film called Within the Woods that he used to show to potential investors. Becker decided to take a similar approach to Bloodbath, which got a title change to Stryker's War when Becker rewrote the script and named the lead after John Wayne's character in The Sands of Iwo Jima. With a budget of $5000, Becker was shooting a forty-eight minute Super 8 version of Stryker's War by late summer 1980, starring Bruce Campbell as Stryker and Sam Raimi as the Manson-esque cult leader. Though the shoot went well and Becker was happy with the short, it didn't lead to any takers financing the feature.

Stryker's War was set aside, Becker focused on other projects. Four years later, he and Scott Spiegel were attempting to make a feature length version of a short slapstick Indiana Jones parody called Cleveland Smith: Bounty Hunter that they had shot in 1982 with Campbell and Raimi, but when their self-imposed fundraising deadline of August 17th (Becker's 26th birthday) arrived, they had only raised $18,000 of their $600,000 goal. Cleveland Smith wasn't going to happen. That's when Spiegel brought up the idea of resurrecting Stryker's War. They had 18 grand, the Super 8 short had been made for $5000, surely they could pull off a 16mm feature with about four times the amount of money. Becker was convinced, and they decided that day that filming would begin on October 1st.

And it did. The money ran out in six days, but filming didn't stop and along the way Becker and Spiegel managed to scrape up enough cash to keep things going. Shooting wrapped on November 21, 1984, and Becker officially had his first feature film in the can.

The lack of funds did hinder the film in some ways, most notably in the fact that it meant Bruce Campbell couldn't play Stryker because the movie was made non-union and by the time of filming he had joined the Screen Actors Guild. The role was recast, with an actor named Brian Schulz taking over. Schulz doesn't measure up to The Chin, but that's a near impossible task and he does a fine job. If you don't watch it thinking that it was supposed to star Campbell, it doesn't matter. The loss of an actor aside, Becker didn't let the budget hold him back in many areas, even going ahead and shooting war sequences with the woodsy Michigan countryside standing in for Vietnam, using stock footage for establishing shots and converting the interior of Bruce Campbell's garage into a bunker.

Sergeant Jack Stryker is a Marine serving in Vietnam when he's severely injured in a questionably planned raid on a notoriously dangerous village. Coming home to Michigan, Stryker starts to settle into a life of downing hooch and hanging out at his log cabin with his dog Whiskey. Lest Stryker become an alcoholic hermit, his old pal Otis (Perry Mallette) encourages him to reconnect with his former sweetheart, Otis's granddaughter Sally (Evil Dead "fake Shemp" and Super 8 era regular Cheryl Guttridge). Stryker and Sally's previous try at a relationship fell apart because his military career didn't mesh well with the girl's dedication to high school social events - she wanted him to take her to prom, he had to ship out, they called the whole thing off. But Sally has graduated and matured a bit while Stryker's been gone, so the outlook is brighter this time around.

Unbeknownst to Stryker, a cult of thieves and murderers has moved into the area around his hometown, their leader (Sam Raimi) - who proclaims himself to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ - convincing them to abduct and torture people, invade houses and kill the residents, then leave messages in blood saying things like "The Bloodbath is coming".

When the cult's activities disrupt Stryker's transition back into peaceful civilian life, three fellow Marines who visit him while on leave (John Manfredi, Raimi regular Tim Quill, and Mr. T impersonator Robert Rickman) join him in an assault on this bunch of mad dogs... In other words, the bloodbath that the cult has been prophesying arrives, but not in the way that they're expecting. Instead, it's in the form of an action-filled third act, a twenty minute sequence of Stryker and his cohorts battling the cultists and taking them out in some really cool ways.

Thou Shalt Not Kill... Except is a highly entertaining movie, and a very impressive achievement given the budget it was made for. I first saw the movie rented on VHS in the late '90s and was blown away by it, I was an instant fan. As soon as Anchor Bay released it on special edition DVD in 2000, I bought a copy, and when Synapse Films put out a Blu-Ray/DVD combo upgrade last year, I bought another copy. It's one that I enjoy revisiting regularly, and one that has added to my own vocabulary. At one point Otis drops a line that Becker got from a Stephen King novel (there's a Carrie/Billy Nolan reference in there, too), "Sure as shit sticks to a blanket." In situations where something is certain, that's a line that I'm likely to use myself.

Not only is it a fun action-thriller in its own right, but it's also an interesting movie for fans of The Evil Dead to check out, given how the productions are sort of tied together. The film even got its title from the same man who renamed The Book of the Dead to The Evil Dead, sales agent Irvin Shapiro. Shapiro did not like the title Stryker's War, it sounded to him like it was about characters who were having union troubles, and Becker's suggested fix of calling it Sgt. Stryker's War didn't impress him. He came up with Thou Shalt Not Kill... Except because the Bible has been translated into every language, so to use one of the Ten Commandments in the title would ensure that it was something that everyone would understand, no matter what language was on the marquee or cover art.

Becker's directing career since TSNK...E has included several episodes of Xena: Warrior Process, Lunatics: A Love Story, his self-distributed indie If I Had a Hammer, and, with Bruce Campbell in the lead, Alien Apocalypse and Running Time. Sheldon Lettich, his first co-writer on the script, has gone on to be a frequent Van Damme collaborator on movies like Bloodsport, Lionheart, and Double Impact, as well as writer on Rambo III and writer/director of the Mark Dacascos capoeira flick Only the Strong. His producer and later co-writer Scott Spiegel co-wrote Evil Dead II, wrote and directed the awesome slasher Intruder, directed Hostel III, cameoed in Robot Ninja, and often appears in Sam Raimi's films. Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell... well, everyone knows what they've gone on to do.

In recent years, Campbell has approached Becker with the idea of doing a remake of the concept, now that he's of an appropriate age to play a man retiring from the military. This proposed version would update the story to modern day and pit Campbell's hero character against a villain conceived with Danny Trejo in mind. Becker has completed a draft of the script, last I heard he was just waiting to see if Campbell wanted to move ahead with the project. Someday when Campbell gets some free time away from Burn Notice, it's something that I would love to see happen.

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