Color, 1974, 90 mins. 20 secs.
Directed by Bob Kelljan
Starring Jo Ann Harris, Peter Brown, Jennifer Lee Pryor, Lisa Moore, Connie Strickland, Patricia Estrin, Lada Edmund Jr.
Scorpion Releasing (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), MGM (MOD DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Ex Film (DVD) (Australia R4 PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
Earning its place in the history books as the first film to feature a psycho in a hockey mask (years before Alone in the Dark and Friday the 13th Part 3-D), this drive-in shocker marked the fourth and final consecutive film at American International Pictures for director (and former actor) Bob Kelljan after the two Count Yorga films and Scream Blacula Scream. Confusingly, the film was shot under the title Rape Squad and actually made the rounds with that name when AIP found the safer, blander option of Act of Vengeance didn't catch on. However, the current climate would make it very difficult to make that first title fly now, so on home video it's been Act of Vengeance for many years.
Out alone one night in Laurel Canyon, Linda (The Beguiled's Harris) is attacked by the brutal Jack (Foxy Brown's Brown) who sports a hockey mask and orange jumpsuit. Her ordeal includes being gagged with a bandanna, raped in a barn, and forced to sing a particularly grim version of "Jingle Bells." Going to the police proves to be a frustrating and degrading experience that leaves her screaming in frustration about the police's inability to do anything about the serial rapist, whose song choice makes him easy to identify. Her only resort is to team up with fellow victims Nancy (Pryor), Angie (Estrin), and Teresa (Strickland), and Karen (Moore) to form a crisis team for women to turn to when reporting rapes, but things soon escalate when the women take martial arts classes and decide to take down sex offenders in their tracks.
Obviously made decades before the MeToo movement, Act of Vengeance is fascinating to watch today as it features the required amount of exploitation elements (topless nudity, blaring music, and very politically incorrect dialogue) but sticks to a female perspective throughout the story. That includes an early, grueling depiction of the forensic process involving in reporting a sexual assault, likely the first time it had ever been depicting before a relatively mainstream theatrical audience. The disconnect between the women's skimpy clothing (or complete lack thereof) in several key scenes and the film's clear anti-rape message led to condemnation from more than a few critics including Roger Ebert, but anyone relatively seasoned in '70s drive-in fare should be able to reconcile the two without quite as much trouble. There are a few very tone deaf moments along the way including some jarring moments of comic relief, but there really isn't another film out there quite like it. All of the actresses are convincing and interesting in their roles, though the biggest surprise might be a short but pivotal third act appearance by a young Anneka Di Lorenzo, who would also appeared in The Centerfold Girls and Mama's Dirty Girls the same year before going on to infamy with her scene opposite Lori Wagner in Caligula. The famous Penthouse Pet would go on to sue Bob Guccione, appear as an ill-fated nurse in Dressed to Kill, and die under suspicious circumstances in 2011 at Camp Pendleton.
Mostly ignored when it came out on VHS from Thorn EMI in the '80s, this film sat out much of the home video era until it eventually turned up as a burned-on-demand DVD-R from MGM in 2011 featuring a pretty solid widescreen transfer. That was also the source for a 2016 Australian DVD and VHS combo edition, which adds on an audio commentary by Alexandra Heller-Nichols and an interview with Pryor. In 2019, Scorpion Releasing bowed the film on Blu-ray with an HD transfer provided by MGM that's up to par with their usual AIP catalog work; that means bright, impressive colors, pretty good detail, and a somewhat dated but reasonable presentation of black levels. The DTS-HD MA English mono track is also in great shape, with optional English SDH subtitles provided. A new interview is featured with Jennifer Pryor (12m39s), who chats about Janet Maslin's positive response to her performance, her approach to the character as a Laurel Canyon type, the creepy shooting conditions for the long nocturnal finale in Griffith Park, and plenty more. Also included are the alternate Rape Squad title sequence, the trailer, and bonus trailers for The Cycle Savages, Night Visitor, Youngblood, and California Dreaming.
Reviewed on September 12, 2019.