Color, 1986, 93 mins. 29 secs.
Directed by Paul Leder
Starring Bernard White, Marilyn Hassett, Dick Sargent, Greg Mullavey, Haunani Minn, Thomas Ryan, Lauren Woodland, Steven Ford
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Long after scoring a drive-in perennial with the twisted psychodrama I Dismember Mama, writer-director Paul Leder kept chugging along delivering a string of idiosyncratic oddities ranging from the 3-D stunner Ape to low-budget curios like Red Light in the White House and My Friends Need Killing. Very much in the Leder mold is his stab at a sentimental slasher film, The Eleventh Commandment (or The 11th Commandment to go by the title card), which barely got a release in the waning days of distributor Manson International (Savage Streets) and got a low-profile 1988 VHS release from Forum Home Video. Now the film has been revived for the first time in decades by Vinegar Syndrome after a peculiar ownership route through Orion and then MGM, its current owner, and its quirky mash up of genres and tones has a better chance of playing with viewers today.
Confined to a mental institution in Los Angeles where everyone seems to only drink Shasta, Robert Knight (White) thinks he's a priest and even dresses up appropriately on multiple occasions, much to the annoyance of the corrupt, sadistic, or negligent staff (including future The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star James Avery) who resort to unmotivated shock treatment on occasion. Robert insists that he saw his wicked uncle Charles (Bewitched's Sargent, also sleazing it up in Leder's I'm Going To Be Famous) murder his father and rape his mother before killing her as well, but the doctors (who are of course on Charles' payroll) keep trying to convince him it was all a bad dream. After a particularly nasty round of punishment, Robert uses a handy scalpel to stage a deadly nocturnal escape and determines to not only get revenge but reconnect with his one virtuous relative, little cousin Deborah (The Young and the Restless' Woodland). He manages to get the little girl into a stolen family limo (after killing the driver) and gets to know her over the course of a day that's also interrupted by the occasional stabbing or two including a blackmailing hotel manager / prostitute (played with gusto by Slumber Party Massacre II and Heathers' Jennifer Rhodes). As Robert closes in on his uncle, other complications come into play including a corrupt cop and Deborah's wildly negligent mom, Joanne (Two-Minute Warning's Hassett), who has a manipulative plan of her own.
It's probably best to approach this as a melodrama with a ridiculously high body count instead of a traditional horror film, since this one doesn't really go for scares and actually plays like more of a tragic character study. That isn't to say there aren't moments of amusement, particularly during the murder melee that takes up the last half hour; in one especially wild moment, a major character expires in a welter of blood while exclaiming, "You slut!" The religious aspect is actually less relevant than you might think after the opening act with only a brief bit of moral conflict on Robert's part near the end, but White's performance is actually quite effective and sincere in his scenes with Woodland. Since all the other characters are completely reprehensible, the film manages to pull a neat trick by actually having you on their side despite Robert's tendency to stab holes in people threaten him.
Available on Blu-ray in a limited slipcover edition (2,500 units), The Eleventh Commandment features a new 2K scan from the 35mm interpositive and looks very nice throughout apart from some inherent shortcomings in the production itself (mainly a rough edit or two). The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track is also devoid of any significant issues and comes with optional English SDH subtitles. Also included are two new interviews, both recorded via video conferencing during the COVID-19 pandemic. In "A Lifetime of Preparation" (17m13s), White explains how he researched for the role (including studying Hamlet and the Bible) as well as bringing his own costume choice into play, his other work with Leder on The Education of Allison Tate, and how he wanted to dodge any unsavory connotations to his relationship with Deborah. Then in "Through the Eyes of a Child" (11m55s), Woodland chats about getting into child acting in Arizona, bonding with her main costar, and feeling proud of the film while considering it something outside the horror genre. A brief promotional still gallery (34s) is also included.
Reviewed on August 23, 2020