Monday, March 8, 2021

“What a Scurvy Looking Broad” - Angel of Vengeance (1987) - Film #199

Initiated by Ray Dennis Steckler and reportedly completed by Ted V. Mikels when Mr. Steckler was fired, Angel of Vengeance (1987) is a collaboration between two of the finest desert-based exploitation directors of the 1970s and 1980s. Of course, as usual, some critics fail to appreciate this revenge-oriented action film. For example, reviewer Leofwine_draca writes, "the awful execution lets this film's something of a chore to sit through, and definitely what you'd call Z-grade." Reviewer action film-2 writes, "The acting ranges from fair to poor." And reviewer Michael_Elliott writes, "There's no drama or suspense so add this to the fact that you don't care about the characters and it's hard to really hold any interest in the film."

Read on for an appreciation of Ted V. Mikels's Angel of Vengeance...

At a mountain inn where a woman is waiting with her luggage, two roofers finish their job and indicate an interest in the woman. “I just want to check her out,” says Manny, a big man with an open shirt.

His companion says, “Don’t make a fool of yourself.”

Manny retorts, without explanation, “Oh really, mister legionnaire?”

The woman, Tina, rebuffs Manny, and he and his companion walk away, though they are instantly accosted by an old woman wearing massive gardening gloves and carrying a basket of bread.

“Would you like to buy some fresh bread? I just baked it myself.”

“Hey, lady, go peddle your shit somewhere else,” Manny says, knocking the bread to the ground. The men leave, and Tina helps the old woman retrieve her loaves. They quickly begin a conversation establishing the film’s backstory, which involves Tina coming to the mountains to write about her father, Colonel Weston Davenport.

“I know about him,” the old woman says. “He died about ten years ago.”

“It’s almost been fifteen years. Are you sure you’re all right?” (It is difficult to tell if her question is about the woman being shoved by Manny or her poor recollection of the colonel’s demise.)

After Tina is directed to her rented cabin, she jogs through a suburban neighborhood that appears to be hundreds of miles from the mountains, then uses a stick to spear a fish in a mountain stream. Still wearing her jogging outfit, she cooks the fish over a campfire while singing the same two lines of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” over and over again.

Manny sneaks up on Tina, but she fends him off with her stick. 

At night, Manny gets drunk and walks to Tina’s cabin. When he tries to break in, she elbows him in the face and calls the police, who take him away.

The next day, in the desert, a group of paramilitary survivalists/doomsday preppers gather at the their camp. “Can the war stories,” says their leader, Major Hargrove. “Those are things of the past. This place is for the future.” He believes that when the apocalypse comes, everyone will be killing and eating each other within a week, so his group will be in a position to take over and establish law. Later, the major leaves to bail Manny out of jail. Driving back to the desert compound, they pass a motorcycle gang whose idea of partying is running around in circles in the middle of a dirt road drinking beer.

When they stop in the middle of the desert so the major can scold Manny, they are surrounded by the bikers, who wear shirts that say “Thrill Killers, Inc.”

“Where’d they come from?” Manny says desperately.

The major pulls an automatic rifle from the back of his truck.

“What the hell’s that for?” asks a biker.

“Killing, mostly,” says the major.

“Killing what?” asks the biker.

“I’m not that particular,” replies the major.

Despite Manny’s excited pleas to kill the bikers, the major merely points the weapon at the bikers until they ride away. 

After the survivalists return to their compound (i.e., a trailer painted with camouflage colors), we return to the bikers where they were originally partying. They decide to “get” the “soldier boys,” though they have no weapons, and ride toward the compound, where the survivalists blow them up with a grenade launcher and shoot them with automatic weapons. 

The survivalists allow three of the gang to live, hanging one woman upside-down from a tower.

They cut her down and bring her to the center of their camp with the other two bikers. “What a scurvy looking broad,” one of the survivalists says (perhaps forgetting he’s not a pirate). The major shoots two of the survivors in the head, leaving the woman who was hanging upside-down as the last biker. He tells Manny he can have her, so he takes her to a jail cell they’ve set up somewhere in the compound. Instead of raping her immediately, he locks her in. “Think about the snake pit,” he says with an inexplicable grin on his face. “Think about the snake pit.”

Finally, after about 20 minutes, the film returns to its main character, Tina, who continues to jog around the mountains and the high desert. Unfortunately, she runs near Manny and another survivalist, and Manny kidnaps her at gunpoint. 

Back at the compound, the major explains strategy to some other survivalists, telling them they need to hide snowmobiles nearby and train in the winter. “We don’t know if war is going to break out in summer, Craig,” he says. “The only think that is certain is that it is gonna happen, some day, some time. And it might be months, maybe years before society gets reorganized out there. We’re gonna be part of that reorganization.” He adds, “Nobody but nobody brings a woman up here! When it breaks it’s gonna be anarchy out there. There’s gonna be disease, starvation, people fighting for a place to stay. You bring people up here, we don’t have food, we don’t survive! And I’m gonna survive! Is that understood?”

Immediately, Manny returns with Tina. As punishment, the major whips Manny with a whip, saying, “This is no wine, women, and song up here. This is no goddamn picnic! We’re talking survival!”

Tina is locked in the jail cell with the surviving biker girl, Linda, who explains the survivalists are murderers.

Later, in a sequence that seems distinct from the rest of the film, Tina is tied to a bed in her underwear as the survivalists take their turns matter-of-factly filing into the room, apparently to rape her, though the film mercifully does not show the rapes.

Elsewhere, a pair of imposing gentlemen drives through the high desert, then finds a random house where a man is chopping wood with a large axe. Without warning, one of the drifters murders the man with the axe.

They do something to the man’s wife offscreen, then for some reason they shoot the axe-murdered man and simply drive away, after saying, “Got no mama. Got no papa.”

Back at the camp, Tina is back in the jail cell when the survivalists come to take her to the major. When they are gone, Linda hits Manny with a beer bottle that comes out of nowhere, and Manny pulls a knife on Linda.

In the desert, the major threatens to kill Tina, but she belittles his manhood—a successful strategy, as she convinces him to give her a chance as pretty in a “Most Dangerous Game” scenario. “Think you’re tough. Hunt a woman,” she says. “An unarmed woman.”

Of course, as any gentleman would, he agrees. “I think we could use the exercise.” He asks his men, “Do you want to hunt a lady?” He gives her a (perhaps generous) two hours to run, then (perhaps unwisely) sends his men one by one after her. 

Meanwhile, the two drifters encounter a picnicking couple, shooting the man and then telling the woman to beg, only to shoot her less than a second after making the request, giving her no chance whatsoever to comply. They steal the couple’s car and drive away.

For several minutes, we watch Tina run through the mountain forest, pursued at a leisurely pace by the survivalists. (The sounds everyone makes when splashing through a mountain stream appear to have been foleyed in a bathtub.) Eventually, one of the men finds her, but she turns the tables on him by begging for her life, then pulling twigs out of her hair and stabbing him in the eyes.

Now armed with a hunting knife and crossbow, and due to the fact that the man was carrying a full arsenal a line of cable and a grenade launcher, Tina begins setting traps. The major, however, decides to leave her in the mountains and go home, no longer so confident his team can defeat a lone woman.

The major sends two men back to watch in case she follows them, allowing her to string one man up and then blow him up with a grenade. She kicks the other man off a cliff about 15 feet high, which kills him instantly.

As the others return to camp and discuss strategy, Tina kills one with a crossbow, leaving only the major and Manny. 

Tina returns to the jail cell, only to find Linda’s body.

Tina lures Manny to a position in the forest by playing a cassette tape of herself singing the one line she knows from “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Then, in a black void somewhere, she slits Manny’s throat.

Returning to the camp, Tina blows up all the buildings using the grenade launcher. Just before they presumably die, two survivalists who have remained behind at the camp provide some useful real-world advice to the audience. One tells the other he learned a trick in Vietnam, and he proceeds to tie a camouflage t-shirt around his head, leaving the neck-hole to serve as eye-holes in a ninja-style mask. "And don't you forget it," he says to his comrade. (Speaking for the audience, I must say we will never, ever forget it.)

When the major runs for the Jeep, Tina surprises him and forces him to walk into the desert at gunpoint. She finds a slope with a rattlesnake at the bottom and tells him to jump. When he refuses, she says, “I said jump!” but she pushes him anyway.

To give him a chance, Tina drops a pistol to the major, along with one bullet. We never find out if he survives.

Seconds later, Tina reaches the nearest road, but she is intercepted by the murderous drifters. “How about a ride?” one of them offers.

She replies, “Sure. Why not?” And we see she has a grenade hidden behind her back.

As the end credits roll, the film treats the audience to a wonderful song whose lyrics I transcribe below.

It’s amazing that there be deep darkness in Hell
Over my shoulder I hear Mama’s old dinner bell
Take me home, wherever that may be.

I’m runnin’ and hidin’ from I don’t know who
I need more than I got to see my way through
Take me home, wherever that may be.

As Jesus Christ once said to himself,
‘I can’t make it through this without...without your help’
Take me home, big man, take me home.

Take me home, big man, I’ll do all I can do
I’ll do more than my share, to see I get through
Let me find myself with a little help
I know you’ll take me home
Take me home.

Now, home to old earth ain’t what it used to be
It’s just makin’ out alive, wherever it may be
I know that I can and I know you’re the man
All I want from you is take me home.

I’m tired of livin’ the way that I do
I’ve read there’s more to life than the hell I’ve been through
I’m ready to go and I’m willin’ to pay
If only you’d take the time to show me the way.

Take me home, big man, I’ll do all I can do
I’ll do more than my share, to see I get through
Let me find myself with a little help
I know you’ll take me home
Take me home.

Although the ending is a clear setup for a sequel, the follow-up was never made. In fact, it would probably be quite short, as Tina is armed only with a grenade, so the two murderous drifters would most likely explode early in the film. Needless to say, such a sequel would be a masterpiece.

As befits a "meeting of the minds" film like this, Angel of Vengeance is not at all a piecemeal concoction. It feels like the vision of one voice from the opening with Manny batting a basket of bread out of an old woman's hands to the ending with Manny murdered in a nameless black void. The film is an efficient piece of exploitation, though it is somewhat curious it is not more explicit in either the rape or the revenge segments (sticks in eyes notwithstanding). It would be interesting to see how different Ray Dennis Steckler's full version of the film would be, if he'd had a chance to complete it. But if he had completed it, Mr. Mikels would only have served as cinematographer, and cinema audiences would have been deprived of his directorial flourishes, presumably including the demonstration scene where the survivalist shows how to use a t-shirt as a ninja mask, a skill highly prized during the Vietnam War. In the end, the version we have is probably the best version of Angel of Vengeance it was possible to make, and, as always with the work of these fine directors, we should simply be grateful.