Synapse // 1985 // 83 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // April 23rd, 2012
When violence demands revenge...
Anyone who's a fan of Sam Raimi and The Evil Dead movies knows that he and his friends -- including leading man Bruce Campbell -- got their start making Super 8 movies in and around their home state of Michigan. While the majority of those go unseen, likely destroyed by time or relegated to the personal collections of everyone involved, a few managed to break out and actually be turned into real movies. One such movie is Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except, a war/action movie written and directed by Josh Becker, a member of Raimi's original Michigan gang. Though hyperviolent and made for little money, the movie has enough going for it that it has developed a fervent cult following over the years -- a cult following finally validated by the new Blu-ray release of the movie courtesy of Synapse.
Vietnam veteran Sgt. Jack Stryker (Brian Schulz) returns home from the horrors of war with an injured leg and some painful memories, attempting to put the pieces of his life back together. That means reigniting with an old flame (Cheryl Hausen) and spending time with his war buddies. However, a Manson-like cult figure (played by Sam Raimi in a ridiculous wig) comes to town and begins committing murders, even kidnapping and torturing Stryker's girlfriend. It's up to Stryker and his fellow brothers at arms to take back the town and take down the cult leader.
What Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except has going for it (besides that excellent title, which is so much more compelling than its original name, Stryker's War) is a crazy sense of energy. There's such simplicity to the premise of the film that the margins have to be filled in with insanity and excess, whether it's the incredible amount of (very fake) bloody violence or the bull goose loony portrayal of a cult leader by Sam Raimi, who could not appear to be having a better time. It's an exploitation movie made in the '80s with much more of a '70s feel to it. Some of that may be the extremely low production values. Some of that may be the fact that the movie was originally conceived and largely written in the 1970s, shot (as a short) on 8mm under the title Stryker's War with Campbell in the lead.
Unfortunately, by the time writer/director Josh Becker decided to expand Stryker's War to feature length (into what would eventually become Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except), Campbell was already a member of SAG and couldn't participate in the shoot (or could he? There is a cleverly disguised cameo that made the final cut). Whatever the cause, it makes for a grungy, entertaining movie that, every 20 minutes or so, becomes something new. The first 20 minutes are a super-violent, utterly unconvincing portrayal of Vietnam (it's what I've always imagined Coming Home in a Body Bag to look like, only with a lower budget); the final 20 are a brutal barrage of violence in which four Marines take on what is essentially the Manson family. If the middle portion lags a little -- and it does -- it's ok because of what comes before and after. That's how a lot of these exploitation movies work (it's something Quentin Tarantino got right in Death Proof, even though most critics and audiences took the movie to task for being "boring") -- in order for the movie to deliver the goods, it's got to cut corners when necessary.
Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except gets an HD upgrade to Blu-ray courtesy of Synapse, and fans of the movie are likely to be impressed by the results. This is never going to look as great as anything Hollywood has produced, no matter how much restoring or digital scrubbing is done, but that doesn't mean it can't look really good for what it is. The 1.66:1 image (which, yes, if you're watching on a 16x9 TV will show thin black bars on either side of the frame) is surprisingly strong; the 1080p full HD overhaul given to the original 16mm film doesn't make it look slick or contemporary by any means, but it's not supposed to. The movie still looks gritty and dirty, but in the best way possible, without any obvious flaws or defects and with a ton of visible grain that makes it feel like you're watching a brand new 16mm copy. For a frame of reference, check out the unrestored deleted scene included on the disc and understand that this is what the movie could have looked like. Synapse should be commended for their efforts here. The lossless two-channel mono audio track is quite good, too, again within the limitations of the budget. It's faithful to the source without sacrificing clarity or quality.
Like a lot of cult releases, Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except comes with an impressive number of very entertaining supplements -- so much so that even if you don't love the movie, there's a lot of fun to be had going through the bonus features. There are not one but two commentary tracks: the first (ported over from Anchor Bay's DVD release from 2000) is from writer/director Josh Becker and none other than Bruce Campbell himself, who's always one of the most enjoyable guys around to listen to on commentaries. The pair talk about the production and give some background, tell stories about their lives and friendship around the time and joke around quite a bit. It's really great. Though it can't quite compare to the first, a second commentary featuring actor Brian Schulz and moderator Michael Felsher is also tremendously informative, loose and fun, with more production stories and not much overlap from the first talk. A 30-minute retrospective documentary, "Made in Michigan: The Making of Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except," gathers many of the film's primary participants -- though Sam Raimi doesn't appear (his brother Ted, who has a small role as the cult member referred to as "Chain Man," does). There's good stuff here as well, from the clips of Campbell in an old Super 8 movie called "Cleveland Smith: Bounty Hunter" to footage of star Robert Rickman in his early days as a professional Mr. T impersonator. The entirety of the original Stryker's War has also been included, which is valuable not just for a point of comparison with the full movie but also to see a very, very young Bruce Campbell as the leading man.
Rounding out the bonus features are a single deleted scene involving vomit with optional commentary from Becker (apparently it caused walkouts in early screenings, which is hilarious considering what else audiences were willing to sit through in the movie), an alternate title sequence with the title Stryker's War and the original trailer, presented in HD. A standard definition DVD of the movie is also included.
Fans of Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except will be rewarded by the excellent package that Synapse has put together, which is even good enough to give new viewers reason to check it out. This is the cigar-chomping, macho swagger of a Sam Fuller movie combined with the amateurish ugliness of early Wes Craven and the gleeful gore of Peter Jackson. Like all good cult movies, it isn't for everyone. That's how cult movies work. Otherwise, they would be called "everyone movies."
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Deleted Scene
* DVD Copy