Our review of Thou Shalt Not Kill... Except (Blu-ray), published April 23rd, 2012, is also available.
Behold the power of cheese.
Josh Becker, one of the gang of Detroit buddies that worked with Sam Raimi (Evil Dead) first on his 8mm home movies and later on his other films, managed to make a very low budget action flick called Stryker's War in 1985. By the time the marketing people got done with it the film was called Thou Shalt Not Kill…Except for reasons nobody knows. The only noteworthy mentions in this extremely cheesy film are that Becker had to use lesser actors because he couldn't get that master thespian Bruce Campbell, and that director Sam Raimi does an animated knock-off of Charles Manson in front of the camera as the lead villain. Which was given an award for "Worst performance by a director" I might add. The film is so laughably bad that one of it's only real redeeming values is in the unintentional humor, though there are a few interesting fight scenes. Anchor Bay, that bastion of the little known film, has produced the film on DVD with a fun commentary track.
Facts of the Case
Vietnam: 1969. Sgt. Jack Stryker and his platoon are going through second lieutenants at a prodigious rate, and the latest, Lt. Miller, plots an ill-conceived plan to raid a heavily reinforced village. Stryker is wounded and sent home, where he renews his relationship with his old girlfriend Sally. When Lt. Miller and a couple war buddies on leave stop by, they find out Sally has been kidnapped, along with other civilians, by a group of insane hippies led by Sam Raimi in a Rastafarian wig with bad teeth. The marines go into battle mode as the war comes home against the sort-of Manson Family.
First and foremost, I have to say that this film was made on the cheap. Very cheap. So cheap they couldn't afford to pay Bruce Campbell scale to play the lead, and he couldn't act in the non-union shoot without it. Virtually everything else I have to say about the film has this point, namely how cheap it is, as a caveat. The truth is, I like filmmakers who can put something entertaining together on a shoestring, and try to support them however I can. So if anything I'm going soft here.
That said, I'll talk about what I liked about the film and the disc here. The film opens promisingly enough, with sure 'nuff stock footage of Vietnam. The opening battle scene looks pretty fair during the title sequence. Then we move forward an hour of this 85-minute film, and we get to the third act. There the marines go into slapstick fighting mode a' la Sam Raimi. The fight scenes, though they look staged, have a nice comic mix of Three Stooges and Evil Dead gore. At least the film ends up pretty well.
I also admire the way the gang from Detroit work together. Josh Becker, with Bruce Campbell and Sam and Ted Raimi were just finishing up Evil Dead when they all pitched in to help Josh get this movie off the ground. Josh only had $18,000 to start. When Bruce couldn't appear in the film for union reasons, Sam and Ted did appear on the villains side, and they found local actors to fill in everything else. It only took six days to run out of money, and then everyone got together and cadged money off relatives to continue the shoot. That the film got made at all demonstrates the love of filmmaking and persistence of these folks.
Taken in the right way, the film isn't bad, because it's funny. It's funny a lot of times when it wasn't trying to be, and I thought the inconsistencies and horribly unrealistic combat hilarious at times. Among the neat gaffes; Sgt. Stryker has different rank insignias on his outer uniform and the shirt underneath, and the battle at the Vietnamese village was so poorly staged that I cracked up. Sam Raimi was such an incoherent ham that I had to laugh at his performance. When he really kicked his brother Ted in the head, presumably to get that realistic stunt look, I had another belly laugh. After watching the film I looked forward to the commentary track with Josh Becker and Bruce Campbell, who helped write the story and did the sound editing; stealing plenty of sound effects from Evil Dead in the process. The commentary track is a hoot, with both joking through the film and showing off how cheaply everything was done. Bruce also points out where props and sound effects from Evil Dead are placed, and that many of the sets were done in his garage. This audio track turns the film into a real comedy instead of an unintended one.
Anchor Bay did a nice job with the DVD as well. The film was given an incorrect 1.85:1 aspect ratio when it was shown in theaters (I was truly surprised it got a theatrical showing) and now is in the correct 1.66:1. Unfortunately it is not an anamorphic transfer, and since the film was shot in 16mm (and some scenes from the pilot in 8mm) and blown up to 35mm, there is an abundance of grain in some shots. Other times the grain is minimal and the image quality improves. Detail level is adequate most of the time, and colors look fine, except for some faded stock footage. Audio is Dolby Digital mono and is also up to the task, making dialogue clear and the admittedly fine musical score (the most expensive part of the film) sound nice enough. Don't expect the frequent gunfire to sound realistic or anything though.
I already mentioned the commentary track, which is really the high point on the disc. One deleted scene (a gross-out vomit scene) and an alternative title sequence with the old title placed on the same opening, and the theatrical trailer complete the extras. The commentary track is the main draw, and it's worthwhile.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Taken as anything but comedy, this film is terrible. I've seen better acting in auditions for high school plays; much better. One of the best people they had was the local Mr. T impersonator playing one of the marines. To call this wooden acting would be an insult against wood. Sam Raimi and his brother Ted didn't really have much to say and so they could just go over the top, but they were the only people who seemingly had ever been in front of a camera before.
On top of that, after the first few minutes we go into a long second act between Vietnam and the big fight at the end that just dragged. Let's see, nearly an hour of nothing but that wooden acting and poor dialogue before we get to something decent, shall we? That's an hour out of an 85 minute film. That's not good.
I really like Bruce Campbell. And I'm sure he did the best he could with the sound with what he had. It wasn't enough. The sound effects, the mix, hardly any of it worked, but as I said at least the dialogue was clear, though it was almost completely looped and sounded like it. What a shame he couldn't have been Sgt. Stryker himself, and had the money for better sound.
Actually, too bad they didn't have more money for everything. That and a major re-write might have made the difference.
If you want some chuckles at a film so bad it's funny, then this would make a nice rental. The commentary track is worth hearing for the price of a rental alone. But the film? Oh my *place name of deity here* it's so bad.
I can't bear to add a sentence to Josh Becker and the gang on top of everything else they endured getting the film made, so it gets a pass. Anchor Bay gets another nod for releasing a DVD of a film few have ever heard of and giving it a commentary track to boot.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Commentary Track
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