Uncle Sam wants you...to be scared! So does Judge Bill Gibron.
Our review of Uncle Sam (Blu-Ray), published June 18th, 2010, is also available.
I want you…dead!
It must be hard to create a modern horror icon, a symbol of something sinister that is both original and endearing. Many writers and directors have failed the feat, never successfully blending mythology with monstrosity to concoct a classic creep. The several who have found the formula for success are really responsible for our most redolent nightmares. Toby Hooper spawned a flesh-wearing cannibal named Leatherface. Wes Craven created Freddy Krueger and—with writer Kevin Williamson—the cloaked Scream Killer as well. Clive Barker has made Pinhead and the Cenobites, along with Candyman and his hooked horror, household names. No one can think of a zombie without intoning the terror of George Romero, and Sean Cunningham will have eons in motion picture purgatory for coming up with that hockey masked maniac (but piss-poor swimmer) Jason Voorhees.
But what of the duds, those that have fallen a scant single step below the Maniac Cops, the Sleepaway Camps, and the Slumber Party Massacres, and into the realm of the unremarkable? Why weren't they successful? Aren't a Castle Freak, a Humungous, an oversized Katydid, and far too many miscreant janitors and handymen to efficiently name, interesting? In reality, no matter how effective each of those terror attempts may have been, there really doesn't seem to be a continued carrion call to revisit the killer from The Burning, the mental miner from My Bloody Valentine, or the disgruntled date of Prom Night. Apparently, there is a certain combination of factors that must exist for a proposed predator to make a lasting impact.
William Lustig, responsible for the ersatz icon Matt Cordell, AKA the Maniac Cop, tries his best to propagate another emblem of evil with his 1997 movie Uncle Sam. He even swipes one of America's most beloved benefactors as his architect of death. But the question still stands whether this new vile version of the venerable national relative will stand the test of time as a terror titan. The conclusion is mixed.
Facts of the Case
During a catastrophic mission in Kuwait (during the first Gulf War), Sam Harper is shot down in his helicopter and presumed dead. A reconnaissance team recovers his badly burned body. When Sam is shipped home in a coffin and presented to his widow Louise, his death is a devastating blow to his young nephew, Jody. Jody idolized Sam and wanted to follow in his footsteps. But Jody's mother, Sam's sister Sally, thinks it's a bad idea. There are secrets in Sam's past—horrible, abusive secrets that she doesn't want her son to know about.
Still, as the Fourth of July looms and Sam's small town prepares to celebrate the holiday, our fallen war hero has alternate otherworldly ideas about how to commemorate the Nation's freedom. Rising from the grave and locating an appropriate "patriotic" disguise, our undead soldier wants certain Americans to pay for disrespecting their great country. It will take Jody, and an ex-military buddy of Sam's, Jed Crowley, to keep the insane maniac from ruining Independence Day and the iconographic impact of the civic symbol, Uncle Sam.
Like a ratty old blanket in the back of your car that you just can't bear to part with, or a lumpy old couch that always manages to make your butt feel comforted, Uncle Sam is one of those old reliable relics, a horror film with the early '80s ideal of terror so perfectly ingrained in its celluloid that you don't really care that it's strangely subpar most of the time. You couldn't care less if the characters' motives are unclear and the blood and gore is measured out in tumblers, not bucket loads. Like those tatty sneakers or that food-stained robe, the old school slasher shocks of Uncle Sam fit aging fright fans like a knife-fingered glove.
Director William Lustig and his cast of reliable genre icons invigorate a rather routine dark comedy by fellow scare savant Larry Cohen, and turn this terror tale into a twisted take on patriotism and post-traumatic stress disorder. Certainly it can be argued that the goofy script makes one too many jokes at the expense of jingoism, and the reason why this living dead soldier comes back from the grave to avenge America seems so obvious that it's surprising it hasn't been done before. But just like Jason putting on the mask once more, or Michael Myers's Shape stalking stupid teenagers again, seeing a true fan of crazed killer cinema develop another memorable mass murderer and recreate said movies' many moments (both timeless and troublesome) is a welcome return to scary the way it used to be: straight ahead and ripe with gratuitous garroting.
Starting with its strange slaughter stalker, Uncle Sam is unconventional in its approach to the time-honored tenets of mad maniac movies. Even as it celebrates such standards, it tweaks and tickles them, admitting their status as truisms while figuring out ways around them. Complex explanations of rituals and revenge are ignored. We are simply provided a zombie veteran who wants to celebrate his great love-it-or-leave-it nation by putting on a perfect symbol of freedom and ventilating a few rat bastard turncoats to liberty's cause. When they're described to you, the reasons behind the bloodletting become crystal clear: Sam is out to destroy draft dodgers, tax cheats, flag burners…basically, anyone who would dare crap on Mom, apple pie, and baseball (no matter how much the former national pastime could use a good feces fling right about now). It would have been nice for Cohen and Lustig to spell this out for us, to allow slicing and dicing Sammy a few cruel quips to confirm his corpse carving. Some suggested sayings would be "I've got your conscientious objection right here!," "Practice die-partisanship, Congressman," and "Consider this an audit!"
Without these explanatory bon mots, you have to read a lot into the raison d'être for the death and decapitations in this movie. And even with a clear-cut agenda, Uncle Sam would still be a little shaky. Why would a dead warrior attack the citizens he's sworn to protect? Wouldn't his beef be with the Pentagon? Or the glorified desk jockeys who placed him in a precarious position in the first place? Taking out his terror temper tantrum on his fellow Americans makes Uncle Sam's actions that much more reprehensible, even if they still conform to the standard slasher schematics.
Equally odd is the overall tone of Larry Cohen's screenplay. You can tell the talented B-movie maven (responsible for a wealth of wonders from It's Alive! and The Stuff to Lustig's Maniac Cop movies) thought he was crafting a clever commentary on the climate of rampant partisanship and diehard warmongering running throughout the national agenda at the time (a different Bush in the White House but the same old attack on Iraq). Using the human image of America's might and right—good old white-bearded Colonel Sanders poster boy Sammy—to show how outrageous and deadly such an attitude might be, it's impossible not to sense Cohen's implied sarcasm or the genial grandstanding of his viewpoint. But because this is a horror film, a typical take on the mindless-monster-on-a-murder-spree storyline, a great deal of what Cohen hoped to accomplish is lost in the translation to terror. Somehow, the unreality of the situation (living dead soldier) and the pro-peace sentiments just don't coagulate properly. Indeed, all the politics are deadened—rendered ridiculous when placed in the perspective of a supernatural setting. A guy coming back from the dead to smite his enemies is an easy sell, clear-cut actually. Good vs. evil, or maybe a better way to say it is bad vs. even worse. But in Uncle Sam, Cohen is chastising a citizenry that would support an unjust war while simultaneously taking the government to task for not fulfilling their needs (like cheap gas). Somehow, the movie sees both going hand in hand, the consequences wrought by Sam excused because of the manipulation of the system (avoiding Selective Service, the payment of taxes) by the victims. The link is never really clear, though, and that's what makes Uncle Sam's objective so ambiguous.
Yet for all the confusing core concepts and arch political preaching, this is still supposed to be a scary movie. And it's a damn fine fright flick at that. Sure, this is not some metaphysical take on paranormal paranoia schooled in spooks, demons, and wraithlike imps of hate. Instead, the fear is familiar and the deaths are deliriously creative, a witty reminder of the way killing used to conclude onscreen. You can argue all you want about the overall success of his premise or complete lack of suspense, but one thing is for sure: Lustig knows how to handle a horror set piece.
The stalk and slay sequence has always been a merry mainstay of the monster movie and Uncle Sam has a couple of doozies. The best is perhaps the initial hometown killing, when our really-walking-wounded Sam chases down a patriotic pervert on stilts, causing him to fall. Just the site of a twenty-foot-tall clown careening through city streets and into a spooky, foggy park is worth the price of admission. It makes the eventual off-camera slaughter that much more satisfying. Lustig also sets another demise inside a sack race action scene. That's right, as dozens of extras wear burlap body suits and hop about like rabid bunnies down the funny trail, our sinister Sam stalks, singles out, and slices up a careless teen who had previously tortured the National Anthem with his talentless tonsils. From an axe to the head to a final confrontation featuring that powder keg panacea for all lovers of big screen screams—the explosion—Uncle Sam has its genre attributes in the right place. Add in a creepy makeup job that makes our dead war hero look like so much warmed over swamp scum, and you've got a decent attempt at a novel new fiend. Frankly, who cares if it's a tad tedious at times?
Beside, the performances are really first-rate. Isaac Hayes has a suave voice and a great gift for gravity in his acting style. Playing the old pal who feels responsible for Sam's fate, he is the center and, for want of a better term, the soul of the film. As the lead little boy, Christopher Ogden balances sensitivity with stubbornness to make his Jody a walking contradiction of clueless conviction. Timothy Bottoms's turn as a draft-dodging school teacher is especially sweet, since he's probably now best recognized as playing the current George W. (who also has his own "service" issues) in Trey Parker and Matt Stone's underrated That's My Bush!. Viewed in light of that recent casting, Bottoms's performance here smacks of unintentional irony. Equally impressive are Robert Forster as a sleazy, media savvy Congressman (even though his role is painfully short), and William Smith as the gruff, growling squadron leader who finds the fallen Sam. Again, Smith is not onscreen nearly enough. Tom McFadden as a wheelchair-bound victim of a fireworks accident (he seems to have a special sixth sense connection to Sam) does a great job with what is probably the weirdest role in the entire film. Truthfully, any movie that can resurrect P.J. Soles, Bo Hopkins, and Morgan Paull from cinematic obscurity is a fright film worth paying attention to. Indeed, between Lustig's skill behind the camera, the cast's overall level of excellence and the decidedly creepy turn by David "Shark" Fralick as the titular title character, Uncle Sam is scary, silly fun.
But in the end, it's that wonderfully warming comfort zone that will finally sell you on Uncle Sam. After spending endless hours in sticky theaters watching scream queens have their breasts bloodied, and witnessing the wealth of woeful ineptness that compromised the majority of the home video horror market, it's refreshing to see a film that actually understands the strictures of shock and the conditions for splatter. The slasher film, after all, is not some rock-solid scientific formula, a guaranteed success as long as the right combination of gore and lore are met. While the politics may be a little scorched and the explanations for the paranormal pandemonium completely underdone, this is still a film that knows from whence its wickedness was wrangled. Uncle Sam wants to remind the audience of a time when horror was handled in an up-front and frightful manner, when killers pinpointed their targets and executed their objective with extreme prejudice. Mother Voorhees didn't have time to make a supernatural videotape of her intended butchery. Freddy's dream dimensions may have seemed surreal, but they were based on a plain desire to retaliate against those who thought a conflagration would end his pedophilia. For every archaic explanation for why things go bump—and bloodbath—in the night, there was an early '80s fright flick that offered a basic Mt. Everest-ish clarification. In response to the inquiry, "Why did these killers kill?" the reply was an overt, "Because the potential victims were there." Uncle Sam sets up the same shameless situation. And that feeling you get in the back of your head is not pride messing with you…it's the ready recognition of a traditional take on terror.
Visually, Uncle Sam looks stunning. It also looks a lot like Halloween, but that's a story for another time (trust me, you'll be thinking about Haddenfield and The Shape as the opening shots of our small town slowly track by). Lustig's Carpenter (that's John Carpenter) copying really radiates in the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image provided by Blue Underground. The use of color, the attention to deep shadows and contrasts make for a miraculously good-looking picture (the fact that the film is less than seven years old and was crafted by the owner of the Big Blue U himself didn't hurt matters, either). This is one of the best low-budget horror transfers ever. Equally amazing is the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, with sound effects and underscoring swirling and sweeping across the channels. The dialogue is always kept clean and clear, and Mark Governor accentuates the additional aural ambience via a sinister score. While the Dolby Digital Stereo track is decent, go with the far more atmospheric 5.1.
But extras are what Blue Underground does best, and the bonus features here do not disappoint. First off, we are treated to not one but two alternative narrative tracks on the DVD. The first, recorded in 2004 by director Lustig, writer Cohen, and producer George Braunstein, is a thorough, extensive look at the making of the movie. And it's just terrific. Lustig laments his choice of aspect ratio (while he likes the widescreen image for crowd and celebration shots, he thinks most low-budget horror should have more of a "full screen" feel). Cohen admits to borrowing bits from the Maniac Cop canon. Braunstein beams like a proud papa. Toward the end, as the movie's narrative begins to build, the men tend to trail off, letting the film do the talking. But from the post-explosion excitement (including being practically chased out of town for the damage they caused) to Cohen's endless dissections of his own written "brilliance," you can tell how happy these guys are about this film (they even make a handshake agreement for Uncle Sam 2). Then there is the original commentary from the previous Elite release of the film. It features Lustig with star Isaac Hayes and it's a hoot. Yes, there is a lot of overlap, both with stories and sentiments, but just hearing Hayes laugh at some of the movie's shortcomings and compliment the rest of the cast makes this audio offering worth a listen. Indeed, with some of the more randy reasons for Hayes's reactions, you'll instantly understand why he fits so well into South Park's mentality.
Additionally, we get some pointers on the fine art of fire walking, that is, doing stunts while covered in flames, from the stunt coordinator on the film in a separate nine-minute featurette. While the image quality of the presentation is suspect, the information contained therein is excellent. So is a gallery of behind-the-scenes photos, showing setups, sequences being shot, and even a few news clippings about the aftermath of the late night detonation. We also are offered the original theatrical trailer for the film, and it does a good job of setting up the story while saving the shocks and scares.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Nepotism in the entertainment industry is nothing new. After all, if it weren't for such family-oriented favoritism, we wouldn't have half the young stars currently holed up in Hollywood. But should this mentality really drip over into DVD distribution? Sure, Uncle Sam is William Lustig's baby, and as Big Blue U's leader and commandant, he has the right to release his own film in any manner he wants. But why prioritize this arguably minor movie over other, fan fantasy releases? Was there really such a call for Uncle Sam's immediate release? Seems that some of the time spent on this title would have been better served on movies that have sat dormant or unreleased for years. No one is faulting Lustig for wanting Uncle Sam out on the market. Hopefully, it wasn't at the expense of other, more eagerly anticipated terror titles.
Back to the issue at hand. Is Uncle Sam a new shock icon? Does he join the ranks of the revered and the repulsive? Sadly, the answer is no. He doesn't measure up to Norman Bates or the Evil Deadites as a long-lasting horror Lothario. His methods are too mired in his own overt devotion to move beyond the boundaries of his story and eclipse other examples of eeriness. Thankfully, William Lustig's craft behind the camera, matched with the professionalism of his performers, makes Uncle Sam the film a very fun, very fundamental scary movie. It doesn't break new ground or reinvent the genre. Indeed, it hardly delivers the shivers at all. But in the long line of attempts to recall the early days of mad slasher cinema, this semi-silly statement shows just how flawed flaccid flops like Jack Frost and Redneck Zombies really are.
So…sorry, Sam. You don't get to join Jason and Freddy, or even the Leprechaun and the Critters, as an example of everlasting fear. But at least your movie plays fair with its audience, assuming they are as well versed in the essential elements of fright flicks as your creators are. Uncle Sam is indeed a decent monster movie. But Sammy's frightful 15 minutes are just about up.
Though it's about as scary as an episode of My Little Pony, Uncle Sam is acquitted on all charges and is free to go. Blue Underground is slightly admonished for pushing this product ahead—potentially—of other more worthy offerings, but is still found not guilty and is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
• Commentary Track with Director William Lustig, Writer Larry Cohen, and Producer George Braunstein (2004)
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