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CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy

 

Death Weekend (House By the Lake) William Fruet 1976

Vicarious Vaccaro Vacation Violence

Considering my tirade against rape/revenge pictures in my review of Hell High, it is admittedly odd that I would cover this rare treat so soon after. The truth is this: I would never in my wildest imagination have thought that Brenda Vaccaro would have appeared in a exploitation flick, so I figured upon picking this one up that I was in standard 'White Woman in Peril" territory.

Boy, was I wrong.

Death Weekend (aka the more innocuous, Travel-Channel-friendly House By the Lake) is easily one of the most aggressively unpleasant films I've ever seen. Brutal, ugly, and uncompromising, the film could easily be considered the slightly-less-tarty older sister to I Spit on Your Grave, which pretty much sets the bar for nastiness in my book (yes, much like Last House on the Left, I was exposed to this little gem of a family film when I was still knee-high to a grasshopper). Although in looking at Vaccaro's filmography, I don't actually know why I gave her so much credit in the first place; anyone who could find it in their bones to appear in Supergirl, Capricorn 1, The Red Shoe Diaries, Zorro the Gay Blade, and voice a Smurf character really can't be classified as "picky".

But aside from being nasty, brutal, and profane, this movie is actually also quite good. The plot is very lean: Vaccaro plays a supermodel (I'll pause for a moment for that to sink in…) who is taken out to a lake house by a rich playboy admirer, who has spun a tale of a big, fabulous party to get her to come. On the way there, Vaccaro plays some chicken with a group of local musclecar-driving thugs, and brings us our first Amazingly Bitchy Moment: the image of Brenda, in a full fur, zipping past the stalled thugs in her date's convertible roadster, giving the punks the finger. After she runs them off the road, they of course vow their revenge, bringing us our second ABM: the leader, Lep (played by the menacing Don Stroud) invokes the "c" word almost directly into the camera, letting us know that we're in for an incredibly pleasant evening.

Brenda and Harry (the impossibly weaselly Chuck Shamata) make it to the gigantic lake house after stopping by a local gas station to get gas and conveniently advertise their arrival for later discovery by the thugs. We learn that the gas station employees are drunks, but otherwise harmless. We also learn that Harry has been bringing up different chicks every weekend - he's apparently the Don Juan of Canadian dentists. The pair get to the house, the 4 thugs have the most truly unerotic all-male mud-wrestling match in history (something I didn't even think possible), and we get the idea that things are going to go very badly very soon.

But the cleverness of the film is in that it takes its time. We know that the guys are going to appear and get up in Brenda's smoky, heavy-lidded grill. We know that things won't end well for Harry, who may as well put on a hat that reads "KILL ME NOW" after establishing himself as a chauvinist, wimp, blowhard, and general asshole in the first ten minutes of film. The delightful surprise is that over time, he will also be revealed as a pervert, date-rapist, liar, peeping Tom, and as having atrocious taste. Aficionados of piss-elegant 1970's décor will simply swoon over the hideous glass-bottle chandelier and ghastly ceramic plate collection; the lake house just screams "Fire Island Pines on Lake Winnipeg". Likewise, while Shamata wears an array of unflatteringly trim jackets and leisure outfits, Vaccaro sports some of the most fabulously bulky sweaters in cinema history -- which, combined with her limp, dull hair, makes her one of the frumpiest supposed supermodels I've ever seen. In a nutshell, if you're easily offended by the tacky in any of its manifestations, you might be wise to skip this one.

But away from set dressing and back to the terror. At the house: Brenda is taken aback by the spacious home (gag me), and decides to "freshen up" by taking a shower and probably soaking her panties in a sink full of Woolite (if "freshening up" is anything like I always imagined it to be). Here we learn that nasty weaselman Chuckles has of course installed Brenda in a bedroom with two-way mirrors, peepholes, and all sorts of other icky pervie things that I'm sure all of us would have in our homes had we the budget. Chuckie's stock plummets even further. After some forced conversation and ill-advised romantic overtures (which are instantly squelched by the increasingly likeable Brenda, who despite sounding like Kathleen Turner being smothered with a pillow comes across as a very normal, reasonable supermodel), the two get into a fight and are of course immediately attacked inside the house by the thugs, who have been hiding for god knows how long.

It's really pretty creepy from this point on. The "visitors" invite themselves to stay for the weekend (Death Weekend!), and we enter into a classic and painfully well-executed cat-and-mouse game of polite aggressions, baiting, and small outbursts of violence that escalate at an excruciatingly slow rate. The actors are uniformly excellent, and even the over-the-top googlings of the lesser thugs are believable and creepy. As the aggressors bait the slimy Chuck, Brenda sits quietly, obviously not amused at the thought of being surrounded by this unsavory assortment of men for the next two days, and our sympathies lie squarely with her (as in the later, coarser "Spit"). This is truly the point of departure for this film; as opposed to Straw Dogs and Deliverance (films it clearly emulates), the hero here is not the white city boy: it's a woman who has been lured into the trap of one man, and because of her refusal to adhere to the passive model that all the men present thinks she should fit.

This movie is also much more tolerable than the average rape/revenge flick because the rape itself is thankfully presented off-screen, and is handled as tastefully as that sort of thing can be handled without trivializing the horror of it. After Stroud attacks Brenda, they return to the house and things escalate to a frenzy of Marat/Sade proportions, with the visitors destroying just about everything in the entire house piece by piece (and I mean everything - mattresses, the fridge, the stove, and yes - even the ceramic plate collection! Let's hope they weren't Franklin Mint.). Chuck finally loses it and goes for his shotgun, but it of course immediately ends up in the hands of the attackers and he is unceremoniously blown away in the front yard. Scene.

With Chuck out of the picture, Brenda is unfortunately the new object of the group's attention, and the leader agrees to let his cronies each have a crack at her. Brenda goes along with things but before Goon #1 can get too far, she slices him up with a piece of shattered mirror and leaps out the window. Once outside she gets rid of the other two lackeys (she even blows up the boathouse to take care of one!) and sets sight on getting the F out, when of course she is intecepted by the now floridly insane Stroud, who opens fire on her while she drives the car with her hands, the dead Chuckie in the driver's seat. She manages to paste Stroud with the car and gets off the grounds alive, but before the delicious final freeze-frame we are given a bizarre glimpse into her mind, where she is for some reason remembering Stroud's face. It's not clear whether this is to suggest that she is somehow emotionally attached to the man who raped and tormented her or what, but it's certainly creepy either way. In the end, Brenda emerges scarred but victorious, still wearing her bulky sweater like a suit of armor, limp hair like a cowl.

While profane, disturbing, ugly, bleak, and certainly not pleasant, Death Weekend is above-average for the subgenre and one worth watching if you enjoy standoffs, psychological and physical sadism, and 1970's lodge décor. Elevated mostly by the performance of Vaccaro and some intense, "danger-to-the-actor" scenes of violence, the flick manages to sidestep exploitation and ultimately stands as a solid, if tacky, dramatic work.

Rating (out of 5):