Thursday, August 15, 2013

Fight For Your Life

Directed By Robert A Endelson. Starring William Sanderson, Robert Judd. (1977)
Review By Graham Rae

There are some movies that can really reaffirm your faith in humanity. You leave the viewing with a spring in your step, knowing that at heart humanity is basically good, right always wins, right makes might, might conquers wrong, and all is really hunky-dory in the occasionally-too-demented-seeming world.
      Fight For Your Life is not one of those films.
      Hell no.
      FFYL tells the torrid tall tale of Kane (William Sanderson, who played JF Sebastian in Blade Runner; he has great fun with his nasty role here, alternating between chewing scenery and providing moments of real pain and pathos and poignancy), Chino (Daniel Faraldo) and Ling (Peter Yoshida). On the way to the pokey after being sentenced in New York, they escape from the prison van (to a rump-jumping funky soundtrack by Jeff Slevin – available on Fire Sign Records, according to the end credits, but nowhere to be seen on the net) after it nearly crashes into an escaping bank robber’s getaway car(!), and they commandeer the parked car of a cacklin’ black mack slappin’ his wack-ass bitch for purloined smack.
      We learn about the villains through the ingenious device of having announcements about their vices crackle through the police radio of the main cop who will be pursuing them, the Irish-cop-cliché-named Reilly (David Cargill; one of several wannabe-thespians in this film whose acting careers seemingly disappeared straight down the toilet after it), and his sidekick Hamilton (Richard Rubin). Chino, looking like a twitching Tom Savini, has been banged up for 75 years for assault, manslaughter, and first-degree murder. Ling, a truly evil and creepy turdcutter, has been done for three counts of child beating, two counts murder in the first degree, and two counts of arson.
      And a partridge in a pear tree.

      We get it, they’re mad and bad wee bastards. But southern-born-and-inbred Kane (note the appropriately Biblical-murderous name) is the real evil shite in this group, and we know this because they don’t announce him over the radio. No sir, that ignominious lower level of dramatic entry is only for the lesser bastards he escaped with. Reilly nips over to prison and meets a former cellmate of Kane’s, who, smirking, tells him that the group’s ringleader is a murderer who kills for the fun of it, and a rapist who rapes for the, eh, fun of it too. And he fights dirty. Now we know what we’re up against. Unease stirs easily and teasingly in our violence-voyeur bellies.
Ted Turner
       The plot thickens and sickens as we get introduced to the Turners, a peaceful black family with deacon Ted (yes, Ted Turner, played by Robert Judd) preparing his next sermon about the meek inheriting the earth. His round-12-years-old son Floyd (Reginald Bythewood) quotes rhymes like Muhammad Ali and throws faux boxing moves around, being chastised by his father and being told that “strength isn’t everything.” Black-power-loving Grandma Turner (Lela Small) isn’t into all this turn-the-other-meek-cheek “pile of nonsense” and loudly lets this be known. Of course, this being the film it is, we know that this ideological schism in the family will soon be being tested to the limits; the brush strokes being used are very broad and we can see the picture starting to emerge already.
      There’s another interesting wee bit of character development here, though, too. Mother of the family Louise (Catherine Peppers) laments the fact that “that white girl” is coming to dinner. The derided Caucasian in question is Karen (Bonni Martin), who dated the eldest Turner son, Val (Ramon Saunders), and when he was killed in a car crash after a rendezvous (shown in a ‘taboo’ interracial sex scene) with his white beau it soured relations with some of the family.

      Meanwhile, back at the ranch, our anti-hero zeroes have filled up with gas at a Texaco station (doubt the company would allow their name to be featured so prominently in a film featuring this material now) and stabbed the shit out of the attendant to a bad and melodramatic soundtrack overture for good measure. Well, it beats paying for their gas-guzzling pimpmobile, as the owner, whose clothes they stole for some reason, never had any money anyway. Reilly is hot (well, lukewarm) on their trail, getting regular bulletins on who’s getting dispatched from the flat-voiced female dispatcher.
I said Huggies not Muggies
      He’s soon hearing about a liquor store clerk who gets shot by Kane during a robbery at a place the cons stop off at. The maniac even menaces the store owner’s baby with his (empty) gun for fun, in a nasty scene that shows us that he basically has no limits. As is discovered by eldest Turner daughter Corrie (Yvonne Ross), who just happens to be in the liquor store during the robbery to buy wine, saying she needs “a white for dinner.” Well, she gets a white for the meal, and a Mexican and an Asian for good measure, when the escapees kidnap her and take her back to the Turner family home until the heat on them cools off a bit and they can steal the family car to further their escape.
      At the same time, in the woods near his home, Floyd is playing with his white pal Joey (Devid Dewlow), who is Hamilton’s son. They cut thumbs and become blood brothers. Horsing around, Joey falls over and calls “hot dog,” which is their Hardy Boys-like-level-of-complexity code phrase for “real emergencies only” and not “crapping around.” The tension mounts, starts thrusting, sloppily slips out by accident, and mounts again.

A brief tender moment 
      Back at the Turner house, we know things are going to get nasty because of a Halloween-like ear-jangling dingdongdingdong two-note nerve-mangling soundtrack. It’s actually uncanny how alike the music in the two movies is in places, given that they both originally came out in the same year. Pure coincidence; urban invasion and ominous monotonous soundwounds must have been in cinematic vogue that year. Kane and his able-bodied weasel crew shoulder their way into the house, with Kane wielding his gun and saying that he is the law as long as he has it.
      When Ted Turner comes home from an errand, the next hour of the film becomes a grueling exercise in racial humiliation and degradation and madness and, well, just plain fucking bastardness. Tossing racial slurs like cracker-cracked firecrackers, Kane forces the family to eat at gunpoint. “I’m the master of the house,” he barks, and we just know he’s over-compensating for something or other. Kane gets called “poor white trash” by the feisty Granny Turner, so there’s not a single race in this film that doesn’t get racial abuse thrown at them – the idea of having a mixed-race gang seems to be purely to be able to throw insults at a few more ethnic minorities.
Die! Cracker Die!

       So –
      (Great! The copy of this film I was watching on Youtube just literally got yanked halfway through as I was watching it for copyright infringement! Must have known somebody from the UK was watching it and it’s still banned there! Bastirt! Anyway. One quick download later, and we’re back to the action. Ah, takes me back to the good old bad old days of illegal Scottish bootlegs! Very old school Deep Red!)

starring Dr. Caligari as J.F. Sebastian
      Kane gets drunk and his big bad man façade starts to unravel. He whines piteously and self-pityingly on about his “tired old spineless father” who “got so tired of tilling his acres he just melted into the soil.” He also talks about how the state “rob you of your manhood” by incarcerating you and “cut you off between your legs.” It becomes ever-more-clear we’re dealing with a small, cowardly, emasculated-feeling man who makes himself feel bigger and better by using a gun. It’s not exactly Shakespeare, but for exploitation character exposition and motivation exploration it’ll do. He’s been raped in prison as a boy, and is now bestowing on others the kind violent and sexual abuse that he was subjected to. Big gun, small cock; the usual ball-less ballistics-bullshit dynamic. The whole movie is basically a power play, racial and sexual, from a powerless man enjoying making others feel powerless for his own empowerment and pathological abusive amusement.
      “The measure of a man is dignity,” Ted gravely tells Kane.
      “The measure of a man is power!” the sarcastic and vicious reply is barked, complete with wave of phallic gun and an invitation to shine and lick his shoes.

That's Sergeant Sex Dwarf to you!
      On the other side of town, the cops are investigating the liquor store murder, and one thirsty flatfoot attempts to steal booze from the crime scene! Luckily straight cop Reilly (who looks uncannily like authoritarian homophobic Russian sex dwarf Vladimir Putin) is there to sort him out and keep him on the straight and narrow. The mythical life of Reilly would be a boring but righteous one, it must be said.
      Home, home on deranged, Ling amuses and lives up to his arson billing by setting a newspaper on fire and putting it into the hands of a sleeping Chino, who freaks and throws it away. Their subsequent fight is broken up by Kane, who distracts them by making Ted do a “jig,” by shooting at his feet, then sing a hymn standing on a stool. It’s a depressing, humiliating scene, one that just makes you shake your head and ask…why? Well, this is an exploitation film so “there is no why!,” to quote the old cheesy trailer for Chunkblower.
      Just as Ted is making “like a black canary” and getting some hated-by-Kane familial solidarity with the singing of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Karen unfortunately decides to turn up for dinner. Ling runs after her to intercept her, tears off her clothes, and kills her by throwing her down a waterfall. Nearby, Joey decides to look up his blood brother to play in their tent in the woods some more and knocks on the Turner door, but is told that Floyd isn’t coming out to play. 

Say it don't spray it!
      Joe’s given the uncrackable Enigma code about hot dogs and wanders away wondering about it and pondering the significance of this weighty utterance. Unluckily for him, Ling spots him in the woods, grabs him, and unceremoniously smashes his brains in with a rock! It’s an unexpected, vile, insane scene, which really only exists for schlock shock value, and to allow Hamilton to go apeshit later on. This (ob)scene is apparently cut from many prints, and it’s not hard to see why. With the child beating-cum-murder, Ling has lived up to all three of his rep-raps – murder, arson, and child-beating – and is as popular with the viewer as a pregnant woman who wants an abortion at a Texas Tea Party rally.
      Ted, Ling and Chino cut out to hide the cars, and some more Kane-spewed racial venom ensues. Floyd knocks a knife out of “grey garbage” Kane’s hand, but the female family members and young boy are not up to the task of stabbing this “pink pig,” despite his goading them into it.
      Back on the trail, the cops arrest a drunk driver whose car they mistake for the one being driven by our guys. Nobody gives a shit.

      Kane gets the upper hand of the sewing circle encircling him with knives, and, after saying he is going to hang Floyd, decides to hang Mrs. Turner instead. This is an action with obvious racial historical baggage, especially coming from a white man from the south hanging a black person, but in the end the scene oddly veers away from the subject matter and, bizarrely, hangs her by her feet, scaring her instead of killing her. Maybe the filmmakers thought it might be an incitement to riot, just as Scorsese did when he changed Harvey Keitel’s pimp character in Taxi Driver from black to white. Perhaps it was just a bit too near the then-recent-past knuckle. Though the film certainly doesn’t shy away from graphic violence, sexual assault, or racial epithets, so who knows.
      The police are still driving around and get a tip-off about Corrie’s bicycle she left at the liquor store. The plot thins.
      Getting progressively drunk on whiskey, Kane decides that he is going to take the phrase ‘Bible-bashing’ to a whole new level and beats “assholy roller” (neat phrase!) Ted around the head with his good book, in a strange sped-up scene that almost seems to be played for laughs. Who knows if it’s meant to be found funny. Some of this film genuinely comes across as a black comedy (no pun intended) and you don’t know whether to laugh at the sheer outrageousness on display, or put on an offended front in polite company. The choice is entirely yours.
I'm getting sick of this shit
       Granny derides the invaders as “fakers in a whorehouse,” and that seems not too far from the truth, really, as Kane keeps excitedly stuffing his gun down the front of his pants after some particularly superlative outrage he perpetrates.”Now we’re gonna see if black womanhood is up to white manhood,” he snarl-chuckles as he drags Corrie away to be the first of the three to gang-rape the young virgin. It’s very unpleasant, if all too believable, and the weird sexual undercurrents in this film really leave a bad taste in the mouth. Unlike the child murder and drunk-slurred racial slurs, obviously.
      The police arrive and camp out outside the house with faulty listening gear. Your heart pounds with the excitement of it all.
      Corrie staggers through into the living room, in physical pain, bow-legged, and with torn clothes. Her family is shocked and traumatized. At the same time, Hamilton’s dead son Joey is found and brought to his dad, mirroring the family trauma inside the house. Hamilton, understandably, goes completely apeshit and runs at the Turner house with gun drawn, being shot dead by Kane before he can even get close. In the ensuing post-shooting confusion, the three cons are disarmed and held captive. The boot is finally on the other neck. 
      Robbed of his gun, of course, Kane is no tough guy. He gets beaten around, and the family puppy even pisses on his face on the floor! Mrs. Turner is ready for the nightmare to end, but her husband isn’t. He’s no longer a (cough) turner of the other cheek, and wants payback for the atrocities inflicted on him and his family. At gunpoint, he gets Chino to tell the cops the cons aren’t coming out. At this point the black family are throwing around insults like “spic” and “slant eyes,” so it’s just a degrading heartwarming hatefest all round.
I can feel the love!
      The cops are going to swarm in with teargas, but Floyd fake-tearfully convinces them not to. Corrie is pissed and has an electric knife she wants to castrate the man(iac) who took her maidenhead with. She can’t do it and drops the knife. Chino exhorts Kane to grab it, lunging forward excitedly, and gets a ballbuster ballistics vasectomy for his troubles. The cops outside get their shite surveillance gear working, and Reilly throws away his rulebook when he hears the family talking about all the chaos visited upon them and others close to them; the straight cop says the equipment is still busted and leaves the cons to their sorry sordid fates, letting nature red in tooth and claw take its course.
      Soon after, the cops decide to storm the house. In the confusion, Ling leaps through a window and is nastily impaled by a huge chunk of broken glass, whilst Ted is knocked unconscious and Kane gets the gun again. He grabs Mrs. Turner and edges out of the house, demanding a getaway vehicle of the cops. Handily, Ted wakes up and goes outside, taunting Kane, who apparently has a moral code and doesn’t want to shoot an unarmed man. Ted asks for a gun and is thrown one by the now-morally-fucked Reilly. The classic warm and fuzzy dialogue exchange takes place:
      “Ain’t never gonna be a fair fight, coon! Everybody knows whites are naturally superior, boy!”
      “Then let her go and prove it to me, white trash faggot!”
      Early teen-level dialogue, don’t you just love it?
      Ted rants and raves for a while, mocking Kane’s manhood and prison-raped sexuality. “You’re just like the black man my momma run off with! I’M GONNA SHOOT YOU!” cries the con, and is shot in the throat. The same funky song from the opening credits is played slowed down at a funereal pace, letting you know the horror is finally over, as Kane’s broken contorted corpse fades from the screen.
       And that, as they say, is that.
       Now. Fight For Your Life was the only Video Nasty (a tiresome 80s UK phenomenon that only Anglophilic Americans who never lived through it now find interesting) ever banned because of racial content and language. It certainly earns this dubious honor – and has not been released to this day across the pond. When Ted Turner comes back home, the racial epithets and insults start flying in earnest at the 22:35 mark, and do not stop for the rest of the film’s running time. Every racial insult for a black person ever known to man puts in an appearance, and more.
      The screenwriter here, Straw Weisman, sounds like he was having fun running with the race-hate-expression ball, and just crammed as many hate-speech insults into the running time as he could. Any lowlife no-brain redneck would only have a stock few phrases he would use in his mockery, unless he was of a quick intellect, so his using constant different creative insults didn’t quite fit the dumb character. It’s so over-the-top it becomes almost inoffensive, in a Troma movie sort of way.
      I say ‘almost inoffensive’ advisedly, though. I hadn’t seen this film until a couple of months ago, though I knew from hearing it mentioned occasionally that it had a fearsome reputation as a piece of vile exploitation filth. Which it most certainly is, of course, no doubt about that, but I also didn’t find it as bad as it had been made out to be. Which may say something about my own mindset, I suppose, but in a deeply cynical, calculating era where ‘entertainment’ includes stuff like sex with a baby (A Serbian Film) or remaking 70s rape-revenge flicks (Last House on the Left, and I Spit on Your Grave, both of which have material paralleling FFYL), anything else is going to look kind of tame. 

can we stab them already?
       That’s not to say that Fight For Your Life doesn’t pack a wallop today. It still does, mainly because you can’t believe how un-PC it is, and it’s difficult to believe that it got an ‘R’ rating. You can only imagine that any filmmaker trying to make a film like this today would be financing his film through selling his bodily fluids or collecting returnable soda cans. Violent, degrading sex is loved in America, a Puritan-roots country that hates women (witness the current risible and depressing rightwing War on Women) and hates its own flesh, and of course it masturbates happily to violence. But racism is still very much a taboo subject in this country. It underlies everything here, as the reaction to the Travyon Martin case brought to the fore.
      Whether you think the fact that this film would probably never gain financing today is a good thing or not is merely a personal opinion. It’s an odd time capsule, in a way. It displays vestigial traces of race relations in the American South during the 60s, transposed a few years into the future via the Kane character. He has grown up in a segregated area during a violent, turbulent time, and his racial bigotry and madness reflect this upbringing. He drags 60s-era civil rights turbulence right into the escapism-era late 70s America (remember, 1977 was the year of Star Wars too) and slaps it right in the face with it. His sneering insults towards “Martin Luther Coon” are telling, as are the pictures on the wall of MLK and the dead Kennedys, John F and Robert, all of whom died during turbulent American times. 
the fake Blaxploitation ad

      Kane is a displaced anachronism, still smarting from the mental and emotional wounds he suffered in jail in his southern youth, which I would say could almost be regarded as a metaphor for north-south relations to this day, but that would be giving a sleazy exploitation film too much credit and depth. It’s not a particularly deep film – it’s lazy, nasty, vicious, insipid and disgusting, with a cynical level of knife-fighter street-smarts to it. But that doesn’t mean that it says anything much about racism, except that it can exist under the skin of any and all races (much as it’s taboo to articulate this simple fact in America these days) and can come poking out in unexpected places under enough intolerable provocation. 
don't cry Deputy Dog
      Miscegenation provides the backdrop for racism on both sides of the equation, with the Turner mother hating Karen for her affair with Val; and Kane hates his mother for running off with a black man. Past experiences have poisoned the views of the family and cons, or more specifically, Kane, at least. His accomplices act as little more than two-dimensional foils to help him control the family – and to get a few racial epithets thrown at in this race-hate clusterfuck, of course. The fact that Kane didn’t like his mother being with a black man doesn’t stop him from raping Corrie, of course, so his racial views are selective. The only two people in the film who seem to have race relations down-pat are young Joey and Floyd, who become literal ‘blood brothers,’ but even then one of them is killed.
      There’s a danger here of reading way more into the film than was originally intended – it’s a straight, very-well-acted, exploitation murder-rape-revenge flick, after all. But all the stuff I am talking about is definitely in the film, crudely rendered and signposted as it may be. Fight For Your Life is, sadly, still totally relevant today, as the south’s vociferous racist reaction to Obama’s terms as president has unfortunately proven. Racial politics in this confused, lost country don’t seem to have moved forward much since this grindhouse classic was released. It’s a fave rave flickershow of Quentin Tarantino (though don’t hold that against the production), a hack who knows all about racial controversy in moviemaking, what with being a proud black man himself and all. 

What's Happen-in hot stuff
      Fight For Your Life is a strange, anomalous, one-off, low-blows-flowing film, and nothing like it has ever been made before or since. You watch it and wonder what the fuck the filmmakers were thinking when they put it out, except, of course, about making money. The director Richard Edelson only has one other film to his (dis)credit, Filthiest Show in Town, a softcore porn, which tells you something. FFYL has two trailers online, one for black audiences (“You are about to see a few moments from an extraordinary gut-crunching movie that will make you get down and shout, I AM PROUD TO BE A BLACK MAN!”) and one for, well, everybody else. Pick your own favorite. One thing’s for sure: as long as there are people of more than one color, which of course there always will be, there will always be racism. And people to make low-budget films exploring and exploiting it. Case in point: the 2011 piece of bigotry-soaked dementia The Cuckoo Clocks of Hell. The more things change, the more they stay the same, indeed.



  1. Never saw this one LOL I'm always down to give anything a shot, but I never did get around to this one. Of course, you saying all you have about it has me wanting to actually watch it now. What's that say about me? Haha.

  2. it's a fascinating film, very political and of course very racist on all sides!


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