A man, seemingly harmless and wearing a red parka and dark sunglasses, is walking down a suburban street in the middle of the afternoon. He stops and sees a house with a wreath on the door. It is Christmas day. He proceeds to walk up to the door and ring the bell. A kindly elderly woman answers with a welcoming smile. The man pushes his way in and proceeds to shoot and kill the woman, her husband, and their grown daughter. We are told later that he disemboweled the women and took some of their blood and innards.
So begins William Friedkin’s Rampage, a true lost treasure of the film world that was shelved by a bankrupt studio then (mis)marketed five years later by throwing it on video with a box cover that made it look like a straight horror film, which resulted in it being sadly under seen. This is unfair as it is a film that deserves an audience and plays to a varied crowd. It is both horror and thriller. It is also, in the latter half of the film, a terrific courtroom social drama. People have called The Exorcism of Emily Rose the first horror/courtroom drama. I submit that William Friedkin’s Rampage holds that honor.
The aspects of the film that will please the horror crowd are indeed powerful. The opening murder of the family is followed by our killer, Charles Reece, walking into a kitchen and shooting a mother in front of her young son. Talk of the whereabouts of the young boy by the police are followed by a terrifying shot of Reece walking by a lake, whistling a happy tune, and carrying a black trash bag over his shoulder. We being true horror fans know that the boy’s remains are in the bag. It is a quick shot that is truly chilling. There are other shots of Reece bathing in and drinking the blood of his victims. These scenes are quick and not over the top, but they are quite effective and will keep horror fans wide eyed with interest.
Fans of good drama will appreciate the rest of the film. The characters are sharply written and acted. Michael Biehn gives a career best performance as the D.A. fighting for the death penalty. The D.A. and his wife, played by the great and underused Deborah Van Valkenburgh are saddened and haunted by the death of their young daughter (they were forced to make the decision to end her life support) and are now involved with a case where children are murdered. It is a tragic circumstance that, we can believe, makes Biehn’s D.A. push harder for the death penalty as Reece’s lawyers fight to prove his insanity at the time of the murders. The scenes in the courtroom and the battle over Reece’s life are quite fascinating and make persuasive arguments for both sides. By the end of the film we know what side Friedkin is on but we are made to make up our own minds.
As for the character of Reece, he is chillingly portrayed by Alex MacArthur. His Reece is a demented-on-the-inside killer but his outer shell is an almost angelic faced young man who you might see on a summer day mowing his lawn or having beers and watching sports with buddies. It is a mask that hides the true demon. We see this as he is unemotional when describing the murders. At one point Reece speaks of how he feels possessed and made to kill by the voices in his head. MacArthur delivers he line matter-of-factly and without expression. It is a blood curdling moment that compliments a frighteningly cold performance.
The film is a near perfect balance of horror, thriller, and police procedural. It even manages to become a passionately felt argument over the insanity defense and the death penalty. This is not a horror flick/gore fest. What gore there is, is shown post murder. Nor is it a flashy cop movie with stylistic overkill. Friedkin shows restraint in this film as he goes for a more static camera style. At times, the style feels almost documentary-like. For a story such as this, some might go for a more flamboyant way of shooting but I feel that, for this film, Friedkin was successful in his restraint. After all, this is the man who gave us, in my opinion, the best and most frighteningly grotesque horror film of them all, The Exorcist! Here he almost shelters us from the truly horrific moments. We see the killer shoot the family but we are spared the gruesome acts to follow. We learn what he did only when the detectives are giving the D.A. the facts at the crime scene and during their gruesome discovery of the killer’s basement of “horror.”
The issues addressed by the film are important, the thriller elements are wire tight, and the horror moments are horrifying to the bone. It all comes together to make a near perfect film that should be seen by genre fans and serious film fans alike.
Rampage is a true underrated gem from one of cinema’s finest risk takers.