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Friday, September 3, 2021

‘Death Weekend’: Canadian Exploitation and Rural Revenge [Horrors Elsewhere]

Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure a scream is understood, always and everywhere.

Content Warning: This article discusses sexual assault.

Black Christmas, The Changeling, and Prom Night prevail in discussions of classic Canadian horror because of their international renown. When analyzing the less obvious, home-grown horrors from the “Canuxploitation” era — low-budget, genre flicks made between the late 1970s and early 1980s — one director’s name tends to come up again and again. William Fruet is responsible for a handful of notable “B” movies of yesteryear; Blue Monkey, Funeral Home, Killer Party, Spasms, and Trapped all have that touch of weirdness the filmmaker is known for. Yet before audiences ever laid eyes on those Canadian curios, Fruet teamed up with future Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman to produce the best film of his career.

The 1976 film Death Weekend takes place in the tranquil Ontario countryside. Diane (Brenda Vaccaro) is accompanying her date, a dentist named Harry (Chuck Shamata), to his isolated estate when she attracts the unwanted attention of another car. Diane responds to the catcalls by running the other party, a Camaro loaded with four drunken bumpkins, off the road and into a creek. The incensed men then discover the couple’s whereabouts and crash the party, looking to enact revenge on the woman who humiliated them.

City folks finding trouble in their new, bucolic surroundings because they cannot acclimate is a common theme among all horror. The 1970s ran away with this idea and refused to treat it with kid gloves. In the case of Death Weekend, the two urbanites waste no time when it comes to offending the locals. Diane asks to drive Harry’s Corvette, and once she takes over, she reveals her lead foot. Promptly, the film’s villains — a quartet of goons led by Don Stroud’s Lep — show up and egg Diane into a race. Instead of ignoring her harassers, the protagonist gives them a taste of their own medicine. And as is the practice in these narratives, Diane wrongly assumes she is afforded the same protections as someone in the city; she never stops to think maybe her safety is not guaranteed out here in the boonies. Meanwhile, Harry is the more cautious of the two main characters, seeing as he visits the area enough to have a faint grasp of the social order. Although his trepidation is not necessarily out of respect for the lifers either.

With authentic grindhouse productions, viewers have come to expect the discolored and sometimes splotchy aesthetic along with an intentionally drab presentation. A dismal display better emphasizes the frequently heinous and inhuman acts waiting to unfold within. Director of photography Robert Saad, on the other hand, tweaks the formula without sacrificing the need to reflect the story’s eventual discomfort and rawness through appearance. Death Weekend looks relatively brighter than its peers; the outdoors plays a large role in the film. The November weather is in full effect as sparse greenery pokes through the otherwise extremely autumnal exterior. The sun shines down on a good part of the film, expunging any notion that bad things can only happen in the dark. Fruet’s movie indeed looks warm and soft, if not yellowy and overexposed. In spite of the general gleam, there is a particular lack of vivid colors other than Lep’s eye-grabbingly red Camaro. After all, it would only make sense that his most significant belonging is so flashy and vibrant; it is the one bright spot in his dreary life.

What improves the overly familiar story of Death Weekend is Fruet’s attention to the three leads. The filmmaker does not write them as vacuous characters. First off, Harry may not be a degenerate like Lep and his pals, but he is also far from being the decent type. Early conversations with Diane reveal he is entitled and materialistic; he makes assumptions about how this weekend is going to play out. When Diane denies him the pleasure, he throws a tantrum and tells her to walk home. His remorse is short-lived once Lep and his fellow hosers arrive, and he shows more concern for his house and possessions than Diane’s welfare. Harry goes against type in these kinds of movies where the man is above all protective of his loved ones. In contrast, he is here to underscore the perceptible social disparity between himself and the antagonists. Harry might have grown up poor — on the topic of money, he tells Diane “having it is a hell of a lot better than not having it” — but new wealth has made him forget his roots or how to treat someone as disadvantaged as Lep, who could very well be him had things turned out differently in life.

Lep is an unsociable misogynist and an all-around bad guy with sycophants for friends. His grievance is initially with Diane, but after seeing Harry’s expensive house and goods, he is triggered. Harry throwing money at the problem does not help matters; now Lep feels like less of a person and more of a nuisance. Financial reparation for his car’s damages means nothing in comparison to the pain he can inflict on Harry. Lep assumes Harry feels superior in both class and power, and therefore, he wants to bring him down to his level. Once he realizes Diane is of less importance to him than his house and property, Lep takes to destroying that. For all his deplorable behaviors, Lep is at the very least smarter and more insightful than others give him credit for.

Death Weekend being obscure means people will miss out on Vaccaro’s portrayal of Diane. Her impressive range transforms Diane into a conscious character who is not only charming and smart but also uncertain and vulnerable. Fruet’s heroine is never outmatched in either mind or body; she refuses to compromise herself with Harry, and when it comes to her victimizers, Diane does not go down without a fight. Her ability to fix and hotwire cars is convenient to the plot, but it also establishes Diane is independent and resourceful. Her initiative is what saves her in the end, whereas someone with a limited imagination like Harry does not fare too well when things get messy. 

While Fruet does not overlook the inherent brutality of rape, he does aim at creating nuance. Diane “detaches” in one instance and then complies during another so she can make her first move toward survival. As Diane faces off with Lep in the tool shed, she eventually stops fighting back and succumbs to stillness and a searching stare. This behavior only assuages the rapist, who is rendered impotent by Diane’s sudden passivity. Before one of the other men has his way with Diane in a locked bedroom later on, he first forces her to style herself. Once she is to his liking, Diane submits to her attacker in order to carry out the inevitable revenge portion of the film. Watching Diane drown one guy in a bog and blow up another is indeed gratifying. Nevertheless, she is not actually seeking vengeance; Diane kills because it is the only way she can escape.

Fruet’s first horror film inhales a significant amount of inspiration from Straw Dogs and grindhouse benchmark, The Last House on the Left. In fact, Reitman managed to double-bill it with Craven’s 1972 movie in the U.S. There it proved to be fairly popular at the drive-ins under its new title, The House by the Lake. Back home, however, critics treated it no differently than other domestic horrors they disavowed. Such is the case with panned genre offerings from back then, Death Weekend is now finally getting the adulation it deserves, albeit at a slower rate compared to films of a similar age and quality. Those in its corner recognize and promote the movie for its skilled cast, layered writing, and a considerable amount of intelligence not always synonymous with “B” movies.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3681200/death-weekend-canadian-exploitation-rural-revenge-horrors-elsewhere/

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