Vice Squad (1982)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: August 13th, 2019
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
The bygone 70s and 80s era of genuine grindhouse filmmaking evokes a certain distasteful quality that just oozes off the screen in all of its grimy glory. It’s sort of like what Justice Potter Stewart said about obscenity—you know it when you see it. However, if you ever needed Exhibit Fucking A in this case, you’d look no further than 1982’s Vice Squad, a film that feels like it was made by and exclusively for total degenerates. Gary Sherman’s jaunt on the sleazoid express drips with so much filth and grit that you can practically smell the squalor unfolding on-screen as the film barrels through a red-light district swelling with sweaty police precincts, grungy bathrooms, and seedy motels. It’s an exceptionally strange, manic descent into an urban hellscape that’s been abandoned by any semblance of decency. All that’s left is the vile refuse that spewed forth from the primordial neon slime that seeps through the damp streets of Los Angeles, where even the rain can’t wash away the scum.
A glimmer of something pure does peek through just after the credits, when we meet Princess (Season Hubley), a doting mother hurriedly putting her daughter Lisa into the care of a babysitter, a somewhat frantic exchange that ends with the young girl being put on a bus to stay with her grandmother. As Princess watches the daughter and caretaker roll away, she barely holds herself together as she waves goodbye, fighting back tears. When we next see her moments later, she’s undergone a remarkable transformation: staring into the mirror with a steely resolve, she prepares herself to walk the streets as a seasoned prostitute. A routine bust, however, draws her into the local Vice Squad’s plot to ensnare Ramrod (Wings Hauser), a maniacal pimp with a penchant for roughing up women. Once Princess learns that he’s responsible for the death of a friend (Nina Blackwood), she’s all too eager to lure Ramrod into the police’s trap. In fact, she’s a little too eager to reveal her role in the plot when it’s successful: her gloating only intensifies Ramrod’s short fuse, and he soon escapes police custody to stalk Princess for the duration of an increasingly bizarre night.
Vice Squad has all the makings of a razor sharp thriller, but Sherman isn’t exclusively interested in exploiting just that. Rather, he luxuriates in this bizarre L.A. underbelly, taking strange digressions into its weird, darkly absurd corners. Violence drives the plot of the film, yet Sherman scatters it about the edges, keeping most of the nastiness implied, off-screen. He seems much more interested in creating the impression that viewers have stepped into some bizarre, sleazy twilight zone crawling with ridiculously tattooed dominatrix weapons dealers, sweat-soaked cops screaming about missing staplers, and lecherous johns with increasingly bizarre fetishes. Not to kink shame or anything, but you tell me how we’re supposed to react to an entire episode where a cryptic chauffeur (Michael Ensign) shuttles Princess to a huge mansion and dresses her in a wedding outfit for his client, who plays dead inside of a coffin? An old guy that just wants to suck her toes in a dingy motel room earlier in the night is positively normal by comparison.
It’s these idiosyncratic flourishes that give Vice Squad its peculiar flavor, largely because they’re butting up against both genuinely unseemly, manic outbursts and compelling drama. Hauser provides much of the former as Ramrod, who lords over every frame of the film—including the ones he doesn’t even appear him. With his bulging, wild, Busey-esque eyes, Hauser is a singular presence responsible for most of the film’s seediness. It’s impressive how deranged Vice Squad feels due to the decision to lean on Hauser’s mania in lieu explicitly dwelling on its nastiness. If you weren’t aware of Hauser’s storied acting career, you’d be convinced Sherman tapped an actual maniac straight from the streets of L.A for this role.
Essentially Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” theory taking the form of an unhinged libido, Ramrod’s name says everything you need to know about one of the most vile—and charismatic—scumbags to ever desecrate the silver screen. He’s unadulterated misogyny on three legs, capable of blowing up the proceedings at any given moment as he terrorizes the various women he encounters. Of course, a devil’s advocate will point out that he’s an equal-opportunity psycho since he literally cuts the balls off of a pimp—even after the guy gives up the info Ramrod is seeking. You do not want to be in Ramrod’s path.
Opposite him is Princess, whose name obviously signals her as the film’s virtuous foil. Given the foul, stagnant cesspool she’s trudging through, it’s best to see her as the closest thing to virtue imaginable in such filth. Hubley brings a steely resolve to the role in place of the passivity that films usually reserve for such damsels in distress. While it’s certainly nice that she has a pair of cops on her side (Gary Swanson & Maurice Emanuel), she spends most of the film fending off threats from assorted weirdos. She meets a rough-and-tumble world on its terms, sometimes revealing her own rough edges with racist remarks about her own pimp. It’s a reminder that nothing pure can truly exist here, even if the film holds an obvious fondness for her that makes it work.
Without that fondness, the weirdly compelling dramatic stakes wouldn’t even be possible, and this is what makes Vice Squad such a fascinating picture. For all its sordidness, the film is truly worthwhile for the way it insists on a primal form of justice. Yes, the cops are technically extorting Princess by pressing her into service, but Detective Walsh (Swanson) especially is genuinely concerned for her well-being. There’s a respect between he and Princess that isn’t even begrudging or judgmental; each hails from wildly different sides of the street, yet they forge a strange bond that could only exist between two people who know the perils swarming in that street. Vice Squad practically wallows in street-level smut but is careful not to completely succumb to it. After being enamored with Hauser’s presence for the entire film, Sherman’s camera is equally eager to capture a bullet to his skull in the film’s most graphic on-screen bit of violence.
Of course, Hauser still croons over the end credits, reprising the film’s rockabilly anthem to leave viewers with a sufficiently weird aftertaste. Vice Squad might believe in righteous justice, but it’s not particularly insistent on letting its audience off the hook. There’s no escape from the neon slime: this bizarre underworld persists, presumably playing host to further strange, sleazy odysseys. By the time its credits roll, Vice Squad has taken on the hazy, unreal quality of an up-all-night saga that prowls somewhere between a nightmare and a daydream. It’s the grindhouse analog to After Hours in this respect: a weird trip into the absurd recesses of urban life, only this one’s soaked in grime, kinkiness, misogyny, racism, and any number of elements that just beg for a modern audience to deem it “problematic.” If we’re being honest, that’s the true metric for conferring grindhouse credentials.
In its latest raid of the AVCO Embassy library, Scream Factory has tapped Vice Squad for a long-overdue Blu-ray upgrade. It comes well over a decade since the film’s lone (and now very out-of-print) DVD release from Anchor Bay, and it is well worth the wait thanks to both a new 4K transfer and an absurd abundance of supplements. I know I’ve emphasized the filthy nature of Vice Squad, but there’s a grotesque, grungy beauty to Sherman’s work that shines through with this newly restored presentation.
Sherman is the headliner of the extra features, where he’s found on three separate occasions. Both his original DVD commentary and a newly recorded track with producer Brian Frankish are included, plus the director appears in “On Poltergeist and Neon Lights,” a 72-minute retrospective that spans Sherman’s upbringing and career. As the title suggests, the interview covers most of the films in his oeuvre and not just Vice Squad in particular. Frankish also appears on-camera for a 62-minute interview to discuss how he came aboard the film following his work on Savage Harvest. Performers Gary Swanson, Beverly Todd, and Pepe Serna each appear in lengthy interviews (ranging from 45-58 minutes) to discuss their careers and their specific contributions to Vice Squad. Michael Ensign also features in a 24-minute interview that’s obviously a bit more brief but is welcome nonetheless.
These interviews alone account for nearly 6 hours of content here, and that’s not even mentioning the usual assortment of trailers, TV spots, poster and lobby card galleries, behind-the-scenes photos, and publicity stills. There’s even a montage of shots that show what the filming locations look like today; it’s not exactly an episode of Horror’s Hallowed Grounds, but it serves a similar function of showing just how much locations can change—especially Hollywood, which is no longer the portrait of urban decay 70s and 80s cinema often made it out to be.
Even though Vice Squad might not be the highest profile title Scream Factory has released, but this is definitely among its most impressive releases. Would it have been nice to get Hauser and Hubsey to appear? Naturally, but it’s hard to argue that Scream didn’t go above and beyond to compensate for their absences. Combine this effort with the fact that Vice Squad is something of an underseen grindhouse gem, and you have one of the best discs of 2019.
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