[27 June 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It must be hard to create a modern horror icon, a symbol of something sinister that is both original and endearing. Toby Hooper spawned a flesh-wearing cannibal named Leatherface. Wes Craven created Freddy Krueger and - with writer Kevin Williamson - the cloaked Scream Killer as well. Clive Barker has made Pinhead and the Cenobites, along with Candyman and his hooked horror, household names. No one can think of a zombie without intoning the terror of George Romero, and Sean Cunningham will have eons in motion picture purgatory for coming up with that hockey masked maniac (but piss-poor swimmer) Jason Voorhees.
But what of the duds, those that have fallen a scant single step below and into the realm of the unremarkable? Why weren’t they successful? William Lustig, responsible for the ersatz icon Matt Cordell, AKA the Maniac Cop, tries his best to propagate another emblem of evil with his 1997 movie Uncle Sam. He even swipes one of America’s most beloved benefactors as his architect of death. But the question still stands whether this new vile version of the venerable national relative will stand the test of time as a terror titan. The conclusion is mixed.
During a catastrophic mission in Kuwait (the “first” Gulf War, remember?), Sam Harper is shot down in his helicopter and presumed dead. A reconnaissance team recovers his badly burned body. When Sam is shipped home in a coffin and presented to his widow Louise, his death is a devastating blow to his young nephew, Jody. Jody idolized Sam and wanted to follow in his footsteps. But Jody’s mother, Sam’s sister Sally, thinks it’s a bad idea. There are secrets in Sam’s past - horrible, abusive secrets that she doesn’t want her son to know about. Still, as the Fourth of July looms and Sam’s small town prepares to celebrate the holiday, our fallen war hero has alternate otherworldly ideas about how to commemorate the Nation’s freedom. Rising from the grave and locating an appropriate “patriotic” disguise, our undead soldier wants certain Americans to pay for disrespecting their great country. It will take Jody, and an ex-military buddy of Sam’s, Jed Crowley, to keep the insane maniac from ruining Independence Day and the iconographic impact of the civic symbol, Uncle Sam.
Like a ratty old blanket in the back of your car that you just can’t bear to part with, Uncle Sam is one of those old reliable relics, a horror film with the early ‘80s ideal of terror so perfectly ingrained in its celluloid that you don’t really care that it’s strangely subpar most of the time. You couldn’t care less if the characters’ motives are unclear and the blood and gore is measured out in tumblers, not bucket loads. Like those tatty sneakers or that food-stained robe, the old school slasher shocks of Uncle Sam fit aging fright fans like a knife-fingered glove. Director William Lustig and his cast of reliable genre icons invigorate a rather routine dark comedy by fellow scare savant Larry Cohen, and turn this terror tale into a twisted take on patriotism and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Starting with its strange slaughter stalker, Uncle Sam is unconventional in its approach to the time-honored tenets of mad maniac movies. Even as it celebrates such standards, it tweaks and tickles them, admitting their status as truisms while figuring out ways around them. Complex explanations of rituals and revenge are ignored. We are simply provided a zombie veteran who wants to celebrate his great love-it-or-leave-it nation by putting on a perfect symbol of freedom and ventilating a few rat bastard turncoats to liberty’s cause. When they’re described to you, the reasons behind the bloodletting become crystal clear: Sam is out to destroy draft dodgers, tax cheats, flag burners…basically, anyone who would dare crap on Mom, apple pie, and baseball (no matter how much the former national pastime could use a good feces fling right about now).
Equally odd is the overall tone of Larry Cohen’s screenplay. You can tell the talented B-movie maven (responsible for a wealth of wonders from It’s Alive! and The Stuff to Lustig’s Maniac Cop movies) thought he was crafting a clever commentary on the climate of rampant partisanship and diehard warmongering running throughout the national agenda at the time (a different Bush in the White House but the same old attack on Iraq). Using the human image of America’s might and right—good old white-bearded Colonel Sanders poster boy Sammy—to show how outrageous and deadly such an attitude might be, it’s impossible not to sense Cohen’s implied sarcasm or the genial grandstanding of his viewpoint. But because this is a horror film, a typical take on the mindless-monster-on-a-murder-spree storyline, a great deal of what Cohen hoped to accomplish is lost in the translation to terror. Somehow, the unreality of the situation (living dead soldier) and the pro-peace sentiments just don’t coagulate properly. Indeed, all the politics are deadened—rendered ridiculous when placed in the perspective of a supernatural setting.
Yet for all the confusing core concepts and arch political preaching, this is still supposed to be a scary movie. And it’s a damn fine fright flick at that. Sure, this is not some metaphysical take on paranormal paranoia schooled in spooks, demons, and wraithlike imps of hate. Instead, the fear is familiar and the deaths are deliriously creative, a witty reminder of the way killing used to conclude onscreen. You can argue all you want about the overall success of his premise or complete lack of suspense, but one thing is for sure: Lustig knows how to handle a horror set piece.
The stalk and slay sequence has always been a merry mainstay of the monster movie and Uncle Sam has a couple of doozies. The best is perhaps the initial hometown killing, when our really-walking-wounded Sam chases down a patriotic pervert on stilts, causing him to fall. Just the site of a twenty-foot-tall clown careening through city streets and into a spooky, foggy park is worth the price of admission. It makes the eventual off-camera slaughter that much more satisfying.
Lustig also sets another demise inside a sack race action scene. That’s right, as dozens of extras wear burlap body suits and hop about like rabid bunnies down the funny trail, our sinister Sam stalks, singles out, and slices up a careless teen who had previously tortured the National Anthem with his talentless tonsils. From an axe to the head to a final confrontation featuring that powder keg panacea for all lovers of big screen screams—the explosion—Uncle Sam has its genre attributes in the right place. Add in a creepy makeup job that makes our dead war hero look like so much warmed over swamp scum, and you’ve got a decent attempt at a novel new fiend. Frankly, who cares if it’s a tad tedious at times?
But in the end, it’s that wonderfully warming comfort zone that will finally sell you on Uncle Sam. After spending endless hours in sticky theaters watching scream queens have their breasts bloodied, and witnessing the wealth of woeful ineptness that compromised the majority of the home video horror market, it’s refreshing to see a film that actually understands the strictures of shock and the conditions for splatter. The slasher film, after all, is not some rock-solid scientific formula, a guaranteed success as long as the right combination of gore and lore are met. While the politics may be a little scorched and the explanations for the paranormal pandemonium completely underdone, this is still a film that knows from whence its wickedness was wrangled. Uncle Sam sets up the same shameless situation. And that feeling you get in the back of your head is not pride messing with you…it’s the ready recognition of a traditional take on terror.