Highlighting the most amazing, awe-inspiring elements of the legendary blaxploitation masterpiece!
By: Jimbo X
Back in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, there was a big kerfuffle once VHS tapes starting becoming commonplace. What was effectively the U.K.’s equivalent of the Moral Majority decided they didn’t like the idea of kids getting their hands on bloody exploitation and horror movies, so the Director of Public Prosecutions drew up a list of 72 movies they wanted BANNED across the isles. Now, for the most part, the movies were your expected grab bag of grisly horror, pseudo-snuff and crass exploitation - Tenebrae, Faces of Death, S.S. Experiment Camp, etc. - but taking a nice, long gander at the full list, one movie in particular jumps out at you.
OK, so including stuff like Driller Killer, I Spit On Your Grave, Cannibal Holocaust and even The Evil Dead, as fantastical as they may be, kinda' sorta' makes sense, but how in the world did some seemingly random blaxploitation flick called Fight For Your Life make the cut?
On the surface, Fight For Your Life may appear to be just another late 1970s grindhouse cheapie, but folks, this movie is without question one of the most remarkable exploitation films in the history of cinema. I've been watching movies of its ilk for the better part of 20 years, but I don't think I've ever seen a film comparable to this one. It's just so unabashedly sleazy, trashy and nihilistic, but at the same time, it's absolutely impossible to look away. And of course, it being in the vein of your tried-and-true E.C. Comics morality play, you know it's only a matter of time until the victimized get their revenge, and when they do? Boy howdy, is it a sight to behold.
I know it sounds like hyperbole, but this really is one of the most incredible movies I've ever seen in my life. There's just such an insane amount of unrepentant nastiness to it, that even with the (mostly) crappy acting factored into the mix, you can't help but stare in awe of what's happening on screen. While exploitation cinema in the late 1970s was pretty much hellbent on pushing buttons and not giving half a fuck what the majority considered appropriate, this movie just takes it to an entirely different level of scumminess, with scenes so brutal and unnerving - including sequences involving child actors - that you kinda' have to wonder if the director isn't liable for some emotional abuse damages. As thoroughly unpleasant as the central premise of the movie may be (a remorseless racist breaks into a black family's home and berates them with horrific slurs until they slowly turn the tables on their captor), the movie still ports about that libertine, carefree attitude that just about every sensational B-movie of the late 1970s conveyed, and good lord, it even halts the parade of "n-words" and protracted sexual assault sequences every now and then to make some strangely coherent points about the nature of race relations in the U.S., complete with a morally ambiguous ending that is way more intriguing, philosophically, than you could ever possibly imagine a film with a title like Fight For Your Life mustering.
So without further adieu, let's hop knee-deep into that superlative seventies sleaze to mine out the nine most brain-breaking, jaw-dropping, blood-boiling and audience-discomfiting aspects of one of the grand lions of degenerate cinema. Gear up, folks, it's time to ... wait for it ... Fight For Your Life!
The Completely Gratuitous Interracial Romance Subplot!
There are quite a few subplots within Fight For Your Life, but the one involving the family's "mysterious" white friend is probably the movie's most superfluous. So early on, we learn that the Turner family had a young adult son who went off to Vietnam and got killed. While the characters kinda' sorta' tiptoe around the relationship between this seemingly random white girl and the deceased elder child, the film itself makes it clear as day: in flashback scenes spliced around a telephone call, we learn that, yeah, the dead son and this white girl were doing the nasty rather frequently, and if the soundtrack is meant to be any sort of diegetic authority, it was all kinds of soulful lovemaking, too. In a movie glutted with sensationalism, this is probably the most shameless attempt at stirring the proverbial pot; all the filmmakers had to do was throw in one measly line of dialogue about "our deceased son's fiancee" and we would be good to go, but nope! We've got to get that controversial chocolate-on-vanilla doin' it in there, because if there is any sort of reel space that could be used to alienate the hell out of the far less "tolerant" moviegoing masses of the late 1970s, by golly, you had to capitalize on it.
The Insane Amount of Sadism!
The movie's big bad, Jessie Lee Kane, has to be one of the ten greatest villains in the history of the motion picture. Not only is the dude an unabashed racist who thinks it's funny to make black preachers dance like minstrel show characters for his own amusement, he's certainly got quite the homicidal streak runnin' up and down his yellow spine. Before the five minute mark of the movie, he's already blown away a prison guard and robbed a pimp, and if it wasn't made clear as day that this Kane fellow ain't no good, by the time he guns down a liquor store owner in front of his own crying toddler, you'll know this is one all-time son-of-a-bitch we're dealing with right here. And my goodness, the racial pejoratives that fly out of this dude's mouth, even when he isn't raping young women and threatening to engage in lynchings! To give you an idea just how bad his tirades get, his utterances of the euphemisms "monkey-face," "black little booger," "brown dirtballs on a fender," "the most cooperative darkie," and even "jive-ass-coon-nigger" are among his more polite lines of dialogue.
The Wacky, Multicultural Cast of Villains!
Now here's were things get really peculiar. Considering Kane's less-than-secretive white supremacist viewpoints, you really wouldn't expect his two best friends to be anything darker than a jug of mayonnaise, but what do you know, his two partners in crime just so happen to be Asian and Hispanic. As bad as Kane may be, his comrades Chino and Ling might be even more deplorable, seeing as how they usually wind up doing the brunt of the physical dirty work. While there are some signs of tension in the three-way relationship (for example, Chino flips his wig when Kane calls him a "spic" during a dinner sequence that sees Ling eating macaroni and cheese with his bare hands), the three work surprisingly well as a team ... thus, giving us all hope that diversity, especially as it relates to organized crime, might just work out after all.
The Insanely Blunt Sociocultural Commentary!
Of course, it's pretty hard to read Fight For Your Life without exploring its deeper subtext on United States race relations. And here, it's actually quite a bit different from its blaxploitation contemporaries, in the sense that its primary protagonists aren't necessarily railing against the white hegemony a'la Shaft, Superfly and - my personal favorite - Boss Nigger. Indeed, the world of Fight For Your Life, nestled in upstate New York, is a remarkably peaceful one, devoid of any palpable racial hostility. White kids play with black kids and the local police do nothing but speak highly of the patriarch of the Turner household (a local reverend who, as a hilarious coincidence, is named "Ted.") In that, Kane can be seen as some sort of non-cultural force from the woodworks, sort of a throwback to our less civilized, extremely ethnocentric ways as a collective. Interestingly, the filmmakers never attempt to posit Kane's hateful ideology as anything even remotely resembling the consensus, mainstream "white" viewpoint whatsoever - indeed, he's just an aberrational sociopath that hates everybody - white, black, brown, yellow, red, or periwinkle - indiscriminately. From a "reading way too much into this shit" perspective, I wonder what sort of subconscious statement the filmmakers intentionally or unintentionally sought to make with the film - and with scenes in which photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Kennedys and even Muhammad Ali are "trapped" in between two omni-bigoted lunatics wearing ropes for suspenders, I assure you there is plenty of material to work with.
The Totally Unmentioned Halloween Aesthetics!
OK, this one is merely cosmetic and a completely superficial reason to enjoy the movie, but man, do I love the festive fall decorations in this flick. Although they never really come out and tell you when the film takes place, it's probably a safe bet to assume that ... because of all of the jack-o'-lanterns and papier-mache turkeys all over the place, not to mention the very crispy leaves dotting the woodlands ... it takes place sometime in fall. Really, trying to find out which holiday is closer - Halloween or Thanksgiving - in the diegesis of Fight For Your Life is kinda' like trying to figure out which state Springfield is in on The Simpsons. Regardless, pretty much ever scene features some sort of autumnal kitsch, from skeletal decorations to big old heaping helpings of pumpkin pie. And while holiday dysmorphia is usually points off for most films, here, it actually works in Fight For Your Life's favor - by keeping the timeline vague, it's equally suited for both perennial Halloween and Thanksgiving viewings.
Anybody Can Die At Any Minute ... And I Do Mean Anybody!
As the undisputed god of B-movie sleaze Joe Bob Briggs can affirm, the ultimate hallmark of a great exploitation movie is the simple tenet that, at any given moment, any character in the film can die. Well, Fight For Your Life is a movie that DEFINITELY keeps that unwritten degenerate cinema rule close to heart, with numerous characters you feel are "off-limits" - practically out of nowhere - getting killed in horrifically brutal ways. Women, children, cops, bad guys, supporting characters, the main characters ... not a single one of them is diegetically "protected" from an early exit from the canonical mortal coil, and knowing the filmmakers are crazy enough to off anybody at anytime definitely gives the film a much more intense vibe than its chronological genre contemporaries.
Of course, you know it's just a matter of time until the tables turn and Kane ends up becoming the victim instead of the victimizer, and the great reversal of fortune does not disappoint. While the police surround the Turner household, the family slowly manages to overpower their captors and devise an escape plan. First, Chino literally gets his penis shot off, and then Ling gets defenestrated, complete with a huge-assed shard of glass puncturing his sternum like a stalactite. While Kane manages to fend off the knife-wielding brood for a little while, it's not long before he finds himself starring down Mr. Turner in the film's riveting denoument. But before we get to the thrilling conclusion of Fight For Your Life, first, let us reflect on the movie's most memorable protagonist...
While William Sanderson's Kane is definitely the star of the movie, Granny Turner is definitely going to be the audience's favorite character. Even before the proverbial doo doo hits the metaphorical fan, she's already sassing it up like a more melanated Sophia Petrillo, at one point encouraging her grandson to rally behind the "black power" cause instead of embracing his father's more pacifistic approach to racial equality. And of course, by the time Kane and his thugs invade the Turner household, Granny is the first to start mouthing off to her captors, at one point calling Kane "white trash" to his face! While Granny definitely has some great lines in the flick, absolutely NOTHING compares to the moment where she finally gets her hands on Kane's gun, lays a bead on his ass and states the single greatest line of dialogue in the history of cinema: "don't move or I'll blow your motherfucking balls off!" To this day, why Granny Turner didn't star in at least seven or eight spinoff movies of her own remains one of the greatest cinematic enigmas of the 20th century.
The Concluding (yet peculiarly demoralizing) Gunfight Finale!
|Black supremacist, white supremacist ... this movie has something for everybody, no matter who your sworn racial enemy is!|
Folks, I simply cannot overstate how badly you need to see this movie. It's shocking and corny and the acting is impossibly shitty and great at the very same time and it's sensationalistic as all fuck but it's also strangely philosophical without beating you over the head with blunt subtext. It's an immensely depraved film, but it's also immensely entertaining, the sort of good old fashioned American degenerate cinema that hasn't been en vogue since the early 1990s and the heyday of Blockbuster Video and Pay-Per-View softcore erotica. It's an absolute masterpiece of the theatre of the American proletariat, and in a just world, it would be considered a genre masterpiece on par with Petey Wheatstraw and Dolemite.
Per IMDB, this was the only major motion picture the director - some dude named Robert A. Edelson - ever helmed. Strangely enough, it was written by a guy named Straw Weisman, whose oeuvre runs the gamut from Godzilla 1985 to the 2002 John Ritter vehicle Man of the Year. As far as the cast goes, most of the actors gave up the thespian craft shortly after the film (gee, I wonder why) but quite a few players went on to have sustained careers in show business. William Sanderson, for example, has had quite the career as a character actor, later starring in Blade Runner and portraying one of the Larrys on Newhart. The little kid, Reggie Rock Blythewood, grew up to be a pretty successful TV writer, penning several episodes of A Different World and New York Undercover in addition to mainstream Hollywood releases Get on the Bus and Biker Boyz. And yes, even Chino himself - Daniel Faraldo - hasn't had a shortage of work, with his IMDB page listing numerous gigs on The A-Team, Magnum, P.I., and virtually every other TV show in the 1980s, too.
So what are you waiting for? The movie isn't hard at all to find on the YouTubes and Dailymotions, and it's one of the few completely buried hidden treasures from the late 1970s grindhouse era that hasn't been memed and overanalyzed to death yet. It's abrasive and aggressive and offensive and awkward and cheesy and sinister and prurient and demoralizing all at the same time, and unlike throwaway larfs like Brotherhood of Death, this one actually manages to stick with you long after the VCR cogs stop a spinnin'. It's long past time this movie got recognition as the indie classic it truly is ... and trust me, you definitely will not be disappointed or dissatisfied once the screen fades to black (power?) here...