Is there anything more awesome than the sight of Fred "The Hammer" Williamson in the opening moments of William Lustig's 1983 film VIGILANTE? Anyone who has seen the film will remember Williamson's impassioned opening monologue about taking back your rights and essentially sticking it to the man. In anyone else's hands, a line like, "This is our Waterloo baby" would have been just silly, but when The Hammer says it you know you should be listening.
Long before William Lustig made many genre lover's dreams come true with his work for DVD comapny Anchor Bay and his own Blue Underground, he was one of the most interesting American directors that came out of the late seventies. Along with Larry Cohen, Lustig's films helped reshaped the exploitation genre. Also more than any of his peers Lustig had a real fascination and love affair with the Italian horror and action films that played in New York's grindhouse district throughout the seventies.
Lustig got his start in the adult film industry of the seventies, including one film with Serena, but he became an instant underground sensation with his astonishing and controversial 1980 film MANIAC. The film, starring a majestically sleazy Joe Spinell, is one of the key American horror films of eighties. Inspired by the giallo work of Mario Bava, Dario Argento's early films and the rougher world of Sergio Martino, MANIAC was marked by the astonishing makeup effects of Tom Savini, and Spinell's truly disturbing turn as deranged Frank Zito. The film would be picketed across the United States, cause Gene Siskel to walk out of a screening and was a major financial smash. MANIAC is one of the great American slasher flicks and one of the most truly terrifying films ever made.
Lustig chose to follow up MANIAC with another Italian influenced film, only instead of the horror genre he would look towards the Italian crime films of the seventies that he had fallen so much in love with. VIGILANTE is a virtual valentine to filmmakers like Enzo Castellari, Fernando Di Leo, Umberto Lenzi and again Sergio Martino. Working from a solid script by Richard Vetere and an incredible cast featuring not only Williamson but also Robert Forster, Woody Strode, Carol Lynley and once again, Joe Spinell, VIGILANTE would allow Lustig to realize one of the great revenge films ever.
VIGILANTE'S story line is very much in the mold of the genre and there isn't a lot surprising about it. The usual mix of a city out of control, personal loss and finally revenge all play themselves out in the expected manner. What isn't so typical though is the way Lustig gets inside these characters and makes them feel very real. Much of this of course has to be credited to the phenomenally talented cast but I think there was a lot of heart in Vetere's original script and it is a shame he hasn't done more.
Williamson gives one of his best performances as a man who announces at the beginning that he, "Has had it up to here." The Hammer was at his physical peak here and is just incredible to watch. Even more compelling is the always astonishing Forster who plays the loving father and husband who loses everything. Their is a real gravity and power to Forster here and I am sure this is one of the roles Tarantino had in mind when he gave Forster his greatest role, as the weary Max Cherry in JACKIE BROWN (1987). Spinell, Strode and Lynley are all solid in their small roles and genre favorites Richard Bright and Don Blakely give their usual great supporting turns. Keep a look out for many familiar faces throughout VIGILANTE'S slim running time as many inevitably pop up.
Featuring another innovative score by MANIAC composer Jay Chattaway and solid photography by James Lemmo (who had given Abel Ferrara's masterful MS 45 such an unforgettable look), VIGILANTE is a remarkable assured piece of low budget film making that was just as well thought out as the more acclaimed MANIAC.
VIGILANTE opened up in the spring of 83 but it didn't make the waves that MANIAC had. It would be another five years before the talented Lustig would direct another feature, the extremely fun MANIAC COP (1988). Lustig was lined up to direct TRUE ROMANCE in the early nineties but studio politics got in the way and the job was handed to super slick Tony Scott. I like Scott's film but in the hands of William Lustig, TRUE ROMANCE would have been a much grittier, and I think effective, film and would have altered William Lustig's directorial career completely.
VIGILANTE is one of the last films of its kind, one of the last true films of the seventies if you will. The home video market quickly changed the way low budget films were made and released and by the late eighties a film like VIGILANTE would have been unthinkable in theaters. Along with the original DEATH WISH and MS 45, VIGILANTE is my favorite American entry into the revenge thriller genre. It is an exceedingly well made and brave little film that feels big due to Lustig's stylish direction and the flawless cast. The current DVD is a real treat and features an unforgettable commentary including Lustig, Forster and Williamson plus some additional treats...check it out if you haven't already.