Depraved outlaw MC sex and violence, and goofball counterculture angst, form the backdrop for a battle royale of nature’s deadliest enemies: biker versus hippie. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Limited Edition Collection line has released 1971’s THE PEACE KILLERS (spelled as one word in all poster and ad work), a Damocles Production originally released through Transvue Pictures Corporation. Directed, shot, and edited by Douglas Schwartz (of the Hollywood GILLIGAN’S ISLAND Schwartzes), and starring familiar faces Clint Ritchie, Jess Walton, Paul Prokop, Michael Ontkean (in his big-screen debut), Lavelle Roby, Robert Cornthwaite, and Albert Popwell, THE PEACE KILLERS energetically throttles up some nasty torture, rapes, mutilations, and various assorted killings, before delivering its own unique Age of Aquarius message: if you truly love someone...then beat their goddamn head in. No extras for this very nice (considering) manufactured-on-demand standard DVD, featuring a pretty clean anamorphically-enhanced widescreen transfer.
The American Southwest, circa 1971. Death Row biker gang members Cowboy (John Raymond Taylor, ANGELS HARD AS THEY COME), Gadget (Gary Morgan, FUZZ, LOGAN’S RUN), and Whitey (Jon Hill, MODEL SHOP, WHERE ANGELS GO TROUBLE FOLLOWS) see something real nice when they’re hassling gas station/grocery store owner Ben (Robert Cornthwaite, THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?): p.o.a Kristie (Jess Walton, THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT, TV soap THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS). Now, Kristie is no stranger to them...because she used to be private stock for Death Row’s violent, psychotic leader, Rebel (Clint Ritchie, THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, TV soap ONE LIFE TO LIVE) before she split for a peace-and-love hippie commune after a bad scene: she stood by and did nothing while a girl was gang raped in front of her. Her sensitive brother, Jeff (Michael Ontkean, SLAP SHOT, TV’s THE ROOKIES) is there with the other flower children, and so is Alex (Paul Prokop, THE BORN LOSERS, THE BRIDGE AT REMAGEN), the commune’s Christ-like leader who advises love and understanding for everyone...even for Rebel and the horny Death Row savages now bearing down on Kristie. Complicating Rebel’s re-capture of his old lady is formidable foe, Black Widow (Lavelle Roby, BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG), female leader of the almost all-black biker gang, the Branded Banshees, and the prior victim of one of Rebel’s violent sexual assaults. Will Kristie escape with her life? Will Jeff man up and defend his sister? Will Black Widow and Rebel kill each other? Will Alex reject all-encompassing love and forgiveness for some satisfying biker ass-whompin’? Will someone, anyone please take a bath?
Released in 1971, when at least 14 other biker movies hit the drive-ins and grindhouses across the U.S. (all of which no doubt quickly overexposed the genre), THE PEACE KILLERS isn’t a title that first comes up when fans mention classics like THE WILD ANGELS, THE GLORY STOMPERS, HELLS ANGELS ON WHEELS, ANGELS DIE HARD, and of course, EASY RIDER. A type of movie that most critics back in the late 1960s and early 1970s held with unmitigated scorn and contempt, the delicious irony of this deliberately lowbrow exploitation genre is that it was arguably invented (at least as we know the form today) by a so-called “serious” movie starring what those same critics considered one of — if not the — greatest theater and screen actor of his time: Marlon Brando, as a violent-yet-sensitive biker punk in Stanley Kramer’s THE WILD ONE (a dichotomy of actor-to-then-dismissed genre not seen again in such wide a gap until A-list Oscar-winner Charlton Heston started winding down his leading man glory days in big-screen sci-fi features like PLANET OF THE APES, SOYLENT GREEN and THE OMEGA MAN).
While the exploitation hijinks of Brando and Lee Marvin look comically mild today in that black and white classic, THE PEACE KILLERS still has a surprisingly nasty edge to a few of its more uncomfortable scenes, keeping it right in line with early 1970s producers’ willingness to further push the boundaries of mainstream movie conventions. One might be tempted (if completely green to movies and/or totally naive) to think that screenwriter Michael Berk (TV movies THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY OF DOCTOR MEG LAUREL, THE ORDEAL OF DR. MUDD), working off an original story by Diana Maddox (THE CHANGELING, THE AMATEUR) and now big-time producer Joel B. Michael (STARGATE, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER), may have wanted to use THE PEACE KILLERS for some kind of cockamamie message about peace and love versus hate and violence. After all, Hollywood had been mitigating its action/T&A proclivities with smarmy messaging ever since DeMille's glitzy silent opuses of sensual delight masquerading as morality tales. Unfortunately, THE PEACE KILLERS' then-trendy "free love and understanding will kill evil savagery" theme comes off here as a puerile cliche the screenwriter undercuts right from the start, by having even the most peaceful hippie in the group look at clueless pacifist Alex like he’s plum loco (when a disgusted Rebel, sneering at the chicken commune members, spits out, "You hippies make me puke! You goddamn people ain't peaceful — yer just yella!" the viewer by this point can't help but nod in agreement). Whatever THE PEACE KILLERS moviemakers' message may have been, or indeed what their level of sincerity was in delivering it, however, is lost the minute director Schwartz (YOUR THREE MINUTES ARE UP, TV’s BAYWATCH) convincingly delivers the exploitation goodies. He’s pretty fuzzy on getting us to believe there’s a genuine crisis of faith for Prokop, Walton, and Ontkean...but he has no trouble making vile Ritchie’s actions palpable (Ritchie, a good actor I’m not familiar with, comes over like a meaner combination of Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Lockwood — to his credit, we don't want to identify at all with Rebel).
Despite all the peace signs (that iconic graphic opens and closes the movie's credits, before showing up too many times throughout the story — the hippies even grind down their metal ones into improbable weapons), and the ham-handed visual metaphors linking Alex to Jesus (they manage to string him up, crucifixion-style, onto a big peace sign), and all of pretty/sexy Walton’s existential mooning about the commune, what registers for us in THE PEACE KILLERS isn't any message, but rather the sex and violence, which, by definition of what a drive-in exploiter should achieve, makes the movie ultimately successful. The story's too-familiar setup, like so many biker movies, is nothing more than a transplanted Western plot with hogs replacing horses (don't look for anything new or edgy in terms of female and minority bikers present here — nothing is done with that potentially interesting thematic wrinkle). And the screenplay's mechanics are creaky, at best (why in the world do Rebel and his friends stash a re-captured Kristie out in the open, where anyone with eyes could see her and where she could easily roll three feet out into the lodge's parking lot for help, while they go get drunk in the bar? So she can be conveniently rescued by Black Widow, that's why). If the final battle between hippie and biker is emotionally satisfying (DIRTY HARRY's Albert Popwell makes weasel Gadget squeal and beg for mercy before he sticks him with a pitchfork), it's poorly staged (those 5 inch punji sticks keep falling over in the loose dirt) and undermined by mopey Alex's dubious Quaker-inspired fighting style. We don't get enough of a crucial visual convention we've come to expect in this genre — lots and lots of shots of the guys on their bikes, cruising the byways to 1960s heavy metal — but we do get the sadism we're looking for (for whatever complicated and uncomfortable reasons we vicariously seek that). Director Schwartz knows how to show cruelty, whether it's Rebel staring straight down in the camera as he chokes out Ben with a rope, or a blanket-wrapped Kristie getting dragged between two motorcycles (a crazy stunt that doesn't look faked — watch Walton grimace in pain when a motorcycle wheel actually snags her head), or his two extremely graphic rape scenes, the first shot in a druggy, psychedelic, Manson Family orgy style, with a fisheye lens and surreal lighting, or Kristie's near-rape in the woods, shot much more realistically (perhaps too realistically — a couple of those actors look like they're losing their cool as they really rough up the actress, as Walton believably looks quite frightened). In the end, THE PEACE KILLERS has nothing of importance to say...but it's said with an acceptable mean-spiritedness.
A major improvement over the last time this reviewer saw THE PEACE KILLERS (public domain VHS, full frame and washed out to almost black and white), this MGM Limited Edition Collection standard DVD transfer is quite good, considering what must have been the condition of the original materials used here. Anamorphically enhanced at 1.85:1 (can someone please tell MGM to quit labeling these 16x9 anamorphic transfers as "letterboxed" on their hardcase back covers?), the widescreen image sports okay color (I doubt it ever looked like an Esther Williams Technicolor musical), with reasonably close skin tones and okay contrast. Grain structure is surprisingly tight in the brighter sequences, while image detail is equally nice (the lower bit rate only noticeably fails in some of the movie's solarized shots — thanks EASY RIDER — with the resulting compression issues). Scratches and dirt, however, are present throughout the movie. The Dolby Digital mono audio track has a decent re-recording level, with some hiss and pops. No closed-captioning or subtitles. (Paul Mavis)
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