Code Red rescues another bizarre 1980s horror film from obscurity with their “25th Anniversary Edition” DVD release of Guy Magar’s RETRIBUTION, featuring a rare (but satisfying) lead turn from Dennis Lipscomb.
Having survived a suicide attempt, artist George Miller (Dennis Lipscomb, SISTER SISTER) finds his recovery hampered by recurring nightmares of an unfamiliar man being shot to death by indistinct-looking assailants. With the help of therapist Jennifer Curtis (Leslie Wing, RAGEWAR) he is able to leave the hospital as an outpatient and is welcomed home with open arms by his fellow residents at a fashionably shady downtown hotel. Despite the pills that are supposed to help him sleep better, George has a horrifying nightmare in which he supernaturally compels a woman (Pamela Dunlap, BLOODY MAMA) to disembowel herself. When George sees the woman’s picture in the newspaper the next day, he immediately goes to Jennifer. Jennifer believes that George is delusional despite the detailed information about the murder he provides to her; however, her medical doctor boyfriend Alan (Jeff Pomerantz, GROUP MARRIAGE) believes that George might be a paranoid schizophrenic and certainly capable of the killings. Alan tries to convince Jennifer to contact the police, but Jennifer worries about George’s suicidal tendencies. George finds himself drawn to unfamiliar areas of town and to a woman (Clare Peck, the narrator of FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC) and her son (Matthew Newmark, TV’s GUNS OF PARADISE) whose husband/father Vito (Mike Muscat, HUNTER’S BLOOD) was not only was born on the same day as George (April Fool’s), but was also tortured and murdered on the same night as George’s attempted suicide. Meanwhile, Jennifer – who has experienced enough supernatural events at that point to believe George’s story – learns that her boyfriend has contacted the cops. Soon Lt. Ashley (folk singer Hoyt Axton, GREMLINS) is leaning on her to reveal George’s identity. As the murders continue, George realizes that he has become the instrument of Vito’s revenge, and the only way to stop him may be to die again.
Given limited release by Taurus Entertainment, RETRIBUTION was then consigned to the video rental shelf with two uninteresting front covers courtesy of MCEG/Virgin. I admit I passed it up many a time, and I bet I’m not the only one. The story goes in all of the directions expected of a possession film, but it does so in novel, quirky ways. When Angel and friend Dylan (executive producer Chris Caputo, GHOST WARRIOR) convince George to consult a psychic, they take him to a reggae club. Instead of an austere voodoo priestess, we get Dr. Rasta (Danny D. Daniels, THE OUTING/THE LAMP), and the provoked supernatural display is both intense and slightly comical. The lighter parts of John Carpenter arranger Alan Howarth’s synth score might be pretty sappy, but the script’s quirky supporting characters are more than just atmosphere and stereotypes (unlike other low budget horror films, most of his main and supporting cast are not one-shot found actors but either seasoned veterans or beginners whose careers – however humble – took off after this). Where the script stumbles a little bit is in splitting up the traditional “love interest” role between Wing’s concerned professional and “hooker with a heart of gold” Angel (Suzanne Synder). The unlikely pair have good chemistry together and the sweet scenes never get too sappy; however Angel’s presence means Jennifer is offscreen for extended amounts of time, and when we do see her it doesn’t seem as if she has given much more thought to anything George has told her since we last saw her (the supernatural nudging that gets Jennifer believing George’s story would seem to be at odds with the possessor’s intentions). Characters that make jerky decisions (from Jennifer’s boyfriend to the reputation-minded hospital administrator [George Murdock, THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER]) are thankfully given enough depth to make their motivations understandable beyond merely complicating the plot. Axton’s detective also does not come into the story until very late, and we learn nothing about the potential fourth victim.
Director Guy Magar (who also cameos as a cab driver), cinematographer Gary Thieltges, production designer Robb Wilson King (HOSTEL: PART II), and the effects crew imbue the locations of the three major supernatural set-pieces with a hellish quality without neglecting the striking look of the locations – constructed and found – in the expository scenes (George’s apartment, Dr. Rasta’s reggae club, and a visit to a neon sculpture gallery also provide striking backdrops). Overall, the film’s look may not stand out that much from similarly neon- and gel-lit 1980s films (particularly A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET-esque “dream logic” pics), but it’s a welcome antidote to the muted, grungy, desaturated look that has overtaken recent horror films. The jump scares are your standard stuff, and the final scare before the closing credits is predictable but still effective. What does set the film apart from most of its ilk – low budget or studio release – is an obvious affection on the director’s part for his characters (perhaps too much since few of the nice characters are put in danger or even potentially threatened) and confidence in his chosen cast and crew.
Although our cackling possessed hero (with neon green glowing eyes and a processed voice) often looks more comical than threatening, it is nice to see dependable supporting actor Lipscomb in a lead role (his previous lead role – in between TV guest roles – was also in a horror film: the underrated regional horror film CRYING BLUE SKY, which was reedited for its scant theatrical release as EYES OF FIRE), and he easily carries the lead. Three years after RETRIBUTION, Lipscomb had a supporting role in THE FIRST POWER, a somewhat similarly-themed film about an executed serial killer murdering from beyond the grave. Wing went from “Sushi Bar Customer #1” in GHOST WARRIOR to a romantic lead here and larger roles in STRANGELAND and THE FRIGHTENERS – as well as the usual TV guest shots – and recently a recurring role in the Disney’s HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL series (produced by GINGER series director Don Schain). RETRIBUTION was the feature directorial debut of the Egyptian-born Magar, after spending the early half of the 1980s directing episodic TV like THE A-TEAM, HARDCASTLE AND MCCORMACK, and BLUE THUNDER. He returned to TV afterwards, but his few subsequent features – other than the mob drama LOOKIN’ ITALIAN with Matt LeBlanc – have been horror-oriented: THE STEPFATHER III and (his most recent credit) 2001’s CHILDREN OF THE CORN: REVELATION. Cinematographer Gary Thieltges has a few sparse DP credits, but his assistant camera credits include THE BEASTMASTER, SWEET 16 (also available from Code Red), DREAMSCAPE, and CHILDREN OF THE CORN (as well as the US insert photography that turned HOTEL PARADISE and ESCAPE FROM HELL into the Linda Blair vehicle SAVAGE ISLAND). Thieltges found fame – and a Technical Achievement Academy Award – however for developing the Doggicam, PowerSlide, SparrowHead, and BodySlide camera rigs. The one-shot make-up effects were an early credit for Kevin Yagher, who started out on Greg Cannom’s crew on COCOON before going solo for FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTR and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2 through 4 (as well as FREDDY’S NIGHTMARES) among others.
Code Red’s high bitrate, dual-layer, progressive, anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer looks blemish-free (other than the reel change mark) which is understandable since the film element probably hasn’t been run through a telecine since the master was struck for its VHS and Dolby Surround U.S. and Japanese laserdisc releases. The Dolby Stereo mix is mostly active during the effects scenes and the sequences where Howarth’s score is most prominent, and the Dolby Digital 2.0 encoding is in fine condition.
Director Magyar goes solo on a commentary track. There is a lot of play-by-play on the track (as if the viewer is seeing it for the first time), but this reveals the intentionality of every element of the film on the director’s part. He reveals all of the special effects tricks – done in camera – and reveals that Lipscomb’s possessed green eyes were achieved with contact lenses dipped in an opthalmological dye – probably Fluorescian – that responds to black light. Yagher had to build a plastic pig carcass for the slaughterhouse setpiece even though they were surrounded by the real thing. At one point, he says “Okay, we’re five minutes in…” when it has actually been thirteen minutes; although it is technically five minutes into the story proper in which we have been able to start piecing together through exposition everything that has been shown to us in the lengthy, stylized opening prologue/credits sequence. Magar refers to Snyder as a scream queen, but her only other (admittedly memorable) horror films credits were RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART 2 (where she did do a lot of screaming) and KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE. He describes horror movies as roller coaster rides with ups and down, which justifies the “cute” interludes. He is extremely proud of his feature debut, and he should be since it is one of the more ambitious low budget horror films of the late 1980s when direct to video was supplanting theatrical as a viable distribution option for non-studio horror films.
When RETRIBUTION was released in 1987, it lost some brief but gory footage to all three of the film’s setpiece death scenes. These bits did turn up on the Dutch VHS and a German bootleg DVD, but they appear to not exist on film anymore. The MPAA-trimmed gore footage is present here in open-matte, tape-mastered form in a “Violent Deleted Scenes” segment (7:37). Under the trailers menu option is the film’s theatrical trailer (1:44) sourced from a MCEG/Virgin VHS tape of an unidentified title, and what is actually a promo (6:38) for the film highlighting all of the major setpieces. A still gallery and trailers for THE LAST CHASE, FAMILY HONOR, MARDI GRAS MASSACRE (which was not included on Code Red’s disc of that title), and NIGHTMARE round out the package. (Eric Cotenas)
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