Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, July 4, 2019

A YEAR OF SLASHERS: Uncle Sam (1996)

In the annals of horror history, few holidays or iconic calendar characters haven't been perverted into figures of fear or mayhem. So it was only a matter of time before someone decided to transform symbol of Americana Uncle Sam into a cinematic slasher, setting a patriotic killing spree against the backdrop of July 4th. I certainly wasn't surprised when I came across “Uncle Sam” with its nifty lenticular VHS box, in my local Blockbuster in the late nineties. I haven't thought about the film much in the years since but, upon learning it was directed by “Maniac” auteur William Lustig and written by Larry Cohen, I realized I should probably give it a look eventually. And what day better than America's Independence Day to finally watch this obscure bit of holiday-related chaos?

Master Sergeant Sam Harper is killed by his own troops in Kuwait, the cruel and psychotic soldier having his helicopter shot down by friendly fire. His horribly burnt corpse is returned home to Twin Rivers, New Jersey. This has a disturbing affect on his family. Sister Sam is still traumatized by the abuse she suffered at her older brother's hand. The grip Sam has on his widow Louise is such that she's terrified to pursue other romantic relationships. Most disturbing is Jody, Sally's son and Sam's ten year old nephew. Jody idolizes his dead uncle, dreaming of becoming a soldier someday and criticizing anyone he deems inadequately patriotic. As the Fourth of July celebration arrives in Twin Rivers, Sam is revived from his deathless sleep. Donning an Uncle Sam costume, he goes on a rampage during the fireworks celebration.

The reviews I had read of “Uncle Sam” have largely been mixed. While some have praised the film as a typically subversive effort from the “Maniac Cop” team of Lustig and Cohen, others have criticized it as a cheap and slow slasher flick. Sadly, I'm more inclined to agree with the latter opinion. “Uncle Sam” is uncharacteristically plodding for a Lustig film. The film's entire presentation feels lifeless. From its opening minutes, the film moves from sequence to sequence with little energy. The character development scenes are maudlin. Even the stalking and slashing scenes don't have much excitement to them. A long moment involving a potato sack race seems to drag on forever. While I wouldn't call the movie cheap looking exactly, the suburban homes and parks it's set in are not the most interesting locations.

You would expect Larry Cohen, famous for incorporating political satire into his genre work, to have some interesting things to say with “Uncle Sam.” And he sort of does. The film is refreshingly anti-military. Though beloved by his nephew as a paragon of American heroism, most everyone else regards ideal soldier Sam Harper to have been a sadistic, abusive son-of-a-bitch. Sam's old mentor, a Korean War vet who lost a leg, not only dismisses Sam's actions but is critical of his own military deeds. While “Uncle Sam” is clearly against idolatry of the military, it seems less certain on related issues. Jody's fanatical hero worship of his psychotic uncle is clearly meant to be disturbing. Yet Sam's victims are largely douchebags who have it coming. They include a peeping tom, a dirty politician, a dirt bag lawyer, a sleazy soldier, and group of obnoxious teenagers. If we were suppose to be disgusted by Uncle Sam's psychotic patriotism, the film probably shouldn't have made his victims so deserving of equal scorn.

Having said that, the scenes of violence and chaos are when “Uncle Sam” most comes to life. Sam employs a meat cleaver, hatchet, hedge clippers, and an air rifle in his quest to rid Twin Falls of Un-American activity. The gore, including standard decapitations and bludgeoning, is nothing much to write about. However, there's still some fun to be had. The sleazy politician, in an inevitable gag, is exploded via fireworks. This is directly followed by a local cop being impaled with the U.S. flag, another natural choice. In fact, the movie's finale features several large explosions. Continuing the tradition of the “Maniac Cop” series, the film concludes with the villain undergoing a long full-body burn. While the film's visuals are a bit on the flat side in general, Lustig does occasional engineer a neat looking moment. Such as the nighttime sequence of the peeping tom being finished off. Or the Lucio Fulci homage that concludes the movie. (Fulci died shortly before the film's release and it's dedicated to his memory.)

One of the factors that makes “Uncle Sam” such a slog to get through is its cast. There are some recognizable faces in the film. P.J. Soles, Bo Hopkins, and William Smith (who gets top billing despite dying in the opening scene) all have cameos. Robert Forster brings some minor sleazy charm to the role of the unscrupulous politician. Isaac Hayes plays the Korean War vet. Hayes seems to enjoy the lengthy monologues he's given but is only on-screen for a small part of the film. Mostly, the film stars uninspired child actors. Christopher Ogden is especially wooden as Jody, delivering all his dialogue in a blank monotone. The kid playing Jody's sole friend, a boy in a wheelchair who was horribly burned in the prior year's 4th of July celebration, is similarly flat.

I've seen “Uncle Sam” referred to as a horror/comedy, even though there seems to be little intentionally funny about the film. I love the idea of a horror film that satirizes America's own grand self-mythologizing and think the imagery of Uncle Sam would make for a pretty cool villain. (Some of the “Purge” films have utilized it as well.) Sadly, “Uncle Sam” is far too slow and lifeless to be a truly entertaining bit of slasher trash. William Lustig has not directed another feature since this film, focusing instead on his Blue Underground DVD label, suggesting “Uncle Sam” was about as much fun to make as it is to watch. [5/10]

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