Bracing for Cinemapocalypse, looking out for the vice squad | Bleader

Bracing for Cinemapocalypse, looking out for the vice squad

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Wings Hauser in Vice Squad
  • Wings Hauser in Vice Squad
This Friday and Saturday the Music Box will present Cinemapocalypse, two nights of exploitation films and otherwise disreputable material programmed by the folks at Austin's beloved Alamo Drafthouse. One of the highlights is a 35-millimeter screening of Vice Squad (1982), a Los Angeles-set thriller directed by Chicago native Gary Sherman, who will be in attendance to answer audience questions after the film. To learn a bit about the film and its director, I hit up Joe Rubin, a longtime friend and coworker at Odd Obsession Movies. Joe's a historian of exploitation and hard-core cinema; in the past few years, he's assisted with the restoration of numerous titles, among them Nelson Lyon's X-rated comedy The Telephone Book (1971) and Chuck Vincent's hard-core melodrama Roommates (1981). Our conversation about Vice Squad follows the jump.

Ben Sachs: Do you think there's any important information about Gary Sherman or Vice Squad that people should know before seeing the film on Friday?

Joe Rubin: I mean this as a compliment, but most of his films feel like high-class TV movies. His movies from the 70s and 80s really feel like the classiest Movies of the Week that were being made at the time, except on a much larger scale.

And they're more violent, right?

They have a lot of violence in them, but Sherman never dwelled on gore. Vice Squad is probably the most violent, but I'd compare [the violence] to, like, the violence of Joe Dante's movies. It isn't there for shock value, but almost to humanize the characters, to make their suffering more impactful on the viewer. And in Vice Squad, he's always humanizing the material. He makes all of these small, throwaway characters really engaging. He gives them life; they're not just there to facilitate the plot.

Is there another exploitation director to whom you'd compare Sherman? Where would you say he fits in the canon?

Well, I don't know if I consider Sherman an exploitation director. During the 1970s, he only made one feature film, Raw Meat (1973), because he was working as a TV director in the UK. He directed TV shows and commercials over there. And then Dead and Buried (1981) and Vice Squad, his best films of the 80s, were a bit too big-budget and polished to be placed in the same realm as cheap exploitation films. Both of them were produced by major production companies.

Which ones?

Both of them were distributed by Embassy Pictures, which was a major company at the time. Sandy Howard, who produced Vice Squad, was also a higher-up, non-studio-affiliated producer. So, those films both feel like professional studio productions; they just happen to have grittier content than what studios would deal with. Stylistically, I wouldn't compare them to most exploitation films of the era, even though they're dealing with similar subject matter.

Would you say Vice Squad doesn't really belong with the other films on the Cinemapocalypse program?

None of these films have a lot in common. They're very different. Lady Terminator is an Indonesian-Filipino rip-off of Terminator; Tourist Trap is an atmospheric low-budget regional horror film; and Miami Connection is just crap. Vice Squad is a very slick action film.

Do you know the folks at Alamo Drafthouse who put this program together?

Sure. One of the films that I distributed—the U.S. rerelease of Al Adamson's Carnival Magic (1981)—the only reason anyone cares about the film is because [Alamo programmer] Zack [Carlson] champions it as this overlooked masterpiece. I don't see the big appeal; but since I represent it, I'm not going to say anything bad.

Getting back to Vice Squad . . .

From a filmmaking standpoint, I'd say it's the strongest thing Sherman ever made. His use of L.A. locations is wonderful, the way he disrupts the action with black humor . . . it all works well. It's an excellent piece of directing. I'd compare it to Nicolas Windig Refn's Drive in how it uses the city. It's definitely a film made by an outsider looking in, fetishizing this mysterious, sleazy, metaphor-filled city—metaphor-filled because it's the movie world and it's constantly being remade.

You've met Gary Sherman, right?

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I organized a screening of Vice Squad at Doc Films a few years ago, and he came to introduce it. It wasn't hard to get him, since he lives in Chicago part-time. It was a lot of fun. He loves to tell stories about the making of his films . . . I've met him twice, actually. The other time was when the Music Box showed a terrible print of Dead and Buried. It was all pink. I was talking to him outside the theater, and he said, "I can't even watch this. I wanted it to be all blue-green, but there isn't any blue or green left in this print!"

I understand why he'd be so disappointed. Dead and Buried and Vice Squad are such stylized movies. The use of color is really important to how they work, same with the constant dolly shots, the crane shots . . . He was putting a lot of emphasis on the look.

It sounds a bit like what William Lustig was doing in the early 80s.

Starting with Vigilante (1983), yeah. I wouldn't compare their directorial styles, but they're similar in that once they got the opportunity to make big productions, they really made big productions. There's something very grand about their best films, especially Vice Squad. Since it's essentially an extended chase sequence, it allows for a lot of movement and different locations and character actors filling out the supporting roles.

Do you know the story behind the script of the film?

No. What is it?

It was written by an actual cop on the LA vice squad. He'd put together this very detailed police procedural that had nothing to it beyond the procedure. It was supposedly very good in terms of factual detail but skimpy in terms of plot. So, Sandy Howard brought in Sherman and his writing partner to give it a plot.

Did that cop get screenwriting credit on the finished film?

I believe he did. [We look at the film's IMDB page.]

Would that be Kenneth Peters?

I think so. He probably doesn't have any other credits.

No, it looks like he wrote an episode of Police Woman in 1976. [Reading further] Holy shit! Did you know that John Alcott shot this? He was Stanley Kubrick's cinematographer from Clockwork Orange through The Shining!

I almost forgot about that. Gary told me that there's a scene in Vice Squad that's a tribute to Barry Lyndon. They lit it entirely with candles, just like Kubrick and Alcott did in that film.

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