Sunday, December 9, 2018

Uncle Sam (1996)

After years of being missing in action, the US military finds the corpse of Master Sergeant Sam Harper (David “Shark” Fralick) who died in a friendly fire incident. Sam’s “return” does awaken very bad memories in his wife Louise (Anne Tremko) who is just barely getting over years of physical and psychological abuse she had to suffer from him. His sister Sally (Leslie Neale) certainly doesn’t feel any better about her brother – that is, she’s relieved he is truly dead, too. The only member of the family who thinks fondly of Sam is his nephew Jody (Christopher Ogden).

Following wild and self-serving stories his uncle told him and a couple of poisonous letters, the kid has turned Sam into a great hero in his mind and is dead-set on becoming just like him.

Fortunately – well, unless you’re one of the people who gets killed by him – some teenagers playing around with Sam’s grave and even (gasp) burning an American flag provide Sam with the reason to do what the violent dead in William Lustig/Larry Cohen joints tend to do: awaken and go on a killing spree. Soon enough, Sam’s murdering people for fun and “patriotism” wearing an Uncle Sam rubber mask. It’s gonna be a teachable series of moments of bloody violence for little Jody.

This direct-to-video slasher is the final (until now) feature directed by William Lustig, again teaming up with his Maniac Cop partner as writer and producer, the great Larry Cohen. This time around, the two leave their local comfort zone – skeezy New York – behind and move to the suburbs. Calling the resulting film an artistic success would be a blank-faced lie. Rather, this is one of those films that’s all over the place in tone and effectiveness, the sort of thing we in the business of using dumb phrases call “an interesting effort”.

I surely can’t blame Uncle Sam for its basic concepts and its willingness to go for what from over here in Europe feels like a sacred cow for the US: that soldiering and the love of it might not be the sign of heroism but of of violent psychopathy; and that sending the kind of people least impacted by killing to war only makes them worse. Of course, this being a gulf war movie, what we see of politicians and officers doesn’t really get off any lighter: everyone who isn’t a woman, a kid, a doomed deputy or Isaac Hayes here is pretty much a total shit. This does unfortunately lead to one of the film’s greatest problems. Even though we the audience are supposed to understand Sam as a horrible person turned into a horrible undead person, his murders and his victims are mostly of the EC school of people who deserve it meeting appropriate ends, so there’s a schizophrenic character to the film’s argument against organized violence, portraying the things it damns much too gleefully, even more so than this happens in other horror movies.

As set pieces, some of the killings and their victims (Robert Forster is again there to be horrible and murdered) are very fun, but Uncle Sam’s thematic direction really doesn’t work with fun violence, leading to a very confusing tone.

That tone gets even more confusing because the film plays the family drama scenes with Jody’s obsession with his uncle and the pain this inflicts on his mother and aunt absolutely seriously, as they do Isaac Hayes’s part as a Vietnam vet who thinks he carries some of the responsibility for the way Sam turned out. Well, seriously until the film’s incredibly goofy climax that sees Hayes teaming up with a blind little boy in a wheelchair (don’t ask) and Jody to dispatch Sam with a cannon.

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