Death Weekend (1976)
Director: William Fruet
Writers: William Fruet
Starring: Brenda Vaccaro, Don Stroud and Chuck Shamata

The Plot: Our film begins with a playboy oral surgeon named Harry (Chuck Shamata) driving down the back roads of a small country area. His partner for this ride is the young and beautiful model Diane (Brenda Vaccaro), who shares his love for all things automotive. After he allows the young woman to take the wheel of his sports car, they really start to pick up some speed. As they rev the engine, another muscle car comes driving along their side. The car is filled with four punks who hang out their window and make lude gestures while trying to antagonize these would-be lovers. When the couple manage to out maneuver the punks, this gang looks to exact revenge in the most heinous way possible. This motley crew eventually finds where this dentist lives and they capture our two protagonists with the intent of torturing them the entire weekend. However, the tables are easily turned in situations such as this one and hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

The Review
I know what fills your mind when the title Death Weekend is heard. It sounds like the most formulaic and awful title that any horror movie could possibly hope to have. However, despite this title, what we are dealing with is a film that is far more well crafted than the name might at first seem to imply. Death Weekend is a relatively rare “home invasion” title from Canada that didn’t quite look to inspire the grotesque qualities that this genre is known for, but it adds a slick bigger budget aesthetic that may not seem so apparent for such a seldom-seen film. With products such as this one, the greatest comparison comes back to two movies in particular: Last House on the Left and I Spit On Your Grave. How does it compare to those movies and does it add anything further to what they provided? Those two films both pushed the boundaries in exploring what was necessary and what was in good taste in terms of “home invasion” features. Last House… presented the furthest realm of violence and general torture before the exploitation factor reached such a high level that it became too utterly crass. I Spit on Your Grave was the film that stepped over the line and showed audiences just how far the sexual exploitation could potentially go. You can show more, but the impact is no more effective than what you will find in the original I Spit on Your Grave. Death Weekend is ultimately a film that lands somewhere in between these two. It has more polish and style than either of the previously mentioned films, but it doesn’t quite deliver the seediness or the exploitation that can make films such as this so unnerving.

If there was one aspect about the movie that I particularly enjoyed, it was how it essentially plays psychological warfare with its audience. As it first introduces the gang of thugs who appear to be our very obvious antagonists within the project, all seems to be heading in a very cliche manner, but in actuality the director sets up a very negative world of male characters. As we get to know the rich doctor whom the character of Diane has come to know, we find that he is far from the “nice guy” that he is first presented as being. When we discover that he is simply a male chauvinist, who is only a degree better than the evil pigs who torment our protagonist, it takes our leading lady and places her in a world that is bitterly set against her. Where in many films it would seem that this male character would be the strength behind her, he is ultimately a weasel who provides no safety or security. Aside from this interesting tidbit, there really isn’t much else that deviates from the norm whenever the main villains begin their ritual torment over our protagonists. It is essentially the same over-the-top hyena style laughing and debauchery that we have seen many times over in movies just like this one. While this gang of thugs are most assuredly cruel in their torment, the movie doesn’t push the envelope to enough of a degree that it becomes terribly shocking.

The film offers zero redeeming qualities for the main villains, which is actually surprising for this sort of movie, because more often than not there is at least one member of a would-be group of psychopaths who has some sort of moral conundrum with the entire ordeal. Instead, here we are only given four madmen who offer little safety for our female lead. As the movie progresses, these characters seem to grow more and more outrageous. The ultimate turning point comes in a very well shot segment that shows the group completely destroying the mansion that our story plays out in. As they destroy the one thing that Harry loves, his possessions, the film enters into its homicidal phase. This is of course followed by the rape and murder sequences that movies like this are ultimately made for. This of course leads to an excessive amount of violence, and although this movie doesn’t push the envelope too far there is a certain amount of blood and gore to be handed out. There’s no “bathtub” scene, as there was in I Spit on Your Grave, but do look for the very nasty throat slice that comes about early in the final half.

Even though this third act is definitely where the movie picks up and delivers on its genre formula, the introduction may be one of the most interesting aspects of the entire production. As soon as the audience sees the hot rod full of roughnecks, they have to imagine that bad things are sure to come. The daring way that this initial road chase (mentioned in the plot synopsis above) is filmed, shows off a fearless approach to cinema. The ferocity of the sequence is actually quite surprising, because you don’t expect much from an exploitation movie that looks this professional. Yet, here it is throwing a high speed pursuit full of tension and frightening moments within only the first couple of minutes. If you have seen Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, you know the type of car chase to expect within this hot-rod-vs-hot-rod battle on a backwoods road. This bit also establishes Brenda Vaccaro’s character as well, who is a surprisingly strong female lead. Although I Spit on Your Grave is often touted as a piece of exploitation acting as a feminist battle cry, Death Weekend fights against multiple stereotypes and more easily presents itself with a feminist mind state. We aren’t given a “final girl” here, who is more cheerleader than strong or empowering figure. it is quite the opposite, as she distances herself from many female representations by being better than the men she is pitted against, in nearly all facets. She beats them at driving, she knows more than the rich doctor about mechanics, she outsmarts her pursuers at every junction and she will not be used or abused by any man. Although I did not love this film, I give all the respect in the world to writer/director William Fruet and Brenda Vaccaro for creating a strong female lead in a film that doesn’t come off as preachy.

The Conclusion
While there is no doubt that this is a strong project, it ultimately remains rather forgettable in the long run. There are strong performances, a lot of style and a well conceived plot, but inevitably this is more of the same if you have ever watched more than a couple “home invasion” movies. I would recommend it for the strong female lead, solid action (there’s an excellent car chase during the final minutes where our lead villain hangs on the roof of a car that he is chasing) and the “bigger’ budget feel to the project. It isn’t great, but it is solid. I give it a three out of five.