Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: OPEN SEASON (1974)

(Spain - 1974)

Directed by Peter Collinson.  Written by David Osborn and Liz Charles-Williams.  Cast: Peter Fonda, Cornelia Sharpe, John Phillip Law, Richard Lynch, Albert Mendoza (Alberto De Mendoza), William Holden, Helga Line, May Heatherly, William Layton, Frank Brana.  (R, 101 mins)

A regular fixture on the bootleg and torrent circuit, OPEN SEASON was never released on VHS in the US and frequently turns up on a lot of "Why isn't this on DVD yet?" lists.  Shot in Spain, England, and Italy, with some exterior work done in Michigan (the old Tiger Stadium is briefly glimpsed along I-75 in downtown Detroit, and there's a drive across the Mackinac Bridge into the Upper Peninsula), OPEN SEASON (aka RECON GAME) is a Spanish thriller with a British director and mostly American stars that mixes elements of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, DELIVERANCE, and THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, and is an early example of the "insane Vietnam vet" subgenre made popular a few years down the road.

John Phillip Law, Richard Lynch, and Peter Fonda
Ken (Peter Fonda), Gregg (John Phillip Law), and Art (Richard Lynch) are three suburban Michigan family men who went to college and to Vietnam together and now live in the same neighborhood.  Their wives and kids are all friends.  Every year, the three of them leave their responsibilities and go to a secluded cabin in the middle of nowhere in the Upper Peninsula for a week of hunting.  And, enjoying a bit of freedom away from the wives, Ken and Gregg pick up a couple of truck stop waitresses and take them back to a motel before heading to the cabin the next day.  At a gas station, Gregg spots a couple in a car:  Martin (Alberto De Mendoza) and Nancy (Cornelia Sharpe).  Following them down a deserted road, the three force Martin to pull over and proceed to kidnap them, taking them to the cabin and dumping Martin's car in the lake.  What follows is a week of psychological, manipulative mind games with the three tormenting the couple--who are themselves away on an adulterous getaway from their own spouses--turning Nancy against Martin by emasculating him, making him their maid and housekeeper (Gregg, groping the drunk Nancy, turns to a glaring, helpless Martin and asks "Did you finish the dishes?"), and showing Nancy how weak he is.  After a round of drunk Monopoly and a near-threesome, Ken has sex with the intoxicated Nancy, while Gregg and Art watch and Martin is forced to listen.  With Martin now against Nancy, the three friends reveal their true intentions and the reason for the annual trip:  find a couple, systematically break them down, then release them in the woods (it's 25 miles to the highway) with a 30-minute head start while the three ex-military men hunt them down like animals.  As Ken says: "It's not the same with animals once you've hunted humans."

Directed by Peter Collinson (1969's THE ITALIAN JOB), OPEN SEASON takes a while to get going and the psychosexual games and Sharpe's shrieking get to be a little grating at times.  The same goes for the goofy antics of Fonda, Law, and Lynch, who often seem more annoying than frightening.  But all of that changes and Collinson really kicks it into gear when the hunt begins.  With a combination of Ruggero Cini's strange, unsettling "Euro-banjo" (for lack of a better term) score, the use of very quick cuts, and a few instances of grindhouse freeze-framing, the last half hour of OPEN SEASON is an extremely tense and grueling experience.  One thing Collinson and the writers don't handle well is a clumsy prologue and an unexpected appearance by William Holden. It probably would've been more effective to keep Holden offscreen until his character really matters, because he shows up for ten seconds at the beginning of the movie, and you know he's legendary Hollywood actor William Holden and he wasn't hired to play a guy dropping a kid off at a birthday party.  The twist and the big reveal are telegraphed in the opening scene and it's a big mistake on Collinson's part because you keep waiting for Holden to reappear and then, from a logical standpoint, wondering what kept him from intervening when things were starting to get unpleasant.  However shaky the opening is, it does have the not-very-good, yet still weirdly effective and strangely haunting theme song "Casting Shadows," by John Howard, that really sticks with you.

"Yes, young man.  I AM William Holden.  And
no, I don't know why I'm in this."
Overall, once it finds its groove, and logic lapses aside, OPEN SEASON is a grim, effective survivalist thriller that brings to mind future subgenre outings like THE HOUSE BY THE LAKE (1977) with Brenda Vaccaro and Don Stroud, RITUALS (1978) with Hal Holbrook, and WOLF LAKE, aka THE HONOR GUARD (1980) with Rod Steiger.  It's strange seeing name actors like Fonda and Holden in such sleazy European fare, and there's even a rumor that's circulated for years that Sharpe (who had a brief career as a leading lady in the 1970s and is best known as Al Pacino's girlfriend in 1973's SERPICO) was so embarrassed by OPEN SEASON that her husband, high-powered Hollywood producer Martin Bregman (SERPICO, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, SCARFACE) strong-armed US distributor Columbia into keeping the film off the radar and unavailable on home video.  It's difficult to gauge how true that is, but it does seem odd that with a cast like this, the film has gone unseen (legitimately, that is) for so long.  There's a butchered print on YouTube that comes from a long-ago TV airing, but for the most part, OPEN SEASON continues to generate curiosity because of a combination of its unusual cast and its general obscurity.  With the MOD programs of Sony and Warner Archive being as popular as they are (assuming Columbia still has the rights to it), I wouldn't be shocked to see OPEN SEASON turn up as a Sony/Columbia MOD offering at some point.

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