Silent Rage (1982)
The mixing of movie genres is tricky business. It doesn’t hurt to add some levity to an otherwise depressing or violent film, but too much comedy can ruin a film. Conversely, inserting dramatic elements into an outrageous comedic effort could alienate and bore an audience. As movies become more and more self-aware due to the constant repetition of tropes and cliches, many films have gone for a tongue-in-cheek or downright meta-approach to storytelling. The collaborations between writer/director Edgar Wright and writer/star Simon Pegg have hilariously and accurately skewered both the horror and action genre and successfully merged action with comedy in a clever, satirical manner. As far as I’m concerned, one of the finest action-comedies ever made is Beverly Hills Cop. When it’s funny, it’s very funny. When it needs to provide action with serious consequences, it does so with aplomb. As far as horror films go, look at James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). The film terrified audiences, but Whale knew enough to include Una O’Connor as a wacky side character who’d bulge out her eyes and scream her head off at all the spooky goings-on. It grates on the nerves nowadays, but it probably worked back then.
Fast-forwarding to 1974, audiences had dueling horror classics Black Christmas and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre unleashed upon them. Chainsaw is a grueling, visceral experience with very little humor upon first viewing; but re-visiting the film, one can find moments of gloriously black humor, especially during the infamous “dinner scene.” Meanwhile, director Bob Clark always had a way with comedy, so while his seminal holiday slasher does feature some unnerving kills, he peppers it with hilarious lines of dialogue: “Ho, ho, fuck.” By 1982, the slasher genre was in full, bloody swing, but director Michael Miller (Jackson County Jail) wasn’t a fan of that delightfully reprehensible subgenre of horror. For him, he approached the screenplay for Silent Rage (1982) not as a Michael Myers-style boogeyman film, but as Frankenstein meets Chuck Norris, which does sound like a pretty cool movie.
Silent Rage attempted to merge elements of many different genres: Action. Horror. Science Fiction. Comedy. It even goes for subgenres, like kung fu, cowboy, and mad scientist movies. It’s a glorious mish-mash which never quite makes up its mind whether it’s poking fun at these genre tropes/clichés or that these ridiculous but very entertaining events should be taken with the utmost seriousness. Chuck Norris has never had the most pliable screen personality. This has as much to do with his limited acting abilities as his own personal beliefs. It’s rare to see Norris act vulnerable (or for that matter, act, period) and be anything less than stoic. His unwillingness to bend or subvert his specifically-honed screen persona is likely the reason why he experienced such a fruitful collaboration with Cannon Films. Yoram Globus and particularly mad kook Menahem Golan were not the kind of movie men to “bend” as far as subverting or revamping specific movie formulas. In a Chuck Norris movie, he does kung fu and shoots people. That’s pretty much it.
Leading up to his cinematic battle with an indestructible monster, he often appeared as a martial artist or a cop who swears vengeance upon those who’ve wronged him. The script was written with Norris in mind, rather than grabbing an existing property and sprinkling a few karate kicks in here and there. Silent Rage was always something of a cult film, especially since it pre-dates Norris’ mid-80's glory days in films like Missing in Action and Andrew Davis’ above-average Code of Silence. Thanks to a fabulous, albeit brief insert shot in Wright’s phenomenal Hot Fuzz (2007), audiences everywhere were reminded of that weird little movie which was shockingly similar to Indestructible Man (1956), a half-remembered science fiction trifle featuring an iconic actor who would also play Frankenstein as well as other classic movie monsters (Lon Chaney Jr.).
Michael Miller has admitted that he has no idea why the film is called Silent Rage. The imposing and mentally deranged John Kirby (Frank Darabont favorite Brian Libby) is awakened by the incessant screaming of children and their mother chastising the little beasts for being too rowdy. He calls his doctor at an unnamed psychiatric research institute and informs the medical practitioner: “I’m losing it.” That’s about all he says for the rest of the film, so we’ve got the ‘silent.’ And he also seems pretty pissed off, so there’s the rage. Yup, story checks out. In a complex and bravura single take, Miller and cinematographers Robert Jessup (Deadly Blessing) and Neil Roach (The Whole Ten Yards) track Kirby all the way from his room, through the boarding house he’s staying in, outside where he grabs an ax, and back into the house where he murders both the mother and her husband. While the husband’s death is admittedly pretty lame, with Kirby lightly bopping him in the face with the ax and his victim spinning around with blood already applied, the death of the mother is done offscreen and has a chilling finality to it. A passing mailman hears her cries, so Chuck Norris, and to a much lesser extent, the police, are called in. The moral of this film is: Never have children. They will drive people insane and you will die.
There’s a reason Rifftrax did a number on Silent Rage. Plenty of hysterical and baffling problems to be found here, yet I found most of Miller’s directorial choices to be, while not perfect, effective and even inspired. His use of a lively, handheld camera adds a level of unpredictability to the onscreen action, as if the film itself is about to bust loose and can barely contain itself. Of course, he knows what kind of movie he’s making, so Chuck’s first appearance is framed at a low-angle, with the sun shining behind him while the other inferior officers mill about. Incidentally, Norris’ character name is Dan Stevens, which happens to be the name of the actor playing the tragic Matthew on Downton Abbey. I’d like to imagine Chuck on Downton Abbey now...that was fun...and weird.
Unfortunately, Dan’s chubby, dimwit of a deputy Charlie (Stephen Furst, Animal House, Babylon 5) nearly blows Chuck’s head off with his shoddy marksmanship. There’s a fight and Kirby gets handcuffed and thrown into a squad car. The psychopath’s physician Dr. Halman (an overqualified Ron Silver, Timecop, Reversal of Fortune) shows up and gets to witness his patient snap his handcuffs in half, kick the doors off a car, and then get brutally gunned down in broad daylight. Maybe if he wasn’t yelling “Stop!” in slow-motion, he might’ve saved him. I don’t know.
Kirby is taken to the institute and although he’s got almost zero chance of surviving, the fact that he’s still alive by the time he’s brought in piques the interest of Dr. Spires (another overqualified actor Steven Keats, Death Wish, Black Sunday). He and his colleague Dr. Vaughn (the great William Finley, Phantom of the Paradise, Sisters) have been working on an experimental serum that supposedly can regenerate and heal damaged tissue. Of course, it works, and while Halman questions the legalities of the experimentation as well as the dangers of genetically altering an already unbalanced brain, Spires charges forward, indifferent to the dangers ahead. Norris does a serviceable job here, but the best scenes as far as acting goes belong to this triumvirate of fine character actors. Their scenes have a real energy and intensity as well as intrigue since their egos and ideologies clash mightily. They experiment on Kirby’s re-animated body and we get fun, cheesy bits like a tie-dyed MRI read-out and an example of John’s healing powers with intentional scalpel wounds that immediately close up without so much as a blemish to show for it. It’s pointless to reflect on this, but their “miracle cure” actually does work. If only they hadn’t picked a maniac as their guinea pig.
Dean Wormer warned Stephen Furst that “fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life,” but it appears Furst’s character only had time to heed one of those descriptors. He’s definitely not drunk, but he is fat and stupid. The next time we encounter Doofy the Wonder Deputy, he’s literally sitting at the diner counter, eating two full hamburger platters. You know...because he’s fat. Later, we get an infamous but useless monologue from Charlie where he describes accidentally murdering a puppy. This was a story that appears to have really happened to Furst and he’d been unable to use it in another film. I guess John Landis figured it might be a downer prior to the big toga party scene. It’s unbelievably morbid and an example of extreme black comedy. While out-of-place, it at least gives Furst a moment to shine. He needs it, because Charlie is shockingly inept and even admits that he’s “not much for violence.” I assume he became a deputy because he thought he’d be sitting around eating pie all day.
It’s difficult to judge Furst’s performance because he was a talented comedic performer. The character itself almost exists on another plane based off of his actions. His negligence is reprehensible; he fails to call for backup when it’s clearly needed, and in one of the film’s dumbest moments, a biker chick exposes her tattooed breasts in an obviously dangerous situation. All Charlie can do is attempt to squeeze them. Idiot. His only redeeming moment arrives when he and Dan encounter the rowdy biker gang and he very unexpectedly shouts “All right, you motherfuckers! Up against the wall!” I’ll admit, I laughed pretty hard at this line, mainly because it was so unexpected. While Norris refuses to swear in movies, Silent Rage contains an agreeable number of f-bombs.
Miller approached the big biker gang brawl like Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Not since A Bronx Tale have I seen so many asshole, Sons of Anarchy-wannabes get the fuck beaten out of them. There’s the annoying “one fight at a time” trope on full display here, but it’s still a real “fuck yeah” moment for Chuck. I wasn’t even certain why Chuck was even messing around with these guys. It just seemed as though they were being extra debaucherous in a bar, but nothing overtly illegal. Then we get an abrupt cut to the bartender, who’s gagged and tied to a pole with a noose around his neck. Yeah, I’d say that falls under police jurisdiction. Listen to this scene with headphones on. The punching and the crunching is a treat.
There’s a romantic subplot involving an old girlfriend of Dan’s and the sister of Dr. Halman, Alison (Toni Kalem, The Sopranos, Private Benjamin). It’s fairly predictable and the only takeaway is a very funny and very lengthy love montage featuring an inexplicable champagne and fruit tray. This section is very confusing. It’s unclear whether all of these scenes take place over the course of one day or several. Chuck’s constant shirtlessness and lack of any pants besides jeans gives no clue as to the passage of time. Credit where credit is due, though. The film gives every indication that after they make plans to go on a little getaway, something will happen and Dan will disappoint Alison. Instead, she finds the corpses of both her brother and his wife Nancy (Stephanie Dunnam, Dynasty). Cliché avoided.
Miller doesn’t exactly use a subjective camera, but he does make the viewer feel as though the killer is watching his victims. Kirby has wandered off and is all set to do some killing. It’s unfortunate that the film has to lose Ron Silver so soon as he’s got a great sarcastic, improvisational energy which boosts the film’s enjoyment factor. Working in his dark room, the sudden appearance of John as he attacks the doctor is effectively threatening. Even when Halman plugs John with several bullets (why he has a gun, let alone a high caliber revolver is beyond me. It’s Texas, I guess), Kirby just keeps on coming. When Nancy arrives home with pizza, she subscribes to the number one idiot trope of all horror movies that Scream so lovingly pointed out: When running away from a mad slasher, don’t go up the stairs! It’s a well-constructed suspense scene as she attempts to hide in the attic. I’ve always felt that if I were in a similar situation, I’d stay in my hiding place for hours. Too often, the victim leaves their hiding place far too soon. The discovery of John waiting behind a door is a decent jump-scare and he slams her head into a wall, leaving a bloody stain.
Instead of a hospital, Dan takes a distraught Alison to the institute, which also happens to be John’s destination. Spires and Vaughn know John killed Halman, and while scumbag Dr. Spires claims “We’re scientists, not moralists,” Dr. V decides to end things once and for all by injecting Kirby with sulfuric acid. That would be a helluva way to die, but it doesn’t work because only Chuck Norris can defeat such a non-Christian baddie.
Michael Miller stated in an interview that Brian Libby was very complacent about the kind of damage he had to endure during the shoot. He was a friend of Aaron Norris, Chuck’s brother/stunt coordinator, and future director of Sidekicks and Top Dog. Libby must’ve had the patience of a saint, because he has to perform in a silver suit that makes him look like a resident of Pluto. After Dr. V’s Kevorkian act of mercy, he walks through a long underground passage way. In a very eerie shot, a door opens far down the corridor and Kirby’s giant silhouette enters the frame. He struggles a bit with Vaughn, but eventually stabs the nerdy doctor in the neck. Next, he sets his sights on Spires, who meets the fate Dr. Frankenstein should’ve all those years ago: A super quick neck snap.
The body count continues to grow as a hapless and random doctor gets smashed while Kirby breaks Charlie’s back. You sure it wasn’t his massive gut? Awww...that was mean. It’s actually kind of sweet when Dan cradles a dying Charlie in his arms. A mushy cliché worthy of “Get Mendoza...,” but sweet. In an impressive stunt, John falls out of a window, but he keeps coming. Hanging on to the back of the police car like the goddamn T-1000, John refuses to give up his pursuit of Dan and Alison. They jump out of the car and it crashes and burns. Why it didn’t slow down despite no one pressing down on the gas pedal, I have no idea. A flaming (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) Kirby dives into a conveniently placed pond and continues the chase.
We get to the final showdown, much of which is staged in a wide master shot. We get some cool slow-motion high kicks and Alison even gets in on the action rather than standing off to the side like a damsel-in-distress. It takes a while, but she does help out. Again, thanks to convenient geography, Dan is able to toss a beaten John into a huge well, effectively winning the battle. Of course, the guy is indestructible, so after a solid crane shot, the camera dips down into the well, where we’re treated to a poorly chosen still frame as John violently re-emerges from the watery depths. Although it would’ve been more of the same, the probable sequel set-up never came to fruition. Unfortunately, the film has the gall to allow Chuck to utter two of the worst and most over-used lines of dialogue in movie history. “It’s over. Let’s go home.” AAAAAAUUUUUGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!!
Joseph Fraley’s script leaves a few questions unanswered, namely whether John’s newly invincible body must receive constant injections or if it’s permanent. What would happen if he lost a limb? Is he like a zombie and destroying his brain will ultimately defeat him? I guess we can be thankful that the film decides to ignore the fact that John orphaned three young boys in the opening scene. They could’ve ended up living with Chuck, where they’d be forced to listen to his stupid muzak, wax his chest, and put together overly-large fruit trays. Silent Rage is undeniably entertaining and goofy as hell.
Although the film turned out to be one of Chuck Norris’ least-favorite films, it at least excels at trying something a little different where most of his filmography stuck to his tried-and-true tough guy formulas. The cult of Silent Rage seems likely to grow.