BR: Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except / Stryker’s War (1985)

January 29, 2015 | By


ThouShaltNotKillExcept_BRFilm: Weak

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label: Synapse Films

Region: A, B, C

Released:  April 10, 2012

Genre:  War / Action / Horror / Exploitation

Synopsis: A group of Vietnam veterans save their insular town from a Manson-like band of cannibals.

Special Features:  Audio Commentary #1: director Josh Becker, co-writer Bruce Campbell /  Audio Commentary #2: actor Brian Schulz and Michael Felsher / Featurette: “Made in Michigan: The Making of Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except” (32 mins.) / Interview with Bruce Campbell (9 mins.) / Deleted Scene with optional director’s comentary (1 min.) / Alternate “Stryker’s War” title sequence (1 min.) / Theatrical Trailer / Super 8 short “Stryker’s War” (48 mins.) / Reversible sleeve art / DVD version.




Originally called Stryker’s War, Josh Becker’s film was given a weird new title by original handler Irwin Shapiro which mandated the change if Becker & Co. wanted their film to earn some exposure and make back a little green.

The original script by Sheldon Lettich, himself a Vietnam War veteran, was distilled into a tighter work by Becker, Scott Spiegel and Bruce Campbell, with the latter set to star, but when Campbell earn his SAG laurels, he was forbidden to partake in non-union productions, necessitating a recasting for the formerly eponymous hero who reunites with his old comrades and fights a gang of hippy psychos.

The reworked script is essentially a mash-up between the Vietnam vet revenge tales that were becoming popular in the eighties and the Manson family, a kind of smackdown between two types of characters whose only commonality was experience in killing.

Made for little money, this shot-in-Michigan production manages quite well to evoke a little bit of Vietnam (use of aerial stock footage helps), some great costumes and props, and a kinetic energy which keeps the story moving from Stryker & Co. ultimately routing out the psychos (led by Sam Raimi!) in bloody encounters, but what really surprises is the full-blooded orchestral score by Joseph LoDuca. How they managed to find cash to cover a small orchestra is a mystery, but LoDuca went all-out in crafting a stirring action score with a grand military theme and some great writing, pretty much transcending (if not leaving the film itself) in its wake.

It’s quite an accomplishment, because in spite of the ballsy attempt by the Michigan Mafia to mount an exotic war picture set in Asia and later in their home state, much of the film doesn’t work. The acting ranges from rough to theatrical to amateurish, the dialogue is terrible, the melodrama is pitched close to outright parody, and Raimi as the cult leader is really, really awful. He’s initially funny in Indian Wig #18, behaving like a boob-mashing kook (it sort of happens, with a little blood), but with no straight performance to auger the variable novices and over-actors, Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except just feels like a highly ambitious student film, undoubtedly made with a lot of guts, love, and passion, but never feeling like a solid gonzo indie production.

There are fleeting moments that work, plus some decent action scenes – a crazy motorcycle chase is kind of fun – but the deliberate bits of humour are juvenile, and the exaggerated gore is very goofy (although seeing Ted Raimi get smacked around by brother Sam is inherently funny).

Synapse’s Blu-ray is a great package that should please fans of Raimi, Campbell, and their filmmaking colleagues (including Scott Spiegel) with dual commentary tracks, alternate material (including the Styker’s War main title credit), a new interview with Campbell (whom one senses is aware of the film’s variable quality), and a lengthy, highly affectionate making-of featurette.

The real treat is perhaps the original 48 minute short film, Stryker’s War, which Becker made starring Campbell to entice investors. Reportedly costing over $20,000, the Super 8 film features sync sound, dialogue, and many of the key scenes seen in the feature film, and it’s fascinating to see how a ridiculously young Campbell would’ve tackled the complex role of a psychologically battered war veteran.

Raimi and his buddies made a lot of Super 8 films in their teens, many with sync sound, effects, and music, but it’s the last component which has remained a headache, and was likely one of the core hurdles Anchor Bay wasn’t able to present the original Within the Woods Super 8 short which Raimi shot for potential Evil Dead investors.

Synapse’s solution may not be elegant, but it does kind of work. Anytime there’s music, more contemporary stereo synth cues shoot up in the remix, with slightly audible sound effects, but it’s obvious whenever characters speak in a ‘scored’ scene, there’s bits of the original music still in the background. (Bernard Herrmann’s “Conversation Piece” from North by Northwest recurs whenever Stryker reunites with his old flame.)

This is likely the only way to create a version acceptable for commercial home video release, but some of the Josh Becker shorts are available from the filmmaker’s website. Becker directed a number of Xena: Warrior Princess episodes, but his best work is perhaps Running Time (1997), a title B&W heist-gone-wrong film starring Campbell shot in long, unedited takes like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). This film is screaming for a Blu-ray release, ideally with the great commentary track recorded for the old Anchor Bay DVD.

Scott Spiegel’s gory Intruder (1989) was recently released on Blu by Synapse.

Sheldon Lettich directed a number of classic Jean-Claude Van Damme films – Lionheart (1990), Double Impact (1991), The Order (2001) – and also wrote Van Damme’s Bloodsport (1988) and Legionnaire (1998), plus Rambo III (1988), which brought the former vet full circle in co-writing the biggest budgeted Vietnam vet actioner.



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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