BR: Killing of America, The (1981)

December 15, 2016 | By

KillingOfAmerica_BRFilm: Very Good

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label:  Severin Films

Region: A, B, C

Released:  October 25, 2016

Genre:  Documentary / Shockmentary / Mondo

Synopsis: Periodically gory chronicle of America’s self-destructive path after the assassination of JFK using news footage, stills, and archival audio clips.

Special Features:  95 min. English and 115 min. Japanese versions / Audio Commentary with director Sheldon Renan (English version) / 3 Interviews: Director Sheldon Renan (20:21) + Editor Lee Percy (16:07) + Mondo Movie historian Nick Pinkerton (14:48) / Theatrical Trailer.




A mainly Japanese production that purports to be a hard, no-holds barred chronicle of America’s evolution into a violent, ugly culture, the filmmakers’ thesis says that everything was stable until Lee Harvey Oswald and an accomplice blew apart John F. Kennedy’s head, footage the filmmakers play in slow, ghoulish detail to make it clear to viewers that The Killing of America will not be a safe PBS-style production.

The origins of this part shockumentary / mondo film never released in America is even more curious. In both the interview and commentary track that accompanies Severin’s superb Blu-ray edition, director Sheldon Renan says the inspiration stemmed from the successful Faces of Death shockumetaries that flooded the home video market, and blended archival and staged footage of human trauma. These cheap productions were hugely profitable but dubious in quality and credibility, and writer / occasional screenwriter Leonard Schrader proposed a more journalistic concept of a narrative tracing the rapid acceleration of violent acts in America using real news footage and genuine interviews, which fell into Renan’s expertise, being an archivist and filmmaker.

Produced by Japanese producer Mataichirô Yamamoto and co-written by Schrader (with wife Chieko Schrader), Killing seems to come from an earnest concept of showing a progression of cultural violence and self-destructive behaviour via authentic newsreel footage, audio tapes, and interviews, and with minimal narration, creating a document that leaves nothing to the imagination: Kennedy’s death signaled the country’s slide to a state of moral decline in which private citizens go bonkers and shoot, maim, kidnap, rape, torture, and murder ever-so-slowly neighbours and completely innocent strangers to glorify their egos, stroke deranged sexual needs, and achieve stardom in the media and pop culture, if not historical infamy by exacting the worst level of human degradation until the next successor kicks the benchmark down even lower.

Renan opens the film with police shooting and killing a man named Sam Brown as he discretely raises the gun he’s been using to pick off innocent drivers and passersby. The mindlessness of his actions – which the doomed killer attributed to interstellar influences – introduce a recurring motif of individuals and paired murderers who simply snapped or became involved in desperate situations that, for the most part, don’t end well for the perpetrators and victims.

A catalogue of murderers follows, and thematically the doc moves from the distanced, clinical killings of frequently suicidal snipers to more hands-on serial killers who indulge in vengeful physical metaphors: Ed Kemper exacting hatred for his mother on college girls, often talking to and sleeping with their severed heads; and sexual torture meted out by Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and Wayne Henley.

What sets the doc apart from other efforts that chronicle the evolution of murderers as cultural and media-hungry personalities is the graphic material that’s used to emphasize the ugliness of this modern trend: wide-lensed but gory autopsy footage, and crime scene snapshots of murder victims (nude, bloodied, and humiliated) and perpetrators (alive, and bullet-riddled after a police assault).

Graphic images also pop up in clusters, including the infamous Vietnam newsreel execution of a man (here showcased in colour, as the man dies on the ground with a red geyser gushing from his head onto the street), and various crime scene shots of assorted head trauma (the most grisly being two snapshots from the Manson killings, and the most surreal an apparent self-inflicted gunshot to the head, parting the suicide victim’s cranium in half like a peeled banana).

The newsreel material – much of it from local stations – is admittedly fascinating for its raw, ‘live’ capturing of men going cuckoo. Most pungent is a magnum-wielding guy who takes the crew of a local TV station hostage and maintains a disturbing nonchalance and bravado during a live interview until he admits to killing his longtime girlfriend. Then the coffee cup is lowered, the impact of his insanity starts to sink in, and he orders the camera switched off so he can wait for the police to storm the building. The final outcome is somewhat different than what he had planned, but the archival footage captures a disturbed and desperate man who wanted to be immortalized as a kind of folk hero.

Just as surreal is a pissed-off bar owner who takes his moneylender hostage, and wires himself to his victim and the shotgun trigger, in case either component is separated by police intervention. After three days, the pair end up surrounded in what appears to be a government office, where the victim is forced to read an itemized rant, after which the kidnapper thanks the few who’ve vocalized their support, along with next-of kin. Unfolding like a Best Actor speech, it’s a bizarre transposition that effectively emphasizes what such an event can offer to a deranged loon: a forum to vent and interact with fans on a national scale.

The resolution of that hostage taking ends up being a kind of non-event, and perhaps illustrates the doc’s key problem: amid all the fascinating archival materials and interviews – vintage footage of Bobbie Kennedy’s assassin Sirhan Sirhan, Ted Bundy in court, massive Ed Kemper in his jail cell articulating the stressors that turned him into a serial killer, and audiotape of Reverend Jim Jones urging his flock to consume cyanide-laced Kool-Aid at gunpoint – the doc lacks a decisive point.

Renan and Schrader’s film has the feel of a gritty news piece on the increasingly forceful undercurrent of violence that’s eroding America’s image of a safe society, but the lengthy opening segment on JFK’s assassination and the closing segment on John Lennon’s death with NYC mourners are manipulative efforts to mask what’s basically another graphic entry in the exploitive mondo / shockumentary genre.

Renan himself admits that as the grim material started to be shaped into a narrative, an end point remained elusive until Lennon’s murder happened. Producer Yamamoto told Renan to get his cameras to what’s now Strawberry Fields and capture the collective mourning of ordinary citizens, thereby solving the filmmakers’ dilemma, and leaving audiences with a swell of emotion set to Lennon’s “Imagine” rather than further gore.

The final caption before the end credits – “While you watched this movie, five of us were murdered. One was the random killing of a stranger” – may have been intended as a minimalist epilogue, but it’s no different than the stark factoids mondo filmmakers slapped over their films to mask their exploitive productions as newsworthy social commentary.

Moreover, modest details of serial killers, sexual crimes, assassins and gunplay captured by early media outlets existed prior to JFK’s assassination, so the suggestion that all present-day ills began in 1963 is absurd. As a document of what’s become commonplace, however, Killing totally succeeds, but the filmmakers make no effort to find any solution to the problem, nor allow for any hope. ‘Life is cheap, you may be next, and it’s gonna get worse’ is the governing view. If subsequent mass-shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech and uber-serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer are added to the doc’s grotesque tally, the filmmaker’s nihilistic statement manages to resonate, and chillingly.

Renan’s doc does smack of exploitation, but it’s also been crafted with great skill. He credits Schrader’s writing and the eerie recorded narration as setting a stark tone and perfect marriage of facts, words, and sound effects to an amazing assembly of rare images that were edited with great skill. In a separate interview, editor Lee Percy, who served time on Noel Marshall’s nightmare production Roar (1981), describes the huge challenge in sifting through the archival and newly shot footage to create a narrative that makes its impact and keeps propelling forward. Moreover, Killing isn’t a film that dwells exclusively on gore: the images are plentiful and shocking, but they’re ‘re supportive material to a thesis that can’t offer any conclusion because the degradation of humanity is ongoing, and perpetual.

If there’s any intended message to Renan and Schrader’s film, it’s to strive for decency, be humane, and yet be vigilant for monsters that may lurk even under your own roof.

Severin’s disc features the original theatrical cut, and the longer Japanese edit which, as explained in the interviews, was Yamamoto’s peculiar attempt to temper the severe critique of America with reassuring footage meant to show it’s greatness: splendid natural beauty, civil civility, and freedom to pursue leisure activities like frisbee. Both films are uncut, but the Japanese edit sports Japanese narration directed by Renan and accompanied by English subtitles.

KillingOfAmericaThe 2K transfer from negatives looks great, and is vastly superior to the British Region 0 DVD that was released in 2002 by Exploited Films. The mono sound mix is fairly flat, but doesn’t detract from the excellent sound editing and recurring synth cues by composers W. Michael Lewis, Mark Lindsay (Shogun Assassin).

Severin’s disc marks the film’s premiere North American release, and puts an end to those endless online searches. The interviews are fact-packed, historian Nick Pinkerton provides a compact history of the mondo genre, and although Renan’s audio commentary does get a bit dry, the measured pacing is filled with reflections that explain some of the events and figured showcased in the doc.

Aside from his participating in The Killing of America, Leonard Schrader, who passed away in 2006, also directed Naked Tango (1990), and was involved in the stories and/or screenplays for The Yakuza(1974), Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), and brother Paul Schrader’s Mishima (1985).

Although primarily a documentarian, Sheldon Renan later wrote the script for Lambada (1990), and appears in the documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014).



© 2007; revised 2016 by Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB — Composer Filmographies: W. Michael Lewis / Mark Lindsay
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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