DVD: Vice Squad (1982)

October 30, 2017 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: Good

Label:  Anchor Bay

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  February 21, 2006

Genre:  Suspense / Thriller / Drama

Synopsis: An independent prostitute is wanted as a murder witness by the vice squad and a sadistic pimp, each racing to find her before the sun rises.

Special Features:  Audio commentary by director Gary Sherman and moderator David Gregory / Theatrical Trailers.




Gary Sherman’s gritty take on Los Angeles’ vice squad and the rotten lives of prostitutes divided critics but proved successful at the box office, and although it’s easy to brand the film as sadistic exploitive drive-in fodder, it’s also one of his best films, benefiting from a solid cast of then relative unknowns, and gorgeous cinematography by the great John Alcott.

Fans of Alcott, who won an Oscar for shooting Barry Lyndon (1975), might be baffled as to why such an esteemed cinematographer would lens Sherman’s sordid tale of police tracking down a hooker before her murderous pimp is able to mete out nasty payback, but prior to feature films both Sherman and Alcott had worked on several TV ads in London, and due to their friendship, the pair reunited for this highly unlikely project.

Sherman’s prior features were the cult shockers Death Line / Raw Meat (1972) and Dead & Buried (1981), and when Avco Embassy approached him to direct a script by a former vice cop working under the pseudonym Kenneth Peters, Sherman spent 6 weeks riding with cops, absorbing details as they arrested pimps & hookers, and chatted with both in holding cells, pretending to be a fresh arrest. The payoff is an edgy, believable portrait of vice cops as they troll streets not to arrest but to ‘keep the lid’ on an industry tied to drugs, credit card fraud, and murder.

Peters’ story follows Princess (Season Hubley) after she sends her daughter away to works nights and earn cash as an independent hooker. When good friend Ginger (future MTV VJ Nina Blackwood, making her acting debut) is murdered by pimp Ramrod (Wings Hauser, making his own starring debut), vice squad head Tom Walsh (Gary Swanson) forces her to wear a wire and help catch a killer.

When Princess reveals her complicity in the arrest, Ramrod is fueled for revenge, and after escaping from custody, hunts down his nemesis, while Walsh and his team begin a mad hunt for both.

It’s a fairly simple story that’s skillfully told with taut direction, expert editing, superb second unit work for the car chase in the finale, and an unusually strong script that packs in a chase and allows for sidelines to show the banalities of Princess’ life, meeting colleagues, dealing with weird Johns, and the ever-present violence that’s liable to erupt from the slightest suspicion and disagreement. Co-written & executive produced by veteran schlockmeister Sandy Howard (his CanCon productions include Embryo and City on Fire) and Robert Vincent O’Neill (auteur of the Angel triptych), Vice Squad is also exceptionally nasty, but not for its onscreen violence.

As he recounts in the excellent commentary track on Anchor Bay’s DVD, Sherman focuses on the dread leading up to and the aftermath of violence, making the horrific acts worse because the emphasis is on terror-stricken faces and their reactions to brutality. Princess is forced to help the police when Walsh shoves her close not once but twice to Ginger’s dead visage, seeing the fresh scars from external bleeding in gory detail – we see her horror, but only quick glimpses of the dead girl.

When Ramrod escapes and goes hunting for Princess, audience fears are already amped up because while Sherman doesn’t detail the punishment meted out on Ginger, the performances convey the horror of his favourite device – a “pimp stick” consisting of a folded wire coat hanger designed to scar innards long enough to teach a lesson but enable a physical recovery so the punished hooker can return to work.

The language used by police is part profane and clinical, adding to the film’s slight docu-drama tone, but it’s Alcott’s fine cinematography that’s key to the film’s look, adding film grain, existing light, but smooth and often complex camera movements which give Vice Squad a balance of grit and studio slickness. (In one sequence, Sherman has Alcott light the scene with candles, a cute homage to the largely candlelit Barry Lyndon.)

When Walsh and his team begin their rush to reach the factory where Ramrod will torture Princess, Sherman draws from his research and choreographs a realistic process where the team relays positions, follow at wide distances, and eventually converge on the grimy location. It’s pure movie tension with sharp cross-cutting between the team and Ramrod’s eventually wrangling of Princess, but being such a loathsome screen villain, the follow-up chase between cop and pimp is expertly executed, with Ramrod suffering a little before his demise.

Vice Squad may have been a low budget production, but the use of real locations adds immensely to the story, and scenes don’t linger for titillation or fetishistic cruelty; there’s a no-nonsense pacing that ensures a steady tempo, packing a fair bit of tension and night life vignettes into 97 mins.

Hauser’s also sensational as a nasty, out of control sadist, conveying Ramrod’s excitement as he teases victims before acting out cruelties, and Sherman’s use of close-ups captures the actor’s wide, energized eyes with economy. Most of the time Sherman cuts away to ensure Hauser’s performance doesn’t veer into cartoon archetypes, like a station booking room packed with shrill hookers and a whiny pimp (Die Hard’s Grand L. Bush.)

The last-minute score by uncredited Joe Renzetti is minimal yet effective, as is the weird theme song “Neon Slime,” crooned with special sleaziness by Hauser himself. (Renzetti would score a slew of exploitation classics – The Exterminator (1980), Child’s Play (1988), Frankenhooker (1990) – including most of Sherman’s films.)

Anchor Bay’s transfer is very nice, offering good detail and minimal DNR that preserves the film’s high grain veneer. The audio mix is straight mono, and Sherman’s commentary is nicely moderated by David Gregory, future co-founder of Severin Films.

As a director, Sherman’s subsequent films proved less satisfying – Wanted: Dead or Alive (1987) is rather banal, and Poltergeist III (1988) is just awful – and his subsequent ventures in TV includes the unusually graphic (for network TV) Silence of the Lambs (1991) knock-off, Murderous Vision (1991).

Producer / co-writer Sandy Howard also produced the porn-set drama Hollywood Vice Squad (1986), directed by Penelope Spheris and costarring Trish van Devere, wife of George C. Scott who coincidentally starred in Paul Scharder’s own porn tale Hardcore (1979) with Hubley.

After appearing as a ‘wimp’ on Young and the Restless around 1980, Hauser used his newfound fame to star in a slew of largely direct to video action thrillers, whereas Hubley’s career didn’t yield a strong career in film. Director Sherman states her divorce from Kurt Russell (with whom she co-starred in the teleplay Elvis) may have affected better acting prospects, although she did maintain steady work in TV. Vice Squad marked the second of three major films in which she portrayed sex workers, of which the others include the CanCon quickie Prettykill / Tomorrow’s Killer (1987) and Hardcore.

John Alcott also shot the classic CanCon shocker Terror Train (1980) and CanCon oddity The Disappearance (1977), but he’s best remembered for his association with Stanley Kubrick, having also shot The Shining (1980), A Clockwork Orange (1971), and the fine model work in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).



© 2017 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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