Act of Vengeance (1974) DVD Review: Watch Out, Men, ‘Cuz the Rape Squad is Here!

Filmmaker Bob Kelljan started off with a promising enough career at AIP Studios in 1970 writing and directing the cult classic Count Yorga, Vampire — a highlight of ’70s horror cinema that Kelljan followed up the following year with a sequel, The Return of Count Yorga (which he also wrote and directed). Two years after that, Bob found himself directing yet another sequel, though this time, it was to a funky AIP bloodsucker that wasn’t of his own devise; that of the hip Blacula in Scream Blacula Scream.

And then, just as swiftly as his vocation manufacturing big-screen horrors began, it malformed into a horror of its own once Mr. Kelljan helmed the direction of a sleazy rape flick called Act of Vengeance — a film so deficient in socially and morally redeeming values, that he opted to use his birth name for the project, crediting himself as “Robert Kelljchian” instead. The film itself resulted in Bob doing little more than helming dozens of episodes for several different TV shows from that point on (with the exception of directing the 1977 classic, Black Oak Conspiracy, of course) before passing away of cancer in 1982 at the age 52.

One has to wonder how Bob would have perceived Act of Vengeance’s attraction to fans of bad cinema had he not been taken from us so prematurely, as this delightfully seedy AIP flick has achieved a minor midnight-movie status since its release to home video in the mid ’80s (who could forget that wonderfully-lurid Thorn/EMI HBO cover art know, eh?).

In all probability, he would have had his name removed from the film completely. But, of course, that’s just a guess.

Originally released under the much better, more potently exploitative title Rape Squad, Act of Vengeance tells the loosely-constructed and mostly asinine tale of several hot young women (Jo Ann Harris, Jennifer Lee, Lisa Moore, Connie Strickland, and Patricia Estrin) in the braless mid ’70s who are all stalked and subsequently violated by a surprisingly eloquent serial rapist attired in an orange jumpsuit and hockey mask (a good eight years before Jason Voorhees would adopt a similar sense of fashion). But what really stands out about our villain is his tendency to force his victims to sing “Jingle Bells” during the heinous ordeals.

Is his obsession with yuletide tunes part of some repressed, nightmarish childhood incident that has clawed away at him to adulthood — wherein his only method of release is to attack nubile young maidens? Who knows! The film itself certainly has no clue, as it never expands the bizarre meaning behind it all: it’s just one of those typical drive-in schlocky touches. Personally, though, I think they opted to use “Jingle Bells” because it was a Public Domain song — this is a mindless, meaningless exploitation flick, after all.

So, anyway, after our quintet of beauties are met with the usual amount of chauvinistic insouciance by police (led by an embarrassed Ross Elliott of The Virginian fame), boyfriends, and all elements of the male species in general, they decide to form a “Rape Squad” to council other victims of sexual assault. Soon, the girls are taking karate lessons from a barely-competent female martial-arts instructor and warning would-be molesters that they just might lose it if they misuse it. They trash one schmuck’s home, threatening to dismember his member with acid. They smash a pimp’s automobile and kick his scrawny ass (a highlight just for the putrid performances alone). They even make the cops notice that yes, women do indeed have brains, as well as rights.

Meanwhile, their friendly neighborhood rapist sits in his car, watching the girls go about their new daily routines, noting his thoughts into an audio cassette recorder. Why? Again, there’s no telling: it’s just one of those things. He also follows them about with his camera to further study them. But his final descent into bad behavior occurs when he murders a victim, to wit he casually mumbles later (via a voiceover) in his aural diary, “Damn. I actually killed someone. Don’t think I want to do that again; no, it’s not a nice feeling.” That doesn’t stop him from plotting a scheme for the film’s grand finale, though, wherein he tricks the girls into following him to an abandoned zoo and kills one of the ladies anyway.

Any attempts at tracing long-gone remnants of logic from the original story on your part will be met with frustration, as Act of Vengeance is little more than a nonsensical vehicle. The Rape Squad girls themselves all start out weak before finding strength in themselves once they form their alliance, but then turn into a group of whining languid and opaque wimps in the final minutes because the screenwriters (one of which was a man using a female pseudonym!) obviously found themselves in some sort of black hole. The rape scenes themselves, while not entirely gritty or overly disturbing, do not have the kind of impact present in other revenge flicks from the same time period — and are clearly there just to show off the ample amount of flesh the production hired to be in front of the camera.

I give it an A+ all the way, kids. I also salute AIP and the late Bob Kelljan for bringing us this funny-for-all-the-wrong-reasons exploitation “drama” that will have you waltzing in to take a hot shower once it’s over. Because, let’s face it: no one else was ever going to honor them for it. The mere fact that MGM has released this amusing tale of ignobleness as part of its Limited Edition Collection of manufactured-on-demand DVD-Rs might cause one to be inclined they weren’t planning on paying tribute to this flick, either. That said, though, this modest release is a thousand times better than the old VHS release, presenting Act of Vengeance in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with mono stereo sound.

So, tallying up the score here, we have: wonderfully-bad acting, nudity, incompetent script, nudity, hilarious dialogue, PG-13-esque scenes of sexual desecration, a funny-ass jive talkin’ pimp, and more nudity.

As I said: A+ all the way. You just have to be demented enough to be able to appreciate its luridness.

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Luigi Bastardo

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