Monday, 4 May 2015

AVENGED - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Redsploitation Payback Thriller with Babe n' arrows

Avenged - aka Savaged - (2013)
Dir. Michael S. Ojeda
Starring: Amanda Adrienne, Tom Ardavany, Rodney Rowland

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Avenged (previously known on the film festival circuits and some foreign markets as Savaged) is an all-new entry in the cinematic lexicon known amongst genre geeks as "Redsploitation".

Compared to the 70s onslaught of "Blaxsploitation" (Shaft, Hell Up In Harlem, Slaughter, the list goes on and on and on), "Redsploitation" is a relatively tiny sub-genre of contemporary B-pictures. They differ from the urban African-American sex-and/or-violence-ridden fantasies in that their scope was limited to the stereotype of noble savages, often in rural (albeit mostly contemporary) locales and always involving the exacting of revenge upon Whitey for his callous treatment of Native Americans.

"Redploitation" always lacked variation in terms of character and plot. African-American characters could certainly have any number of stereotypical roles like gangsters, pimps and dealers, but they could also be cops, rights activists, just plain folk (though facing extraordinary hurdles requiring acts of violence) and in the case of star Pam Grier, she got to be a nurse in Coffy (albeit one who prowled dark corners blowing away pimps and dealers). In fact, women in Blaxploitation could, more often than not, hold their own with the men and not just be victims (the latter being the solitary roles for Native women in Redsploitation).

The grandaddy of the Native American action pictures were Tom Laughlin's hugely popular Billy Jack extravaganzas, but even these male fantasies, initially aimed at drive-ins, grind houses (and now in the days of waning public exhibition venues, DVD and VOD), developed huge mainstream acceptance whereas hardcore "Redsploitation" was linked to independent and/or much smaller distribution/exhibition outlets.

One of the "best" 70s forays into the sub-genre was Johnny Firecloud by William Allen Castleman. Generally better written than most of this fare, it also featured taut direction and a decent, mostly Native American cast. Starring Mexican actor Victor Mohica in the title role, the indignities perpetrated upon Johnny and his people are horrendous, but they pale in comparison to the genuinely satisfying revenge he exacts upon the dimwitted racist White losers: tomahawks, scalping, burying in the ground save for the head exposed to ants and the elements, plus other grim payback delights. Going a few steps further than most films of this ilk like Savege Harvest, Ransom, Thunder Warrior, Scalps and Cry For Me, Billy, Johnny Firecloud doesn't end in an orgy of total mind-numbing violence, but actually veers into the territory of ambiguity and, hence, a bit more reality than the aforementioned.

Avenged, co-produced by the visionary Canadian company Raven Banner with the American auteur Michael S. Ojeda is distinctive for being the most recent entry in "Redsploitation". Its cool blend of kick-ass revenge action with the supernatural and a nice combination of first-rate production values and some genuinely rigorous moviemaking craft, manages to put a whole whack of huger budgeted studio pictures to shame. Director Ojeda seldom favours the ludicrous ADHD-like shooting and cutting which plagues most super-hero and other recent wham-bam effects-laden extravaganzas. His shot selections are smartly considered, efficient and feature a nice variation in focal lengths and point of view choices (as opposed to the reliance upon too many close-ups and few mediums and wides that we see in $200-$300million indulgences). This allows his cuts to be rooted in dramatic action rather than spurred on by empty kinetics.

Narratively, Avenged is fairly straightforward, but with a few oddball deviations which allow us to feel like we're not watching something that's completely run-of-the-mill. Zoe (Amanda Adrienne) is a lithe, babe-o-licious, long-blonde-tressed beauty who decides to drive cross-country to meet up with her African-American boyfriend with the plan of moving in with him. Sounds simple enough, but the cool element Ojeda adds to this mix is that Zoe is challenged with being deaf and partially mute (she can form words, sentences, etc. but they're not always intelligible to those who don't know her). Though her Mother expresses trepidation, her sensitive beau realizes that her trip, as well as the decision to leave home and move into common-law bliss with him, is an important part of her continued journey of empowerment.

As these tales often go, she finds herself in the middle of nowhere (topography similar to John Ford's use of Monument Valley in his westerns) when she's witness to a horrific hit and run murder twixt a truck full of Good Old Boy Whitey Rednecks and a young Native man. Before she can hightail it out of there, she's boxed in and approached by the slavering, inbred White fellas. She's kidnapped and taken to the family's remote "estate" of White Trash decrepitude wherein she's grotesquely tied and affixed to a bed in an old shed with - yuck! - barbed wire.

It should be immediately noted that Ojeda does not sexualize nor salaciously dwell upon Zoe's inevitable gang rape by these scumbags. Thank Heaven for tender mercies. However, plenty of Hell is to follow. She manages to get away, but wrenching oneself from barbed wire bindings is not a pain-free, nor is it a pretty sight. Unfortunately, as she flees into the night, Zoe is mortally wounded with a scatter of buckshot from one of the rednecks and is left for dead in the rocky, sandy hills.

So, you're wondering: Where's the "Redsploitation?"

Oh, ye of little faith, here's the rub. The family of inbreds are descendants of a vicious cavalry commander who wiped out most of the Apaches in the area. Our villains are so proud of this, they worship their great-great-grandpappy's memory with slavish devotion - so much so that they continue butchering Native people whenever they can. Ojeda's narrative then adds the following tasty frisson: Legend has it, that the Chief of the local First Nations people swore eternal revenge upon his killer and all those who followed his family lineage. When a lone medicine man in the middle of the wilderness finds Zoe's battered, bloodied body, he attempts to revive her with some ancient ritual, but in so doing, he revives the spirit of the Apache Chief who melds his soul with Zoe and soon, you've got two spirits in one body that both need to extract revenge.

And believe you me, the vengeance is as sweet as it is stomach churning.

Okay, I've seen a lot of movies in my day and as moronic as the aforementioned spirit-melding may be, I have to admit it's pretty original as far as genre pictures go (though it has a few nods of homage in the direction of The Crow). And, you know, there's also something to be said for the pleasing (albeit ludicrous) image of a hot blonde adorned in feathers and war paint as she hunts down the vicious inbreds one-by-one. This (dubiously authentic) appropriation of Native culture is exploitative, but even as you see the nuts and bolts of this construct, it's perversely entertaining. Still, by using the tragic history of the local Natives is not without more than a few dollops of ethnocentrism if not outright racism, BUT, and this is a BIG "but", the film does go out of its way to utilize and address the stereotypical trappings of civilization and savagery that have been so-long married to Euro-centric notions of superiority as they relate to the inherent "lower order" of Indigenous Peoples. There is a clear awareness on the part of the filmmaker that he's playing with these elements, but in a contemporary context, he's allowing his imagination to run as rampant as all get out, which is certainly a far cry from the naiveté of filmmakers from earlier ages.

In her great book "When the Other is Me", Emma LaRocque provides a detailed analysis of "the dichotomy of civilization versus savagery [which] is the long-held belief that humankind evolved from the primitive to the most advanced, from the savage to the civilized." LaRocque notes that:

"racialized evolutionism has not entirely disappeared from the Western intellectual tradition. In disciplines of anthropology, history, political science, psychology, sociology, religion, and even in earlier Marxist thought, theories on human development were and still are largely premised on patriarchal, Eurocentric and evolutionary ideas about so-called primitive peoples."

Appropriating a tragic history and doing so within the "obviously doctrinaire and self-serving" civ/sav perspective which permeates Avenged, seems somewhat less egregious within the context of a sheer contemporary "entertainment". After all, this is not scholarship, but a piece of pure fiction that is so clearly fantasy, one would hope that even the lowest sub-strata of movie-fandom would assume that the use, or rather, misuse of stereotypical images of Native People is, in fact, ridiculously lacking in veracity.

Then again, our modern world continues to be sadly fraught with ignorance of the lowest order. Given that, even a film like Avenged falls into a strange never-never land of (mis)appropriation. LaRocque's own scholarship presents the interesting findings that "White writers often portrayed 'Indians' as savage creatures who tortured and mutilated White bodies", though clearly, Ojeda's film presents the exact opposite (at least initially). The Whites in his film are the slavering, savage, psychotic violators - not just of a physically challenged woman, but contemporary Native people as an extension of the violent historical genocide of Natives. In this context I'm especially interested in how LaRocque also points out a reversal of "the violation" since "contemporary Native writers also turn the tables on the colonizer to point out White cruelty and contradictions; in effect, to point to White savagery."

I'm not 100% sure of filmmaker Ojeda's heritage, though his surname is certainly rooted in Spanish origin, one which in the South Western (or "Tex-Mex") states can often include Native DNA and cultural roots. Whatever the case may be, he is clearly having his cake and eating it too.

LaRocque admits that prior to being in "any position to critically examine the history and sociology of racism, [she] experienced a sense of shame and alienation from teachers, textbooks, comics, and movies that portrayed Indians as savages." Not surprisingly, her eventual pursuit of 'higher' education revealed how "many university professors and most textbooks presented Native peoples in as distorted and insulting ways" as the aforementioned mediums so that the "racist theme of Western civilization/Indian savagery was ever-present."

Given that Avenged, along with the Redsploitation sub-genre and the litany of literature and cinema over the past century (and then some) have wallowed shamelessly in lies and stereotypes, it's the scholarship which has yielded the most abominable violations of truth. The literature and popular culture of deception has been predominantly American and appallingly buttressed by American academics who support and defend (whilst denying) their racist scholarship within the sickening "star-spangled" flag-waving of "the American expansionist doctrine of Manifest Destiny."

Is it any wonder these stereotypes persist? "The notion" LaRocque argues "of 'civilization' and its antithesis 'savagery' are invariably defined and measured by Euro-White North American standards. It should be needless to point out that such an un-scientific belief is racist because it sets up Whites as superior and non-Whites as inferior."

So how then is (an admittedly) entertaining (albeit blood-spattered) trifle like Avenged dangerous? LaRocque points out that Aboriginal peoples "are still being hounded and haunted by White North America’s image machine, which has persistently portrayed them in extremes as either the grotesque ignoble or noble savage."

Avenged does double duty on this front.

When the "noble savage" medicine man accidentally conjures up the spirit of a revenge-crazed Apache warrior and allows it to morph with the equally violated and angry character of Zoe, she essentially becomes a zombie-like member of the living dead who exacts vengeance that's perhaps even more "savage" than the indignities perpetrated by the White inbred racist rednecks.

The again, I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't admit to gaining a fair degree of satisfaction seeing the White Trash get their comeuppance via bows and arrows, blades and in one pretty spectacular set piece (in terms of filmmaker Ojeda's directorial skill and sheer aplomb), wherein the Apache-warrior-possessed Zoe rips the intestines out of one of the "bad guys" with her own hands, pulling his guts out like a viscous rope that seems to have no end and causing the villain the most horrific (and equally endless) pain.

Thinking upon my own visceral response to this picture in relation to what I acknowledge is "wrong", I still can't help but applaud Ojeda's audacity. He takes us into some very dangerous territory and I'll take that over the commonplace, the fake vibes elicited from "feel-good" entertainments. Avenged dazzles because it yanks us, roller coaster-ride-like, back and forth, this way and that from extreme political, historical and cultural dichotomies.

It's an appalling film, but there is value in its terrible, terrible beauty.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***½ 3-and-ahalf-stars-Stars

Avenged (previously known as Savaged) is a Raven Banner production and world-wide release available on home video formats via Anchor Bay Canada. The extra features focusing upon the development and making of the film are especially interesting as they place solid emphasis upon director Michael S. Ojeda's considerable craft in terms of placing a visual emphasis upon his storytelling, but also how he works within the exigencies of modest financial resources to create a piece that feels far more imbued with production value than would normally be ascribed to such exploitation items.