20 April 2014

(1976)

Revenge is sweet...and never more so than in William Fruet's Death Weekend, originally known as The House By the Lake.

While there are certainly a slew of more notable exploitation-revenge thrillers - such as Wes Craven's The Last House On the Left (1972) or the grindhouse classic I Spit On Your Grave (1978) - Death Weekend is a ride unto itself.

Director Fruet was born in Alberta, Canada in 1933. His first foray into motion pictures was scripting a handful of films including Goin' Down the Road in 1970 and Rip-Off, the next year. He directed his first feature in 1972 called Wedding In White (which he also wrote).

Death Weekend would be his second directorial effort. Filming began in Ontario in the fall of 1975 with Brenda Vaccaro in the lead role.

Vaccaro hailed from Brooklyn, New York although she was raised primarily in Dallas, Texas. The raspy voiced actress got her start on Broadway, receiving three Tony nominations in the 60s for roles in Cactus Flower, How Now, Dow Jones and The Goodbye People.

When she made the leap to film, she received excellent notices for a supporting role in the Best Picture Oscar winner of 1969, Midnight Cowboy.

But Vaccaro would receive her own Academy Award nod for Jacqueline Susann's Once Is Not Enough, which was released the same year she started shooting Death Weekend.

With his lead protagonist cast, director Fruet needed a sure-fire villain. He turned to former surfer and Hollywood heavy Don Stroud, who was perfectly cast as one of the nastiest people you'd ever want to meet.

Diane (Vaccaro) is an actress and model who befriends an oral surgeon playboy named Harry (Chuck Shamata). One weekend, she's invited over to a party at his isolated house in the country. Diane gets a kick out of Harry's sports car, a Corvette, and asks him if she can drive it part of the way.

Her passion for cars gets the better of her and she starts speeding along the road to the estate. Although this makes Harry nervous, he lets his friend have her fun. Anything to get her up to his house for a few days.

A carload of hoodlums drives up beside them and the men harass Diane and Harry by tossing beer bottles and cutting them off. Lep (Don Stroud), the driver, is intent on impressing his buddies Runt (Richard Ayres), Frankie (Kyle Edwards) and Stanley (Don Granberry).

Diane stops the Corvette and when the other car drives back towards her, she steps on the gas...certain that the thugs won't be able to keep up with her. Lep doesn't give up so easily and Diane's speed and mastery behind the wheel only infuriates him. Not only does he keep up with her, he tries to run her off the road.

Diane and Harry finally elude the troublemakers when Lep's car gets stuck in a ditch. Lep leaps out of the stalled vehicle and vows retribution against Diane and her beau. Frankie says, "I bet no one ever did that to Lep before. And it was a chick too!" Lep is so enraged, he pounces on him. "I'm gonna find that fucking cunt and I'm gonna ram that supercharger up her ass!" he yells.

Harry is impressed with Diane's driving skills. They stop at a local gas station- where Harry speaks to his attendant friends Spragg (Ed McNamara) and Ralph (Michael Kirby).

Out of her earshot, he makes a joke about how many times a woman such as Diane need to have sex. He leaves his car behind for repairs and to have the tank filled...and he rewards the men with bottles of liquor he had promised them.

Harry then takes Diane back to his house in another car. The home is huge and Diane wonders where the other guests are. Harry tells her they'll wander in throughout the day. Inside, the place is filled with expensive furniture and antiques.

The more Diane talks to Harry, the more she realizes what a shallow and material jerk he is. "Are you married or something?" she asks him. He isn't...the doctor just prefers the best and biggest house that money can buy.

Diane starts to settle into her room - which she jokes is larger than her entire home. She is unaware that the mirrors in both the bedroom and her "private" bathroom are two-way and Harry is able to spy on her. In fact, he secretly takes photos of his guest while she showers.

Meanwhile, Lep and the gang are finally able to get their car out of the ditch. Determined to find Diane and Harry, the four begin searching through the tiny town. When a park ranger (Denver Mattson) tries to stop them from entering a campground...they grab his arm and drag him along, severely injuring the man. A police officer (Richard Donat) arrives and takes a report from a couple that witnessed the incident

Harry shows Diane around his estate and she nearly falls into a bog that's ten to fifteen feet deep. They decide to take a ride in Harry's speedboat - but first, Diane fixes the carburetor and impresses Harry once again with her mechanic skills.

Relaxing in the middle of the lake, Harry asks Diane if she's ever posed in the nude and then comes on to her. She refuses to kiss him, insisting that they go back to the house to await the other "guests."

They drive past the gas station - and Lep and his friends see Harry's car. Under the guise of getting their tank filled, the hooligans try to get information from Spragg and Ralph. The two attendants, intoxicated from the vodka Harry gave them, reveal that the good doctor has brought a different woman to his estate every weekend this summer. They also give directions to the estate, much to Lep's pleasant surprise.

Harry's been drinking himself and his advances on Diane go nowhere. He admits that no other guests are expected. Diane is beside herself and tells him, "I don't pose in the nude, I don't sleep with men I've just met and especially with men I don't like."

When she adds that it isn't going to work and she wants to go home, Harry tells her to walk herself back to the nearest bus depot.

Upset and hurt at this shabby treatment, Diane packs her bags and prepares to leave. But she senses that something is not quite right. She tries to find Harry, who is out by the boathouse. As she searches the home, Lep grabs her and covers her mouth as he fondles her breasts.

Harry returns to the house to find unwanted company in his living room. Lep demands to know why his car was driven off the road and Harry tells him it was just an accident. That's not enough for the thugs - who are pissed about the damage to their vehicle.

Harry whips out his wallet and offers to pay them off...but Stanley and Frankie only scoff at him. Lep walks over and snatches the doctor's money.

The group begin to humiliate Harry by ridiculing his profession. Stanley even plants one firmly on his kisser. "When are all of you gonna stop this!" Diane screams. Lep breaks an expensive flowerpo after noticing the pricey items around the house...and then invites himself and his gang to spend the weekend.

Diane tries a tactic. Ignoring Lep, she asks Stanley, Frankie and Runt, "what are you, a bunch of ASSHOLES? That you listen and do everything he tells you to do?" It doesn't work. Lep orders Harry to pour drinks for everyone.

Spragg, feeling guilty that he and Ralph directed the strangers to Harry and Diane, calls the house but gets no answer.

Against Harry's wishes, Frankie and Stanley take his speedboat for a joy ride. Meanwhile, Ralph and Spragg (intoxicated) head out to the house by the lake via rowboat - after unsuccessfully trying to get their car going.

Frankie, at the wheel of Harry's boat, harasses them by circling around the two older men until they both fall into the water. A police officer who later arrives at the gas station finds it abandoned.

Harry tells Diane there's a gun in the house while Lep comes up with a fun "game." He wants Harry to chase Diane and then rape her while the group watches. Harry refuses and gets into a tussle with Lep. However, he's no match for the group and he ends up getting beaten by Frankie, Stanley and Runt.

Diane tries to make a run for it. She wanders through the grounds and hides in a nearby abandoned cabin. Lep finds her and forces himself upon her. Diane stops struggling and smacks him when he's caught off guard. He reciprocates by hitting her repeatedly and then takes her back to the house.

Night falls and Harry's humiliation continues when Frankie finds some pornographic photos of his. Runt has been drinking non-stop and throws up in the living room.

"Why don't you stop? C'mon, I've given you money...what do you want!" Harry exclaims in frustration. That really sets Lep and his friends off and they start destroying Harry's record collection and just about everything else in the house. Glasses and frames are broken, the refrigerator is overturned, the toilet in the bathroom is smashed, etc.

Harry makes it upstairs to get his shotgun but Lep manages to grab it away from him. The playboy dentist is then told to run for his life. As Diane watches in horror, Harry is hunted down before Lep shoots him to death just outside the house.

When Lep comes back inside, he hands Diane over to Runt so he can "screw her." Runt takes her up to one of the bedrooms where he makes her put on makeup and cuts the back of her neck with a blade.

While Stanley and Frankie try to listen from the other end of the door, Diane gets into the bed with Runt, hiding a shard of broken glass. As he's on top of her...she jabs the glass into his neck and slits his throat, before climbing out the window. She gets to the boathouse and hides.

Frankie and Stanley realize there's something wrong when they see Runt's blood flowing from underneath the door. They knock the door down and find their friend's body.

Lep and the boys search for Diane, who comes up with a plan...she douses the boathouse with gasoline and sets a boobytrap. As she waits outside, Frankie enters and Diane tosses a flare towards the boathouse. The place turns into an inferno and Frankie desperately runs back out in flames.

Stanley goes after Diane with a knife. He catches up to her but she breaks free and leads him towards the bog. He falls in and begs Diane to help him. Instead, she pushes his head under and drowns him.

It's now morning and Diane sees a station wagon nearby. She crawls over to it and when she opens the door, Harry's body falls out. With no place else to go, she gets inside the car.

Lep appears and begins shooting at the vehicle. Diane crouches down in the front seat and tries to hotwire it. She's successful and gets it moving...pressing on the gas pedal with her hand.

Lep continues to fire directly at her. When he runs out of ammunition, he leaps on top of the car. With Diane driving and trying to shake him off (and Harry's body near her feet) Lep tries to grab at her through one of the windows. He finally falls off and picks up a huge log, which he tosses through the windshield. Diane quickly steps on the gas and runs him over.

She drives and drives until she brings the car to an abrupt halt...as she thinks about the man she just killed and her weekend of terror.

Death Weekend is a powerful and disturbing film...cleanly directed, fast paced and well acted throughout.

In short, it is a perfectly executed woman's revenge pic. Only a good, solid actress can make this type of story work and Brenda Vaccaro is excellently suited to the task.

Strong, hard willed and smart...she rises to the occasion in dealing with villain Stroud and his cronies - and her triumph is supreme.

Vacarro and Stroud met on the set and became a couple after the shoot. They were an item for several years.

Director William Fruet would go on to direct several genre films, including Funeral Home starring Lesleh Donaldson, the mediocre Spasms in 1983 and Killer Party - which was made in 1984 and released two years later.

Among his television work are episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the Friday the 13th series in the mid to late 80s.

The producer was Ivan Reitman, who would later become a successful director in his own right...specializing in decidedly lighter fare including Ghostbusters, Dave, Legal Eagles, as well as the Bill Murray hits Meatballs and Stripes.

Death Weekend was based on a true story that happened in Canada in the early 1970s. The picture often played on a double bill with The Last House On the Left.

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