Death Wish (1974)

Be careful what you wish for. Sometimes you may get it. While the Hays Code, which was instituted in 1930, was designed to censor the radical left, its repeal in 1968 did not lead to a new age of socialist realism or risque, but sophisticated romantic comedies. On the contrary, it was the radical right that took advantage of the new opportunity to make films that were both hyper-violent and sexually explicit. From Sam Peckinpah’s pro-rape abomination Straw Dogs to the quasi-fascist Dirty Harry to violent horror films like The Exorcist, nihilistic conservatives hammered away at what remained of the cinematic humanism of John Ford and Preston Sturges.

One of the most representative examples of the new Hollywood fascism was Death Wish, a 1974 film based on the novel by Brian Garfield, and directed by the British Thatcherite Michael Winner. Paul Kersey, Charles Bronson, is a successful Manhattan architect and civil engineer. Like most upper-middle-class Americans in the northeast, he’s mostly apolitical, but more liberal than conservative when pushed to take a position. When a colleague suggests building concentration camps as a way to fight the relentless New York City crime wave, he dismisses him with a shrug of his shoulders. Soon, disaster hits. Joanna, his wife, and Carol, his 20-something daughter, are followed to their apartment from a local D’Agostino’s by a trio of young punks led by a 21-year-old Jeff Goldblum. What follows is 10 minutes of violent, soft-core pornography, where Joanna has her brains bashed is, and Carol is stripped naked and gang-raped. Winner, like most conservatives, has a tabloid sensibility. He wants to have his cake and eat it too, to get off on the images of two women being raped and savagely beaten, and yet paint the three”’freaks” as depraved monsters (which indeed they are) who deserve a quick summary execution (which indeed they do).

That Joanna Kersey’s murderers are white is a clever narrative trick by Michael Winner. The menace to Manhattan’s bourgeoisie, he initially suggests, does not come from blacks or Hispanics, but from the youth culture. Death Wish, like the Exorcist or Dirty Harry, is a straightforward attack on the counterculture of the 1960s. Hippies have turned New York City into a war zone, where going back and forth to the subway or the supermarket is more dangerous than walking point in Vietnam. Paul Kersey goes on a business trip to Arizona, where his client, an open carry ideologue who thinks that no real American should leave the house without packing a hand gun, gives him the present of a 38 caliber revolver. Soon after he returns, the “mild-mannered” Paul Kersey is walking the streets of Manhattan, looking for muggers, which are never in short supply, to gun down in revenge for what happened to his wife.

When applied to Paul Kersey, the term “mild-mannered” should be taken with a grain of salt. Death Wish, like the current generation of Dark Knight films, is a superhero origin story. Charles Bronson may have been 53-years old in 1974, but he also had a cut, weightlifter’s body that would have put men half his age to shame, and a quick draw with a pistol that makes Dirty Harry look like an amateur. Again and again, Kersey manages to gun down would-be muggers in broad daylight, often on the subway, and escape as easily as if he had a cloaking device. Eventually, he comes to the attention of the NYPD, who begin a round the clock surveillance operation of the man the newspapers have dubbed “the Vigilante” and turned into a hero. After the police manage to gather enough evidence to convict Kersey, however, they decide they don’t want him. His murder spree, and by this time he’s more serial killer than crime fighter, has provoked an uprising of the people of New York against the criminals who, up until then, had maintained a reign of terror over their city. Instead of arresting him, they tell him to leave town, to request a transfer to another city. In the final scene we seem him arrive in Chicago, getting ready, no doubt, to begin another killing spree, and setting up the inevitable sequel. In New York, the legend of the vigilante lives on.

So why watch Death Wish?

While Death Wish is a vicious, pornographic, quasi-fascist movie, it’s also well-paced, and crisply written. To view Death Wish 40 years after is release it to realize just how stuck in the post-1960s right-wing backlash American cinema remains. Made for only 3 million dollars, Death Wish says exactly the same thing as the 200 million dollar Dark Knight Rises, and in a far more entertaining manner. To watch Death With is to realize that the 197 million dollar difference between it and Dark Knight Rises is spent, not only telling a story, but on cloaking a story underneath a deluge of hype and high-tech wizardry. Charles Bronson is far more convincing as a “dark avenger” with a subway token and a 38 caliber revolver than Christian Bale is with a million dollar car and a multi-million dollar bat cave. Michael Winner may have been a vicious right-wing supporter of Margaret Thatcher but, unlike Chris Nolan, he makes his intentions clear. If dreams came true, every American movie would look like Grapes of Wrath or Sullivan’s Travels. But if the choice is between honest, in your face fascism, and muddled, poorly-written fascism, I’ll take the former every time. Let’s strip the layers of obfuscation off the current generation of ponderous, hundred million dollar duds, and contemplate their real meaning.

The John List Murders (1971) The Omen (1976)

breeze

Westfield, New Jersey is an upper-middle-class, predominantly white town about 25 miles outside of Manhattan. People move there from all over the United States, mainly for two reasons. The public school system regularly sends its graduates to the Ivy League. The town also has the biggest collection of colonial revival houses in the area, block after block of beautiful old mansions built at the beginning of the 20th Century. One of Westfield’s grandest colonial revivals used to be located at 431 Hillside Avenue.

Over 5000 square feet, it had 18 rooms, and a name, “Breeze Knoll.” I’ve ridden my bike past the site of Breeze Knoll many times. Hillside Avenue is “hidden in plain sight,” a gated community gated only by its cleverly laid out obscurity. A few blocks in one direction is bustling (and now fairly multicultural) downtown Westfield. A few blocks in the other is seedy, dangerous Route 22. But all around the site of the now destroyed Breeze Knoll are block after block of five and six bedroom homes. Built by Wall Street money, and maintained by the same financial industry that gave us the sub-prime crisis, it looks like a tightly packed mass of James River plantation houses.

John List was a mousy little German American accountant from Bay City Michigan when he bought Breeze Knoll in 1965. He was living far above his means. The house was never completely furnished. He didn’t socialize with his neighbors. The only reason they remembered him at all was the way he used to mow his front lawn in a suit and tie. By 1971, he was deeply in debt, skimming off his mother’s bank accounts, whom he moved into the attic of Breeze Knoll shortly after he purchased it, and even behind on his utility bills. His wife was suffering from tertiary syphilis and going mad. Then he lost his job.

List, a devout Lutheran who worshipped at the Redeemer Missouri Synod Lutheran Church in Westfield, couldn’t face his wife or his mother. He also couldn’t face the idea that his three children, one of whom was the 16-year-old Patricia, would end up living in poverty, or on welfare. Patricia, as was typical for teenage girls in 1971, had a rebellious streak. She was a theater nerd who liked to hang out late with her friends (downtown Westfield is still a well-known gathering place for teenage kids from all the surrounding towns), and probably smoke marijuana. List became convinced she was coming under the influence of the devil.

Every day for most of that Fall, List would walk up to the Westfield train station, and hang out there until it was time to “come home from work.” On November 9th of 1971, after weeks of careful planning, he shot his wife and mother in the back of the head with a 9mm handgun, then Patricia and her 13-year-old brother Frederick when they came home from school. He dragged all four bodies into Breeze Knoll’s grand ballroom, laid them out in sleeping bags, and ate lunch. It must have been a relief not to have to explain to his wife or to his mother why he was home early. I bet that food tasted good. While he was eating, he wrote a 5-page letter to his Lutheran pastor, explaining what he had done. List, being a devout Christian, couldn’t commit suicide. What’s more, he explained how he expected to meet his family in heaven after he died. He seems to have believed sincerely that he was saving their souls by taking them out of the Godless evil of secular America in the 1970s. He went to the bank, closed his account, drew out all his mother’s money, and closed hers, then went to pick up his eldest son from soccer practice. John Jr., who was 15, must have put up quite a fight. There was no clean shot to the back of the head for him. Instead, his father shot him 8 times in the chest and face, then dragged him into the ballroom with his mother, grandmother, brother and sister.

John List disappeared for almost two decades. So carefully did he plan the murders of his family that none of his neighbors even suspected anything was wrong for a month. He parked his car at Kennedy Airport to throw the police off his trail. He had already stopped his milk, newspaper, and mail deliveries. He had written his children’s schools and part time employers informing them that he was taking his family to visit relatives in North Carolina. He had left lights on at Breeze Knoll to fool his neighbors into thinking he was at home. Finally, a month later, people began to notice that something was a little suspicious. The lights were burning out one by one. A neighbor called the Westfield police, who went to investigate, then found the macabre scene in the ballroom. In 1990, the cops finally arrested John List. He was extradited to Union County from Richmond Virginia, and spent the rest of his miserable life in Rahway Prison, ending up, at long last, in the part of the state that Westfield native John Steinfeld, in his satirical map of New Jersey, describes as being populated by “Russians, Pollacks, and Toxic Fumes.”

Breeze Knoll “mysteriously” burned down a few months after List killed his family in 1971. My guess would be that the town government burned down the house to prevent it from becoming a tourist trap. After all, those rich WASPs in Westfield probably didn’t want to be reminded that one of their own had been a mass murderer. I grew up in neighboring, working-class Roselle, more African American than Polish or Russian, but not a place where John List would have wanted any of his children spending much time. After all, the eastern part of Union County, New Jersey is “dangerous.” But I’ve known Westfield very well, ever since I was a child. I went to a Lutheran Church in neighboring Cranford. My mother’s family, like John List, were German American Lutherans. Westfield, along with Route 22, is the main retail center of central Union County. It has lots of shops and restaurants. Most importantly of all, it used to have two first run movie theaters, once of which, the Rialto, was ridiculously easy to sneak into for free. For Kung Fu movies, you had to go to Plainfield or Newark, and you had to pay. But for first run, mainstream Hollywood films, The Rialto in downtown Westfield was the Pirate Bay of the 1980s. It’s where I saw Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Arc, a brilliant Australian war movie called Breaker Morant, My Brilliant Career, Tess, the arty film by child molester Roman Polanski, all the Monty Python films, Reds, Ordinary People, Chariots of Fire, and Raging Bull. In fact, I think it’s pretty safe to say that if it hadn’t been for downtown Westfield and the Rialto, this blog wouldn’t exist.

omen

The program at the Rialto in 1976 was a bit before my time, but I’m pretty confident that they showed Richard Donner’s horror film The Omen, in spite of what had happened a few blocks away. More than any other horror film, it’s always haunted my memories. It scared me to death when I saw it on HBO in the late 1970s. Later, when I saw The Omen on TV in my college dorm, it seemed a bit ridiculous, but the damage had been done. For a long time, I was afraid of churches, seeing the words “Satan,” or the number “666” in print, and the dark. Indeed, now that I’m a sophisticated 50-year-old instead of a coarse 20-year-old, it disturbs me even more, if only because I finally understand why it scared me so much as a child. The Omen is a mainstream, Hollywood film that turns John List into a hero.

I suppose most people are familiar with the plot. Richard Thorn, Gregory Peck and his rich baritone voice, is a fabulously wealthy American living in Rome with his wife Cathy, played by Lee Remnick. The film opens in a hospital where Cathy has given birth to a stillborn child (who we later find out was murdered). Part of what makes The Omen so effective is the way it somehow manages to be both a classic, anti-Catholic, anti-Italian conspiracy tale, and yet serve as right-wing, fundamentalist, Catholic propaganda. A priest and a nun both convince Richard Thorn to adopt another child, to pass it off to his wife as her own. He agrees. Cathy is emotionally fragile. Losing a baby might kill her. The priest, Father Spiletto, is right out of nativist propaganda from the 19th Century, the suave Catholic villain from central casting, but Richard Thorn doesn’t see it. Cathy somehow can’t recognize that she’s been presented with a changeling.

Shortly after Richard and Cathy Thorn adopt Damien, Richard is appointed Ambassador to the Court of Saint James by the President, who was his roommate in college. They’re both thrilled. Not only do they have a new son, but Richard’s political career is back on the fast track. It’s a little unclear what he was doing in Rome other than getting duped by mysterious Catholic priests, but they quickly relocate to a mansion in London which, to my architecturally untrained eye, looks just a bit like Breeze Knoll. In any event, it’s a big, scary, partially furnished house now occupied by newcomers. Richard Thorn is the Ambassador to the United Kingdom, but, like John List, he doesn’t seem to do much socializing. They do, in fact, throw a birthday party for little Damien when he turns 5 years old, but it doesn’t end well. A large, ferocious looking Rottweiller lurks on the edge of the estate’s  grounds. Then little Damien’s nanny hangs herself in full view of all the little children. It’s still shocking.

Why Damien’s nanny hanged herself will eventually become clear when we meet Mrs. Baylock, a very scary Billie Whitelaw, who forces herself on the Thorn family. The Thorns’ apparent naiveté about hiring nannies is explained away when Mrs. Bylock tells them that “the agency” sent her. You might think that the Thorns would be a bit more thorough about screening nannies after what happened to the first one. In any event, Mrs. Bylock and the Rottweiler are minions of Satan who have been sent by hell to protect Damien, the son of the devil, and the anti-Christ.

Mysterious Italian priests and sinister domestic help? Check off two primal fears of the WASP, ruling class. But there’s more to come. The very public suicide of the nanny of the American Ambassador to the Court of St. James in front of an entire birthday party full of angelic, blond, ruling-class children is quite obviously big news. Richard Thorn arrives at work the next day to a gaggle of newspapermen and paparazzi, one of whom is named Keith Jennings, David Warner as a somewhat less swinging London photographer than David Hemmings was in Antonioni’s Blowup, but who will soon play a very similar role. As he develops his photos in his darkroom, he begins to notice signs of foul play, even murder.

Thorn is confronted by another priest, Father Brennan. Confess your sins, he says, “drink the blood of Christ, eat his flesh. It’s your only protection.” He knows about how the two little boys were switched in Rome. He knows Damien’s the son of the devil, the anti-Christ who intends to murder Richard Thorn, Cathy Thorn, and anybody who comes between him and the “Thorn millions.” Brennan, on first appearances, is such an obvious maniac that Thorn has the police escort him out of the embassy. But appearances can be deceiving. Father Brennan, like the voices inside of John List’s head, may be telling Ambassador Thorn to kill one of his children, but he’s right. Damien is the anti-Christ. If John List killed his daughter Patricia to save her soul, to prevent her from smoking pot, listening to loud music, and having sex, the stakes for Ambassador Thorn are higher. Letting Damien live will mean death and destruction for millions.

Father Brennan demands another meeting. Thorn agrees to see him in Bishop’s Park in London, where the priest tells him that Cathy is pregnant, and that the devil will kill her child. He’s right. Not only is Cathy pregnant – How could Father Brennan have known? – she wants to have an abortion. If John List considered himself a Christian hero for killing his children before secular American corrupted their souls, Richard Thorn becomes a genuine, Christian, conservative hero. Cathy’s unborn child is an obstacle to the devil’s reign on earth. Preventing her from having an abortion will save humanity. He fails. Mrs. Baylock, whom we’re continually amazed hasn’t been fired, arranges for Damien to run into Cathy Thorn while she’s standing on a stepladder overlooking the balcony at their estate. She falls 20 feet and has a miscarriage.

Jennings contacts Richard Thorn. For the past several weeks, he’s been taking his photo, stalking the American ambassador through the streets of London. He’s taken several photos of Father Brennan, all of which have a thick, black line going through Brennan’s neck, getting more and more pronounced as time goes on. The next morning, Thorn sees the front page of a tabloid. Father Brennan is dead. After their meeting, the devil had whipped up a storm and pursued Brennan through Bishop’s Park. Brennan is impaled him with a metal flagpole. Jennings’ photographs had clearly predicted the future. What’s more, Jennings also predicts his own death. When he photographed the dead Father Brennan’s apartment, which is lined with Bible pages to keep out the devil, he accidentally photographed himself in the mirror. The negative has a thick line through his neck. He will be beheaded. He wants to get to the bottom of the mystery before he dies.

Thorn can no longer deny the obvious, his five-year-old son is the son of the devil. Like John List, he’s convinced that the voices in his head telling him to kill his children are telling him to do the work of God. Richard Thorn and Keith Jennings become a team. They go to a monastery in Italy and track down Father Spiletto, who gives them the name of a cemetery north of Rome. Thorn and Jennings find the grave of Cathy’s real son. His skull was bashed in. He wasn’t a miscarriage. He was murdered. They find the bones of Damien’s real mother, a jackal. They also get attacked by a pack of vicious Rottweillers, who greatly resemble the Rottweiller who was hanging around the grounds of the American ambassador’s estate in London. They travel to Jerusalem, where they meet up with an archaeologist/exorcist, who tells Thorn what he must do. To kill the anti-Christ, he has to drag Damien to the alter of a church, and kill him with a series of knives, placed in the shape of a cross. Thorn has now become Abraham and Damien a satanic Issac. Jennings, not incidentally, is beheaded. Back in London, Mrs. Baylock finishes off Cathy by pushing her out the window of her hospital room.

After recently viewing the last 30 minutes of The Omen, I found them more shocking than I remembered. The film has put us into the head of John List. If Thorn doesn’t kill Damien, he will grow up into a man, inherit the Thorn millions, and appoint himself dictator of the European Union. It’s up to the family annihilator to save us all from the devil. Thorn goes back to the estate to grab Damien and bring him to a church. He’s attacked, first by the Rottweiller, who he locks up in the basement, and then by Mrs. Baylock. Mrs. Baylock may not fight like the devil, but she’s vicious enough. Thorn overpowers her, but not before she puts up a gigantic struggle. We are rooting for a deranged man against a woman fighting bravely to protect the life of a 5-year-old boy. But he fails. Thorn gets Damien to the Church, but he’s shot by the police before he can kill the little boy at the alter. Damien is adopted by Richard Thorn’s old college roommate, the President of the United States.

If this film traumatized me as a child, then it’s probably because I was rooting for Ambassador Thorn right along with everybody else. I was convinced that a 5-year-old was the devil, and that he had to die. I had internalized the same voices John List had. I was rooting for my own destruction. There was something in the air in the 1970s. Conservative, Christian America was starting to punch back against the counter culture. I very clearly remember my father, no conservative or Christian but definitely someone who hated hippies and the counter culture, telling me that if he ever caught me smoking pot, he’d murder me. It was for my own good, obviously. The Omen, along with the Exorcist, had revived the Puritan idea that children, far from being innocent, were in fact the limbs of Satan. The 1970s were not a good time to be a little boy. All over America, people were cracking down on all the spoiled little minions of the devil. The 1980s, in turn, were not a good time to be a teenager, as a flood of slasher films — girls who had sex always died and the virgin always lived — continued the right-wing onslaught against the counter culture and the sexual revolution.