With its origins in the early seventies, the revenge film has consistently been one of the most controversial genres in the horror world. Not only do these films feature extreme graphic violence, but they often include misogynistic scenes of rape and dismemberment that are not intended for the faint of heart. Revenge films are frightening in a different way than typical horror films; they don’t include supernatural creatures or mythical monsters, instead opting to use human antagonists that are every bit as evil, but bring a sense of realism to the story. In 1976, Ivan Reitman (yes, that Ivan Reitman, the man who also brought the world Ghostbusters and Animal House) produced a nasty little Canadian film called Death Weekend that remains one of the forgotten gems of the revenge film subgenre.
Death Weekend starts with a young woman named Diane (Midnight Cowboy’s Brenda Vaccaro) driving with an oral surgeon named Harry (Chuck Shamata from The Day After Tomorrow) to his lake house for a romantic weekend getaway. On the way, they run into a group of hooligans led by the unsavory Lep (The Amityville Horror’s Don Stroud) who try to run them off the road. Diane and Harry escape from the thugs and make it to the house where they soon get into an argument and discover that there is no chemistry between them. However, before they can cut their weekend short, Lep and his gang find their way to the house, force their way in and terrorize the couple. After surviving being beaten, imprisoned and raped, Diane summons her inner strength. The hunters become the hunted as, one by one, Diane takes her revenge on the bloodthirsty punks.
Released in America under the much more innocent yet subliminally provocative title The House by the Lake, Death Weekend was written and directed by Canadian director William Fruet (who would go on to a fruitful career in horror television, working on series like “Friday the 13th” and “Poltergeist: The Legacy”) and, being made and released in the gap between Wes Craven’s infamous The Last House on the Left and Meir Zarchi’s notorious I Spit on Your Grave, seems like it would hold an essential place in revenge film history. However, most likely due to the lack of a DVD release, Death Weekend is often overlooked by horror fans and cinema buffs alike, relegated to a spot on the dusty shelf of the nearly non-existent VHS rental store.
Not only does Death Weekend wear its influences on its sleeve, but it also has made a lasting impression on films that have been released years after it was made. It lifts obvious plot points from The Last House on the Left and deposits them into I Spit on You Grave, and many of the revenge and murder scenes are reminiscent of those more popular films. The home invasion aspect of the plot is taken right out of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs and is recycled into newer films like The Strangers and Them. The actual rape scene also reminds the viewer of scenes from Straw Dogs and I Spit on Your Grave, although nowhere nearly as graphic (or, in the case of I Spit on Your Grave, nearly as long either). With its similar themes and motifs, Death Weekend is a logical chronological link between The Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave.
Death Weekend fits nicely into the grind house genre in which it is placed, but it is more than just a copycat exploitation film. What sets Death Weekend apart from its contemporaries and the films that it has influenced are the performances of the cast, particularly Brenda Vaccaro and Don Stroud. While it has the same weaknesses in script – the implausible scenarios and unnatural dialogue – as The Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave, it has a more experienced cast that helps keep it grounded and, in effect, takes away some of the campiness that is present in other classic revenge films, making it seem less like exploitation and more like drama. While not quite on par with Dustin Hoffman and Susan George in Straw Dogs, Vaccaro and Stroud are no strangers to the screen, and both can hold their own as both killer and victim. Their uncomfortable chemistry makes the film effective even when the script is not. The result is that Death Weekend has all of the chilling elements of a grind house flick with none of the unintentional humor and cheese.
With unruly gangs of criminals on the loose, it’s a lot of fun to see a few of them get their comeuppance. Revenge movies provide the vicarious thrills of watching a villain get a taste of their own medicine. While the world is full of exploitative violent revenge fantasy films, Death Weekend is worth a trip to the video store to check it out…if a video store can be found.