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VHS MOVIE REVIEW : HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK (1980/1984)
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Now here’s a premise that, depending on your perspective, is either a sure-fire ticket seller or the ultimate cue to run screaming in the opposite direction: Ruggero Deodato ripping off— indeed practically remaking— The Last House on the Left. So what happens when you take the director of one of the ghastliest movies of all time and turn him loose on the idea behind what should have been another of the ghastliest movies of all time? Not nearly enough, I’m afraid. House on the Edge of the Park starts strong and builds up steam quickly, but it loses direction about halfway through the second act, and the twist ending makes a mockery of all the movie’s best, most intriguing features.

     We begin with some rapid-fire cross-cutting between two cars and their drivers. One of these is an attractive young blonde woman (Karoline Mardeck); the other is an immensely beafroed white guy whom we will later come to know as Alex (Swamp Thing’s David Hess). Since Hess is also the man who played Krug Stillo in The Last House on the Left, it’s probably safe to say that Alex is Trouble. The question of why Deodato keeps switching between him and the girl is answered when the latter pulls her car to a stop only to have Alex park right beside her, lean in through her passenger-side window, and start saying creepy things about how they saw each other at the disco, and how he couldn’t let the night go by without seeking further contact with her. She tries to talk her way past him, but Alex isn’t about to let that happen. What starts as implicitly coerced sex in the back seat of her car quickly escalates to Alex strangle-fucking the object of his affections until she’s dead, and then leaving her there by the curb while he makes his escape.

     This won’t become apparent until literally the last ten minutes of the film, but a considerable stretch of time goes by between that scene and the next one. Again we’re with Alex, as he and his mildly retarded friend and coworker, Ricky (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, from Cannibal Apocalypse and The Sect), begin shutting down the Manhattan auto repair garage where they earn their living. The two men evidently plan on having a big night out on the town, but their preparations are derailed by the arrival of Tom (Christian Borromeo, of Unsane and The Pleasure Shop on 7th Avenue) and Lisa (Annie Belle, from Fly Me the French Way and Monster Hunter). Tom explains that he and his apparent girlfriend were on their way to a party out in the suburbs when something went wrong with their car. It’s too close to quitting time for Alex to have any interest in them or their business, and the $40 Tom waves in his face doesn’t initially sway him, but something changes when Alex gets a good look at Lisa. He tells Ricky to take a peek under the hood of Tom’s Eldorado, and while Ricky pokes around, Alex pumps Lisa for information about this party she’s supposed to be attending. By the time Ricky has isolated and corrected the problem with the car (just a loose lead on the alternator), Alex has finagled an invite to the party out of Tom and Lisa— one which is then somewhat grudgingly extended to Ricky as well. It surely does not bode well for anybody when Alex rushes back into the garage, ostensibly for his keys, but fishes a straight razor out of his locker instead.

     The owners of the party house are named Howard (Gabriele di Giulio) and Gloria (Lorraine De Selle, from Make Them Die Slowly and SS Extermination Camp); apart from Tom and Lisa, the only other invited guest is a stunning black girl with a razor-shaved head, by the name of Glenda (Marie Claude Joseph, who unfortunately seems not to have had any other acting gigs). Howard is noticeably not happy to see his friends show up accompanied by a couple of hoody downtown grease-monkeys, but the women seem willing to give Alex and Ricky a chance— especially once they see what a one-man disco inferno Ricky is. Ricky is thrilled to have the attention, but Alex sees things a little bit differently. In fact, he is of the opinion that his well-heeled hosts are amusing themselves with an impromptu game of Taunt the Tard, and he finds the spectacle so offensive that he actually interrupts his flirting with Lisa to go break up the scene and try to convince his friend that he’s being made fun of. Ricky never seems to quite get the hint, but he does at least put his shirt back on and quit Travolting around the living room.

     With that taken care of, Alex returns to his efforts to get into Lisa’s pants. While she cock-teases him from one end of the house to the other (a process which carries the two participants through seemingly every room in the house before climaxing, naturally, in the shower), Ricky gets himself into more trouble downstairs. Howard, Tom, and the remaining two women invite him to join them in a poker game, and proceed to take him for every penny he has. Alex witnesses the final round of Ricky’s fleecing, and he comes to the conclusion that his friend’s opponents are cheating like crazy. That’s when Alex decides the time has come to reset the party on a completely different footing. He openly accuses his hosts of playing with a marked deck, and when Howard gets up to defend his honor by force, Alex slaps the other man silly and pulls out his razorblade. For the rest of the running time, Alex terrorizes Tom, Lisa, Howard, Gloria, and Glenda— the women especially— in ever more imaginative ways (or at any rate, ways that were ever more imaginative when Wes Craven used most of them back in 1972), culminating in a brutal attack on a girl named Cindy (Emanuelle Around the World’s Brigitte Petronio), a much younger friend of the others who picks the worst possible time to drop in unannounced. Meanwhile, Alex also encourages the visibly hesitant Ricky to join in the festivities, but succeeds only in convincing the half-wit that this sort of thing really isn’t for him. When Ricky tries to talk Alex down after a very strange moment alone with Gloria, his “friend” turns on him and slashes him deeply from hip to collarbone with his razor, and in all the commotion, Tom sneaks into the next room to grab Howard’s .45. The ensuing confrontation between him and Alex goes about the same way as most gun-vs.-straight razor showdowns, but Tom isn’t content simply to blow Alex’s brains out and be done with it. No, he demonstrates a hitherto unsuspected skill at inflicting non-lethal injuries, together with an appreciation for torture at least the equal of his foe’s. And under the circumstances, perhaps we should expect nothing less. You see, while Tom is amusing himself by shooting little pieces off of Alex, he reveals that the girl we saw killed in the opening scene was in fact his sister. The whole thing— the alternator trouble, the “reluctant” invitation to the party, the incitement to violence, all of it— was an almost suicidally risky revenge setup right from the start.

     Yeah, I know. I just ruined the surprise. But seeing as the surprise ruins the movie, I can’t really say I give a fuck. Up until that final scene stands the whole story on its head, House on the Edge of the Park draws considerable strength from the way Deodato and screenwriters Gianfranco Clerici and Vincenzo Mannino mess constantly with the audience’s heads. It’s a real challenge to assign one’s loyalties among the characters here; apart from Cindy the unsuspecting victim, there is no one whose role in the story can be considered clear-cut. It’s true even of Alex. We know from the very beginning that he’s a psycho, and destined to be the movie’s main villain. We also figure out very quickly that his friendship with Ricky is conditional upon the latter man staying in his place as the unquestioning subordinate partner. But at the same time, his protectiveness toward Ricky, and his anger at the prospect of seeing him taken advantage of, is very much the real thing. Alex is a monster, but he isn’t unredeemedly evil, and there are times when either Deodato’s direction or the performances of the various cast-members put us momentarily on his side. The dominant impression given by Christian Borromeo and Gabriele di Giulio as Tom and Howard, meanwhile, is one of effete smarminess, but because both of them get so horribly worked over by Alex, you have to feel bad for them anyway— we might want to see them taken down a peg from the moment we lay eyes on them, but they sure as hell don’t deserve this! Lisa is probably the most ambiguous character of all. She’s the main focus of Alex’s attention, and she’s the one he actually rapes, but the thing is… Okay. I don’t want to say she asks for it, because that really isn’t the sort of thing anybody asks for, but short of actually coming up to a guy and saying, “Hey— I was wondering if maybe you’d mind raping me tonight,” a woman couldn’t come much closer to asking for it than this. At every turn, Lisa goes out of her way to suggest to Alex that she would be available to him if only he were forceful enough, and to imply that she is sick to death of Tom’s lack of exactly the sort of retrograde ruggedness that Alex has in spades. She also all but laughs in Alex’s face every time she has him convinced that she’s ready to let him have her, and nowhere is this more glaring than the shower scene, in which she explicitly invites him to join her, and then walks out on him the moment he does. Lisa is playing a dangerous game, and she obviously knows it. What’s more, she equally obviously doesn’t care that Tom knows it, too. Then there’s the exceedingly bizarre dynamic that develops between Ricky and Gloria. Ricky fixates on Gloria just as Alex zeroes in on Lisa, but Ricky simply isn’t equipped to be a predator. He’s ecstatic at first when Alex tells him that he can do whatever he wants to Gloria, but once he gets her up on top of the table in the foyer, it dawns on him that she’s frightened. There apparently isn’t quite room for the concept of rape in Ricky’s diminutive brain, but he knows there’s something wrong with the situation, and he doesn’t like it. It works both ways, too, as Gloria is the only one of the party crowd who has enough respect for Ricky’s humanity to be made uncomfortable by her friends’ treatment of him— notice that Gloria takes part only in the first hand of the rigged poker game. When the two of them do eventually have sex in the greenhouse after her unsuccessful escape attempt, it certainly isn’t a consensual coupling, but it can’t quite be rape, either, because Gloria makes the first move, while Ricky seems actually to be afraid of her. There’s neither a word nor a generally accepted concept that corresponds to what’s happening, and it’s a very unpleasant and deeply troubling scene.

     All of those uncomfortably problematic features vanish into thin air the moment we find out that Tom was plotting from the outset to snare Alex. It no longer matters that the good guys spend the first act being ostentatiously shitty to Alex and Ricky for no apparent reason, because we now know that they had the best reason imaginable. There’s no longer any cause to care about the imperious manner in which Lisa plays Alex and Tom off against each other, because we now know that it was all just an act put on for Alex’s benefit. The most disturbing scene in the whole film has been rendered both totally meaningless and completely inexplicable— Gloria’s desperate bid to buy her friends’ release by having sex with Ricky no longer has any intelligible motivation or any logical function in the plot. Even the brilliantly crafted opening rape-murder loses most of its power in retrospect; what we thought was a suspense-generator, giving the audience crucial information which the protagonists don’t possess, is converted into a well-staged but hackneyed justification for revenge.

     Indeed, the only good points about House on the Edge of the Park that survive the twist ending are Cindy’s harrowing plight as an innocent bystander who blunders into a horrible situation and proceeds to get the absolute worst of it, and Ricky’s fascinatingly counterintuitive status as the movie’s most sympathetic character. Actually, Cindy’s fate becomes even more dreadful, in that the twist makes her a collateral casualty of her friends’ vendetta as well as Alex’s psychopathic rampage. As for Ricky, what makes him so compelling (and what the concluding inversion thankfully can’t take away from him) is that his villainy simultaneously is and is not his fault. On the one hand, he willingly tags along with Alex, and joins in enthusiastically when his friend turns the tables on their hosts. But on the other, Ricky is only marginally capable of understanding what he’s gotten himself into. Not knowing any better, he trusts Alex to steer him in the right direction, and that misplaced trust gets him killed after making him an accessory to a monstrous sex crime. Meanwhile, Giovanni Lombardo Radice’s performance is almost certainly the best of his career in horror movies. I’ve read a number of interviews with Radice, and he routinely conveys the impression that he considers the horror films he made in the early 80’s to have been beneath him. After seeing him in House on the Edge of the Park, I’m much more willing to take that attitude as something more than simple condescension; once the story has finished pissing all over itself, he’s easily the best and most memorable thing here. And when I tell you something is more memorable than an Annie Belle shower scene, you know I’m not kidding around.

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