On Christmas Day a man rang the doorbell of a house in the suburbs, pushed his way in, and started shooting the occupants with the pistol he was carrying. Come Boxing Day, the District Attorney Anthony Fraser (Michael Biehn) is investigating as the killer is still on the loose, and as he surveys the bloody scene in the house he knows he must seek the death penalty, even though from the facts he is gathering about the case it is clear the murderer is insane. You don't mutilate corpses and drink their blood if you're a well-balanced individual, but Fraser must find a way of ensuring the criminal never strikes again...
Director William Friedkin did not have the best decade in the nineteen-eighties, and Rampage was one of those casualties which joined the ranks of his luckless movies that had started this era with Cruising. This one arrived after his only hit of this ten year stretch, To Live and Die in L.A., and was barely released before legal complications saw to it that American audiences were not to see it till the nineties - it had been largely ignored in Europe five years before. It wasn't because of the quality of the work which scuppered it, though once it became a little more widely distributed it might as well have been, for here was what would happen if your maverick cop goes gunning for wily psycho flick would look like without the maverick cop.
What was more offputting was that Friedkin, who wrote the script, evidently intended this to be taken very seriously indeed, when it was actually one step away from pulp or trash, as only his sober, some would say tedious, approach was the main indication that we were being presented with the argument that the insanity defence in murder trials should be abolished. Rendering this even less appetising, if that were possible, was that it was based on a real case, one of those lurid murder sprees which are thankfully rare, but inspiration for the least pleasing side of the thriller business. Certainly this gained fresh respectability once the crime novel trade really took off, but its origins were not exactly respectable.
Much as Rampage was delivered as a level headed examination which could not resist tipping over into cheap thrills, which allowed its legal concerns to flounder. The psycho was played by Alex McArthur, then best known as Madonna's boyfriend in her Papa Don't Preach video of the year before, and he was undoubtedly committed to portraying the world's least wanted Christmas dinner guest, yet remained too much of a cartoon to be wholly convincing. To add to that unbelievability, his defence team are so set on proving him incapable that they persuade the psychiatric assistance to alter the evidence to show that he was more out of it than he actually was, making any reasonable argument against the death penalty appear crazy and conniving in itself.
Friedkin had obviously seen Michael Mann's Manhunter, for every so often there were arty interludes where, for example, the killer was seen bathing in blood as a tiger prowled in the background, which was ridiculous when essentially this turned out to be a courtroom drama with a social agenda. And that agenda was movies like this didn't need do-gooder D.A.s changing their minds and pursuing executions, but someone like Charles Bronson to produce a great big weapon and start blowing the nasty men away: its sincerity was on crumbling foundations as it invented scenarios where bloodthirsty slaughterers of decent families would be up for release in a matter of four years after they had been convicted, no matter how ghastly their crimes. This was scaremongering pure and simple, no help to a valid discussion, and loading the dice in favour of bringing out the worst in everybody. Gimmicks like a minute of silence in court to contemplate the deaths were no help either. Music by Ennio Morricone.
American writer/director who has struggled throughout his career to escape the legacy of two of his earliest films. Debuted in 1967 with the Sonny & Cher flick Good Times, but it was the gripping French Connection (1971) and phenomenonally popular The Exorcist (1973) that made Friedkin's name and influenced a whole decade of police and horror films. Since then, some of Friedkin's films have been pretty good (Sorcerer, the controversial Cruising, To Live and Die in L.A., Blue Chips, Bug, Killer Joe), but many more (The Guardian, Jade, Rules of Engagement) have shown little of the director's undoubtable talent.