You can almost smell the stench of the seedy downtown streets of early 80’s Los Angeles in ‘Vice Squad’ - an exploitation crime thriller so steeped in the city’s gutters I feel the need to have an obsessive thorough wash when it is all over. Aside from Martin Scorsese’s seminal masterpiece ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976), I cannot think of another film that has so perfectly depicted the low living of society’s unsavoury kind. Case in point Scorsese himself is a massive fan of the movie so much so that he championed it as a best picture Oscar contender. This lead to a huge disagreement with legendary Hollywood mogul the late Dawn Steel at a dinner function when the director accused the academy of not having the guts to nominate it. This was due to the film’s hard subject matter that it so extensively details in a brutally realistic documentation of the workings of a LAPD vice squad with the events based on real life cases.
Sadistic psychotic pimp Ramrod (Wings Hauser) tortures one of his girls Ginger (Nina Blackwood) beating her and mutilating her vagina with a pimp stick (a wire coat hanger bent out straight and then folded over itself). When she dies soon after in hospital her friend Princess (Season Hubley) a down on her luck businesswoman turned prostitute to help support her daughter is forced by a vice squad detective Tom Walsh (Gary Swanson) who has an intense hatred for Ramrod to help them capture the vicious murdering scumbag. He threatens her with false drug charges and knows she has too much to lose knowing her situation. However, Princess’ life is put into extreme danger when the crazed loony escapes and is hell bent on revenge on her for setting him up. In a race against time, Walsh and his team struggle to keep Princess safe as they try to get to her before Ramrod.
The opening title sequence consists of a montage of shots displaying the nocturnal activities on the streets of Hollywood in a documentary style. There are the prostitutes, the pimps, the patrolling police, the johns pulled over in negations with the ladies of the night for a short time of pleasure, the junkies, the weirdoes, the busy pavements where tramps are sleeping and there are the arrests. All these types of people make up the cast of characters over the course of the movie. Suitably supplementing this is the trashy hard rock theme song ‘Neon slime’ performed by Hauser himself with his hoarse voice bellowing out over perpetual cutting guitar riffs and a grinding beat from the rhythm section - “You see I’m the survivor and I know how it feels to part of the night-time where everything is real, the music/the violence/ the sex/the sweet smell, I’m a stone cold believer in the pleasures of hell.”
As well as all this introducing us to the setting, it also establishes the sleazy atmospheric mood of the film and the scuzzy look is so effectively brought to the screen by the cinematography of John Alcott. Alcott was Stanley Kubrick’s favourite director of photography and won an Oscar for his work on Kubrick’s ‘Barry London’ (1975). His other two collaborations with the great filmmaker are ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971) and ‘The Shining’ (1980) and he worked on the severely underrated slasher horror ‘Terror Train’ (1980).
Speaking of underrated horrors, the tight direction here is provided by one of the genre’s true unsung heroes. Gary Sherman was also responsible for the criminally overlooked gems Raw Meat (1973) and ‘Dead and Buried’ (1981). With its premise, ‘Vice Squad’ could have easily descended into over the top campiness but Sherman keeps the whole affair grounded in gritty realism. The movie exists as a capsule in time that so convincingly documents the crime-ridden streets of Los Angeles in that period. The story is of course fiction but so well researched it comes across as more of docudrama rather than just a piece of exploitative entertainment. For his role as detective Tom Walsh, Swanson spent ten weeks going into the backgrounds of vice squad officers and Hubley researched her role as Princess by going out at nights to the locations that prostitutes worked to familiarize herself with their way of life.
Apart from the based on fact pimp stick that Ramrod uses on the poor ill-fated Ginger, the screenplay purposely takes routes into sub-plots to explicitly show us the cruel harsh down and dirty world that these characters live in while Princess is unaware of the danger that Ramrod has escaped and is after her. For example, after being approached by a randy conventioneer Princess takes her latest client to a room. Unsatisfied with her stiff performance the customer takes his money back out of Princess’ purse while she is in the shower. Catching him at it when she comes out of the bathroom, she confronts him but he pins her done on the bed and after she threatens him with her imaginary pimp (she is in fact an outlaw working girl) he mocks her by kissing her. As he leaves, Princess throws one of her shoes at him cursing him wishing him dead and he just turns around and laughs at her before shutting the door. This is a hard-hitting sad but true slice of life presented here. Princess is also shown taking part in the bizarre none straight sex acts that the freaks indulge in. Although there is little in the way of graphic nudity, sex and violence to be seen on screen in particular scenes - with restrained visual intension the acts of which are there but are more implied off camera and shown in the aftermath - there is more than enough of it sprinkled throughout to put emphasis on that sleazy atmosphere.
The three leads give strong performances all round and what with the exceptionally written street dialogue, it all heightens this bleak reality. In a bravely bold turn, Season Shelby as Princess is immensely likable her character a tragic figure but with the strength to fight drawing our empathic reactions to her plight. Gary Swanson is also excellent as the hardnosed yet caring Walsh who genuinely looks out for these girls and makes for a perfect nemesis to Ramrod who is the yin to his yang. The psycho pimp represents everything that detective Walsh is fighting against and it is Wings Hauser in this role that really steals the show here portraying one of the great underrated screen villains of all time. He spits out with sheer venom nastily unpleasant dialogue with frightening conviction and his violent actions are even more terrifying. He is an arrogant ferocious force of rage that rips through the film never letting up and thankfully, Hauser is never tempted to ham it up and remains a truly scary presence throughout right up until the nerve shredding face-off between Ramrod and Walsh in a blistering and frantic car chase.
‘Vice Squad’ works as an entertaining piece of sleazetastic exploitation incorporating an energetic hardboiled action thriller but Gary Sherman and his cast treat it all with a serious approach to the material giving it an honest emotional lending and along with a thoroughly well researched script, it all profoundly reflects this murky side of life with shockingly powerful results.
*** out of ****
Dave J. Wilson
©2012 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.