Thursday, September 8, 2011

Hollywood Video Memories: Uncle Sam (1997)

One of the biggest things that influenced me when it came to choosing what horror movie I would watch next was the box covers. There were two movies in particular that had cover art that immediately grabbed my attention. Uncle Sam and Jack Frost were different than most because they were the only two horror movies that had holographic covers, more specifically I was drawn to Uncle Sam because it had a menacing face of a decaying dead Uncle Sam on the cover. To me, Jack Frost would be saved for another time. At the time, I was about 12 years old and I could hardly care less about what the plot of the movie was. All I cared about were the kills, how much it scared me and whether it lived up to its awesome VHS cover art and from what I remember… I was displeased. To me it was boring and the kills, aside from one, were pretty generic. I thought the mask the “killer” wore was silly looking and I didn’t understand what Kuwait was. The only thing memorable to me was the scene where somebody gets strapped to a wooden display and dies after erupted into a gorgeous array of red, white and blue fireworks. This was my impression of the film for years and until recently I came across it on Netflix and decided to give it another watch.

When I was younger, I always thought the film was about some kind of demonic force that takes the identity of Uncle Sam and I wasn’t that far from what the movie truly is about. Sam Harper, a decorated soldier and Purple Heart winner, was shot down in Kuwait from friendly fire. His young Nephew, Jody (yes, he’s a boy), becomes distraught over his uncle’s death. However, through some mysterious connection between nephew and uncle, Sam is brought back to life on the eve of July 4th. Now, as the entire town celebrates the birth of America, Sam dawns the outfit of Uncle Sam and goes on a killing spree to those who dare disrespect the U.S. of A. But there is more to Sam’s past then just being soldier who enlisted purely for the fun of killing. The only real notable actor in the movie is Isaac Hayes who plays Sam’s former army buddy Jed Crowley and he gives a hammy performance as always. William Lustig, the brain behind Maniac and Maniac Cop, directs this wonderful gem of direct-to-video goodness.

As I already stated, the reason why I didn’t like this movie is because it was slow, boring and drawn out. I didn’t care for any of this “exposition” when I was younger but as I grew older I began to look at things through a different light. Uncle Sam is horror but half of the movie is a drama and the other half is a slasher so it felt lopsided and that’s what turned me away from it in the first place. The first half of the film is a young boy’s struggle to cope with his uncle’s death; an uncle who, in his eyes, set out to accomplish something and died for the good of our country. The second half has that very same uncle rise from his coffin and go on a murderous rampage of draft-dodgers and corrupt politicians. But as I look closer at the first half, it’s not that bad of a story and like myself, this half turned a lot of horror fans away from the movie but I’ve come to accept it. It’s actually a very ominous drama that keeps alluding to Sam’s horrible past but we never know it because we’re meant to see the story through Jody’s eyes.

The movie tackles some pretty interesting topics involving patriotism, what defines and hero and the quandary of war. One of the issues that are brought into the light is the dilemma soldiers have to face in war. Jody’s teacher, a draft-dodger, questioned the reason why we ever got into Vietnam and whether it was right to fight into a war they didn’t believe in. If the U.S. says you must fight for our country despite what you believe in, do you answer the call or do you avoid it? In a very unsettling scene, the movie also asks the question: in war, what defines a hero? Jeb (Isaac Hayes) believes there are no heroes in war, only people crazy enough to try something stupid and get lucky. He believes that those willing to take out an entire company with their bare hands are sick-minded but they’re decorated as heroes. Those willing to throw themselves on a bomb are crazy too but they’re viewed as heroes. For a movie that’s about a zombie soldier dressed like Uncle Sam and seeking his revenge from friendly fire, there are a lot of deep questions that it tries to provoke.

As much as it seems like I’m praising this movie, I’m not because it’s not a great movie but rather an okay movie. It’s not a B-movie because there are a lot of great special effects, explosions and fireworks that invoke a very dark and cynical July 4th. There are still problems the movie suffers, problems that I never really paid attention to when I was younger, problems that I just now noticed as an adult. Just to name a few: Sam’s motivations are quite clear in the beginning; he kills those who do not live by the perceived American ideals, therefore he kills people who defile or deface what America is all about. However, near the end of movie he simply kills just for the pleasure of killing (then again, that’s apparently what he did before he became a zombie). This unique motivation keeps flip-flopping back and forth. The kid in the wheelchair at the end of the movie literally comes out of nowhere and almost acts like a second main character. Who is he? Where did he come from? Why wasn’t he referenced before the very end and most importantly, why is he suddenly telepathic? I also think it’s funny that Jeb, a full grown adult, casually takes orders from him. There are also a lot of small things that are wrong with it but I won’t dive into those because I don’t want to nitpick.

Uncle Sam is a strange one out of the holiday-themed slasher movies because it’s part serial killer and part zombie flick but in the overall plot, it’s part drama and part horror. It’s certainly not an awful movie but it’s also not great… it’s just okay. I’ve gotten past some of the minor things and saw what appeared to be a movie trying real hard to be solemn and political. Part of me is still in 12-year-old mode where I just want to see somebody dressed as Uncle Sam fillet somebody on an American Flag staff. The way I see it, if somebody ever asks me about it (not like they would), I can give them an honest opinion instead of saying something like, “It’s a shitty movie with shitty acting and it’s too boring!” Now I can say, “It’s an okay movie with okay acting but it drags on in the first half.”

Side note: Every time I saw Robert Forster in a movie I would say, "Oh my god it's Max Cherry!" obviously from Jackie Brown. Now when I see him I'll probably laugh and say that I got to see him explode in a celebration of fireworks.


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