Still riding the high from the slasher enthusiasm of the 1980s, the ‘90s needed fresher approaches to the genre to keep the momentum going...
...Some films went for a meta-approach while others participated in a continuing battle of ‘one-upness’ in the over-gore factor. Some movies decided to take neither approach, however, choosing instead to march to their own patriotic tune. In 1996, director William Lustig of Maniac Cop notoriety created Uncle Sam. A jingoistic slasher which might very well serve as a sequel (or at least a spin-off) to Lustig’s murderous ex-cop trilogy. The titular killer of this holiday film takes his role as a solider seriously, in life and after death. Perhaps partially due to teaming with writer Larry Cohen (God Told Me To, The Stuff), the viewer will find an anti-war message exploring the dangers of enlisting mixed in with the campy kills and well-known actors. The risk of enlisting in war is in more than just the uncertainty of who will return from it. There is also danger in the idea of an already unstable person given the abilities and title of soldier on arrival. At the end of the day, Uncle Sam is about exposing an overtly aggressive military obsessed mentality, destabilizing the toxic male ego, and healing the trauma of those who remain in the aftermath.
Beginning in Desert Storm-era Kuwait, a military outfit finds a downed helicopter with the crispy-crew members still inside. Dismissing the wreckage as the result of ‘friendly fire’, the investigating Major learns too late that the supposedly dead Master Sergeant Sam Harper (David Fralick) holds a strong proclivity for murder. After adding one final notch to his list of kills, Harper’s corpse returns to the tranquil Twin Rivers, USA just in time for the small town’s annual Fourth of July celebration. As the clock strikes midnight on the 4th, Sam emerges from his military-grade coffin seeking to destroy anyone who does not meet the unrealistic standard of patriotism he holds over everyone.
Despite the film depicting a re-animated nationalistic soldier as the main focus, Uncle Sam remains largely unseen until about 45 minutes in. Unlike many other slashers, Uncle Sam does not rush into the killings with the eagerness to rack up the body-count. Instead, the first act of the film is reserved for developing the characteristics of the town as a whole (it’s not pretty) and introducing the audience to the family dynamics of the Harper clan. While the dead Sam lies mostly dormant in a coffin in the middle of the family home, his nephew Jody (Christopher Ogden) keeps the audience occupied with his Damien-level creepiness. Young Jody gives off a major villain vibe with his curiosity about death and amputations, and his association of killing with heroism. Dutifully following his uncle’s axiom of “Anyone who doesn’t respect the American way of life deserves to have their butt kicked,” the youth lashes out at his teacher, mother, and everyone else for not meeting his patriotic expectations. Even though Jody has not seen his uncle in years, the boy remembers the man fondly and excitedly reenacts his uncle’s supposed patriotism while playing.
Jody’s infatuation with the fantasy-inspired G.I. Joe image of his uncle creates an unhealthy idolization of the missing soldier, even though the adult members of the family remember Sam much differently. Apparently, the missing man of the house repeatedly abused his sister throughout their childhood and, upon reaching adulthood, graduated to beating his wife. Unfortunately, Jody seems all too willing to follow in his uncle’s footsteps for a military career, with just as much mental and emotional instability in tow. Only through the guilt-filled explanations of war hero and amputee Sergeant Jed Crowley (Isaac Hayes) does the audience understand Jody’s misplaced adoration for his uncle, Sam’s murder-happy demeanor (which inspired his military enlistment), and the lifetime of abuse Sally (Leslie Neale) and Louise (Ann Tremko) suffered through physically in the past and still mentally and emotionally endure.
Larry Cohen was known for having political messages in his films, and Uncle Sam was no exception. On the surface, we see a vigilante soldier returning to life so he can teach disrespectful teenagers and anyone else who does not live, breathe, and bleed red, white, and blue a lesson. But through the obsessive, future school-shooter behavior of the nephew and the living fear all other family members experience, the film reveals that the patriotically named Uncle Sam exhibited dangerous and violent qualities before he became undead. He started abusing his sister when she was six, and Sally only found relief when her brother married another victim. It’s unclear if the casting intentionally chose Tremko and Neale for their physical similarities, but Sam’s wife so strongly resembles his sister, any viciousness inflicted upon Louise most likely serves as further abuse he wishes he could inflict on his sibling. A jingoistic brain-washed child and abused women expertly show how a dangerous mind can poison those around them. The film also strongly presents sympathies for the mentally and physically scarred soldiers who have seen the horrors of war. Isaac Hayes’ character blames himself for filling Sam’s head with fanciful ideas of war and angrily discourages Jody from believing Sam’s lies about the honor and glory of combat.
After the majority of the exposition is out of the way, the killings commence as Sam unleashes his murderous rage on the townspeople and their anti-patriotic transgressions. But you do not have to worry about developing any sympathy for most of the inhabitants of Twin Rivers. Aside from their lack of patriotism, they are mostly all amoral monsters. The men all try to coerce sex from Louise and Sally and take an odd pride in their horrible unethical work behavior. When expanding the plot to include the small town, we see a big-name cast for a fairly low-budget B-slasher movie. Aside from Hayes, Twin Rivers also homes Timothy Bottoms (The Last Picture Show, Johnny Got His Gun) as the draft-dodging teacher, William Smith (Conan the Barbarian, The Frisco Kid) as the Major, PJ Soles (Halloween, Rock and Roll High School) as an overprotective mother, and Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) as the corrupt mayor. Surprisingly, the Fourth of July inspired killings (hanged on a flagpole, run-through with a flag, and of course, fireworks) depict very little blood and focus more on including patriotic accoutrements than grossing out the audience. Aside from one brief (and unnecessary) nude scene, the movie really gets an undeserved R-rating. The film probably could not afford to up the gore-factor, so a quick glimpse of a naked woman would push the rating from PG-13 into R-territory. Unfortunate, really, because the film would be good gateway horror for younger fans.
Uncle Sam does not offer the usual gore expected from the genre, instead providing the viewer with qualities not found in other films: a disturbing and unique slasher with a bit more subtext than the average 90s installment. Do not dismiss Uncle Sam if you are against politically heavy films, however. Lustig’s movie does not beat you over the head with anti-patriotic rhetoric. In fact, aside from Isaac Hayes’ character, all the men have some toxic personality traits that have more to say against people who hold any position of authority (even mothers), than against the country. Despite the message, the film is fairly tongue-in-cheek and hails from a pretty silly premise and still delivers some once-a-year kind of fun. So, along with grilling and fireworks, perhaps horror fans can integrate Uncle Sam into their annual Fourth of July festivities.
By Amylou Ahava
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