The recent Blu-ray release of 1982’s Vice Squad, courtesy of boutique home video distributer Scream Factory, gives crime film aficionados the perfect opportunity to finally get wise to one of the most underrated and underseen thrillers of the ’80s, arguably the greatest sleaze noir of all time.
Directed by Gary Sherman, Vice Squad is half gritty police procedural, half dark urban fairy tale. Shot on location along Los Angeles’s famed Sunset Strip and Skid Row at the height of their decadence and disrepute, the story concerns the violent intersection between a trio of players working in and around the Hollywood flesh trade—Princess (Season Hubley), a single suburban mother by day and streetwise prostitute by night; Walsh (Gary Swanson), a seasoned, obsessive sergeant with LAPD Vice; and Ramrod (Wings Hauser), a sadistic cowboy pimp wanted for the torture and murder of a one of his working girls.
Enraged by the killing of her friend, Princess agrees to help Walsh take Ramrod down in an undercover sting. Their mission proves initially successful, with Princess getting the satisfaction of spitting in the face of the enraged pimp as he’s dragged away in handcuffs. However, Ramrod quickly manages to escape custody. Rather than fleeing from the law, he cuts a terrifying swath of mayhem through the streets of the city in a frenzied attempt to find Princess and exact horrible vengeance. Princess, unaware that Ramrod is free and on the hunt, goes about her nightly routine, servicing a diverse array of johns and tricks, all while Walsh and his crew desperately search for killer and prey before it’s too late.
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Given its prurient subject matter and minuscule budget (a little over $2 million, though Sherman has claimed not all of that money made it to the screen), you would expect the film to boast the same shoddy production value of your standard ‘80’s grindhouse offering. However, it’s an expertly crafted piece of cinema from top-to-bottom, which won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Sherman’s body of work (which, prior to Vice Squad, already included two minor horror masterpieces: London underground slasher Death Line, aka Red Meat , and moody supernatural thriller Dead & Buried ). Like his contemporary, John Carpenter, Sherman is an expert at imbuing muscular action and atmospheric horror films with unexpected doses of artistry, intelligence and social consciousness.
As he describes in an audio commentary track recorded in 2006 (and available on the new Blu-ray), Sherman wanted Vice Squad to capture the seediness of its Skid Row setting, while retaining a level of classical beauty: “I wanted it to look like Life Magazine, as opposed to the 6 o’clock news.”
His efforts were successful, thanks in large part to Director of Photography John Alcott, Sherman’s close personal friend and loyal DP of Stanley Kubrick. Alcott shot Vice Squad between Barry Lyndon and The Shining, and, with the exception of the film’s vérité title sequence—a montage that sweeps through the actual intersection of Hollywood and Sunset, taking in the nightly hustle of the open-air sex market—he is able to saturate the film with a formal, precise look that puts it one level above most other low budget films of the time, exploitation or otherwise.
Outstanding as Alcott’s work is, Sherman’s greatest collaborators on Vice Squad were his actors, particularly stars Season Hubley and Wings Hauser. Hubley’s Princess is the emotional center of the film, her steely yet vulnerable portrayal filled with moments of grace and grit. She feels like a real person—smart, but reckless; confident, but desperate; cynical, but never allowing herself to fall fully into despair. Her nightly ambulation, in which she visits a number of Johns (some sweet, some cruel, some pitiful, some…uncategorizable), provides the film with its deepest moments of pathos. In the pantheon of cinematic portrayals of sex workers, Hubley’s undoubtedly ranks among the most sympathetic and fully realized.
If Hubley’s performance was deserving of at least an Oscar nomination (and it was), Hauser’s turn as the savage Ramrod belongs in the Smithsonian. Known exclusively at that point for playing a dweeby character on the soap opera The Young and the Restless, Hauser called upon every ounce of inner darkness to fully transform himself into the Big Bad Wolf to Hubley’s Red Riding Hood. With his hulking frame and lupine features, he legitimately looks the part of a beast, and it’s a wonder he could ever have played a wimp.
As brought to life by Hauser, Ramrod is an Old Testament whirlwind of wrath and cruelty, coming off as less a man than a force of pure, hateful id, the personification of sexual sadism and misogynist rage—not unlike Robert Mitchum’s classic turns in Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear, or Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. For my money, Ramrod remains the most terrifying of them all, and the most riveting and repulsive human monster to ever (dis)grace the screen.
Ramrod is a composite of a number of real-life characters that Sherman either met or was told about by police. As he explained it, ask any cop who the absolute worst scum on the streets were, and they’d undoubtedly answer, “white pimps.” Unlike black and Latino pimps, for whom the job was a way to make money fast and pull themselves out of the slums (with almost none of accompanying risks of drug dealing), white pimps usually came took to it simply because they enjoyed the lifestyle—especially the excuse it gave them to hurt women.
The film’s closely observed portrait of street life—from the women and girls (and men and boys) working it, to the pimps overseeing it, to the cops regulating it, to the johns driving it—came about through intensive first-hand research undertaken by Sherman himself. While it’s standard for filmmakers and actors to interview and hang around cops while prepping for a film set in the world of law enforcement, Sherman went above and beyond, enrolling in (and completing) the academy training program and eventually signing on as a police reservist. Not only did he go on ride-alongs with actual vice cops, he personally took part in rousts and arrests.
To ensure he didn’t develop a singular point-of-view, Sherman also spent time voluntarily handcuffed to the prisoner restraint bench and locked up in holding cells at the Downtown Los Angeles precinct. There, he chatted with the nightly array of sex workers, as well as pimps, johns, junkies, drunks and hustlers that moved regularly through processing, getting to know them almost as well as he knew the cops.
As a result, he based everything in the movie on true stories and real people, including some of the more outlandish scenes (Vice Squad often indulges in absurdist comedy that borders on the surreal). In terms of verisimilitude, his movie is legit as they come, and it deserves to rank alongside The Naked City, He Walked by Night, and The French Connection as one of the great American police procedurals.
Yet, for all that, Vice Squad’s is more often categorized (when it’s mentioned at all) within the genre of urban exploitation movies of the 1980s, what we might refer to as sleaze noir.
But while Vice Squad does share the same propulsive tone and penchant for over-the-top action direction (and an aesthetic that relies heavily on neon lighting and a pounding guitar/synth score) as films we tend to associate with schlock masters like Canon Group, the comparison is mostly surface level.
For all their individual charm, most urban exploitation films of the time boasted an unmistakably reactionary and fascistic world view, tapping into the same white working-class resentment that propelled Ronald Reagan’s concurrent rise to power. By presenting rugged figures of lone authority—usually male (though there are a number of exceptions) and almost always white—as the ideal of old-school, rugged American individualism, they repudiated the revolutionary ideals of the 1960’s, as well as the ideological morass of the 1970s. At the same time, for all their self-righteous moral indignation, these films liked to present sexual violence in as titillating a manner as possible, even while leaning on its inherent horror to make allowances for the protagonist’s inevitable use of extrajudicial lethal force.
While Vice Squad could certainly makes for a good companion piece to any urban exploitation film, it’s operating on a different level. Not only is it far more sympathetic, or at the very least, less judgmental and prejudiced of the American urban underclass, it deliberately and successfully avoids presenting violence against women (and misogyny in general) in any way that could be considered exciting or enticing.
The film is often disturbing, but it’s never graphic: Sherman focuses on the aftermath and emotional toll of violence rather than the act itself. Perhaps more surprising is the restraint in its depiction of sex. Given the film’s focus on sex trafficking, you wouldn’t be out of line expecting lots of gratuitous T&A. However, there’s no full-frontal nudity (aside from a brief flash during a tracking shot through a strip club) and only one actual sex scene, which is presented in as un-titillating a manner as possible.
None of this is to hold up Vice Squad as an example of progressivist filmmaking, or to condemn other urban-set action and crime thrillers by comparison. It’s merely to acknowledge the difference between the two: the latter are exploitation films, whereas Vice Squad is a film about how people are exploited by one another. In its depth and nuance, it deserves at least the same critical reappraisal as has been given to William Friedkin’s gay underworld procedural Cruising (1980) and Abel Ferrara’s rape-revenge fantasia Ms. 45 (1981) in recent years.
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Despite its initial success during the original theatrical run—the film turned a solid profit and received positive reviews from a number of leading critics, including Vincent Canby of The New York Times—Vice Squad failed to lead to bigger and better things for those involved.
Hubley’s momentum came to halt shortly after the release, following a divorce from then-husband Kurt Russell and her subsequent decision to step back from acting to raise her young child. Though she worked steadily throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s (mostly in TV), the roles she took were generally small, and her filmography ends abruptly in 1999.
Hauser has enjoyed a longer, more prolific career, but his desire to be a leading man rather than a supporting player relegated him to Z-grade, direct-to-video thrillers throughout most of the ‘80s. Since then, he landed a few small but notable parts in better known films (including Michael Mann’s critically acclaimed expose The Insider , and Quentin Dupieux’s instant surreal dark comedy Rubber ), but none match his performance in Vice Squad (although his go-for-broke turn, 5 years later, in Norman Mailer’s gonzo Tough Guys Don’t Dance comes damn close).
Sherman would go on to direct only a few more movies, each with its share of admirers, but the majority of his credits are in television. Not a tragic outcome by any means, but his talent should have led to a longer run of films, if nothing else.
Vice Squad influenced a number of hits following directly on its heels, including 1983’s Sudden Impact (which lifted the iconic line “Make my day” from Vice Squad) and 1984’s The Terminator (which shares a suspiciously similar plot structure and visual style), as well as the more recent one-bad-night thriller Good Time (2017). Yet, for all this, it fell through the cracks once it entered the home video market. Today, it is regarded as more of a cult oddity than full-on cult classic, although the people who love it tend to be obsessed.
Hopefully, the new Blu-ray will help find a larger audience, because there are few films of its era that are as viscerally thrilling or frightening, to say nothing of its importance as a historical document of the neon no man’s land in which it is set.