What is Fight For Your Life? Well, it's another in a series of Revenge dramas that followed The Last House on the Left in its thematic theft of The Virgin Spring! In fact, this one might as well have been billed as the "Blaxploitation" entry into this subgenre. This could be another great example of why never to judge a book by its cover (or, in this case, a Video Tape), but for the fact that the television commercials and theatrical trailers for this film (by any name) gives away exactly what this film is about, almost scene for scene. For those of you who are interested in seeing Fight For Your Life, please, don't watch the trailers first. For those of you interested in Fight For Your Life academically, but don't have much interest in watching the whole thing (or can't take it), just watch the previews, you get almost all of it... even the nudity.
The tale of three hardened criminals on a spree doing nasty things to a young girl and/ or her family, only to find the family striking back is hardly a new one. It seems that since Last House on the Left took the theme from The Virgin Spring and ran with it (to great notoriety), every third exploitation flick was another version of this very idea. But Fight For Your Life is surprising in a few places. The most obvious being the level of violence, gore and depravity that got this film banned in England as a Video Nasty, not just in the 1980s, but still to this day! The level of overt racism and sexual violence is enough to shock just about anyone (at least I hope so). Going deeper, however, Fight For Your Life sets itself apart from others in its pedigree with its cast.
The script (by Straw Weisman, who would later be a producer on the documentary What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?) is hardly unique by any stretch of the imagination, and the direction (though not bad) was the second of only two credits for Robert A. Endelson, the other being the 1973 porno movie The Filthiest Show in Town!
But the cast is interesting. Our main villain is played by William Sanderson, whom you may remember from Blade Runner, but would probably recognize him from the '80s sitcom Newhart on which he played Larry, the guy who had a brother Darryl and another brother... Darryl. (For you fans of Newhart, another Video Nasty, Nightmare Maker features "Stephanie"... naked). Fight For Your Life also features Robert Judd, whose career was sadly cut short with his death in 1986. Here he does a remarkable job as the conflicted man of peace facing horrible violence. That's them pictured in the poster together, believe it or not. A pretty far cry from the cozy little Inn in Vermont, no?
Sanderson plays Jessie Lee Kane, a real crap bag convict who escapes from NYPD Custody with his two obligatory sidekicks. Please note, it's not Darryl and Darryl, but Chino and Ling (Daniel Faraldo and Peter Yoshida, respectively). The fact that he's running with a Hispanic guy and a Chinese guy is interesting, as he proves to be the biggest racist to visit New York until Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Columbia University!
After knocking over a liquor store (during which a disturbing scene unfolds where Kane threatens a baby with a gun), the three convicts follow the lovely young Corrie Turner (Yvonne Ross) home to her loving family where the real nastiness begins. In addition to holding them hostage, Kane and Company work hard to humiliate the whole family using virtually every racial epithet one can issue to an African American and exploiting every stereotype they can think of.
This is made especially disgusting in that these characters are anything but stereotypical. Sure Grandma Turner (Lela Small) and her grandson Floyd (Reginald Bythewood, who later went on to write Get On The Bus) share a salute and utter the words "Black Power" and Mrs. Turner (Catherine Peppers) indicates some discomfort with white people, this never comes across as deep-seated or any kind of hatred. This family, led by a minister named (I'm not joking) Ted Turner (Judd) comes off as a proud, hard working American family. Corrie is shown to have a white best friend (Bonnie Martin's Karen) as does Floyd (David Dewlow's Joey). At no point does any family member lose their identity either. How do we know so much? Without slowing the film down considerably, Straw Weisman and Robert Endelson engage in some surprising character development, thus engaging us in the well being of this family and making the humiliation, torture, rape, threats and beatings this family endures (which would be very hard to watch anyway) all the more painful.
Fight for your Life explores, quite well, how much horror an incorruptible cop like Reilly might have to witness before turning the other way as well as just how far a God-Loving dad like Reverend Turner might have to be pushed before he fights back!
The title(s) of this film, as well as the advertisements, do give away what ultimately takes place in the film and thus remove much of the surprises from the final act. However, these do not remove the tension from the film. This is an uncomfortably difficult movie, calculated to disturb, in spite of its better points. One can almost see the quality, well acted and intentioned film lurking just below the derivative plot and exploitation motifs. Naturally, the ending is satisfying and worthy of the cheer the advertisements predicted. However, this is true for all of the Virgin Spring borrowers. Also true is that, like the rest, one must sit through an awful (really awful) lot of depravity and terrible things in order to be at all satisfied or feel much of anything about the ending.
The question of "Why" springs to mind. With this story done so many times, why should one sit through this one? Clearly the British Board of Film Classification and the Director of Public Prosecution had similar thoughts when this film was originally banned. The honest answer is, if you have to sit through one of these at all, this one has enough good points to it to make it, potentially, worth your while. It also calls to question what the message of this film really is, particularly in the finale of the final act. Reverend Turner is shown to be a good, moral, upstanding man who believes in turning the other cheek when slapped. When faced with just too much he... well, he does pretty much what I would do. The indignation, anger and vitriol we see is fueled by the unyielding racism aimed toward this good family.
Which, of course, is another noteworthy point. Though one still might wonder why this film should exist at all, Fight For Your Life is not racist against black people or white people. The film makers take special care to show that the bad guy is a Racist. The cops here are good guys (regardless of race) and seem to be disgusted by racism. The townspeople are integrated and neighborly. The victims are of varied race, as are the heroes. Though I can't imagine how much comfort Judd or Sanderson had while getting into character, it's clear that the real Antagonist here is Racism itself, not Blacks, not Whites, not Asians, not Hispanics!
Still, the movie is, quite simply, too much in a great many ways. It's got its good points (in fact, point for point, it's probably a better movie than Last House on the Left), but it's still an exploitation flick, it's still derivative, it's still not great. Two and One Half Stars out of Five for Fight For Your Life! Don't judge this one by its cover, or pre-judge the content based on what you may have heard about this one. But also beware: this one most certainly wasn't banned for its cover! Fight For Your Life has it where it counts in the Video Nasty "Obscenity" category. It's still banned in the UK to this day, after all! For those of you who aren't interested in giving such a film a try, might I recommend Newhart? It's available on DVD in both the US and the UK... and Darryl and Darryl never say the "N" word!
Click HERE for more ANTI-RACIST reviews that might make you laugh!
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