This is another one of those public domain ditties that I don’t recall as playing in theaters, but seeing after the fact as an early HBO programmer. And yes, it was on the home video shelves, but I didn’t need to rent it, as result of its incessant cable airings.
You’ll notice the Death Wish* plug that, sadly, didn’t pack ticket buyers into the theaters or drive-ins, thus the film’s quick appearance on pay cable. Death Wish, as you know, was a best-selling 1972 novel by Brian Garfield turned into the 1974 Charles Bronson-starrer. Garfield’s other book-to-screen successes that you may not know about include 1971 western Gun Down, which became 1976’s The Last Hard Men (the book was reissued under that title as a film tie-in) starring Charlton Heston, and the 1975 spy-thriller Hopscotch, which became a 1980 film of the same name starring Walter Matthau and Sam Waterson (one of my favorite actors, with films like Capricorn One and Warning Sign).
For the younger, modern audiences: you’ve seen Garfield’s official Death Wish sequel, 1975’s Death Sentence, turned into the 2007 James Wan-directed and Kevin Bacon-starring film of the same name (but the film does not pick up the Death Wish-film timeline, nor follows the book’s plotting). And you know the quintessential, crazy dad flick, The Stepfather (1978) and its sequels in 1989 and 1992: those began with an unpublished story turned into a screenplay by Garfield. And again, I remember the newspaper and TV ads for The Last Hard Men and Hopscotch — and seeing both in theaters — but not Fleshburn, which was based on Garfield’s 1978 novel, Fear in a Handful of Dust.
What we have here is a survival thriller that, based on the theatrical one-sheet, looks like we may be getting a post-Max Max apoc flick or a Wes Craven The Hills Have Eyes imprint — of which Fleshburn is neither. What we do have here another outdoor revenge thriller akin to John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) and the Peter Fonda-starring Open Season (1974). And the apoc confusion — in spite of the B-Movie-ish theatrical one-sheet — is also the result of Fleshburn somewhat pinching a highly-influential film we name drop often within the context of B&S Movie reviews: Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” which became a 1932 film of the same name — a film that inspired several, ’80s Italian-Euro apocalyptic films**.
While Steve Kanaly, then hot-off-CBS-TV’s primetime soap opera Dallas as Ray Krebbs gets top-billing, the star-antagonist of the film is actor-stuntman Sonny Landham; you know him as Billy Bear in 48 Hrs. (1982) and Indian tracker Billy Sole in Predator (1987). Landham stars as Calvin Duggai, an ex-Vietnam vet who escapes his wrongfully-committed mental institution imprisonment to kidnap the four psychiatrists who committed/treated him — and their family members. He dumps the emotionally blind and relationship-troubled city slickers deep in the desert and spies on their struggle for survival.
Sound like a pretty decent tale so far, right? Well. . . .
Considering being ripped as a “soap actor,” Kanaly is really good in his role as the most resourceful of the bunch (he should have transitioned as fellow soap actor Ray Liotta) courtesy of his having giving up psychiatry to become a park ranger. Sadly, this is a Crown International Picture production, a studio where exploitation and sensationalism is marketing de rigueur. So, instead of having the deep, psychological character study of Brian Garfield’s Fear in a Handful of Dust, we have, well, a pseudo-copy of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes after all, with a bunch of bickering, can’t-get-their-shit-together city folks who illicit no sympathy as kidnap victims and deserve a desert “fleshburn” comeuppance. If there is a message-plot twist to extract, it would be that Landham’s Indian — a spiritually free man who lived on and off the open land — was, figuratively, abandoned in the “desert” of the white man’s institution; now Duggai has taken the spiritually blind city folks and dumped them his “desert” to survive.
Sadly, since this is a much-distributed public domain title in the digital age, the DVDs — both grey-market and not-so-grey — are from the edited TV prints that negate the film’s original R-rating that played on HBO and was officially issued on VHS.
Criticisms aside: While Fleshburn could have been so much better, I enjoyed this movie a few times over, courtesy of its HBO replays, and during my revisit this week. Even with the TV cut, this still comes highly recommended. We found a ripped-from-VHS, R-rated copy to enjoy on You Tube. And you can have your own copy as part of Mill Creek’s B-Movie Blast 50-Film Pack.
* Be sure to check out our “Death Wish Week” of reviews.
** Be sure to check out our month-long, two-part post-apoc homage with our “Atomic Dustbin” round-ups. The big kahuna of the genre is, of course, Elio Petri’s 1965, sci-fi pop-art “human death sport” romp, The 10th Victim.