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Hipster Holy Grail: Spree (1979)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Uneven and mostly boring, Spree is an exploitation-lite desert survival thriller that doesn't function very well as any of the things it was trying to be.  There's surprisingly little content for the 90 minutes it takes to watch.

My Rating: 2 / 5

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

I always have a hard time doing plot summaries because I'm not sure how much detail anybody reading wants me to give.  I'd like to think that a plot summary is meant to entice you to watch the film for the full story, not to replace it - but in a case like Spree, there's so little to explain that any attempt at a summary is the whole movie.

Here's the best I can do without obsessing about all the details: Six interchangeable teenagers drive a van into the desert on a party quest, but manage to flip it over and get tangled up with gun smugglers instead.  Some of them die.

That's really it.  It's fine as a plot because movies with bare-bone plots can focus on things like character or setting or tension to create a better cinematic experience.  But Spree doesn't do that - none of the characters are memorable and their misadventures in the desert are pretty much just "they walk around and complain" repeated over and over again.

It's the kind of movie that you don't want to get a point-by-point recap of because it quickly becomes tedious.  The last time I saw a movie like this, I think I called it a "bullet movie" because you can pretty much hit the high points in a bulleted list and move on.  So... yeah, let's just do that.
  • It stars Peter Graves as the lead smuggler, who is in charge of a group of Mexican stereotypes.
  • The smugglers rape one of the girls and kill her boyfriend, but somehow this isn't actually the inciting moment that convinces them to run away.  That honor goes to a scene when one of the guys looks in the smugglers' truck and finds a bunch of rifles, and it freaks him out.
  • There's a pretty nifty set-piece at the end where an actor hangs onto a helicopter and it's clear that it's a dangerous stunt performed without any wires or nets or anything.
  • There's a scene early on where the teens set up a campfire and two of them go off to have sex in the van ten feet away, which kinda throws me off because one of their friends is singing a song about friendship while they try to get it on.  Wouldn't that kill the mood?
In summation, it's a movie where very little of consequence happens except for about five minutes in the middle and the last twenty minutes.  But if you like lots and lots of footage of the desert, then by all means, enjoy.

The Part About Sleaze

Spree's biggest problem is that it doesn't know whether or not it wants to be a sleazy exploitation movie or a psychological thriller.  It sits in a weird position that just barely straddles the edges of each.  This turns out to be a huge problem because sleaze, unlike most other film elements, really can't be used in small doses; the second you bring it into your movie, that's what your movie is.

Say you're making a cop movie.  Suppose it's a grim meditation on death and evil.  You've got lots of powerful scenes of characters coming to grips with what they've done in the name of their careers.  Maybe there's a fifty-seven year old guy who's torn between his desire to prove he's not too old for the job and the soul-crushing angst of all the horrors he's seen.  He's grappling with one last case involving one of the worst killers he's ever come across.

Now cut to a strip club where there's a dozen naked women shaking their bodies to Quiet Riot, and the camera lingers for a full minute while they do their act.

Congrats.  You've just ruined your cop drama, But the good news is you've got a pretty good head start on a Cinemax Original, so... hooray?

Spree wants so badly to be sleazy, but it just doesn't commit.  It drops in moments of gratuitous depravity, but then it either holds back or trails off and tries to become meditative.  It doesn't work like that.  Once you rip a girl's top off and zoom in on her tits, you've irreparably changed the tone of your film.  I think I read that in one of Pauline Kael's books.

The movie is only 90 minutes long, but it takes 30 minutes for the kids to even get to the smugglers' camp, and then another 30 minutes before they really start fighting each other.  You have six kids, but only one gets killed, and one of them literally doesn't even do anything the whole movie except scream.  It's not that I necessarily wanted a sleazy movie - I'm not particularly a fan of the genre - but I'd rather see a movie that exemplifies its roots rather than shrug and puzzle over what to do with itself.

The scene that best exemplifies this would be a moment toward the end when one of the smugglers, an older gentleman who had earlier talked to the girls about how they remind him of his daughters, approaches them with a gun.  He's supposed to be hunting them down, but he hesitates and says nothing, thinking about the situation. Then Leader Girl looks at him doe-eyed and sad.  You could go one of two ways with this scene... but Spree does both.  She unbuttons her shirt and shows her breasts to him, then says, "We're all still your daughters," which melts his heart and convinces him to let them go.

What the fuck, Spree?  He couldn't just be an empathetic guy?  How does baring your chest help in this situation?  Is the implication that the girls only sort of reminded him of his daughters, but once he saw her breasts, he was like, "Oh!  Now you look exactly like my naked daughter.  You're free to go?"

On the plus side, this leads to the best death in the movie, which is when the blonde chick picks up a gun and shoots The Rapist, and he falls off a cliff and gets spiked to death by a cactus.

At least there was something.

The Part About Indecisive Maniacs

While we're on the topic of not knowing what to do, I want to address the strangely ambivalent thugs in this movie.  They are bizarrely unable to commit to murder.

There's really only about 60 minutes of runtime that actually involve the smugglers, and of that, only 20 minutes is spent on them actively pursuing or fighting the teenagers.  The rest of it is spent on a lot of aimless indecision with the occasional argument.  Usually it goes like this:

Thug 1: Huh, those kids went out west.
Thug 2: Should we go kill them?
Thug 1: Nah, they'll probably die on their own, anyway.  There's nothing out that way.
Thug 3: We can't be sure.  We should go kill them.
Thug 2: But should we, really?  I mean, if they're wandering the desert, it seems like the problem's taken care of.
Thug 3: Yeah, but... I dunno.  Deserts are unreliable.
Thug 1: Good point.  [Scratches head]  Hey, Frank!
Thug 4: Yeah?
Thug 1: What do you make of the desert situation?
Thug 4: Oh, those fuckers are doomed.
Thug 1: Yeah, that's what I thought.  You know what?  Let's just let them go for now.

Five minutes later....

Thug Boss:  Did you guys kill those teenagers yet?
Thug 1: You wanted us to do what?

It's frustrating.  Can you imagine how it would look if they did this in any other movie?  Maybe a slasher like Nightmare on Elm Street?  Like if Freddy Kreuger was all decked out in his finest killing threads, and he starts sneaking into Johnny Depp's dream, but then he starts to lose his nerve and decides to wait another day?

"Oh... he seems like he's kind of enjoying this Heather Langenkamp sex dream.  Maybe I should come back tomorrow.  Yeah.  You know, that might be better.  I'll have his full attention.  Should I go kill that fat kid today instead?  Mmmmmm.... oh, God, I don't know, he's all the way on Maple Street. Ugh.  Maybe I'll just have dinner.  Hey, Jason!  You want to go get dinner?"

"Maybe.  Where are you thinking?"

"Oh.  Huh.  Gee... man, I don't know.  I'm up for anything."

"You want to try that new gyro place?"

"No... I ate a whole lamb in Mary's nightmare just the other day.  Kinda tired of it.  You know what, maybe I don't want to go out after all.  You want to just stay in and order a face pizza?"

The Part About the Music

I've mentioned before how it's a little strange to hear musical cues from older movies while watching them now.  I can't tell if it's the music or if it's just me and the fact that I'm hearing it in a skewed context.  But whatever it might be, Spree has a grossly inappropriate soundtrack.

For one thing, its main theme is a light and breezy folksy tune about going off on a delightful adventure with your girlfriend.  This song plays for the better part of the opening act and over the closing credits, which I guess is meant to be ironic?

But even when the main theme isn't playing, the music is all over the place.  Either you've got this pulse-pounding orchestral score set against the most boring footage of people walking / riding motorcycles in the desert, or you've got dead silence set against the few action scenes that actually managed to sneak into the film.

I don't know how to feel about that.  Were people in the '70s just so happy to hear something that it didn't even matter if it worked?

The Part About Peter Graves

Speaking of irony, you know what's really ironic?  Peter Graves is by far the best actor in this film, but that actually kind of makes him the worst part about it.  He's just too damn clean for Spree.

Any time the movie wants him to be menacing and scare the shit out of the teenagers, he just says something in his Gravesian way and classes up the joint.  He can't even use a kid as a human shield without looking well-mannered:

They really needed somebody grimier to play the lead villain.  At least somebody with a mustache.

Where You Can Watch

I watched this on my copy of the Fatal Force 10-DVD pack.