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Hipster Holy Grail: Guilty As Charged (1991)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

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

Time forgot Guilty as Charged, and I sure hope I do, too.

My Rating: 1.5 / 5

The Plot Summary

Kallin (Rod Steiger) is a seemingly feeble and quiet old man who owns a meat-packing plant.  What nobody suspects is that beneath that plant, he has a makeshift prison where he detains parolees who were found guilty of murder and then executes them in a homemade electric chair.  Kallin believes he was chosen by God to bring justice to those criminals who were either let out of prison too soon or who are doomed to repeat their sins.  He has two assistants, Aloysius (Isaac Hayes) and Deek (Irwin Keyes), who help him maintain the prison and keep everything under wraps.

Considering that the plot of the movie revolves around Kallin's prison, you'd think he would be the primary protagonist of the film.  Perhaps an anti-hero.  But that would be a little too logical, so Guilty as Charged confounds matters by introducing Kimberly (Heather Graham) instead.  Kimberly is an optimistic parole officer who has noticed that a lot of her clients have recently disappeared, and she's starting an amateur investigation into the matter.

Along the way, she meets Stanford (Lyman Ward), a jerkface politician who's running for governor with a strict capital punishment platform.  Stanford thinks Kimberly is cute, so he convinces her to work for his campaign in order to get closer and hopefully start a fling on the side.

Stanford is unhappily married to Liz (Lauren Hutton), a seemingly devious harpy who takes great joy in insulting Stanford and making him feel uncomfortable.  One of her favorite pastimes is reminding him of that time he murdered a guy, and then an innocent man named Hamilton (Michael Beach) was arrested and convicted instead.  This may or may not be important later.  (Spoiler: it is.)

So, now that you've been introduced to this cast of colorful characters, you'll get to watch them dick around for about an hour before a story forms.

Guilty as Charged feels longer than it is simply because there's not a clear lead to hang your hat on.  Every time we cut to Kallin, he's just going through the motions, either kidnapping another ex-con or electrocuting somebody to remind you that amateur executions are his hobby.  He doesn't have a clear conflict or any stakes.  Just a morbid gig on the side.  And any time it cuts to Kimberly, she's just futzing around being a not-quite-there-yet Heather Graham.

Cut in between all these scenes, we find out that Hamilton, the innocent convict, has escaped from custody and is on the run.  Kallin finds him while he's hitch-hiking and takes him to the meat prison.  So, you start to suspect where the movie's going with this: probably Kallin will execute Hamilton, then find out he was innocent, and then realize what a monster he is.  Right?  It'll be a ham-fisted message, but at least it'll reach some kind of logical conclusion where the fatal flaw in capital punishment is revealed in tragic fashion.  Right?  I mean, you wouldn't just make a sarcastic movie like this without a clear opinion... would you?


Eventually - after way too long - Kimberly suspects somebody might be doing something nefarious to all the parolees on her list.  She visits one of her other clients and tries to get his help to track them down.  The client decides to try raping her instead.  Then, as if he's Batman or something, Kallin crashes through the window and rescues her.  He kidnaps the ex-con and takes Kimberly to his execution chamber, then fills her in on his scheme.

Kimberly is sorta-kinda-quasi horrified at first, then shrugs and decides, "Fuck those guys!  My whole career is built on lies, apparently!"  So she decides to keep Kallin's chamber a secret and goes back home.

Throughout all of this, Hamilton keeps swearing his innocence and tries to explain that Stanford is the real murderer.  Kallin and Kimberly ignore him.  In fact, they're going to do one worse: Kallin goes to visit Stanford and says he's willing to offer a generous donation to his campaign, but first he'd like to show him the meat prison to gauge just how tough on crime Stanford is willing to be.  Instead of calling the police like a rational person, Stanford hears that Kallin has Hamilton and is going to execute him tonight, so he agrees to go in order to make sure there are no loose ends to tie him to his crime.

Meanwhile, Kimberly is fucking around at her house again and her journalist boyfriend comes inside with startling evidence that will help him build an expose on Stanford.  It seems that Stanford's maid (Zelda Rubinstein) secretly recorded him one night when he was having a drunk shouting match with Liz and got him on tape admitting that he killed a guy.  Kimberly gasps in horror and runs as fast as she can to Kallin's plant to stop Hamilton's execution before it's too late.

There's a lot of circumstance and bullshit and contrivance to pad this out for about five minutes.  Kimberly gets to the plant just before the execution is set and whacks an electric box really hard, setting off a minor explosion and cutting off power to Kallin's electric chair.  The explosion attracts the attention of a utility worker nearby, who calls the police on a hunch.

Kimberly gets inside the prison just as Kallin's goons restore power (somehow) and warns him not to go through with the execution.  She reveals that she has proof Stanford is lying.  Kallin and Stanford shrug her off despite her pleas, and Kallin throws the switch to his electric chair.

Oh, but it's a fakeout!  Because, you see, the switch doesn't send electricity to the chair that Hamilton is sitting in... it magically / secretly sends the electricity to the chair Stanford is sitting in!  Ha ha!  Turns out Kallin knew he was guilty the whole time and was just milking the situation for all the drama he possibly could because he's a dipshit!  HEEE-larious!

Then Liz comes out of nowhere to reveal that she gave the taped confession to Kimberly's boyfriend and set up Stanford's execution with Kallin, because why the fuck not.

Kallin sets Hamilton free.  Then, as he hears distant police sirens, he gives a weary speech to himself about how he realizes he has too much power, and that only God should be able to make decisions about life and death.  He tells his goons to leave - much to their dismay - and straps himself into his own chair, then kills himself.  (The logistics of this baffle me since we just saw that they took this chair off the grid in order to kill Stanford, so I don't know, maybe there's a backup switch somewhere.  Whatever.)

We cut to some time later at a fancy dinner party full of socialites, politicians, and the wealthy elite.  Liz is hosting, but Kallin's goons are working as the wait staff, and Kimberly is there, too, for some reason.  They all knowingly and creepily nod to each other, and then Kimberly tells a seedy guy that she wants to show him something in the basement.  He agrees, and we're all supposed to laugh at the implied murder club they've formed because I guess we're cynical pricks.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

You know, I actually don't like to write bad reviews.  I know it might not seem that way given how much I complain about, well, everything, but I actually try to be an upbeat guy as much as I can.  I have this terrible fear that the minute I post something negative about a movie, some rich, powerful friend of the director it is going to stumble across my website and be like, "WTF?!  Ban this loser from everything ever!"

So, please, please, please, all friends of Sam Irvin and Charles Gale take note: it's nothing personal.  This is just an extraordinarily shitty movie.

In the interest of fairness, there are merits.  Some of the acting is alright.  Isaac Hayes is kinda fun, Lyman Ward has a great turn as a total sleazeball, Zelda Rubinstein is a delight as always, and Irwin Keyes and Earl Boen get to mug at the camera and goof off the way you want them to.  There's at least one decent set (Kallin's prison), and the cinematography during the execution scenes is a competent rip-off of Tim Burton.

Almost everything else, though....

The premise deserves a lot better than this.  "Religious zealot becomes amateur executioner, gets involved in political scandals."  It's a fantastic set up for dark comedy and you can go so deep and high brow with the results.  Imagine that premise enacted by the same crew who made American Psycho - that's what I want.

What we get is perhaps the laziest and most workmanlike execution (hah!) of that plot you could possibly conceive.  You want the writer to run with it until they get somewhere new and exciting.  Guilty as Charged doesn't bother.  It goes for the easiest plot devices possible, up to and including having the antagonist awkwardly shout a confession during an outburst while somebody secretly tapes him.  The conflict is begging for you to be shocked (hah!), but unless you've never seen movies before, I don't see how you could.

I can forgive a lazy plot if the core thrust of the movie is still there.  Lazy horror movie?  Fine, just make sure to give me some scares.  Lazy action movie?  Fine, just give me some good explosions.  Lazy comedy?  Fine, but make me laugh.

And that is the worst crime.  A passable comedy is at least funny enough to distract you from any flaws the film might have.  An unfunny comedy makes it impossible to notice anything else.

The jokes are soooooo bad.  They all have that lackadaisical "eh, you get what I'm going for" vibe. Good example: early on in the film, you hear a news report about how one of the murderers was dubbed the "Veg-o-Matic Killer" because he used an As Seen On TV invention as his weapon of choice.  That's it.  That's the joke.  You are meant to laugh because they referenced a thing that's considered crummy and schlocky.

It's not a commentary on American culture.  It's not a critique of the quality of the Veg-o-Matic.  It's not a punchline.  It's not really anything.  It's just a vague reference.  And you can hear the writer saying: "But you know what I'm going for, right?  Like, it's funny that somebody would use such a thing, right?  Right?"

Now, take that same laziness and apply it to the death penalty, of all things, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Guilty as Charged takes a dark, violent concept and sanitizes it of any legitimate impact.  It's a goofball comedy about a politically charged (hah!) topic that blatantly dodges any philosophical or ethical thought on the subject.  It begs the question: if you don't have anything meaningful to contribute to the conversation, why make a film on the topic?  You can make your dumb movie about anything you want.  Why pick something where you're not only expected to have a well-thought opinion, but to be able to portray it clearly?

Or, to put it another way: this is satire without a point, which is a fundamental misunderstanding of the term "satire."

Every step of it feels misguided, shallow, and a little bit embarrassing.  As if it was trying to find the shittiest way to put a cap on everything, the film actually ends with Lauren Hutton looking into the camera and winking.

I can't support that.  I know I said I hate to be negative, but Jesus Christ.  An unironic camera wink is worth some goddamn vitriol.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

At about 240 IMDb ratings today, it gets an obscurity bonus of 30 points.  I'll give it another 10 for the ensemble cast of '80s and early '90s That Guys.  And why the hell not, I'll give it 5 more points for Sam Irvin, whose directorial resume is a hodgpodge of hipster treasures and trashy nonsense.

I'm tempted to dock some points due to the anti-recommendation, but that's not in the spirit of hipsterdom.  So it'll coast on to a middle-of-the-road 45 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

I didn't see it on any streaming services, but it was released on DVD, so it's not hard to find.  Rent it from Netflix if you're really curious.