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Death Weekend

(AKA The House by the Lake) 1976, Starring Brenda Vaccaro, Don Stroud, Chuck Shamata, Richard Ayres. Directed by William Fruet.

From the beginning of his professional career, Canadian director William Fruet was shaping up to one of the more recognizable talents in the Canadian film industry. Besides penning the scripts for award-winning Canadian films including Goin' Down the Road and Slipstream, Fruet also found time to direct Wedding in White, a celebrated drama about prairie life during the depression. By the late 1970s, though, Fruet found himself churning out a string of CBC dramas, and looking for a way to break back into the world of Canadian film. Eventually, he hooked up with Ivan Retiman and Don Carmody, two producers who had just finished releasing David Cronenberg's Shivers through Cinepix. With their help, he surprised everyone by directing Death Weekend, a rural revenge film starring Don Stroud as a vile hoodlum terrorizing a vacationing couple.

Just as Canadian film critics were unmerciful to Cronenberg's collaboration with Reitman and Carmody, they quickly turned their collective backs on Fruet as well, branding him as some sort of traitor. Death Weekend received less than flattering reviews, but Reitman used the relationship he established with American drive-in distributor AIP to get the film a release state-side. AIP renamed the film The House by the Lake, and paired it up with Last House on the Left, Wes Craven's huge commercial grindhouse success from 1972. It was a popular all-female revenge double-bill.

Regardless of the immediate reaction to the film, Death Weekend remains one of the most infamous Canadian films of the 1970s, as well as one of Fruet's best. It's relative obscurity has done nothing but bolster it's reputation among previously viewed bin junkies, and this honour is well deserved, because Death Weekend is a competently made suspense film that is even based on a true Canadian story.

In his flashy new convertible, Harold the dentist is headed for a weekend party at his summer home with young model Diane (Brenda Vaccaro). When she convinces him to let her drive for awhile, four toughs in another car pull up beside them and try to start a drag race. Diane ignores them, and takes off in another direction. Driver and spokesperson for his mulleted crew, Lep (Stroud) won't let himself be out-driven by a woman, so he takes off in pursuit leading to a lengthy, but exciting, backroads race. When Lep accidently swerves off the road, his car drops several feet down into a creek, effectively ending the excitement. Angered, Lep vows revenge on Diane.

Harold takes over the driving duties and pulls into a gas station where he leaves his convertible in the care of two backwoods yokels in exchange for some moonshine. They climb into a station wagon and once again drive away. Harold's vacation house turns out to be a private lakefront mansion, and he quickly shows Diane around. It soon becomes obvious that Harold is obsessed with his money, and gleefully shows off his expensive possessions to her before escorting her to her bedroom. Then, he sneaks into a nearby room, where he takes pictures of Diane changing through a two-way mirror he has installed.

Meanwhile, Lep and his cronies Frankie, Stan and Runt have been driving around northern Ontario cottage country with their eyes peeled for the convertible. Finally seeing it parked at the gas station, Lep tricks the hicks into telling them where they can find Harold. They speed away to ruin a romantic weekend.

If they would have known what was going on at the house, they might not have bothered, because Harold is doing a pretty good job of screwing things up himself. Out on the boat, Harold casually asks Diane to pose for some naked pictures, and when she refuses he gets angry and tells her that there is no party planned it's just them alone all weekend. When they arrive back at shore, Diane is livid that he tried to trick her. She is about to pack up and leave, but her anger turns to confusion when they find Lep and his buddies sitting in the living room of the house. Lep demands money to pay for car repairs, and a nervous Harold hands over a wad and implores them to leave. Seeing that Harold is living in style, Lep decides that he wants more money, and tells Harold that he and his friends will be staying for the entire weekend.

Harold's uninvited guests quickly dip into the booze, and decide to take the boat out for a spin. Watching them from on shore, Diane pleads with Harold to be a man and get rid of them, and he tells her that he has a shotgun hidden at the house. Back on shore, Lep tries to convince Harold to rape her, but when he refuses, Lep goes after Diane all by himself. After a surprising rape scene, Lep realizes that his efforts to scare Harold aren't working the ritzy house means more to the playboy dentist than anything else. In his blind desire to destroy Harold, Lep begins wrecking the house and the others get in on the act with baseball bats and sledgehammers. As Lep guessed, this finally drives Harold over the edge and sends him running upstairs to get the shotgun. Lep is right there though, and easily turns the tables by stealing the gun out of Harold's hands and chasing him out the door with it, leaving Lep's three Neanderthal friends alone with Diane. When Runt tries to rape her himself, Diane conceals a shard of broken glass in her hand and vows to get her revenge.

Like all of the Canadian rural revenge films, Death Weekend wears it's influences on it's sleeve, but the top-notch acting by Brenda Vaccaro and the unbearably villainous Don Stroud make this film an original and memorable experience. In fact, Death Weekend was quite likely an influence on one of the most notorious female revenge films of all time, I Spit on Your Grave.

Fruet's previous work as a scriptwriter for Don Shebib is evident in the fully-developed characters that appear in this film. While they certainly couldn't be classified as the stereotypical " impotent males" of Canadian film, they are all loathsome in their own right. From the hoodlums who get their kicks from terrorizing innocent women to the playboy who sees the woman as a disposable possession, these socially maladjusted men come from opposite sides of the railroad tracks, but may have more in common that they would like to think.

Like Straw Dogs, Death Weekend downplays the sleaziness and concentrates on creating atmosphere and tension. That isn't to say that there aren't exploitive scenes in the film, but Fruet handles them expertly, and keeps the film fully concentrated on the ideas of male power and insecurity at hand. The result is that Death Weekend is an underrated Canadian thriller capable of surprising even the most jaded sleaze-hound.

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