Sunday, March 1, 2015

Terrorist (South Africa, 1978)

You get a good idea of where Terrorist is coming from early on, when the mother of its subject white family, upon discovering her husband being held at gunpoint by a black intruder, murmurs in hushed dread, “Terrorists!” You also get a good idea of where it’s coming from when you learn, as I did, that it was originally titled Black Terrorist and was produced in South Africa at the height of Apartheid. It’s pretty racist, is what I’m saying.

Terrorist is what today would be called a “home invasion” film (think The Purge, or The Strangers). It begins with a nice white family returning unexpectedly from a nice white family occasion to find their isolated home in one of South Africa’s most godawful desert regions occupied by a trio of gun wielding black men, aka the terrorists of the title. In the terrorists’ favor, it should be said that they had not expected the family to be home, as they were depending on faulty information from one of the family’s treacherous black servants, whom they subsequently tie to a tree and fill with bullets for his mistake. This later prompts one of the white characters to remark upon how “they” treat their own. (Look, it gets worse from here. I’m just warning you.)

Like so many cinematic bands of kidnappers, the terrorists include among their number a psychopathic loose cannon who acts as sort of a group id, raping and brutalizing the hostages so that the other two can be freed up to spout lofty rhetoric about reclaiming their homeland. Among the bloody hijinks that summarily follow are the murders of both parents, which leaves their pair of toe headed super children to fend for themselves. The oldest of these, Anna, played by former beauty queen Vera Johns, manages to make a break for it and flee off into the savanna, leaving her little brother, who I’ll just call Junior, in the terrorists’ clutches.

To say that Anna then assembles a rag tag band of rescuers to save her brother taxes the meaning of the term “rag tag”, as her choices are limited to the random dregs of humanity who have happened to collect in the dusty hell hole that her parents had chosen to call home. These include an alcoholic Scottish loner and, most conveniently, a scruffy, camo-clad mercenary with a literal fuck ton of weapons at his disposal. Finally, there is a hunky American journalist (Robert Aberdeen) who just happens to be motoring by. This last character provides the mouthpiece for the film’s lone instances of mild anti-apartheid sentiment, although it is expressed in such terms of lightweight hippy idealism that it is easily dismissed by the other white characters. (“You know nothing about living with these bastards”, spits crusty mercenary guy.)

This motley band of saviors stages a bloody siege upon the house in which the terrorists are holed up, leading to gory casualties on both sides. In the aftermath, the remaining two terrorists take Junior and flee in their van, making for the coast and the boat that will take them back to Terrorist Central or wherever. Meanwhile, the savagery that he has witnessed has turned our peace loving American friend’s mantra from “can’t we all just get along” to “let me at ‘em”, leading him to eagerly take up arms and join Anna and company in hot pursuit.

While it is unquestionably poisoned by ideology, I found Terrorist to be less a work of pure propaganda than it was an especially cynical attempt at making a crowd pleasing thriller. And at this it is depressingly competent. Director Neil Hetherington reels out one time tested thriller trope after another—the near escapes, the nail-biting standoffs, the instances of help being near at hand but frustratingly out of reach, etc.—with a, for the most part, numbingly adequate level of technical acumen. Of course, this is not to say that the film is without its technical failings, especially in the areas of lighting and sound, and those walk blissfully hand-in-hand with the deeply shitty movie that Terrorist is at its core. Ironically, its one saving grace may be its (uncredited) musical score, which has an unmistakable, blaxploitation inspired, funky vibe—though this, sadly, has the effect of making the film overall even more of a “fuck you” to black culture.

I have no idea how much of a hit Terrorist was in its day, but it shares with successful thrillers both before and after the fact that it exploits a popular anxiety of its time. And by that I refer to the obsessive fear of retribution that comes with being the unrightful usurpers of a land. Perhaps this is why Hetherington chooses to end the film on an uncertain note, suggesting that the return of the terrorists is inevitable, much like the proverbial crows coming home to roost.

Rating: Fuck this movie.


Mr. Cavin said...

Re: the funky vibe. Well, nothing makes vile racism go down smoother than wrapping it in cozy appropriation! What it is is black face, that's what. Sounds like they shoe polished it right up with deep bass and a wah-wah pedal.

Todd said...

To me it's like "We will dismiss and vilify your culture--oh but, hey, we'll take your music!"