What more can be said about Chuck Norris? The ubiquitous ’80s B star, he made a series of mostly bland actioners that would only come alive if the director brought a little something different to the table, because they certainly weren’t going to work with an actor who has the charisma of a constipated two-by-four. This brings us to Silent Rage (1982), a hybrid sci-fi/horror/kung fu effort that is quite effective when it pushes away from The Hairy One’s usual antics. You want to see Michael Myers karate chopped by Lone Wolf McQuade? Step right up.
Okay he’s not Michael Myers, but he may as well be; POV shots and the unstoppable killer’s relentless gait definitely harken back to Halloween and even the previous year’s Halloween II in a bid for some of that sweet slasher bread. It worked well enough at the box office, making back two and a half times its $4 million budget. The closest it came to critical acclaim was this blurb from Variety: “Silent Rage seems as if it were made with a demographics sampler entitled '10 Sleazy Ways to Cash in on the Exploitation Market.'” Personally, I only counted two or three, but message received nevertheless. Silent Rage is schlock; but when it sticks to its horror tones, it works pretty damn well.
See if you’ve heard this one before: mentally disturbed John Kirby (Brian Libby – The Mist) makes a frantic call to his shrink, Dr. Tom Halman (Ron Silver – Blue Steel), from the overcrowded and noisy boarding house he resides in. After telling Dr. Halman that he’s “losing it,” he proceeds to take an axe to the mister and missus of the house; luckily the postman passing by alerts the police, heralding the low-angled arrival of Sheriff Dan Stevens (Norris) and his inept deputy Charlie (Stephen Furst – The Unseen). After a scuffle with Stevens, Kirby is handcuffed before breaking free and being blown to bits.
Halman has him transported to the local research facility, where Kirby is operated on by Halman (psychiatrist and surgeon? Pick a field!) with his colleagues Spires (Steven Keats – Hangar 18) and Vaughn (William Finley – Phantom of the Paradise), and their new hush-hush serum which regenerates cells and promotes quick healing blah blah blah. After it appears the serum doesn’t work, Halman tells them to pull the plug. Once he leaves, Spires and Vaughn fire up the machines and serum and proceed to bring Kirby back to life. A twisting of the Hippocratic Oath to be sure, and before long the psychotic (and now nigh invincible) Kirby is prowling the town, plowing through anyone in his way—and those who’ve done him wrong. It isn’t long before Sweaterchest Stevens and Kirby face off mano a mano in a battle to the death. But is Kirby too much man for the manliest of men?
Silent Rage, without the horror and sci-fi splashings, is pro forma Norris niblets: a beautiful damsel to rescue (Toni Kalem – The Wanderers), a biker gang to crush, and a touch of sneaky conspiracy with the hospital practice. If this was a normal Norris, however, Kirby would be a crooked politician or former colleague who’s gone rogue; perhaps a… actually those are the only two antagonists he’s ever had. By injecting a horror villain into the proceedings it becomes something more, or at least something different.
So what’s different? Suspense—in the pacing, in the surprisingly taut direction by Michael Miller (National Lampoon’s Class Reunion), and the terrifying performance by Libby as Kirby. All these things add up to a solid Halloween rip-off with an effective electronic score by Peter Bernstein (Remote Control) and Mark Goldenberg (Class Reunion). This is, of course, when the film isn’t catering to Chuck’s ’Merica base of eagles and shotgunning cheap beer. When it is—the romance with Halman’s sister, the biker brawl—it’s no better or worse than most of his other actioners. But when Kirby is on, or the mad doctors are mad doctoring, it has an energy that’s hard to resist.
Chuck Bronson tried his hand at genre melding the following year with his slasher procedural 10 To Midnight (you can read about it here), to similar results; simply put, injecting even the slightest tangent away from hairy chest thumping comes across as a cataclysmic change. Hyperbolic to be sure, but the majority of Norris’ films exhibit such a sameness that it’s impossible not to notice when the applecart is thematically overturned.
And them apples are everywhere folks, because this film has no less than four stories going at once: the romance, the relationship between Halman and his sister, the doctors’ quest for immortality through their test subject, and of course our immovable object, Kirby. Norris weaves through most of these with his blank-faced stare, but even his presence is bolstered by the fact that a Halloween/Frankenstein hybrid is unfolding before our eyes. And as the film rolls on (quite quickly I might add), the 14 other subplots are pushed aside as the monster barrels towards the inevitable showdown. Does Stevens finish Kirby Mortal Combat style, or does someone hit the reset button for another round? (The film says "reset," the box office said "game over.")
The performers you expect to do well do so; Silver is never a letdown, and Finley is always a welcome sight. But Libby is the revelation, and the fuel that keeps it going: sweaty, twitchy, and propulsive, he invests Kirby with a relentless drive and a shaken core; unlike many slasher villains, we can see his pain and see his humanity slip away. Perhaps this is why Silent Rage stands apart from most Chuck Norris films: regardless of genre, there’s humanity present on screen. It just happens to swing a large axe very hard.
Silent Rage is available on Blu-ray from Mill Creek Entertainment.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973)