The Underrated: Vice Squad
I was originally going to do a whole run of sleaze films for The Vault. However, that’s been cancelled as the 2 I’ve seen so far, Angel and this spectacular film, aren’t schlocky enough. If anything the reverse is true, as both of them turned out to be fine little films that have, in my opinion, been unfairly forgotten. I’m going to do my best to remedy that.
Vice Squad opens in the most unpromising fashion with a lengthy “true story” disclaimer. The film-makers want to be 100% clear that while this isn’t a true story per se, everything we’re about to see is based on factual accounts from various Hollywood Vice Squad cops, hookers, pimps and junkies. This, in a strange sort of way, does the film a real disservice as what we have here is a damned taut thriller as well as a gritty expression of Urban misery.
Then it gets even worse with a god-awful theme song called Neon Slime sung by none other than Wings Hauser himself. It has to be said that at this stage Vice Squad looks exactly like schlock.
It isn’t schlock.
Vice Squad takes place over one evening. Season Hubley plays Princess, a somewhat unlikely looking hooker, and Vice Squad charts one evening in her life, but particularly the attempts by the cops to arrest the sociopathic Ramrod, who in one of the early scenes of the film beats a hooker called Ginger to death with a coat hanger.
This has a downright brilliant script. There’s an air of verisimilitude to the dialogue, particularly the hookers exchanges that suggests that the writers Sandy Howard and Kenneth Peters spent some time with real prostitutes in a non entertainment-industry capacity. All the characters in this film have memorable dialogue, particularly Princess, but there are some real zingers that leap to mind such as Princess’ response to the chauffeur of a creepy old guy that wanted to play dead while she had sex with him (in a wedding dress):
Chauffeur: Tomorrow’s my day off are you working?
Princess: I’m in church tomorrow praying for that sick old fuck
Or the scene where the prostitutes meet up and compare notes on their evening, and Princess laments that “All I’ve had tonight are perverts, nobody wants straight sex any more”. To be fair, it isn’t just the hookers that get great dialogue. The police also have their share of it, trading smart-arsed quips and world-weary observations without missing a beat. There’s an easy rhythm to the dialogue that reeks of authenticity, and it isn’t an exaggeration to say that the script for Vice Squad truly sparkles. Although the film picks up in the middle of the action, we care about these characters, and this is done without annoying character touches, just through dialogue and exchanges here Princess points out the reality of money to Walsh.
Aside from the dialogue, however, there are many sequences in this film that also seem to be taken straight from real accounts. There’s a particularly difficult bit to watch with Princess being rutted by a convention attendee, who complains that she isn’t moving, before stealing a refund from her purse. It’s bleak watching, fluctuating between the look of utter boredom on her face as he pounds away and the sweaty expanse of his body. If you ever had any inclination towards prostitution, then this scene will put you right off.
Nevertheless, as good as the script is, the performances absolutely trump it. Season Hubley is magnificent as Princess, but really the film is dominated by Wings Hauser (a sentence I never thought I’d write) and his demented performance as the unhinged Ramrod. He’s genuinely frightening playing the crazed lunatic alternating between sleazy charm and increasingly extreme acts of violence. As the film mounts towards the bloody climax Ramrod loses what little control he has at the start, beating Coco (one of the prostitutes) to a bloody pulp, before trapping Princess, throttling her with a bullwhip and then breaking out his favourite tool of punishment. Wings really appears to enjoy beating on the women- there’s a horribly lascivious look on his face when he’s hurting people as if he’s relishing the sadism. It’s a scary performance, and one of the best of its type that I’ve seen in a police film.
Vice Squad is a film steeped in atmosphere. The vast majority of it takes place on the Hollywood streets, and there’s a depressing and sleazy aura surrounding the film. The director, Gary Sherman, cleverly only used two sets for the film, shooting the vast majority of it on location on the streets, and the various passers by look as if they are actually punters trawling for flesh in the red light district. There’s also a noirish feel to the film, all the colour on the streets comes from neon strip lights, and when a scene is fully lit, such as in the morgue, then the contrast couldn’t be more extreme. The girls and the other street scum live in the shadows, and when the lights are up it strips away all the little delusions that they use to comfort themselves. Their lives are horrid (at one point Princess and Walsh compare notes on who’s had the worst evening, before declaring it a dead heat) and no amount of fantasy or gallows humour can really disguise this.
Aside from being a gritty slice of urban realism, Vice Squad is also a very effective thriller. The race between the Cops and Ramrod to get to Princess is compelling and exciting stuff. The police are always one step behind the madman and although you do feel that they’ll turn up in the nick of time to rescue her this isn’t guaranteed as the film has made it very clear that bad things happen. I won’t spoil it, but it is an edge-of-the-seat ride and, as the film makes repeatedly apparent, this is real life and in real life the cavalry don’t ride over the hill in the nick of time. In real life, the hooker ends up a beaten and bloody mess breathing her life alone and unmissed in a gutter.
Overall, this is a superb film that is more than overdue rehabilitation. I’m sure the subsequent embarrassing exploits of Mr. Hauser have damaged the reputation of this early effort, but that doesn’t mean that this should be ignored. It’s a bitter film that is well aware of the utter misery of the lives it is showing and the writers avoided any fairytale reconciliation, instead going for truth and they mercilessly depict the futility of the war that Vice are waging- as Princess herself puts it “You can’t change the streets”.
Until next time,