A Vietnam veteran hitchhikes to the Pacific Northwest to see one of his few surviving war comrades; it turns out that the man has died (the death is attributed to Agent Orange, though it's not clear how the deduction was made). On the way out of town he is mistaken for a hippie by the local police chief, who orders him out of town. The veteran sees no reason why he should go, not having harmed anyone. The policeman then charges him with vagrancy. He is beaten up in police headquarters; he escapes; and the remainder of First Blood is an extended hunt-and-chase, as the seasoned veteran, trained to live off the land and construct defensive weapons out of whatever is available, is pitted in a deadly struggle against recapture by increasing hordes of searchers deputized by the vindictive police chief.
Sylvester Stallone, always better at self-expression through gesture and motion than through words, does so in spades in this film; he is almost totally inarticulate. His performance as the loner who is still not attuned to civilian life is convincing enough, especially with the aid of flashbacks (when he is being imprisoned by the local cops, there are flashbacks to his imprisonment in an underground cell in Vietnam, and so on).
There are several flaws in this picture, however. (1) It is hard to believe that for the simple charge of vagrancy, American policemen would beat up a prisoner, cut him up, hose him with cold water, and use other forms of torture. They are depicted as such ruthless villains that the Gestapo was almost merciful by comparison. (2) Stallone's commander in Vietnam (Richard Crenna) suddenly appears on the scene—one does not know why or from where. He is presumably there to give verbal articulation to Stallone's side of the conflict, but his presence in the film is a strained tour de force. (3) The film, taken from a 1972 book, seems dated. Vietnam veterans are being reinstated in public opinion, and to hear them condemned as torturers and child-killers seems now, 10 years later, almost quaint.
Perhaps none of this matters much. The film is an old-fashioned chase movie with the Vietnam theme thrown in to make this one seem different from its predecessors. We have here a celebration of the lone individual pitted against the collective armed might of the state. The feeling aroused in the audience becomes so strong that even when the hero engages in killings and mutilations the audience's sympathy remains with him. After all, they asked for the struggle, he didn't; they were the ones to draw first blood.
Whether all this blood was really necessary is something the film never invites us to think of: it could presumably have been prevented by a single sentence by Stallone to the policemen at the beginning, saying that he was a war veteran who had come to town to visit a friend. But such a logical way out of the mess would have left the producers without a movie, just as, if Hamlet had killed his uncle in Act I as there was every reason to do (hence the "Hamlet problem"—why didn't he?), Shakespeare would have had to look elsewhere for a subject for a new play.
The Amityville Horror II
The Amityville Horror II is not a successor to the original Amityville film. It's about the same house, but its action precedes in time the action of the earlier film. Moreover, it isn't a poltergeist story except for a bit at the beginning (and this was done much better in the recent film Poltergeist). Rather, it soon turns into a story of demon possession. It seems that the devil—or evil spirits or whatever—infest the house; as in Poltergeist, the souls of the dead are for some reason angered because a house was constructed on their graves. In retaliation they (it?) take forcible possession of the son of the family, compelling him to kill the entire remainder of the family. But the infinitely patient family priest, saying "He couldn't help it," seeks him out to exorcise the devil from him, and when he fails, he cries "Take me! Take me!" (a direct steal from The Exorcist).
All these goings-on are about as unconvincing as they were in Amityville I, though the plot of the new film is somewhat better constructed. Assuming, however, that one is interested in seeing a film about demon possession, one cannot do better than to see The Exorcist, in which every hypothesis to explain the victim's behavior is systematically eliminated save one (literal demonic possession); that film at least was a vivid exercise in inductive logic. Amityville II's treatment of the same theme is not only derivative; it is episodic, uninvolving, and on the whole extremely thin soup without discernible redeeming features.
John Hospers teaches philosophy at the University of Southern California.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".