William Friedkin’s 1992 film Rampage is a ham-handed screed in favor of the death penalty. William Friedkin’s 1987 film Rampage is more of a complex thriller that isn’t nearly as sure what it thinks about the death penalty. These are two radically different films, though the one you’re likely to see — Friedkin’s preferred cut, as of 1992, anyway — is the worse one.
Both films concern a serial killer, Charles Reece (Alex McArthur), loosely based on real-life psycho Richard Chase, “the Vampire of Sacramento.” Reese saunters into people’s houses, shoots everyone dead, sodomizes the women’s corpses, and drinks their blood. We don’t have to look at much of this in detail; in either version, Friedkin is atypically tactful about showing the actual violence. Reece is caught and taken into custody, and district attorney Tony Fraser (Michael Biehn), a self-described liberal, finds himself prosecuting the case. After visiting the scenes of the crimes, Fraser becomes convinced that he must prove Reece sane. Huh? Well, if Reece is proven wacko, then he can be found not guilty by reason of insanity, and instead of going to the gas chamber he’ll go to an institution, where he might eventually be set free.
Sadly, in both versions, we get about half an hour of thriller and about an hour of courtroom drama, which is where Friedkin’s head was at this time out. He must really have yearned to direct scenes of people arguing over a legal case, because ten years later he ended up remaking 12 Angry Men for Showtime. Anyway, Reece’s psychiatrists mount the defense that he’s clearly off his rocker, since he thinks Satan is poisoning his blood and only by drinking his victims’ blood can he stay alive. Fraser finds himself in the odd position of insisting that such a man is perfectly mentally healthy. He goes so far as to demand that one of the shrinks state for the record that the Nazis were sane (this was obviously long before Godwin’s Law). In the early, scary section, though, Friedkin creeps us out as successfully as he always has.
Friedkin finished Rampage in 1987. It showed at a few festivals, and then its distributor, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, went under. It took five years before the film could be legally disentangled and released by Miramax; in the intervening time, Friedkin apparently changed his mind about what he wanted the film to say. In both versions, Fraser is still mourning the loss of his little daughter six months before. In the ’87 version, though, more is made of the strain the case puts on his marriage as his wife (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) questions why such a liberal man has such a hard-on for the death penalty. Some footage that isn’t in the ’92 version underlines the idea that Fraser feels guilt over having to make the decision to pull the plug on his comatose daughter (he’s a good Catholic, too, as both versions establish early). He feels terrible for having had to make that life-or-death decision then, so it doesn’t make sense in the ’92 version for him to be so blithe and single-minded about making it again.
The films have drastically different endings, too. Without venturing into spoiler territory, let’s just say that the ’87 version leaves things open to a lot of doubt and questioning — and even more remorse on Fraser’s part — while the ’92 version is an open-and-shut case, rhetorically speaking. (Weirdly, too, footage from the tragic ending of the ’87 cut is used in a different context earlier in the ’92 cut, perhaps leading the viewer of the redux to wonder why a presumably sleeping character looks stone dead.) To be blunt, Friedkin must’ve read some really hardcore pro-death-penalty pamphlets between 1987 and 1992. The ’92 version must also have pissed off Alex McArthur, since it omits the actor’s big moment near the end of the ’87 cut, when Reece tearfully asks for his life to be spared so that he can somehow work to make up for the things he did, and so that “killing people won’t be the only thing I did my whole life.” Meanwhile, in the ’87 version, Fraser sits in darkened rooms or a helicopter in flight and tells his tape recorder that he’s not sure what the answer is, but killing Reece isn’t it, and Michael Biehn — a fine, intense actor — is best in these scenes. Which, in the ’92 cut, are nowhere to be found.
Full disclosure: I’m a liberal and I abhor capital punishment. But I don’t insist that every film mirror my politics — I still believe a good pro-death-penalty movie could conceivably be made. It’s just that Friedkin hasn’t made that good movie. He himself, in interviews coinciding with the ’92 release, said that he was less pro-death-penalty than anti-insanity-defense. Fine — although the way the movie sets it up, either the bastard dies or he might possibly someday get set free; there’s no middle ground — but Friedkin stacks the deck (as of 1992) to make the psychiatrists look weak and venal, and he seems a lot more convinced than I am that a killer, once found insane, will be let out of the looney bin once his crimes are “forgotten about.” (Hasn’t Friedkin been watching his own movie? Hardened cops are sickened at the scenes of Reece’s crimes, muttering that they’ve never seen anything like this before. The impression we get is that Reece’s savagery is and will be, at the very least, memorable.) The case of Charles Manson, whose initial death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment when California briefly did away with the death penalty, would seem to refute this; certainly no one has “forgotten” what he did, and as I write this in early 2012, Manson has recently been denied parole for the twelfth time. He will most likely die behind bars, as he should. Killing him would only have martyred him in the eyes of his followers.
Or take probably the most famous example of the insanity defense, John Hinckley Jr. He’s been at St. Elizabeths Hospital for 31 years, and though his leash has loosened in recent years (family visits and such, always closely monitored), he’s pushing 60 now and it doesn’t seem likely you’ll run into him at the supermarket any time soon. Nobody has forgotten what he did, either. And he didn’t even kill anyone (not for lack of trying, of course). Anyway, rather than bending himself into rhetorical pretzels trying to argue for Reece’s sanity, Fraser could have done the homework and seen that many criminals institutionalized via the insanity defense end up locked away for longer than they might have been in prison. If you’re still deemed a threat, you stay there. And post-Hinckley the insanity defense has been used very sparingly, in less than 1% of criminal cases. That’s mainly because the defense, on whom the burden of proof of insanity rests, knows it’s a hard fucking sell.
Basically, in re-editing his film to make a cruder point, Friedkin took out the shadings in his characters and the better work of his leads, and in no way whatsoever did he improve the movie. He in fact systematically made it worse. (But then Friedkin has never been the best judge of his own work — remember the needless subliminals he inserted into the Exorcist re-release, and the visual hack job that was the first, director-approved French Connection Blu-ray?) In many ways the two films are the same, with the same structure and narrative beats, but the more pensive and ambiguous moments that Friedkin chose to delete while preparing the ’92 cut are the ones that set the ’87 version apart. The ’87 cut ends on a note of healing and hope (a bereaved husband and his son at a carnival); the ’92 version ends on an image of Reece staring at us through the bars of his cell, capped with an epilogue card telling us he’ll be up for parole in six months. Take that, you lefty anti-death-penalty twerps! Friedkin has taken an unsettled and unsettling work of art, something beyond politics, and coarsened it into a polemic.