Vice Squad (1982)

Gary Sherman

Season Hubley - Princess
Wings Hauser - Ramrod
Gary Swanson - Detective Tom Walsh
Pepe Serna - Pete Mendez
Beverly Todd - Luise Williams
Nina Blackwood - Ginger
Joseph DiGiroloma - Kowalski
Maurice Emanuel - Edwards

Genre - Action/Crime/Mystery/Thriller

Running Time - 97 Minutes

PLOT (from IMDB)
A Los Angeles businesswoman, known only by her street name of Princess (Season Hubley), turns to prostitution to support herself and her young daughter when she’s forced by Detective Tom Walsh (Gary Swanson) and his vice squad to help them arrest a brutal pimp named Ramrod (Wings Hauser) for the murder of a prostitute named Ginger (Nina Blackwood). But when Ramrod learns that he was set up, he escapes from police custody and begins a long night of tracking down Princess while Walsh and his vice squad are always one steps behind him.

VICE SQUAD is an exploitation action crime thriller that I hadn’t seen in decades and totally forgot about until its recent Scream Factory blu-ray release earlier in the summer. Sure, I’ve recently seen the clips of Wings Hauser going psycho in TERROR IN THE AISLES, where Hauser proves he’s easily the best part of VICE SQUAD. But I hadn’t seen the film as a whole for a very long time until the last couple of days, and I still dug it quite a bit. It’s not perfect, nor is it the best exploitation crime thriller I have ever seen. But there’s a lot to like here to make it worthy of a blu ray purchase at least.

Even though it’s not the best exploitation film out there, it’s probably hard to rival one as entertaining as VICE SQUAD for majority of the film. VICE SQUAD is one of those films that seems to balance multiple sub-genres better than it has any right to. It’s a crime movie. It’s a thriller. It’s also a sort of slasher flick where a psycho pimp is targeting a prostitute who did him wrong. Every scene in the film has something going on that will keep you invested in what you’re watching, no matter how major or less so it is for the movie’s narrative. Not many exploitation films can capture that for all the right reasons, but VICE SQUAD definitely does.

I think what makes VICE SQUAD’s story work are the main characters, who all have some sort of arc that intercepts in the final act. Our main protagonist is Princess, who we follow for much of the film as she leaves her young daughter behind to head into Los Angeles to become a prostitute to support her family. She’s caught up in this police sting to arrest this terrible pimp named Ramrod due to her association with Ramrod’s main prostitute, Ginger, who brutally abuses and rapes Ginger to death. Just wanting to make a living for herself and her daughter, she’s constantly reluctant to help the police, who threaten her with prison time over her work, while getting the attention of Ramrod, who realizes that she’s technically an informant who wants to stop his rampage. While we only see a glimpse of Princess’ life prior to prostitution, VICE SQUAD mainly follows her as she encounters multiple johns who reveal… interesting fetishes and kinks that will make most mainstream audiences’ eyes widen. Once Ramrod comes into the picture though, she has to evade him at every turn before he kills her. We realize that prostitution is something she’s doing for her family and not because she enjoys it, putting on a performance any time she tries to sell herself. Through the night, her initial enthusiasm fades, just wanting the night to be over while an evil pimp and eager cops are after her for one thing or another. Through her actions and reactions to the situations she puts herself in willingly or not, we learn a lot about Princess. She may have a tough exterior, but she’s just a scared, desperate woman who just wants to get her job over with so she can go back home to her daughter.

The main antagonist, Ramrod, is a piece of work himself. Unlike Princess, who is completely sympathetic, Ramrod is a horrible person in every way. He abuses his workers. He rapes some of them with coat hangers and gets some sort of sick pleasure out of it. He forces himself on random women by either pressing himself on them, putting his dirty fingers in their mouths, and other disgusting things. He believes he owns the place and is totally corrupted by the reputation he has gained on the streets. He’s a deplorable character with no redeeming quality, so you want justice to be served whether peacefully or violently when it comes to Ramrod.

And then you have the police characters, in particular Detective Tom Walsh who is eager to take down Ramrod and play hard ball with Princess to make that happen. He’s surrounded by incompetent cops, which frustrates him to no end. And while he can be a bit of a hard ass when it comes to threatening to put Princess in jail for prostitution, he does care for her and wants to make sure she’s safe enough to continue supporting her daughter. He wants to do the right thing, even if he has to get dirty at times to make it happen.

And the supporting characters, while not having a ton of screen time, add a lot to build the atmosphere of VICE SQUAD. You get colorful pimps, other prostitutes doing their thing, and clients who raise the exploitation level by being really bizarre at times. You ever wanted to know how hiring a prostitute for a funeral wedding scenario would turn out? This is your movie! Ginger, the troubled friend of Princess and Ramrod’s main prostitute, doesn’t get a lot of screen time either, but she’s the catalyst for the entire story. She suffers from Battered Wife Syndrome, wanting Princess to help her get away from Ramrod, but falls for that trap when Ramrod apologizes and states his love for her. You feel sad for Ginger, especially after what Ramrod does to her. You know enough about her and situation to feel something towards everyone involved. I thought the good writing helped in that.

The narrative is your pretty standard police procedural where cops use a prostitute to bust a pimp, which backfires on them and causes the prostitute to be the pimp’s new target. But VICE SQUAD does it well, even though I feel the first half of the film - the universe building portion - is the more interesting and engaging portion of the film. Once Ramrod wants revenge on Princess in the second half of the film, the storytelling gets extremely random as there aren’t a lot of moments of Ramrod going after Princess, but rather Princess hanging out with her friends or encountering men who have interesting sexual requests for her. It’s not until the final fifteen minutes when Ramrod and Princess finally encounter each other, does VICE SQUAD pick up again. I’m not saying what Princess deals with is terrible, because those scenes are memorable and entertaining. But you get a sense that the filmmakers needed to fill up time before the climax. I think the Princess and her clients scenes add a lot to her personal story, but they don’t really matter by the film’s end to be honest.

Gary Sherman, best known for his directorial work on 1981’s DEAD & BURIED, 1986’s WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE and 1988’s POLTERGEIST III, confidently directs a good looking exploitation film that captures the vibe of early-1980s Los Angeles. All the characters, the locations and even the awesome soundtrack feel authentic - creating this gritty nostalgia for me that a part of me wishes I could go back to. Sherman captures a sleaziness and dirtiness that a film like this should definitely have, keeping up with a rapid fire pace and well shot scenes that are extremely memorable and worth discussing within film circles. Sherman actually cut the film down quite a bit, feeling there was too much filler and only wanted to maintain the scenes that focused on Ramrod’s pursuit of Princess. This would explain the disjointed feeling of the film’s second half, but Sherman did the right thing taking out as much filler as possible. It’s a short film and never wears out its welcome, making an easy watch for exploitation fans.

I feel the strongest aspect of VICE SQUAD is the acting. I might as well start with Wings Hauser - an actor I feel is extremely underrated and should have had a more memorable career than he did. Hauser is absolutely electric as the despicable Ramrod, taking what should have been a caricature B-movie villain and turning him into this genuine monster who leaps off of the screen and grabs you by the balls. Hauser is so into the role, relishing in being evil and devoting his performance to make audiences hate the guy - even though I’m sure some people love Ramrod because of Hauser’s colorful performance. He’s just so great in this film, to the point where TERROR IN THE AISLES had no choice but to include his scenes in their horror compilation, even though VICE SQUAD isn’t technically classified as “horror”. Hauser truly steals the film from everyone else, crafting one of the most entertaining and hateful psychopaths in exploitation film history. Hauser also sings the film’s opening song, “Neon Slime”, which is interesting in its own right. The man is VICE SQUAD, plain and simple.

Season Hubley is also great in her own way as Princess. Going through a terrible divorce from her then-husband Kurt Russell, Hubley used a lot of that sadness, grief and anguish to make Princess a sympathetic figure despite if one believes her profession is low class. Hubley is both tough and vulnerable, making her actions and reactions believable. The two scenes, where she finds out about Ginger and the end where Ramrod tries to murder her, show her range in capturing a complex character who continues to sink into a situation she’s trying to get out of. I wish Hubley and Hauser had more scenes together because it would have been great to see them play off of each other within multiple scenarios.

The other actors are very good as well. Gary Swanson plays your typical 80s police detective, giving the character a likable toughness and empathy towards Princess that another actor could have screwed up. Swanson plays the role seriously and makes Tom Walsh a fully fleshed out character who peels multiple layers from start to finish. The only other actor of note is Nina Blackwood as Ginger. Blackwood, one of the original MTV VJs, does very well as a troubled prostitute who is so abused and put down by her pimp, that she’s victim of going back to him and dealing with the negatively as long as he takes care of her. You totally believe her and while you question her decisions by the end of her story arc, you also understand it, making it all the sadder. Really solid cast for a film you’d probably wouldn’t expect that of.

After all these decades, VICE SQUAD still manages to be an entertaining exploitation flick that has more than earned its cult status. While the first half of the film is stronger than the second half [besides a suspenseful final ten to fifteen minutes], the script builds colorful characters who feel right at home in a gritty, sleazy 1980s Los Angeles. Director Gary Sherman manages to create atmosphere and suspense by allowing the audience to follow three separate people living in different worlds - a tough yet vulnerable prostitute, a murderous pimp, and a hungry-for-justice cop - as they come to a collision course along a road of blackmail, abuse, and sexual fetishism that would make a lot of people blush. While Season Hubley and Gary Swanson are very good as the prostitute and cop respectively, it’s Wings Hauser as psychotic pimp Ramrod who steals the show through his powerfully manic and vicious performance. VICE SQUAD is a grungy, memorable and fun ride of a film that should be a must-see for any exploitation fan needing a fix.

3.5 Howls Outta 4

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