By Scott Tibbs, February 17, 2013
Many people mark Halloween as the birth of the modern "slasher" movie, where the main character is a villain killing people out of obsession or pleasure. But I respectfully submit that the modern slasher genre did not start in 1978 with Halloween - it started in 1974 with Death Wish, which I recently re-watched.
The movie starts out well enough. Paul Kersey is a Korean War veteran who served in a medical unit because he was a conscientious objector. He argues with his Nazi coworker over treatment of the poor and underprivileged, expressing concern about people who do not have the financial resources to move out of the city. And no, I am not exaggerating when I say the guy is a Nazi. He actually says the poor should be in concentration camps. Not murderers, rapists or muggers - the poor. Is this a character we should sympathize with as the audience?
Kersey's murderous rampage starts with three thugs breaking into his apartment and attacking his wife and daughter. The brutality of the scene is shocking and disturbing, even by today's standards. I imagine it was even more so in 1974. Kersey is told by the NYPD (in this movie they might as well be the Keystone Cops) that there is little to no chance that the three murderers will be caught, and that is just the way things are in this city.
Kersey's descent into madness is handled well. He is visibly shaken and shocked with his own actions after hitting a would-be mugger in the face with a sock filled with quarters. He travels to the west, where he is introduced to frontier "justice." His friend out there sends him back with a gun. The next would-be mugger that confronts Kersey is shot to death, leading to Kersey in tears and then vomiting in his apartment after the fact.
This is man who, confronted with the brutal reality of crime in New York City, the helplessness of many victims and his own personal tragedy, questions and then abandons his pacifist beliefs. His grief, frustration and rage over the attack on his family leads him to seek out muggers to attack him so that he can murder them in "self-defense." (Of course, seeking out these situations is actually premeditated murder.)
The police do not like this, and the movie portrays them more as defending their turf than seeking justice. At no point is the philosophical foundation for why vigilantism is wrong explored in any kind of depth, and the police actually cover up crime statistics showing that muggings have been cut in half by Kersey's murder spree. It is very one-sided.
When Kersey is caught by police, they do not want to prosecute him for fear of making him a martyr, so they simply ask him to leave town in exchange for not prosecuting him. He does, and when he lands in Chicago he sees some thugs roughing up a woman. He points his finger at them in the shape of a pistol and smiles, setting up a sequel. It is here where it is clear that Kersey enjoys killing. He is not seeking justice. He is committing murder for pleasure.
Death Wish is a compelling movie on its own, detailing the grief and decent into madness of our protagonist. Charles Bronson (as always) does an excellent job playing Kersey, and is believable in his fights with criminals despite being fifty three years old. This is why it earns a high grade.
Nonetheless, the political message it sends is downright disturbing. We do not need due process or civil liberties for criminals. We need to simply kill them, to maximize the efficiency of punishing them and to protect innocent people. A vigilante is not someone acting outside the law and committing murder; he is a hero of the people. It is the popular attitude represented by Death Wish that has seen the escalation of the War on Crime, steadily increasing use of force by law enforcement, and the encroachment of civil liberties.
The attitudes this movie represents and endorses are just plain scary.
Final Grade: A