The Retaliators (2021)

The Retaliators has its world première at FrightFest 2021

As a male voiceover intones gravely about sin and choice, evil and justice, we see aerials of remote misty forestland, and a limping figure (with a big set of keys) dumping a wrapped body into a well outside a cabin in the woods. Then we follow a couple of young women navigating the backroads outside of Hillsdale, New Jersey. After the wind from their passing combi van blows a new leaflet for a ‘Christmas Santa Sprint’ off a telegraph pole, revealing a tattered poster underneath for a ‘wanted’ fugitive, they take a wrong turn, through a property that expressly advertises having a “slaughterhouse on premise” and, stopping to repair a flat tyre, come under vicious attack from staggering mutant figures in the fog. “There’s fucking zombies out there!” screams one of the women, and all that a blood-drenched would-be rescuer can say in response before he too gets violently dragged away is: “They’re not zombies”. The opening of The Retaliators is pure mystification: utterly overcoded with confusing, even conflicting genre signs (a hint of The Ring, a bit of The Evil Dead, a smattering of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a soupçon of The Hills Have Eyes, a sprinkle of the zombie genre – even if it is avowedly not a zombie movie), in a story that pastes its Christmas setting over some very Un-Christian criminal activities. However it adds up, this prologue serves as a promise of gory mayhem amped up the max – and the rest of the film will, ever so gradually, deliver in full on that promise with manically messy glee.  

First, though, we are introduced to a world of loss. Teen Sarah Bishop (Katie Kelly) still attends a grief counselling group after the death of her mother years earlier. Soon Sarah’s widowed dad John (Michael Lombardi), also a charismatic father of the church, will be suffering the secondary loss of Sarah herself, horrifically murdered on Christmas Eve in an incident that will cause the meek, mild-mannered pastor to question whether turning the other cheek is always the right thing to do. Meanwhile Jed Sawyer (Marc Menchaca), a no-nonsense detective named for a horror icon and committed to tracking down Sarah’s killer, carries the burden of his own loss from a decade earlier, and has found an unorthodox way to work through his sense of aggrievement – and when the psychotic Ram Kady (Joseph Gatt) vanishes along with some money and crystal meth, Vic (Ivan L. Moody) leads his gang of drug-dealing bikers (played by the members of FIve Finger Death Punch) to look for his missing brother, for reasons personal as well as professional. All these men are looking for payback, and as their stories of vengeance intersect in unexpected ways, directors Samuel Gonzalez Jr and Bridget Smith (working from a tight screenplay by brothers Darren and Jeff Allen Geare) offer up a pulpy world where very different lives are brought into violent collision, and where those who have not already long since crossed the moral line might have to do so very fast in order not only to be liberated of their pain, but simply to get through the day in one piece.

Those left wondering what all these sleepy small-town scenarios have to do with the film’s opening sequence will eventually be rewarded with a climax where everything comes together in a splatter-filled confrontation of unhinged revenge and unruly ramification. “Eighties action heroes, they solved problems with violence and one-liners,” John had previously told Sarah and his younger daughter Rebecca (Abbey Hafer), “You know real life doesn’t work that way.” Yet good John is about to break bad, entering a hell far removed from real life and morphing into an Eighties action hero (of the Ash Williams variety), as he heads down a dark, nightmarish path towards recovery, maybe even redemption, and finally takes up the sword (or at least machete) of God. Rooted in a wild, Tarantino-esque mash-up of the trashiest tropes to be let loose from genre’s underground basement, The Retaliators is – like John’s favourite Eighties movie Die Hard (1988) – a Christmas cracker of a film, bringing John and viewer alike true, bloody satisfaction.

strap: Holy shit: Samuel Gonzalez Jr & Bridget Smith’s rambunctious revenger takes a grieving priest through a dark, pulpy hell of genre

© Anton Bitel