Vendetta (1986, USA)

Vendetta - Karen Chase as Laurie Collins, with a wrist lock on Kay Butler (Sandy Martin)

Vendetta has all the standard ’80s trademarks you’d expect - prisoners with big hair and wearing workout gear like they’d just stepped out of a Flashdance or Let’s Get Physical video - but no-one (at least in prison) seems to be held accountable for much. Wasn’t glasnost an ’80s thing?

Glasnost aside, the problems for sweet Bonnie Cusack start when she rather stupidly accepts an invitation to join a stranger in his car. After being raped at gunpoint she shoots her attacker with his gun… and is then (”regardless of justification”, the judge says) improbably found guilty of 2nd degree manslaughter and sentenced to two years inside.

Within a very short time of her arrival inside Bonnie makes what proves to be a fatal mistake by defending herself and assaulting the prison’s top dog, Kay Butler (an excellent Sandy Martin). She is later ambushed and beaten by Kay and her cronies, is given a hot shot and thrown from the cellblock’s first tier. Despite evidence of unexplained bruises to her body, the autopsy finds that she suicided by ‘overdose complicated by fall’.

Bonnie’s sister, stuntwoman Laurie Collins (Karen Chase), won’t accept that finding, and decides to go into the prison to find out what really happened. She steals a car belonging to the judge who sentenced Bonnie, draws police into a chase, does a quick smash and grab before crashing the car, and then appears, impossibly, before the very same judge. He suspends her 12 month sentence - but revokes the suspension when Laurie abuses and assaults him. So off she goes to the same jail.

It’s your routine sort of jail with off-site conjugal visits in a local motel, a large gym, an impressive swimming pool, a wrestling program, a row of arcade games, a huge automotive shop, a warden worried principally about profit, a sleazy guard who is sexually involved with as many prisoners as he can, and a head of security Miss Dice (Roberta Collins) who is seemingly the only staff member troubled by the five recent deaths in the prison. And then there’s Kay, the imposing head trusty, who is feared by all the prisoners, given free rein by staff and protected by the warden who does not want to deal with the power vacuum that would be created if she were brought into line.

Laurie prevents her Latina cellmate from being grievously injured by Kay; in return, her cellmate tells her what happened to Bonnie. Laurie wastes no time avenging her sister’s death by picking off Kay’s crew, one by one. She kills one in an empty building on a wind farm (put down to an ‘industrial accident’), drowns the next in the empty swimming pool at night, smashes another in an empty shower block… before experiencing a crisis of conscience. The deaths are remarkable, both for the lack of response from the prison hierarchy and Kay’s total bewilderment about who might be bumping off her hangers-on… until she’s tipped off by a prisoner in whose presence Dice rather injudiciously reveals the connection between Bonnie and Laurie to the warden while, of all things, trapshooting.

Inevitably, there is a showdown between Laurie and Kay, but not before Laurie has to fend off an attack by another guard who lets himself into her isolation cell, and a huge brawl at a prison concert by a Prince impersonator which leaves another stack of prisoners dead.

Laurie’s single-minded vengeance is at the heart of the movie, but Kay is its star, somehow managing to appear almost believable in the midst of so much choreographed fighting (just about every prisoner seems a devotee of taekwondo) and so many poorly supervised areas. Her cynical gift of free drugs to one of her customers who is trying to kick her drug habit is one of the film’s strongest scenes.

But the lack of accountability is strange. Kay is not pulled up on her rorts and rackets, which we might understand. But the prison doesn’t seem to come under any scrutiny at all for its succession of odd deaths, and our heroine seems to avoid being held in any way responsible for her one-woman crime wave.

Was that an ’80s thing, or just a little silliness in the script? The latter, I reckon.

Vendetta #2 - Sandy Martin as Kay Butler and Roberta Collins as Miss Dice Vendetta #3 - Sandy Martin as Kay Butler about to hit Laurie Collins (Karen Chase) with a wrench

Posted on March 21st, 2016 at 8:00 pm. Updated on March 21st, 2016 at 8:00 pm.

#322 in the Top 500

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