Presenting horrific behavior in a matter-of-fact style, Open Season is unusual among the myriad ’70s movies about the corrosive effects of violence. Whereas many ’70s films engaging this subject matter use vigilantism as a prism for exploring morality, Open Season takes a decidedly nihilistic approach. The principal characters are three average Americans who spend their annual camping trips hunting human beings for sport. Some brisk but pointed dialogue late in the movie explains why: The friends became addicted to killing people while serving in Vietnam. Pretty heavy for a European exploitation movie that caters to the international audience by featuring several American actors. Sleekly filmed by UK director Peter Collinson (helmer of 1969’s The Italian Job), this slow-burn thriller stars Peter Fonda, John Phillip Law, and Richard Lynch as the hunters.
Their characters are introduced effectively at a backyard barbecue, the apex of suburban normalcy, before they kiss their wives and children goodbye and depart for their annual getaway. Upon reaching the boondocks, the dudes drink heavily and zero in on a young couple traveling the same roads. Nancy (Cornelia Sharpe) is a sexy blonde, and her companion, Martin (Alberto de Mendoza), is a clean-cut dweeb whom the hunters correctly guess is having an extramarital affair with Nancy. The hunters pretend to be cops in order to pull over the couple’s car, and then the hunters abduct the couple, transporting their hostages to a lakeside cabin miles from civilization. The hunters toy with the couple, forcing Martin to do housework while cleverly manipulating Nancy into believing she can seduce her way out of trouble. After the men have their fun with Nancy, the real gamesmanship begins—the hunters release Martin and Nancy into the wild with a 30-minute head start, and then the hunters gather high-powered rifles and begin their pursuit.
The best sequences of Open Season depict savagery casually. The hunters use good manners while humiliating Martin and shackling Nancy so she can’t escape. Worse, they treat their whole adventure like a regular hunting trip, downing beers and trading jokes even as they prepare for sadistic homicide. The filmmakers wisely eschew musical scoring during many scenes, letting the creepy onscreen events manufacture mood without adornment. When music does kick in, however, some of the misguided attempts at replicating hillbilly melodies are distracting. The acting is uneven, though Fonda, Law, and Lynch simulate camaraderie well. (FYI, William Holden makes a mark in a very small supporting role.) Best of all is the film’s final half-hour, during which a remote island becomes a killing ground. Once the characters in Open Season throw off their pretenses, the savage heart of this nasty little movie beats loudly.
Open Season: GROOVY