The House by the Lake (perhaps better known as Death Weekend) is an intense survivalist suspense drama helmed by Canadian auteur William Fruet (who also created the 1972 drama Wedding in White, the spooky Funeral Home, and the telepathic killer snake extravaganza Spasms) and featuring a fantastic Brenda Vaccaro (fresh from her Oscar-nominated role in Once Is Not Enough) and a truly menacing Don Stroud (Bloody Mama, The Amityville Horror) playing a deadly, harrowing game of cat and mouse.
Death Weekend achieved some small critical acclaim at the time of its theatrical release in 1976, but was nevertheless considered repugnant by many who couldn’t handle its brazen violence and sexual brutality. (Interestingly, the film’s American theatrical release title of The House by the Lake was a marketing attempt to cash in on the success of the equally brutal Wes Craven film Last House on the Left.) If you can picture Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs set in Canada and featuring a resourceful female protagonist (Vaccaro), you’re on the right path to envisioning Death Weekend. It was reportedly even based by Fruet on a true incident that happened in his native Canada, and indeed the film has a level of realistic ugliness that was uncommon in ’70s cinema and still packs a punch today.
Death Weekend begins with lovely model Diane (Vaccaro) and horny dentist Harry (Chuck Shamata) speeding blissfully through the countryside on their way to Harry’s opulent (and very secluded) estate for a lavish party hosted by the wealthy orthodontist. After automobile enthusiast Diane takes the wheel, the pair are challenged by four scraggly thugs in a red SUV to a game of chicken, which Diane is all ready for. After outdriving the leering thugs and leading them into a ditch, Diane and Harry arrive at the house — and Diane soon begins to suspect that things aren’t all they seem when she discovers that no other guests have arrived for Harry’s supposed bash. As luck would have it for our heroine, Harry turns out to be a grade-A perv who snaps lewd photos of her in the shower from a secret room behind a two-way mirror and has no intentions of any other guests arriving, preferring to have Diane all to himself.
Diane is shocked when she realizes Harry’s true motives and prepares to leave, but she and Harry are paid a little surprise visit by the same low-life quartet of brutes that terrorized them on the road earlier. There’s wild-eyed leader Lep (Don Stroud), bespectacled and bug-eyed Runt (Richard Ayres), giggling group clown Stanley (Don Granberry), and rotten-toothed numbskull Frankie (Kyle Edwards), and none of them have the slightest regard for the safety or respect of others. The scumbags torment Harry and Diane, holding them captive as they cavort all over the property and destroy everything they come into contact with. Harry tries to bargain with them and offer them money for their wrecked car if they’ll just leave, but the four crazed villains have other plans in mind — which includes raping Diane and shooting Harry to death with a rifle. In the end, it’s up to Diane to fight for her own life against the maniacs… and boy does she ever, luring them one by one into fiery boobytraps, quicksand, and even slashing Runt’s throat open with a mirror shard as he attempts to rape her.
Death Weekend received awards from the Sitges – Catalonian International Film Festival in 1976 for Best Actress (Vaccaro) and Best Screenplay (Fruet) and deserved them both, Vaccaro in particular. Her performance as carefree model Diane who finds herself embroiled in a desperate fight for her life and sanity with four vicious thugs is potent and real, easily capable of drawing the audience into her plight. Don Stroud exudes fierce machismo and menace as the reckless sociopath Lep, who has little regard for human life and just can’t stand the fact that a chick like Diane can outdrive him — the ultimate blow to his narcissistic ego. Chuck Shamata (The Devil and Max Devlin) is convincing as financially secure Harry who is horrified to see his treasured possessions — including his motor boat and fancy artwork — callously destroyed by the league of brutes.
Death Weekend has been out of print for years on VHS and has yet to see a DVD release, so it has become a highly sought after collector’s item. It’s hard to believe such a riveting, well-made thriller has been ignored by distributors for so long, and I do believe it’s worth the high price one must pay these days to acquire a copy of it. Death Weekend is consistently tense, nerve-racking and brilliantly acted, and I rate it an 8.5 of 10.
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