For male audiences of the 1970s, female empowerment could be both titilating and scary, if not slightly ridiculous at the same time. You find that mix in its most volatile form in those women-in-prison movies that end in violent, sometimes revolutionary uprisings by murderous, scantily-clad women with scores to settle. Those exploitation pictures arguably objectify women, but just as arguably they also portray women objectifying their own sexuality, making it a weapon against oppressive or merely obnoxious men. The vigilante subgenre liberated these fantasies from the disreputable if not subliminally revolutionary prison context while playing the same victims-turned-avengers game. That brings us to a women's vigilante film from the director of Count Yorga, Vampire. Bob Kelljan (Kelljchian here) juggles empowerment and exploitation, perhaps hoping that audiences could have it both way. It might be more accurate to say that he exploits empowerment, but it remains empowerment all the same.
An American city is being terrorized by the "Jingle Bells Rapist." Behind his trendsetting hockey mask, he compels his victims to sing the Christmas carol before doing the deed. After, he expects them to declare him the best lay they've ever had. His latest victim as the film opens is Linda (Jo Ann Harris), a self-employed operator of a mobile snack bar. Her efforts to fight off the tall man in the orange garbage-man jumpsuit prove futile. Her appeals to the police add insult to her injuries. They're not only convinced that they can never catch the masked man, but they also seem tired of women complaining about rape. One detective even makes the classic suggestion that victims lay back and enjoy it. As in any vigilante movie, the system can't, maybe won't do justice for people.
Not long after "Jingle Bells" claims his next victim, a seamstress who tries to fight him off with her scissors, Linda joins the other victims to witness an absurd police lineup of hockey-masked men. The show was designed to show the women the impossibility of identifying the real rapist, but they aren't buying it. They convene again at one of their homes to plan their own strategy, starting with self-defense. They take karate classes from a belligerent little blond (Lada Edmunds jr.) who helps them overcome their socially-conditioned aversion to violence. After this initial exercise in empowerment, the girls share a whirlpool together as the audience ogles them.
The "rape squad" sets out to entrap offending males, breaking into one offender's bachelor pad to smash his furniture, not to mention his precious pyramid of Bud cans, and inflict karate on him. They intervene in that typical Seventies scene, a pimp disciplining his woman, calling in their instructor straight from the dojo. It's an indelible moment: the petite avenger, barefoot in her gi, kicking the crap out of the stereotypical mack in a parking lot as his thralls look on with gradual approval. The effect can't help but look comic and probably was meant that way, but the laughter in the theater as the women turned tables on the macho men was probably partly the nervous sort. In these scenes, are heroines are often provocatively dressed, the better to lure likely suspects and keep men's eyes on the screen. Some boors might say they're dressed like they're asking for it, and as a matter of fact, they are asking for it, only this time they also have the answer. Some scolds might say that a film about female empowerment shouldn't cater so much to the male gaze, but the film itself exposes the vulnerability of the male gaze under the new rules.
Nevertheless, Jingle Bells has managed, thanks to his anonymity, to keep tabs on his victims-turned-pursuers and seems entertained by the new turn in the game. It inspires him to imagine an ultimate coup, taking all the women at once. Despite everything the women have learned, he comes damned close to pulling it off. No matter what, people simply will insist on separating from the main group, falling behind to fix a shoe, etc. At the climax it's Linda vs. Jingle Bells (revealed at last as Peter Brown) with one woman dead, another captured and the rest surrendering. He appears to hold the upper hand with his threat to kill his prisoner, but Linda has figured out his weakness: vanity. Insulting his manhood enrages him until he abandons his superior ground to battle Linda one-on-one. Now she's got him, but what's she going to do with him? The film closes with Linda facing the classic vigilante-film dilemma, and not quite on the triumphant note one might expect to hear.
Act of Vengeance had to be instant camp. The actresses shout their lines at fever pitch and Jingle Bells is a sight that gets hard to take seriously after awhile. The deck is so stacked against the victims early, and their later victories are so comically lopsided that any aspiration to realism is hopeless. Whether anyone went to this looking for realism is another story. Act is a fantasy film, but what keeps it compelling despite its clumsiness is the constant swirl of seemingly contradictory fantasies. If the Seventies were a crazy time in America, this film is an authentic document of that time.