Just how bad of a state was the slasher subgenre in by the mid-1990s? In between Candyman and Scream, we got movies like Doctor Giggles, Leprechaun, Jason Goes to Hell, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, and Ice Cream Man. To say the slasher had run out of gas at that time would have been an understatement. Though Scream re-invented and re-invigorated the slasher a few holdovers recycling old ideas snuck into the straight-to-video market. One of those movies was the slasher-comedy hybrid Uncle Sam. Classic slashers adapted just above every calendar holiday, so Uncle Sam took what was left – Independence Day. With its ridiculous premise this ‘patriotic’ slasher seems like a prime candidate for ‘so bad, it’s good’ status.
In Kuwait, friendly fire downs a U.S. military helicopter killing everyone including Master Sergeant Sam Harper. Soon thereafter the army returns Harper’s remains to his wife and estranged sister in the small town of Twin Rivers. As the sleepy town gets ready for its Independence Day celebrations, Harper’s corpse inexplicably reanimates to seek vengeance against against any unpatriotic residents.
Uncle Sam is Unforgivably Slow and Often Unintentionally Funny
Everything was in place for Uncle Sam to be a cult classic. Director William Lustig was the filmmaker behind such exploitation classics like Maniac and Maniac Cop. And screenwriter Larry Cohen has a list of B-movies on his resume spanning five decades. But Uncle Sam takes an odd approach to achieving ‘guilty pleasure’ status. For some strange reason, Lustig and Cohen take their time getting the ball rolling. A lot of time. In fact, Uncle Sam’s early sluggish pace leaves the movie feeling … boring. Guilty pleasures can be a lot of things, but boring isn’t one of them. Bottom line, the movie’s silly premise doesn’t have the content to justify that much naval-gazing.
But Uncle Sam takes an odd approach to achieving ‘guilty pleasure’ status. For some strange reason, Lustig and Cohen take their time getting the ball rolling.
In addition to pacing problems, Cohen’s screenplay never really gets the ‘black comedy’ part right. Yes, Uncle Sam is funny in parts – it just rarely feels intentionally funny. And if Cohen intended his screenplay to skewer American patriotism, it’s a pretty uneven subtext that never cements itself. Is Harper’s punishment of ‘unpatriotic’ Americans intended to be a criticism of nationalism? Or is Cohen taking aim at the decline in American pride? Overall, Uncle Sam suffers from a coherency problem. Not much about this slasher makes much sense.
Uncle Sam Eventually Marches to Attention In Its Third Act
Though it’s slow to start, Uncle Sam eventually finds its footing in its third act. Nothing here approaches the Grindhouse gore of Lustig’s Maniac. Some of the early kills are actually pretty underwhelming. But once Lustig gets going, he commits a few impressive – and occasionally funny – death scenes on the screen. In particular, the fireworks scene, which ends with someone getting the wrong end of a flagpole – significantly picks up the pace of the movie. Arguably, the slasher’s best scene is the absolutely ridiculous potato sack race that ends wit one competitor losing their head. It’s the one time in the slasher where it feels like the laughs are intentionally earned.
Arguably, the slasher’s best scene is the absolutely ridiculous potato sack race that ends wit one competitor losing their head.
In front of the camera there’s a surprising number of recognizable faces to carry this B-movie. PJ Soles (Halloween), William Smith (Maniac Cop), Robert Forster (Alligator, The Wolf of Snow Hollow), and Bo Hopkins (Tentacles) all show in small roles. But when Isaac Hayes is your ‘big star’ you know the movie is probably not going to be a classic. Child actors can be hit and miss. Without saying much, the movie relies heavily on child actors – and they mostly swing and miss. Among the slasher’s more incoherent plot points, a young scarred boy confined to a wheelchair earns bonus points. Cohen’s screenplay pulls him out of nowhere and hints that his injuries have something to do with Independence Day only to never address these dangling plot points.
Uncle Sam Almost Marches Toward Cult Movie Status
After a very slow start, Uncle Sam approaches the kind of B-movie, over-the-top silliness that makes a movie ‘so bad, it’s good’. Certainly, this straight-to-video slasher had all the credentials for guilty pleasure status. An exploitation movie director, a schlockmaster screenwriter, and a bevy of veteran character actors. Yet in spite of these prerequisites Uncle Sam is watchable – at best – by its third and final act. Yes, it’s silly but never feels intentionally clever or funny.