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The Unseen - 'Tenement'

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tenementI love any movie that opens with its own personalized rap song. This was commonplace during the 1980s and early 90s as soundtrack sales proved to be just as lucrative as the movies themselves. Many films were made greater by their cunning use of personalized rapster tunes - for example Ghostbusters 2, Police Academy 4: Citizens of Patrol, The Addams Family, and Kenneth Branaugh’s Hamlet (I think, but I may be confusing it with Wild, Wild West). And 1985’s Tenement (also known as Game of Survival) is no exception, opening and closing with the not-so renowned hit “Tenement” featuring some wicked beats with a rapper occasionally saying the word “tenement.” The song is surprisingly upbeat and rather perky for the disturbing carnage that is about to unfold. Yet, somehow is it is the perfect opening to this flick.

I’ll also begin by professing my love for Roberta Findlay. She made oodles of exploitation flicks with her husband Michael until his death from a helicopter accident in the late 1970s. After that, Roberta continued to film wonderful sleaze on her own, as both a cinematographer and director. Yet, regardless of her long career, many are very apt to leave ladies like Roberta Findlay and Doris Wishman out of discussions of female filmmakers simply because of subject matter. 

Tenement was one of Roberta’s later films, shot in 1985, and it focuses on a dilapidated apartment building in the South Bronx. Suffering from urban decay, the area is plagued by drugs, murders, rapes and endless amounts of other crimes. The tenants of this particular building have discovered that a gang of junkies has taken residence in the basement of their building, using it as a hangout to do coke off the blade of a knife, shoot rats, and arm wrestle. A resident calls the police, and the gang is picked up. But in a pointed commentary on the NYC legal system, the gang is back on the street in a few hours. In retaliation they decide to kill everyone in the building- an idea which the gang’s leader received as a satanic message through his heavy metal music. Hey, it was the 80s  and everything was satanic. Starting with the first floor and working their way up, the gang takes siege of the building, slowly killing off the tenants that cross them and forcing the others to continually battle, leading to final showdown on the roof. 

Tenement is vile. It’s one of those films that make you question why you enjoy watching it, or, in my case, have watched it at least five times. Filled to the brim with bloody stabbings, beatings, a rape, and even a castration, this one may seem like a hard and rather stabby flick to swallow, but it does have some charm to it as well. 

The concept of “the siege” is not a new one. Certainly this same “trapped and pushed into a final showdown” concept was happening decades prior in films like Night of the Living Dead and Assault on Precinct 13. This same concept is still proving to be a hit-maker today with flicks like The Raid, District B-13, and even the Judge Dredd remake. But there is really something endearing about the characters in Tenement that set it apart from similar movies. 

This building is a rainbow of races and types. There is the elderly Jewish woman, the Puerto Rican landlord, the Mexican grandmother, the single black mother, the rich white girl forced to live there, and even a blind guy. And since this is an exploitation film, the racial slurs fly constantly. Don’t worry though, this film is an equal opportunity exploiter, slurring everyone with the same racist fervor. But what stands out about Tenement is that even though it is an exploitation film, the characters are not stereotypes. All are just people. They may call each other names, but not one person performs the implied stereotype which is what makes Tenement stand out from many other exploitation films. The tenants also band together and work as a team in the confusion. Think of it as Batteries Not Included with a broom rape. Even the street gang (whose costuming is straight out of MJ’s Beat It! video) is equally diverse - like a Benetton ad with a lot of murder and rape instead of bored models. 

The film is also a strange amalgam of comedy with a shockingly violent horror chaser. This was also fairly standard in films of the time, but it can be a little awkward and uncomfortable to view today. Take for instance the original Last House on the Left. Amidst all the deplorable acts of violence, there are scenes of comically bumbling Keystone-esque cops trying to find the escaped criminals. Tenement follows this same unnatural blending of comedy with unrelenting carnage. In this movie, the comedy is more subtle - a drunken boastful landlord, people dying with their eyes crossed like a cartoon, and the gang leader’s bizarre spiritualistic speeches where he refers to himself repeatedly in the third person. All of this draws the viewer out of the violence momentarily, which only makes it more shocking and unpleasant when the next scene re-submerges him.

Though much of this column focuses on films that have been hard to see because of distribution reasons, Tenement is one that is available but never got much attention. Quentin Tarantino also took notice of this little film, later casting the most insane (and often blood-covered) gang member, Paul Calderon, in Pulp Fiction. Tenement is available on DVD through Media Blasters. It was also released by Shriek Films as part of a triple feature alongside Cop Killers and Don’t Go In the House. But I highly recommend the Media Blasters edition for its inclusion of an interview with director Roberta Findlay. This film is not a date movie, nor one to pop in some night when your parents are visiting. It’s brutal, intense, and supposedly was given an X-rating (though my DVD shows it as unrated). This film is totally 80s and is a surprisingly smart commentary on the social and economic problems of New York City during this time. But don’t get too attached to the neighborhood. This area would now cost you 6-figures for a studio. 

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