Viewers accus­tomed to sleek Hollywood movies often have a hard time with low-bud­get gen­re fare because the gap between the filmmaker’s resources and what they want to achieve is too much for them to process.  However, what hap­pens in that gap is where the mag­ic lies for the true-blue fan of exploita­tion cin­e­ma.  A big part of the romance with this mate­ri­al is learn­ing to see beyond the rough edges of what’s on screen and appre­ci­ate the pas­sion and the hard work of the actors and crew.

To view­ers with this mind­set, it seems rather pet­ty to com­plain about cheap cos­tumes or effects when the film­mak­ers and cast are knock­ing them­selves dead to enter­tain you.  Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except is exact­ly the kind of movie adored by view­ers with this evolved mind­set.  Despite being pro­duced on a pock­et-change bud­get, it’s got epic-sized ambi­tion.

It begins with an elab­o­rate Vietnam War pro­logue in which we meet Stryker (Brian Schulz), a brave sergeant who earns a crip­pling leg wound dur­ing a bru­tal bat­tle with the ene­my.  He is shipped home, where he tries to lead a nor­mal life and resume a romance with old flame (Cheryl Hansen).  Unfortunately, a peace­ful civil­ian life is not in the cards for Stryker.  A band of killer hip­pies is roam­ing the coun­try side, led by a wild-eyed Manson-esque lead­er (Sam Raimi!).  When they kid­nap his girl­friend and threat­en a camp­ground full of civil­ians, Stryker calls on his sol­dier pals to fight back: cue a third act devot­ed entire­ly to action, splat­ter and humor of the dark­est vari­ety.

The end result is the kind of full-throt­tle exploita­tion fare that mod­ern gen­re revival­ists are try­ing to make today but can’t quite pull off.  The rea­son Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except suc­ceeds where its would-be descen­dents fail is that it has ambi­tion beyond mere cheap thrills.  When you have a shoot­ing bud­get of about $60,000, it’s mad­ness to do a film with a peri­od set­ting and a large num­ber of bru­tal fights and stunts, includ­ing a big Vietnam War fire­fight.  Thankfully for exploita­tion fans, Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except is the kind of film that looks such chal­lenges in the eye and spits at them.

The script has a defi­ant­ly epic scope in both spec­ta­cle and sto­ry size and pur­sues both aims with dogged relent­less­ness.  The fact that it’s built around such a unique “sol­diers vs. Manson fam­i­ly” premise and packed to the gills with action only enhances its dri­ve-in appeal.

However, the tru­ly impres­sive part is that the film­mak­ers actu­al­ly make the script’s crazy ambi­tions work on the screen.  Director/co-writer/co-everything else Josh Becker comes from the same hard-scrab­ble school of low-bud­get Michigan film­mak­ing that spawned Sam Raimi and Scott Spiegel (both col­lab­o­rate with him here) so he goes for the gus­to at every oppor­tu­ni­ty.  Becker opens and clos­ing his film with elab­o­rate action/splatter set­pieces and takes on a quirky tone that off­sets exploita­tion movie grim­ness with slap­stick humor derived from the Three Stooges.

Becker’s resources can’t begin to match his ambi­tions — for instance, the jun­gle in the Vietnam War pro­logue is obvi­ous­ly a wood­ed area in Michigan and the cult lead­er wears a wig that flaunts its absurd phoni­ness right in the viewer’s face.  However, such rough edges add charm and char­ac­ter to Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except if viewed through the appro­pri­ate exploita­tion fan per­spec­tive.  They reflect the hand­craft­ed touch of a movie put togeth­er with love by peo­ple eat­en up with the desire to make movies.  Better yet, Becker makes up for those rough edges with a non-stop flow of visu­al inven­tion and paces the pro­ceed­ings with some endear­ing­ly juve­nile lock­er-room humor.

The final touch comes from the cast: like the film­mak­ers, they make up for any short­com­ings with ped­al-to-the-medal enthu­si­asm.  Schulz hits upon an unusu­al blend of vin­tage tough-guy man­ner­isms and method-actor earnest­ness that suits his char­ac­ter and the film well and Hansen makes a like­able, clean-scrubbed love inter­est.  Their work is sup­port­ed by an array of scene-steal­ing sup­port per­for­mances.  For starters, Stryker’s pals all bring some­thing unique to the table: Robert Rickman is all mus­cles and machis­mo as the tough guy, Tim Quill pro­vides Animal House-style humor as jok­er of the gang and John Manfredi hits both dra­mat­ic and humor­ous notes with skill as the Lieutenant who regrets get­ting Stryker into the bat­tle that crip­pled him.

That said, the per­for­mance that every­one remem­bers from Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except is the one given by erst­while direc­tor Raimi as the film’s cult lead­er vil­lain.  Mainstream crit­ics razzed it at the time of release but that shows how lit­tle they under­stand the art of b-movie act­ing.  Simply put, Raimi is every­thing you could ever want from an exploita­tion movie vil­lain: crazy, fun­ny, creepy and over the top in every­thing he does.  He mix­es silent movie facial expres­sions with an odd, raspy deliv­ery to cre­ate a char­ac­ter that is half Moe Howard and half Charles Manson.  If you don’t instant­ly love a per­for­mance this wily, you don’t have any busi­ness watch­ing exploita­tion films.

In short, Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except sur­pass­es its bud­getary lim­its to deliv­er the goods on mul­ti­ple fronts: it’s excit­ing, orig­i­nal in a deli­cious­ly eccen­tric way and the cast and film­mak­ers put it across the plate with a unique­ly per­son­al­ized sense of style.  That is what exploita­tion cin­e­ma is all about — and its unsung heroes don’t let a lit­tle thing like the bud­get hold them back from cross­ing the fin­ish line.