aka Stryker’s War
Director/Photography – Josh Becker, Screenplay – Josh Becker & Scott Spiegel, Story – Josh Becker, Bruce Campbell & Sheldon Lettich, Producer/Art Direction – Scott Spiegel, Music – Joseph Lo Duca, Makeup Effects – Gary Jones. Production Company – Action Pictures.
Brian Schulz (Staff Sergeant Jack Stryker), Robert Rickman (Sergeant Walter J. Jackson), John Manfredi (2nd Lieutenant David Miller), Tim Quill (Lance Corporal Tim Tyler), Sam Raimi (Cult Leader), Cheryl Hansen (Sally), Perry Mallette (Otis)
In 1969, Jack Stryker is serving as s staff sergeant commanding a team of men in South Vietnam. After being wounded in the leg, he is sent back home to the small backwater Michigan town where he grew up. There he reunites with his sweetheart Sally. She is then snatched by a crazed cult who have been conducting killings around the area. Three of Stryker’s army comrades drive to visit him while on furlough. After witnessing the cult’s rituals, they arm themselves with Stryker’s collection of guns and set out to eliminate the cultists.
Thou Shalt Not Kill … Except, originally made as Stryker’s War (although it does not appear to have ever been released under that title), was a film put together by several Sam Raimi associates. Its main distinction in footnotes is that it features the one and only acting appearance from Sam Raimi himself. This was made back when Raimi was an ingénue after having appeared as a director with the hit horror film The Evil Dead (1981). Raimi had just made his second film, the flop black comedy Crimewave (1985), and Thou Shalt Not Kill … Except premiered four months later the same year (although did not receive a video release until 1987).
In the film, Raimi plays the central role of the cult leader – a performance that consists of all mad eyed glares beneath a fake wig. Bruce Campbell is credited with the story and also as a sound editor, while some scenes were shot at his home (although he was unable to appear on screen, due to the fact that the film was shot independently and he had just joined the Screen Actors Guild, which precludes him appearing in non-union productions).
Thou Shalt Not Kill … Except feels like the sort of film that enthusiastic amateurs might make on weekends with the resources they have to hand. It comes with an undeniable ambition in terms of staging the Vietnam War and a full-out massacre between soldiers and cultists on a limited budget. This was also made before the Vietnam War was a popular genre in US cinema following the acclaimed hit of Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986). At the time, all there was were works like Taxi Driver (1976), The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979), although the horror genre had dipped its toes into Vietnam War themes around this time with films like The Exterminator (1980) and Combat Shock (1986).
The opening Vietnam War scenes have an undeniable gore level. However, as soon as the story gets back to the US, it slows right down during the scenes where Brian Schulz returns to his cabin, retrieves his dog and reunites with his girl (Cheryl Hansen). These scenes are dull and only show up the essential amateurism of the exercise. These are interspersed with scenes with a wildly over-acting Sam Raimi and his cult that do perk proceedings up somewhat. However, not a lot happens during the middle between the opening Vietnam scenes and the last half-hour of the film when the soldiers start shooting.
Where the film gains a whole lot more life is during the scenes where the four comrades-in-arms take on and massacre the cultists in bloody hand-to-hand combat. The fight scenes are conducted with much enthusiasm and gore as the cultists are hacked apart, impaled, shot and slaughtered. The oddity about these scenes is that in almost any other film about a Cult, it would be a work about people being stalked imprisoned and/or tortured by the cult members whereas here the soldiers out-arm the cultists to a considerable degree – the film almost at times becomes like a shoot-‘em-up videogame where armed player characters charge about shooting and fighting off NPCs that pop up to attack.
Director Josh Becker has been a Raimi associate since the early days and later went on to direct the Sam Raimi produced, Ted Raimi starring Lunatics: A Love Story (1991), as well as episodes of various tv series produced by Raimi’s Renaissance Pictures such as Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1994-9) and Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001). Elsewhere Becker has directed one other genre film with Harpies (2007) and the non-genre likes of Running Time (1997), If I Had a Hammer (1999), Morning, Noon and Night (2018) and Warpath (2020), as well as scripted Alien Apocalypse (2005).
The film is written and produced by Scott Spiegel who later wrote The Evil Dead II (1987) for Raimi and has made various small acting roles in most of Raimi’s films. Spiegel later went on to his own directorial career with the slasher film Intruder (1980), From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1999), My Name is Modesty: A Modesty Blaise Adventure (2004), based on the popular comic-book heroine, and Hostel Part III (2011). He also wrote Hit List (1989), The Rookie (1990) and The Nutt House (1992), as well as produced Hostel (2005), 2001 Maniacs (2005) and Hostel Part II (2007). Spiegel has also made cameo appearances in most of Sam Raimi’s films.