Chuck Norris takes on a superhuman, medically enhanced psychopath in this daft thriller from Michael Miller, director of exploitation favourite Jackson County Jail (1976). Silent Rage is often likened to Halloween (1978) but although both feature a seemingly unstoppable killer on the loose, the film owes more to Frankenstein (and in a sense anticipates Stuart Gordon’s Re-animator (1985)) than it does to John Carpenter’ seminal slasher.
In a small town in Texas, the mentally unbalanced John Kirby (Brian Libby) is driven mad by his shrieking landlady and her gaggle of noisy kids and takes an axe to her and her husband. Sheriff Dan Stevens (Norris) is sent to bring him in dead or alive and though he favours the former, his gun-happy colleagues shoot Libby down when he tries to escape. At a nearby hospital, Stevens runs into old flame Alison (Toni Kalem) and Libby is revived by a trio of doctors, Halman (Ron Silver), Spires (Steven Keats) and Vaughn (William Finley) who use him as a test subject for their new life-restoring serum. His already considerable strength now enhanced but his psychosis made all the worse, Libby is soon up and about wreaking mayhem. Between trying to reignite his relationship with Alison and beating up a biker gang in a bar, Stevens sets out to try to stop the apparently unstoppable.
You have to hand it to Miller – you have to work double hard to make a karate-chopping small town sheriff versus an undead (technically Kirby is a zombie) killing machine as dull as he makes Silent Rage. The killer is kept on a slab in a makeshift basement laboratory for far too long before being unleashed and there’s not enough of the ass-kickin’ mayhem that Norris’s fans would have expected.
Silent Rage was something of a departure for Norris, a film that leans more on horror than it does on the simple-minded action he usually traded in and he appears to be even more out of sorts than usual. His usual stoic expression barely alters a fraction throughout, his characters starts off as a charisma-free personality void and stays that way and attempts at love scenes and relationship sub-plots don’t sits easily with him. He gets to take his top off a lot and an entirely extraneous barroom brawl is crow-barred in so that he gets an extended fight scene but that’s about it as far as highlights go.
Norris reportedly wasn’t all that keen on the film. “I don’t think this was one of Chuck’s favourite pictures”, Miller told the Coming Soon website in 2016. “He went to the screening, and I think that was the last time I ever saw him.” And it’s not hard to see why. In retrospect it plays like a partly-formed hybrid between Re-animator and Norris’ television series Walker, Texas Ranger (1993-2001) but it makes no real use of Norris’ very limited set of skills. A bit more action might have pepped things up a bit but given how badly Miller handles the brawl and the terrible final confrontation between Stevens and Kirby, perhaps not…
The script by Joseph Fraley (and supposedly an uncredited Edward Di Lorenzo, who had penned a couple of Space: 1999 (1975-1977) episodes) will have you asking awkward questions throughout, not least of which is why any doctor in the world, no matter how crazy, would test their rejuvenation serum on the dead body of an already unnaturally strong (Kirby snaps his way out of a pair of handcuffs before being shot) murderer who with serious mental stability issues. We’re never told how or why the team develop this serum nor what their goals for it were. What little we learn about anything in the film is via dialogue made up of inane platitudes and clumsy exposition.
The supporting cast know they’re playing second fiddle to Norris and do just enough to earn their pay checks. Toni Kalem as Norris’ love interest is predictably underwritten and gets a ludicrous scene where she’s already naked in bed with Norris who starts getting frisky only for her to admonish him with “No you don’t, don’t get any ideas…” Stephen Furst from National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and The Unseen (1980) is saddled with a terrible idiot sidekick part and the scientists are played by a terribly earnest Ron Silver, a goofy William Finley and a moustache-twirling exaggerated villainy by Steve Keats. What little fun there is to be had from Silent Rage comes mainly from the sheer vacuity of these dimwits and the actor’s attempts to make something of their stock characters. One can’t escape the feeling that the cast’s sometimes larger-than-life performances were a deliberate attempt to counter Norris’ utter lack of presence
Libby, a former stuntman (he gets to perform a hazardous stunt being dragged behind a speeding vehicle) Is the best of the bunch, giving a suitably menacing turn as the hulking killer. He’s particularly effective in the second half of the film when he finally gets something to do and makes for a creepy presence, lurking in the background unseen by his intended victims.
Miller grandstands with some showy camerawork and at times is able to conjure up a few nice visuals but he has no feeling for horror at all and is constantly stymied by the ridiculous script and Norris’ non-performance. He even said he disliked the slasher genre and his assignment was spoofing the genre in the National Lampoon vehicle Class Reunion (1982). He has no noticeable sense of style or grasp of pacing, the film taking far too long to get going and apart from a few flashes of inspiration here and there, lacking in atmosphere.
The popularity of Chuck Norris has always been a bit of a mystery. He rose to a sort of fame as Colt, Bruce Lee’s opponent in the Colosseum fight in Meng long guo jiang/The Way of the Dragon in 1972 and soon carved a career for himself as a second string action movie regular, never even remotely attaining the heights scaled by Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone. The video era helped as films like A Force of One (1979), The Octagon (1980), An Eye for an Eye (1981) and particularly the Missing in Action films (Missing in Action (1984) and Missing in Action 2: The Beginning (1985)) turned him into a minor star. His popularity led to the long-running Walker, Texas Ranger. And through his entire career his expression barely change from stone-faced indifference, occasionally allowing himself a half-smile but never once suggesting that he was capable of any real emotion.
The ending left open the possibility of a sequel that never happened but the film was remade in India as Nalaya Manithan (1989) and in the States as Indestructible (2009).