The films of writer and director Gary Sherman are a unique synthesis of glossy, big budget techniques with a low-brow, quasi grindhouse style and interests. Though best known for his horror films Dead & Buried (1981) and Poltergeist III (1988), Sherman was adept at extending this aesthetic paradox across genres. And although his actions films never entered the mainstream in the same way as his work in horror, they are nevertheless as accomplished.
Sherman’s film Vice Squad (1982) represents the pinnacle of that synthesis between the outsider world of the drive-in movie and the glamor of big studio Hollywood. Thanks to the work of cinematographer John Alcott (best known for his work on Kubrick’s film The Shining), Vice Squad looks and feels like any serious studio picture even though the narrative and the characters are as sleazy and violent as those in any grindhouse flick. Like Paul Schrader, Sherman saw the intrinsic value of the exploitation film as a series of dramatic gestures and titillating images as a means of pushing the boundaries of what a mainstream genre film could and should do.
For Sherman Vice Squad isn’t just an adrenaline fueled police caper, but an examination of violence within the closed circuit of prostitution. Prostitutes, cops, pimps, and Johns make up the fabric of this sub-culture that represents all of society in microcosm. The break-neck speed of the plot and the montage reveals a tight network of cause and effect that is by implication a nightmarish articulation of misogyny’s social operations. Like the television show Dragnet (1969-70), Vice Squad opens with a title card that claims that the contents of the proceeding fiction are entirely based on actual police case files. This textual association with reality, however fabricated, prompts the spectator to watch Vice Squad with a more empathetic yet fearful eye.
Wings Hauser, who plays the villainous pimp Ramrod, performs the theme to Vice Squad over both the opening and closing credits. Using Hauser in this way functions in opposition to the text claiming a close connection between Vice Squad and our reality. By having Hauser sing “Neon Slime”, Sherman reveals the inherent artifice of the actor’s performance as Ramrod and exposes Hauser as nothing more than a traditional entertainer. These choices regarding Hauser challenge the viewer to engage Vice Squad as a kind of intellectual filter intent on determining where the borders between “truth” and “spectacle” end.
Operating paradoxically in this way Vice Squad becomes a film of subtle subversions. Despite its polished appearance Vice Squad has more in common with Detroit 9000 (1973) and Rolling Thunder (1977) than with films like Sharky’s Machine (1981) because of Sherman’s subversive practices. In a final paradoxical twist the gaze of the camera in Vice Squad is far less exploitative than that of Sharky’s Machine and other popular police adventure films.