This opens with deliberately cliché elements – that overhead shot of a van driving through remote countryside has been in 75% of recent FrightFest selections – that feint towards a couple of busy sub-genres. The menace could well be Wrong Turn-type cannibals-in-the-woods or Evil Dead-type rampaging possessees. However, when carnage strikes, someone bloodied pops up and insists ‘they’re not zombies’. And the film loops back to becoming a more measured crime drama that then ramps up to the heights of insanity. Also, it’s a holiday movie so ‘merry fuckin’ Christmas’.
Widowed Dad John Bishop (Michael Lombardi), a turn-the-other-cheek pastor, backs down when an obnoxious shopper (Brian O’Halloran, from Clerks) poaches a Christmas tree from his teen daughter Rebecca (Abbey Hafer) at the market. Bishop uses this as a springboard for a sermon against vengeance … which pretty much seals everyone’s fate as to how the rest of the film is going to play out. Meanwhile, bald, cold-eyed gang member Ram Kady (Joseph Gatt, natural heir to roles that used to be played by Robert Tessier) brutally botches a drugs handover and scuppers a truce between biker factions. At a gas station, the thug fiend spots Rebecca noticing he has someone alive and injured in the trunk of his car and ruthlessly gets the witness out of the way. Grief-stricken, Bishop is approached by a plausible cop, Jed (Marc Menchaca), who asks him whether he’d like a minute alone with the man who killed his daughter. Jed has suffered a similar assault on his family and done something seriously grand guignol about it. Bishop wavers in his anti-vengeance resolution and is taken out to a remote location where Jed runs a retribution farm. The plot gets complicated by the not-zombies from the prologue and the bikers from the sub-plot, who give the pacifist preacher an opportunity to draw on Bruce Campbell-as-Ash level desperate survival skills.
Directors Samuel Gonzalez Jr and Bridget Smith, working from a script by Darren and Jeff Allen Geare, handle a low-key, affecting thread about grief and loss, but the business of the movie is outrageous action and splatter. Lombardi and Menchaca ground it in real feeling – their characters’ contrasting reactions to similar situations are good dramatic meat – but everyone else goes full-on ranting melodrama to fit a thrumming metal score, a succession of gore gags (when the wood-chipper is turned on, you can guarantee it’s not just the old Christmas tree that’ll be going through it), and the cynical snark of very bad bad guys. We get a good explanation of why the bike gang is moving its drug operation into an idyllic small town, but none for why the community has so many unredeemable degenerates – and, paying close attention, one of the hero’s moral decisions leads immediately to the deaths of a bunch of total innocents but he uncharacteristically isn’t troubled by that in a variation of the movie convention (often seen in Dwayne Johnson films) that admirable, sensitive Dads go through hell for their families but basically give no shits about anyone else. Still, this is a fast, sick exploitation picture that really delivers.
As a public service for viewers who find it hard to distinguish between Robert Knepper and Robert John Burke, The Retaliators casts them as equivalent characters – a gang boss and a police chief — who get one good scene apiece.