Lenz on Cinema is a continuing series of articles examining the history of cinema through the filmography of actress Kay Lenz.
In 1975, the last troops pulled out of Vietnam, officially ending the United States’ long and controversial involvement in the war. Unlike World War II, Vietnam’s legacy seemed much less heroic, due to the implications of the war. For years afterwards, the film industry felt scared to cover the war, and films often focused less on the actual war, and more on veterans returning home.
During this time, Kay Lenz starred in two genre films about veterans coming home: the action film White Line Fever (1975) and the horror comedy House (1986). In both of these films, Lenz plays the love interest that is less connected to the action, and more connected to the lead character.
Both of these films dealt with such a stigmatized subject dealt with the war by masking them in genres.
(Warning: Spoilers ahead).
White Line Fever
After a news story sets up the film’s blue collar man against the system mentality, White Line Fever’s story begins with Airforce Veteran Carrol Jo Hummer (Jan-Michael Vincent) coming home and getting married to his fiancée Jerri (Lenz). In roughly four minutes, the film covers their entire relationship.
The film is filled to the brim with Americana. Carrol Jo is a veteran who drives a truck. Jerri works at a Dr. Pepper plant at the beginning. Characters tend to wear plaid, bolo ties, etc. Carrol Jo goes to a bar that features a giant landscape portrait of Arizona. The end of the film has Carrol Jo becoming a folk hero to all the truckers.
Similarly, the Villains are slimy and elitist. The Antagonists belong to large trucking corporations that often meet on Golf courses and in saunas (“this is a hell of a place to hold a meeting”). The main Henchman dresses entirely in black leather at one point. These aesthetic choices add to the good versus evil nature of the film.
Having previously worked for producer Roger Corman, director Jonathan Kaplan had experience directing exploitation films about disenfranchised people before becoming an action director with his film. His first major studio film, Kaplan made the film as a modern Western ode to Sam Peckinpah and cast many of Peckinpah’s favorite actors (L.Q. Jones, Slim Pickens, R.G. Armstrong) as well as Corman favorite Dick Miller as a character named R. “Birdie” Corman. Peckinpah would go onto make another trucking movie three years later (Convoy (1978)), while Kaplan would make the western Bad Girls in 1994.
House features William Katt as Roger Cobb, a Stephen King-like Horror novelist trying to write about his experiences in Vietnam after the divorce of his wife Sandy (Lenz) and disappearance of his son Jimmy (Erik and Mark Silver). He secludes himself in his recently deceased aunt’s house, only to find that the house has more sinister intentions than he expected.
Co-written by Fred Dekker and Ethan Wiley, House combines both horror and laughs. Dekker wrote the initial script as a straight horror film to serve as his potential directorial debut. Wiley rewrote the script with a more humorous edge before they presented it to director Steve Miner, who had hired Dekker to write a Godzilla 3D project that never came to fruition.
Producer Sean S. Cunningham (director of Friday the 13th (1980)) and director Miner (Director of Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) and Part III (1982)) wanted to make a deeper film than their previous projects by combining both horror and comedy. After the film, Miner would direct the comedy Soul Man (1986), the pilot for The Wonder Years (1988-1993), My Father the Hero (1994), and Big Bully (1996).
The film also features a number of 1980’s television stars including Lenz and Katt (The Greatest American Hero (1981-1983)), Richard Moll (Night Court (1984-1992)), and George Wendt (Norm from Cheers (1981-1992)). It also features Michael Ensign, who had a famous role as the Hotel Manager in Ghostbusters (1984). Here he plays a real estate agent. All of them had previously starred in a few comedies by the time this film came out.
While sold as a horror film, a more correct description of this film would probably be a comedy with horror and supernatural elements. The film plays out in a series of set pieces that play into horror, but more into comedy. Katt’s relationship with Lenz reflects the stories in Romantic comedies of the day, in which the lead has to move on with their life after leaving their spouse. In the film, only one person actually gets killed by the house. Almost everything else killed in the story is a monster the house conjured up. All of them stand in for past demons of Cobb’s. The ending involves Roger Cobb standing up to the ghost of his old army bully, Big Ben (Moll), more than it involves vanquishing evil. All of these elements make the film more comedic than horrifying.
Hollywood filmmakers decided to use genre films to examine these subjects as genres often distracted the audience from dispiriting realities. Both of these films examine Vietnam by mixing it with a genre.
In White Line Fever, Carrol Jo has returned from serving his tour of duty in the Air Force with little mention of where he has been. Vietnam exists more as an implication. House’s world sees Vietnam as a taboo subject that nobody wants to hear about, especially from a popular horror author like Cobb.
Coming out at the end of the war, White Line Fever is one of the first of several genre films that features a veteran coming home to a corrupt America. With most of these stories, the veteran (or veterans) decides to take the law into his own hands. Taxi Driver (1976), Zebra Force (1976), Rolling Thunder (1977), The Exterminator (1980), and First Blood (1982) all feature this plotline. Sometimes this character is justified in actions, sometimes not. White Line Fever represents one of the first (if not the first) attempts at the sub-genre.
White Line Fever came out a year before Taxi Driver, which would help define the sub-genre. Six years after Taxi Driver, Stallone would portray John Rambo in a more heroic version of this type of story, First Blood. The first Rambo film also created a less bloody version that 1972 novel it’s based on.
Fever also came out three years before the release of both Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, two films that would dominate the 1979 Academy Awards. Both of those films represent some of the first serious attempts to examine veterans returning from Vietnam. However, none of these films came from Vietnam veterans.
Unlike White Line Fever, the Vietnam war plays a much stronger role in the story of House. The plot involves Roger recovering from his traumas, which appears in the form of many ghosts, including his ex-wife and Big Ben. Big Ben becomes the ghost representing the trauma Roger faced in Vietnam. A wounded Ben asked Roger to kill him before being dragged away by the Viet cong. When Big Ben returns, he serves as the final boss Roger must face to save his lost son.
Both movies revolve around Lenz as a wife and mother. Fever features Lenz’s Jerri as a wife trying to live the American dream with her husband. When she leaves her job at the Coca Cola plant, she applies to become a nursery school teacher. She does not tell him about her pregnancy as she knows that it will make him work twice as hard and seriously considers having an abortion. Fever also ends with Jerri losing her fetus and the ability to have children after an attack from the trucking corporation. This revelation leads to Carrol Jo seeking one final act of revenge on the company.
House has a much happier ending for her character. In House, Lenz plays Roger’s ex-wife, Sandy Sinclair, an actress on a bad TV soap opera, as an overexcited fan of hers reminds him in an early scene. The film suggests that her marriage with Roger ended when their son disappeared. Her longest appearance in the film comes when the house conjures a monster in her form. When Cobb decapitates the demon posing as his wife, he buries the body to Betty Everett singing the Clint Ballard Jr. song “You’re No Good.” This song also plays at the end of the film when Sandy is reunited with her lost child. House becomes a film more about moving on than anything else, whether it be from an era or from a war.
House came out the same year as Oliver Stone’s Platoon, the first mainstream film about Vietnam written and directed by an actual veteran of the war. This would lead to more serious attempts to portray the war in Vietnam and its veterans in serious dramas that would not try to use genre to mask it as a taboo subject.
Three years later, four drama films with movie stars came out about traumatized Vietnam veterans adjusting to Civilian life: Jacknife with Robert De Niro, In Country with Bruce Willis, Casualties of War with Michael J. Fox, and Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July with Tom Cruise. Causalities and Fourth of July were both written by Vietnam veterans who had written about the subject before. Rather than being Guerrilla soldiers like Rambo, the characters in these films came across as wounded individuals who struggle with their PTSD and coming home from an unpopular war. Of those films, only Born on the Fourth of July made back its money at the box office. However, even Stone’s next film about Vietnam, Heaven & Earth (1993), would bomb at the box office.
In the years since the end of the cold war, only a handful of American narrative films focusing on Vietnam veterans have been released since then, including two superhero films (Watchmen (2009), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)) and Monster film (Kong: Skull Island (2014)).
Both White Line Fever and House came out after Vietnam, but before the end of the Cold War. While neither reflect the reality of the complex situation, but they both present a veteran coming home. In both of them, Lenz plays a mother trying to live the American dream.
- Wendt’s Cheers co-star John Ratzenberger starred in House II. Wendt would also play Mel Gibson’s best friend and Scientist in Miner’s Forever Young (1992).
- Paul Schrader wrote both Taxi Driver and Rolling Thunder.
- Both Kay Lenz and William Katt starred in horror films about psychics (Katt in Carrie (1976) and Lenz in The Initiation of Sarah (1978)).
- Katt and Vincent would also star in Big Wednesday (1978), written and directed by Apocalypse Now (1979) screenwriter, John Milius. The film also features Katt returning home from the Vietnam war.
- Roger Cobb also shares the name of Steve Martin’s character in another supernatural Comedy, All of Me (1984).
Interview with Fred Dekker. Simply Cinema, June 20, 2018. Retrieved from http://simplycinema.blogspot.com/2005/06/interview-with-fred-dekker.html
Biskind, Peter. The Vietnam Oscars. Vanity Fair, March 2008. Retrieved from https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2008/03/warmovies200803
Brew, Simon. How A Bruce Willis Flop Helped Make Driving Miss Daisy A Hit. Den of Geek, March 6, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.denofgeek.com/us/movies/bruce-willis/262655/how-a-bruce-willis-flop-helped-make-driving-miss-daisy-a-hit
Hicks, Chris. Hollywood goes to Vietnam. Deseret News, June 17, 1994. Retrieved from https://www.deseretnews.com/article/359452/HOLLYWOOD-GOES-TO-VIETNAM.html
Mason, Margie. Last U.S. Marines to leave Saigon describe chaos of Vietnam War’s end. Chicago Tribune, April 30, 2015. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-vietnam-marines-20150430-story.html