By Owen Gleiberman
November 06, 1992 at 05:00 AM EST

If you think you’re past being shocked by the misguided intentions of Hollywood filmmakers, consider the strange case of William Friedkin’s Rampage. Made in 1987, this luridly didactic thriller — a slasher movie cum courtroom drama cum rabid pro-death penalty tract — was about to be released when its studio, the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, filed for bankruptcy. The film was put on the shelf, and in all likelihood, it would have stayed there (or gone straight to video) were it not for the lobbying efforts of Friedkin himself. Once a major Hollywood player, the director of The French Connection and The Exorcist had seen his success wither away after the early ’70s. His crusade to get Rampage shown may well have been a career move (the film is now being released by Miramax), but it was just as surely the product of an obsession. Clinical, vicious, and intellectually murky, driven by a crude-witted demagogic fury, Rampage is, I think, a despicable film — but also a disturbingly personal one.

In the quiet little city of Stockton, Calif., Charles Reece (Alex McArthur), a long-haired, rather dashing-looking young man, enters a house and calmly butchers the family inside. A little later, he goes to another home and starts all over again. Just so there’s no doubt about what we’re dealing with, Friedkin gives us quick glimpses of brain matter splattered around the crime scenes. We also get to see the killer’s sicko fantasies — rapturous slow-mo images of his naked torso streaming with blood — and, when the police capture him, shots of his basement storeroom (skulls, Nazi flags, more brains), which looks like the sort of place in which Jeffrey Dahmer could feel right at home.

In custody, Reece admits to being the killer. The only issue to be resolved in court is this: Should he be declared insane and committed to a mental institution, or should he be found legally sane — which would mean, under California law, that he ”understands the nature and quality of his act?” If so, he would probably receive the death penalty.

For a while, Rampage is undeniably gripping. Alex McArthur makes an eerily credible boy-next-door psycho. As Reece, who hears the voice of Satan on the radio and who murders without remorse (his motivating desire is to drink his victims’ blood), McArthur has the lunar arrogance of someone tuned in to his own private brain wave. Friedkin, too, knows how to work the audience over. He turns the movie into a garish tabloid documentary, the soundtrack flooded with dissonant horror-film music.

It’s when Rampage gets to court that the movie devolves into hateful propaganda. With the district attorney (Michael Biehn) serving as his spokesman, Friedkin puts forth the argument that Reece deserves to die because he is, in fact, legally sane. What’s the evidence? Well, he planned out his deeds, he murdered in as cruel a fashion as possible, and he showed calculation in attempting to elude the police. Of course, some of the most deranged killers in human history have been hideously clever, calculating men. In Rampage, the case for Reece’s legal sanity is never very convincing (even as one recalls that Jeffrey Dahmer was found sane).

Still, what’s fundamentally ugly about the film is that its muddled legal arguments come off as cover for a kind of righteous blood lust. Friedkin implies — rather misleadingly — that if Reece were to be committed to an asylum, he would probably get out when the authorities ”forgot” about his crimes. At the same time, the prosecutor argues that Reece is simply a sadist, that he killed not primarily to feed his mad fantasies but to cause pain (an argument directly contradicted by everything the movie has shown us). Friedkin pretends to appeal to our intellects, but what he’s really saying is: Reece is legally sane because…I want the scumbag dead. Q.E.D. The real drama of Rampage — and it isn’t a pretty one — is that of a once-vital director using the death penalty issue to work off his own consuming sense of emotional malice. C-