Ah, the wonderful 1980s. It was a time when the video boom swept the world and almost anything could be released simply because there was such high demand for home videos that it didn’t matter what the product was. Most of the eighties shockers or actioners would not even survive the shoot let alone receive a full international release these days. Now the viewer wants a reason and sometimes too many questions are asked and people seem to be de-constructing films that do not necessarily need it. How I miss eighties exploitation!
Tenement is a definite product of the confusing eighties and only a true fan of the genre will fully appreciate the aesthetics of the gritty films of decades gone set in New York. More contemporary works cannot achieve the same look as films such as Driller Killer (1979), Defiance (1980) and The Exterminator (1980) and it is something I sorely miss in the New York films of today. Tenement is among this list. Roberta Findlay, who rose to underground prominence from her partnership (marital and filmmaking) with grindhouse innovator Michael Findlay, moved on to have her own career as a director just prior to the tragic death of her then husband. After a long list of porno credits under various assumed names, Roberta ended her carnal career and returned to straight films (I use the term loosely) and from this came her most technically and creatively proficient effort in Tenement.
In the film that originally received an X-rating, Tenement is a cruelly violent tale of South Bronx tenement squalor which houses mostly working class and elderly who haven’t the money to move to a better neighbourhood. The basement of the building also serves as a hang out for a vicious gang who shoot heroin and serve no purpose to society. The Super knows what they are doing and he sneakily alerts the police to them. The gang manages to dispose of all illicit material before the police can force their way into the basement. The Super boasts at the gangs arrest in front of them who are arrested regardless of the lack of evidence. The tenants plan a party to celebrate the eradication of the gang, only in the mean time the gang is released because the police had nothing on them and the gangs’ leader Chaco (Enrique Sandino) plots to kill everyone in the building from the ground up. Some of the tenants fight back while disenchanted others just await their impending doom in an ultimate fight to live happily in the neighbourhood they call home.
The violence in Tenement is repulsive such as one scene where the gang, instigated by second-in-charge Hector (Paul Calderon) has the gang pin a single mother to her bed and forcibly insert a broomstick shaft up her vagina. However the violence is necessary, it is a part of life in some neighbourhood’s so why spray and wipe it to give it a gloss over. The lighting and set design is just right creating an unsettling environment which sets the right tone. Every filmmaker has their epic and this is Roberta Findlay’s baby. There is a point to this film which may be overlooked due to all of the violence and repulsion and that is that the little people can make a difference. Paul Calderon (King of New York, Pulp Fiction) in his first film role is brilliant and clearly shows his star potential in a cast of above average performances and is the only Roberta cast offspring to ever find great success in acting. And a bonus for all you Troma fans, actor Dan Snow who is the only actor to appear in every Toxic Avenger movie, appears here in a large supporting part, in his only film appearance outside of the Toxic Avenger series. Co-written by porno screenwriter and frequent Chuck Vincent collaborator Rick Marx.
The 2005 DVD release of Tenement is a specialty as it features both a director’s commentary by Roberta Findlay as well as a ten minute interview with her which allows one of the most infamously reclusive filmmakers the chance to get up close and personal with her fans. This was a personal project for her seeing as she grew up in a similar area of the South Bronx which is why I believe she pulled off a great film in all respects. Roberta is well spoken and does let some funny lines slip in her commentary and would be one of the best commentary tracks I have ever had the fortune to listen to. Roberta would have to be in her seventies and she doesn’t look a day over fifty in her interview which is a bonus for any fan. Also features radio and TV spots for the film which are very nostalgic.