After your July 4 re-watch of Independence Day, your next move should be to stream 1996’s other patriotically themed release: Uncle Sam, a movie so up-front about its intentions as a satirical horror comedy that its poster, a ghoulish parody of a military-recruiting ad, has the tag line “I Want You… Dead.”
Uncle Sam might be low-budget, but it comes with some horror bona fides. It’s directed by William Lustig (Maniac and the Maniac Cop films) and written by the late, great Larry Cohen (It’s Alive, The Stuff, God Told Me To, Q: The Winged Serpent); its cast is a blend of unknowns playing the main characters and recognizable B-movie stars (P.J. Soles of Carrie and Halloween; a pre-Jackie Brown Robert Forster; “that guy” character actors Timothy Bottoms, William Smith, and Bo Hopkins) breezing through for a scene or two. The real MVP, however, is Isaac Hayes, who grounds the movie with a performance that’s both surprisingly solemn and ultimately heroic.
Speaking of heroes, that’s one idea Uncle Sam is interested in exploring, though its main thrust is (naturally) piling up a creatively gruesome body count using as many Americana-themed weapons as possible—flag pole, barbecue implements, fireworks, George Washington’s cherry-tree axe. As the movie begins we see the aftermath of a helicopter crash in Kuwait, caused by friendly fire and resulting in the horribly burned body of Sergeant Sam Harper (David Fralick). He should be dead but—fueled by fury over that “friendly fire” thing, plus he’s a guy who’s fully rage-powered under any circumstances—supernaturally springs to life and kills all the soldiers investigating the accident. Meanwhile, in a small Anytown, USA sort of place called Twin Rivers, we meet a kid named Jody (Christopher Ogden) being raised by his mom, Sally (Leslie Neale), with help from Sally’s sister, Louise (Anne Tremko)—Louise is Sam’s wife and Sally is Sam’s sister, which makes Sam “Uncle Sam” to Jody.
Jody is obsessed with the military and idolizes his uncle; he’s the only person who’s sorry when news arrives about Sam’s apparent death. Sally, Louise, and Sam’s former mentor, Sergeant Jed Crowley (Hayes), are all relieved that Sam, who was by all accounts a cruel, violent asshole, is out of their lives. Of course, we know he’s still lurking around, and you can’t help but squirm when Jody starts trying to pry open Sam’s flag-bedecked coffin while it’s being kept in Sally’s living room. Truly, that would be a creepy thing for a kid to do under any circumstances, but the guy was a monster in life and death—don’t let him out!
Uncle Sam takes its sweet time getting to the moment we’ve all been waiting for, but eventually Sam’s desiccated corpse rises up and sets about murdering a) anyone we’ve seen being unpatriotic in the movie (flag-burning teens, Jody’s teacher who implies he was a draft dodger, Sally’s tax-cheating lawyer boyfriend, a sleazy military liason, a crooked politician), which is decidedly on theme, and b) basically anyone who gets in his way, which is also on theme but negates any idea that Sam is driven by some sick sense of justice. His family is the implied ultimate target, and Jody eventually realizes the guy he’s been idolizing is actually a dangerous fiend—though it takes multiple rounds of people telling him as much, including Jed.
Uncle Sam is not without flaws—aside from its less-than-glossy technical aspects, the kid who plays Jody has to do a lot of emotional heavy lifting, and his acting chops aren’t quite up to the task—but it’s filled with enough weird, quirky touches that you can easily forgive its shortcomings. For every corny moment (Uncle Sam mutters “I hope you got an eyeful!” while poking out a victim’s peepers), there’s an inspired choice; we know Sam is going to disguise himself in an Uncle Sam costume, complete with cheap mask and wig, but we also get a layer of detail that he steals the costume off a guy who’s wearing it while walking around on parade-ready stilts, using his elevated height to be a more effective Peeping Tom. Later, Uncle Sam introduces a friend of Jody’s who was burned and blinded by a fireworks accident on a previous July 4—and who, for reasons that go utterly unexplained, has a psychic link to the killer. And the movie’s final moment is so ambiguous and strange it gives you one last thing to chuckle at as the credits roll.
We obviously won’t spoil every bizarre detail that makes Uncle Sam an increasingly enjoyable viewing experience (as mentioned, the opening 30 minutes or so are a bit of a slog), but every astute moviegoer knows this rule: if you introduce a cannon in act one, you can bet your sparklers it’ll come in very handy during the big fight at the end.
Uncle Sam is streaming on Prime Video.
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