Payback (1995): Noir 101

Diners, dames, and deception — Matty dissects Anthony Hickox’s steamy thriller and explores its place within its maker’s oeuvre.

Between 1989 and 1998, Universal were busy trying to fashion a new spin on their 1932 horror classic, The Mummy. This long-gestating project saw such luminaries as Clive Barker, Mick Garris, Joe Dante, George A. Romero, and Wes Craven pass through it before Deep Rising’s (1998) Stephen Sommers finally brought it to life in 1999. During the mid-stage of its lengthy development, c.1993, Paramount decided that they also wanted a piece of bandage-wrapped pie and elected to mount a rival mummy movie, which was to be helmed by emerging horror auteur Anthony Hickox, director of cult favourites Waxwork (1988) and Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992). Alas, no sooner had Hickox teased his Egyptian shuffler in the genre press when it fell apart — though it is worth noting that Hickox’s script, co-penned with his Hellraiser III collaborator Peter Atkins, did eventually get made as Prisoners of the Sun (2013) under the stewardship of Roger Christian. However, as Hickox’s big budget studio debut crumbled, two things happened. 

The first is that Hickox agreed to tackle his third picture for Peter Abrams and Robert Levy’s Tapestry Films following Warlock: The Armageddon (1993) and Full Eclipse (1993).

And the second is that the resulting film — an enjoyable neo-noir called PAYBACK — would instantly change the trajectory of Hickox’s career. Payback, when coupled with the horror genre’s commercial stagnation in the ‘90s, transformed Hickox from a fright-meister to a purveyor of straight-to-video action and thriller flicks. 

Of course, as those au fait with Hickox’s particularly boisterous brand of horror cinema know, his shock sextet — which, in addition to those mentioned above, includes Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1990) and Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1991) — was already somewhat action adjacent anyway. Hickox loves to blend genres, and he demonstrates a real flair for mayhem and pulse-quickening excitement. Witness: the rousing, go-for-broke finale of Waxwork; the western licks of Sundown; the frenzied nightclub massacre in Hellraiser III; the superhero touches of Warlock: The Armageddon; and the John Woo-inspired gunplay of Full Eclipse.

Like his ace cops n’ werewolves epic, Payback immediately finds Hickox in the midst of another Hong Kong hangover, beginning as it does with a snazzy, bullet-drenched bang as a liquor store robbery conducted by a pair of mohawked punks goes spectacularly wrong. Defined by gratuitous slo-mo and replete with wonderfully squirty squib FX, it’s a brilliant, bravura opening. In fact, it’s almost too good as it sets a standard that the film never quite achieves for a single reason. 

Now, it’s not a problem per se as it doesn’t detract from how fabulously watchable the whole thing is. But, as signalled by its ultra-generic title, there is a whopping, unshakable sense of déjà vu to Payback. The plot is basically Martin Goldsmith’s Detour meets James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice — particularly by way of their 1945 and 1981 film adaptations, respectively. The latter is raided the most, right down to an animalistic, kitchen-based sex scene that manages to homage both Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange’s iconic tabletop romp, and Michael Douglas and Glenn Close’s sploshy sink shag in Fatal Attraction (1987). The rest of Tapestry mainstay Sam Bernard’s competent yet incredibly routine script is an exercise in noir box-ticking, the only trope missing being a cynical voiceover. 

Still — and it cannot be stressed enough — Payback is extremely well done. Despite Bernard’s story slackening with a minor subplot that exists solely to facilitate a car chase, it’s generally nicely paced, and, stylistically, Hickox unloads an intoxicating mix of showy pizzazz and gritty, character-focused probing. The tense, sexually-charged atmosphere is enhanced by a Ry Cooder-tinged score by Anthony Marinelli (his first of three collaborations with Hickox — Invasion of Privacy (1996) and Consequence (2003) complete their union), and the beautiful vistas afforded by shooting the film in the California coastal town of Cambria imbue it with a tranquility that Hickox cleverly juxtaposes with the chaos that fizzes within his leads.

Indeed, as a performance showcase, it’s tempting to say that, in Payback, neither C. Thomas Howell nor Joan Severance have ever been better, separately or together (they’d team again on the decent Dangerous Indiscretion (1995) and the absolutely awful Matter of Trust (1998)). Howell is quiet, intense, and powered by desire, while Severance is magnificent as the seductive and sultry femme fatale. Sure, it’s clear she’s a sort the second the utterly striking model-turned-actress bursts onto the screen, but her and Howell’s interplay is electric and their chemistry is off the charts — especially in the rain-soaked moment they give into their attraction to each other. Perfectly pitched and profoundly erotic without a piece of clothing being shed, it’s obvious why Payback’s U.S. and U.K. distributors, Vidmark and High Fliers, would use an image pulled from this stunning sequence on their VHS and Laserdisc key art.     

Howell is the gloriously named Oscar Bonsetter: a young, opportunist criminal, sent to the pen for the aforementioned botched robbery, who promises a dying ol’ lifer, Mac (R.G. Armstrong), that he’ll avenge his mistreatment at the hands of a sadistic guard, Gully (Marshall Bell). In return, and just prior to croaking, Mac tells Bonsetter where he’s hidden a fabled stash of loot that the crooked Gully is after. Three years and a sight-costing accident for Gully later, Bonsetter is a free man, and he tracks his and Mac’s now blind tormentor to his latest enterprise, a seaside diner, to settle the score and grab the readies that he’s sussed are nearby. It’s a simple plan — until Bonsetter clocks Gully’s slinky waitress wife, Rose (Severance)… 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s