The Tenement (1985)

Roberta Findlay was one of the few female creators of the exploitation golden age, and is only rivaled by Doris Wishman in terms of both longevity and prolific output across the sleaze subgenres. In her multi decade career, Roberta wrote, produced, directed, distributed, and occasionally acted in her own work.

Thankfully, Ms. Findlay is a far more competent multi hyphenate than her predecessor. Less thankfully, keep in mind the curve on which we are grading.

Alongside her husband Michael, she created the landmark Flesh trilogy of roughies, which mixed sex and violence into a brand new bag, helping eradicate the tamer trend of the nudie cuties that had dominated the early 60s. Their early 70s failed slasher experiment called Slaughter was later reedited into the notorious Snuff, which set an urban legend into motion that still persists today.

After parting ways with Michael in 1973, Roberta made a successful string of porn features, before controversy came calling again regarding 1985’s Shauna: Every Man’s Fantasy. The movie was a cash in Frankenstein’s monster, made from archive footage after the titular star had committed suicide at 20.

Roberta scuttled back to splatter, and the remainder of her career was spent making low budget action and horror films, before she retired in 1989. Unlike Ms. Wishman, who seemed to revel in the reappraisal of her work, Roberta has resisted all efforts to be praised as a pioneer. In her own words, she was “merely a barnacle on the ship of life” whose main filmmaking inspiration was “not getting caught out on her tax”.

So what happens when an admittedly indifferent schlockmeister mixes rape revenge tropes with a knockoff of Assault On Precinct 13? 1985’s The Tenement, which I watched under its lamer alternate title:

The font and the theme song got lost on their way to Beat Street, full of stutter synth, and a rap lyric that can’t decide if the tenement is a “place of shelter” or “helter skelter”. We get some generic exteriors and cut to a dingy basement, where a gang of weekend Warriors is busy doing drugs, waving dead rats at each other, and…….whatever the fuck this is:

Too bad the party gets broken up pretty quickly by the cops. The dude who called the police is our first introduction to the building residents, and he stops to greasily gloat at the gang members in a Speedy Gonzales accent as they get packed off into a squad car. This way they know exactly which person turned the gang in. How could that possibly go wrong?

The residents throw a party to celebrate the gang being gone. This introduces us to the rest of the ethnic stereotypes tenants, some of which I’m not even sure were given names outside of the credits. Rojas is the drunk tub of greasiness and bluster who called law enforcement. Mr. Washington is a strong silent type doing his best Duane Jones impression. Leona is a sassy single mom. Anita is a sweet pregnant girl. Ruth a tough Jewish grandmother, and Angel a hooker with a heart of gold who turns tricks to support her husband’s habit.

There’s another older couple named Wesley, blind Mr. Gonzalez with a seeing eye dog, some random little kids who belong to someone or another….none of this is going to get developed in any significant fashion, so trust that the accents are horrible and the characterization is worse. This celebratory party scene lasts longer than some of these actors’ careers.

Aside from Leona, they all prattle on at length about being SO VERY GLAD THE GANG IS GONE. THEY ARE SAFE NOW. FOREVER. WE SURE WON’T SEE THOSE GANGBANGERS AGAIN.

Looking like the least popular kids at the leather bar

Except for the fact that bail exists, and within a few hours our gang is right back out on the streets, making sure that snitch Rojas gets the mandated stitches. Due to budgetary constraints “stitches” becomes 1 tiny piece of prop glass and a large bandage on the forehead.

The baddies get their own long and equally boring party scene, where they smoke a bunch of angel dust in a parking lot and sing off key songs about “passing that fucker, man”, to the tune of stock music cues that would later pop up in Zombie Nightmare. Then the mighty Chaco, our aviator shade and frontless shirt wearing gang leader gets a listless spin shot and this struggle of a 4 line speech. It absolutely sounds like he learned it phonetically:

Chaco (gazing at nothing): Blood. My head….is full of blood. My dream…. is full of blood. I’m going to take my building BACK!

Because this looks more badass than using the unlocked door right next to it

Typical of most “urban warfare” style films, 20 minutes in and that’s pretty much it for plot. There’s a ton of expository padding, but none of it teaches you anything important about the characters you didn’t learn through the early party scenes. Angel and her husband fight over his drug use. Anita’s mom is not thrilled she’s pregnant. Leona wishes she could move. Mr. Gonzalez is beloved by the children, because cute seeing eye dog. Rojas is drunk and Ruth is reciting a Shabbat blessing. Just in case the caricatures weren’t broad enough the first time around, hit me baby one more time.

We know there’s going to be a bloody conflict. The film just needs to give Crow T Robot his Christmas gift , and decide who lives and who dies. Place your bets or grab your bingo cards, whichever you prefer.

While the post apocalypse aerobics instructor of the group cuts the phone lines, the seeing eye dog ends up as fodder for a banger’s Countess Bathory moment.

By the way, timestamped title cards have been present but irrelevant the entire movie, as its not like PCP fueled murder sprees are on a tight schedule. Feel free to join me in continuing to ignore them.

Leona goes downstairs to check the phone line, and is brutally punished for being right about the gang’s return. This sequence made me glad for how weirdly prim this movie is, despite its X rating for violence. Conceptually horrible things happen, but we don’t explicitly see much of them. In the case of a deceased pup and a Last House On The Left style remix of the uses of household implements, less really is more.

In a thin upside, Leona’s little girl is smart enough to head upstairs to safety with a neighbor, and Leona managed to pull a Fulci on one of her attackers before dying.

Mr. Washington begrudgingly helps herd everyone he can find onto the upper floor landing, because apparently Chaco & friends are a bit confused on how stairs work, and won’t follow them. Bickering amongst the residents ensues, but they do comply. That runtime needs a lot of padding to make a safe landing.

Proving Mr. Washington’s point, Chaco yells some threats from the lobby, but doesn’t move an inch. The rest of the gang rampages through the emptied apartments like unattended Sims. Without someone to tell them what to do, they are stabbing random furniture, tossing food around, and getting bags stuck on their heads.

Variations of these same 3 shots fluff out a lot of the remaining runtime. Assume they happen in between any relevant action, and even some that aren’t. For example, Angel’s futile plea to one of her tricks on the street to go get help rather than come inside, which wastes another few minutes without disturbing the main plot’s vacation.

Angel’s husband dies defending his stash. Angel only makes it to safety because Mr. Washington comes out onto the landing to protect her as she runs upstairs. The fourth floor stairs are still lava.

One of the gang overdoses by virtue of doing the entire stolen pile of drugs at once. Chaco and Olivia Newton Chula mourn by having a bloody trip to second base beside the body of their fallen comrade.

Not to be outdone by gangbangers for moronic and unnecessary deaths, Mrs. Wesley dies searching downstairs for disinfectant. Anita’s mom dies trying to escape from the third story window via a single strand of clothesline. That doesn’t even work in cartoons, for fuck’s sake.

Over an hour into the movie, the baddies finally figure out the whole fourth floor stairs thing, and start tearing apart the makeshift furniture barricade the residents made.

Only by the grace of grandma Ruth and her ancient New York wisdom of nut shots and baseball bats, do the residents escape up to the fifth and final floor.


The good ship plot device comes in, and the gang wastes more time with random vandalism, to give the good guys time to MacGuyver an elaborate defense of an electrified bed frame and wet steps.

Downstairs, Chaco kills one of his own people via genital stab because the film’s runtime is almost out and too many people are still alive.

The residents loot a gun clip off of the crispy fried victim of their death bed, assuming the gang’s gun is no longer a threat without ammo. Our fifth grade teachers taught us what happens when you assume. In this case, it gets Mr. Washington shot as he heads downstairs.

Assumption also gets Rojas killed by Chaco’s handy dog collar. While a brilliant parry of boiling water and a fridge made of foam killed Chaco’s ladyfriend, and mortally wounded another gangster, Chaco himself was unharmed.

By going downstairs to gloat and finish the job with a knife, Rojas proves that only manual strangulation can get him to shut the fuck up.


Ruth stuns Chaco with her trusty bat, but doesn’t kill him. That leaves poor pregnant Anita to battle the big bad on a rainy roof, and finish the job with a TV antenna and a convenient attack of sudden rotoscope lightning. Too bad she locked herself out, as the door slammed shut in the struggle…….

Surprise! Mr. Washington is still alive and here to open the door after missing the entire fight. For the survivors it’s a brand new day………

……….or maybe just a less rainy pitch black night. Allegory is hard.

3 Comments

  1. Wow I remember everyone talking about the infamous Snuff film in the school yard 35 odd years ago. Rumors someone had it on VHS and daring each other to try and watch it. We never did but just the thought of it was scary enough.
    Ashamed to say I’d never heard of Roberta Findlay before so it’s awesome I get to learn about her on your most excellent write up. Full of detail.
    I don’t tend to go too hardcore on my film watching. My brain can’t take too much blood, bedlam and rape! But The Tenement was one that I have listed on my to one day watch list. Esp as Assault On Precinct 13 is so amazing I can well imagine this one isn’t. I might just make do with just looking and reading your article rather than actually watching the thing.
    I like that they look like they raided The Warriors leftovers on the wardrobe floor. šŸ™‚

    Like

    • “Snuff” is utterly unconvincing as even a horror film. It’s clearly 2 different shoots edited together, and the final sequence is obviously a completely different actress…..I am utterly confounded as to how it started an urban legend that is STILL prevalent today.

      “The Tenement” is no where near as awesome as “Assault On Precinct 13”. It is better than I expected for the budget and the filmmaker, grading on a curve. However, it drags even by grindhouse standards of pacing and there’s not enough to any of the characters to really push this into genre classic territory.

      As ridiculous as it sounds, this was the lighter fare in my current draft pile. I didn’t have the energy for the other 2 options for the other 2 choices, which are weirder/wilder/more sharp edged. Given the real world is a bit stressful right now, I gave myself a break with this instead LOL.

      Liked by 1 person

      • haah is it that bad! Well of course it had to be but thats funny to hear it actually like two film edited together with a different actress.

        So funny that given the real world dramatics it was given that The Tenement would be lighter viewing option for you LOL.

        Liked by 1 person

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