Friday, November 6, 2015

Beware of the Naked Man

Charles Bronson aims to wipe the scum off the street in 10 TO MIDNIGHT (1983)

Pardon me while I old all over the place, but a lot of things were better in olden times. Jobs were plentiful. Fewer guys named Todd. Political correctness was non-existent. Hipsters had yet to infest every city center with their ham-fisted attempts at irony. People weren't perpetually auditioning for their own reality-TV show.  But most importantly of all, there were video stores. I know there are a few jerks out there who'll pipe up and say, "But it's so much more convenient to stream - any movie you want is available at just a click of a mouse!" I will retort first by saying, "Get off my damn lawn, you whippersnapper!" And second, for those of my readers that did not come of age during the magical era of VHS, there was just something special about taking a journey to your local video store.
First of all, you didn't have the privilege of remaining isolated and you were forced to know how to interact with other people to obtain the movies of your choice. And sometimes instant gratification just isn't everything. LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, ERASERHEAD, SLEEPAWAY CAMP and HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER hold so many more special memories for me because I had to embark on a quest to find them.
Once you arrived at the video store, you had the chance to browse through rows and rows of creative box art and discover hidden gems. That's how I stumbled upon ALICE, SWEET ALICE and that remains one of my favorite movies to this day. On the other hand, that's also how my high school best friend and I ended up renting NAIL GUN MASSACRE. This was before the day of hideously Photoshopped floating heads, so looking at all the box art was a thrill in itself.
Then when you finally selected your movie, you got to talk about your rental with the sardonic clerk who had ostensibly seen every single movie in the store.
And now that video stores are gone, where the hell are smart-alecky people who have seen too many movies supposed to work? Automating people out of business is how that TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE family got started!
And do we really want to give away all of our jobs to machines? We're turning this whole damn country into WESTWORLD!
These are the thoughts that kept me out of all the good schools.
And speaking of thoughts that kept me out of all the good schools, let's celebrate everything I loved about the heyday of VHS and also CHARLES BRONSON's birthday week with 10 TO MIDNIGHT (1983), a sleazy slasher-inspired action flick from those bastions of good taste at Cannon Films.

Charles Bronson as Leo Kessler in 10 TO MIDNIGHT (1983)

The Bronsonator plays Leo Kessler, a hard-nosed quiche-hating Los Angeles homicide detective who's tired of creeps finding loopholes to evade justice. With the help of college-educated new partner Andrew McCann (ANDREW STEVENS), Kessler investigates a series of homicides of young woman. The perpetrator is none other then Ted Bundy-inspired (he even drives a tan VW bug!) office equipment repairman, Warren Stacy, who despite his buff physique has trouble attracting a date. Warren's misogyny and painfully fragile masculine ego prevent him from relating to women as anything other then contemptible pleasure objects and does not understand why his condescending, abrasive advances are met with rejection.
Hell hath no fury like a developmentally arrested man-baby scorned, and Warren stalks his unrequited objects of lust before stripping buck naked and stabbing them to death. Not only does this method of murder serve as a substitute for sex in which Warren can have total dominance, but also conveniently does not leave physical evidence.
Warren also has a knack for arranging airtight alibis, which makes Leo's pursuit of him all the more difficult. When Warren sets his perverted sights on Leo's feisty student nurse daughter, Laurie (LISA EILBACHER), Leo decides to take a shortcut and plant a little evidence.
Unfortunately, Warren just hires cynical, amiably sleazy crackerjack criminal defense attorney Dave Dante (character actor extraordinaire, the late beloved GEOFFREY LEWIS) and is sprung free to pull a Richard Speck and slice and dice a houseful of student nurses into veal cutlets.
Then it's time for the Bronsonator to dispense some good ol' fashioned street justice.

Gene Davis as Warren Stacy, the rampaging naked serial killer in 10 TO MIDNIGHT (1983)

Other reviewers have noted that 10 TO MIDNIGHT has much more in common with DIRTY HARRY than the DEATH WISH films for which BRONSON became famous, with its disillusioned detective, sadistic serial killer and critique of a criminal justice system that does nothing to protect its citizens from savvy predators. 10 TO MIDNIGHT also incorporates elements of slasher films, which were extremely popular at the time. The first victim is dispatched FRIDAY THE 13TH-style while having sex with her boyfriend in a van parked in the woods. Warren's systematic stalking and slashing of the house full of student nurses is a cornucopia of slasher tropes including a shower attack, a potential victim hiding under a bed while another victim is stabbed to death right above her and a prolonged chase of the Final Girl.
And can you really die from being stabbed in the stomach because according to this movie and the FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels, that's completely plausible.

It's a pretty well-acted and entertaining movie. J. LEE THOMPSON, stalwart action director who helmed the Gothic-infused slasher delight HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME a few years earlier, keeps everything stylish and snappy. BRONSON brings his usual likability and commanding presence to a stock role. Likewise, ANDREW STEVENS is good as his more ethical idealistic partner and potential love interest for the leading lady. My favorite, though, is LISA EILBACHER as Laurie Kessler. Most slasher movie Final Girls are still in their teens or in college, but Laurie is a grown woman trying to overcome childhood baggage as she progresses through adulthood. Though she still has a relationship with her father, it is clear he was often estranged from her and eschewed his parenting duties for the sake of his career. With the loss of her mother at a young age, Laurie ostensibly raised herself. Though she bears some reasonable resentment, she is not portrayed as incomplete or damaged. She is confident, tough-but-vulnerable, sassy and resourceful under distress. EILBACHER is refreshingly natural in the role and as a result, Laurie is always relatable.

Lisa Eilbacher as Laurie Kessler in 10 TO MIDNIGHT (1983)

GENE DAVIS is unfortunately wooden as Warren Stacy, often coming off as petulantly pissy rather than cold-blooded. However, the portrayal strangely works in the character's favor: a grown man pitching tantrums is far more repellant than any psychopath.
And you will never hear anything but gushing praise from me about GEOFFREY LEWIS, particularly when he is playing a gleefully sleazy attorney.
But while 10 TO MIDNIGHT is shamelessly entertaining, let's look at its depiction of the legal system.
Real life has little influence over Hollywood and I doubt any producers have been in a court room unless it's for their own cocaine possession. Therefore, 10 TO MIDNIGHT's sanctimonious assertion that the system is broken is pretty riddled with holes.
I can't exactly say the same for its brethren DIRTY HARRY, which arose from '70s cynicism about the institutions we constructed to protect us but failed to do so and fear that perhaps society had gone too far to one end of the spectrum to ever return to a balanced center.
In Harry Callahan's hunt for Scorpio, he acts under a ticking clock, determined to save a teenage girl who has been buried alive with only a few hours to live. He adheres to the rules until necessity dictates otherwise. I can't speak for Constitutional law in the early '70s, but Harry's obtaining Scorpio's rifle (which he does in the course of his legitimate search for Scorpio) and finally catching Scorpio himself are acceptable considering the extraneous circumstance. And while roughing up Scorpio would have a penalty, a human life hanging in the balance takes precedent over the right to a lawyer.
Harry Callahan cries that "the law's crazy" because he has done the right thing to save a young girl's life and prevent a dangerous (not to mention racist, homophobic and misogynistic) psychopath from hurting others. He is prevented from maintaining justice for the people by heartless bureaucrats who seem to care more about technicalities of the law than the citizens those laws were created to protect.
On the other hand, Leo Kessler planting evidence on Warren isn't in pursuit of justice, just sloppy police work. He is emotionally invested because Warren has involved his daughter and takes a short-cut.
I also don't think it was proper police procedure to illegally seize Warren's sex toy and brandish it at him during an interrogation ("Do you know what this is for? It's for jackin' off isn't it?" Leo snarls). No matter how freakydeaky he thinks it is, it's irrelevant to the murder investigation and I doubt he could get a judge to sign a warrant for it.

Leo Kessler (CHARLES BRONSON) is mystified by Warren's sex toy in 10 TO MIDNIGHT (1983)

10 TO MIDNIGHT would have us believe the criminal justice is full of loophooles in which clever criminals are all able to afford top-notch lawyers and manipulate their way back onto the street as wishy-washy liberals wring their hands and shrug over technicalities.
The legal system is flawed and not always fair (might equals right far too often), but not in the way the film depicts.
There's a misconception that Constitutional rights are only there to protect murderous psychopaths and child molesters go free, when the most commonly quoted statistic is that 97% of criminal defendants are ruled guilty.
Most of the judges in criminal court (at least where I live) are former prosecutors and therefore inclined to believe everyone is guilty. And there are a large chunk of defendants not poor enough to be eligible for a public defender but too poor to afford a private attorney, so most go without the skilled representation of a legal artist like Dave Dante.
And the number of defendants freed due to technicalities, in my experience, are zero. Exceptions are made if the investigating officers were acting in good faith. If a defendant is acquitted due to their Constitutional rights being violated, the investigating officers were negligent or corrupt in performing their duties.
In fact, if Warren Stacy were not such a despicable creep, the audience would be howling over lack of police ethics.
I also doubt that an attorney as savvy as Dave Dante, no matter how unethical, would propose an insanity plea as an alternative to the death penalty when there is clear evidence that the defendant was aware his criminal actions were wrong. Additionally, in California (as in several other states) the burden of proof would be on the defendant so I doubt this would have been proposed as a cavalier solution.

Criminal defense attorney Dave Dante (Geoffrey Lewis) and Warren Stacy (Gene Davis) in the court room in 10 TO MIDNIGHT (1983)

Though Leo remarks that Dave Dante is scum, Dave is the one who is just doing his job. Everyone is entitled to the best defense possible (or at least one within their financial means) and Dave is simply defending his client to the best of his ability. It's Leo's sloppy and unethical police work that guarantees Warren Stacy will go free.

In the context of the film, I love the ending. It's dramatically satisfying and I don't know if anyone could have brought as much gravitas to that moment as CHARLES BRONSON does. However, in the context of the real world, Leo Kessler would then be rushing to obtain the services of a Dave Dante-type criminal lawyer he once hypocritically denounced.
Would the system still be considered to be broken if Leo were to be acquitted for murder? That's a question the film doesn't bother to consider.

Well, Constitutional law aside, 10 TO MIDNIGHT is good ol' fashioned exploitation fun and I don't think it's ever possible for me to dislike a CHARLES BRONSON movie. Even in those later DEATH WISH sequels where he starts rockin' sweat suits and starts to look more like ED ASNER, I still just love the guy. ROGER EBERT declared 10 TO MIDNIGHT to be "a scummy little sewer of a movie" and that "the people who made (it) have every reason to be ashamed of themselves." That's quite a compliment from the guy who penned the great trash classic BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS!

And while searching for a clip of the ending, I discovered this clip which made me love the Bronsonator even more.
I knew we were always on the same page!

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