Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Ghoul Versus Stripped To Kill

Take a chair as we welcome the Wonderful World of Roger Corman to A Ghoul Versus...!”

It is almost mind blowing it's taken me this long to review a film that wasn't produced by the immortal Roger Corman. For those few of you not familiar with the name, he is a producer who has made a career out of making VERY cheap movies in a VERY short time, having over FOUR HUNDRED credited to his name and is still going strong. Although he has definitely helped create some all-time classics in the form of Death Race 2000, Rock 'n' Roll High School, and Children of the Corn, he is probably best known for hundreds of exploitation films featuring everyone's favourite sex and violence.

One such example is today's film, 1987's Stripped to Kill, a certified cult classic that RULED late night Cinemax broadcasts back in the day. With it's awesome tag line of “A Maniac is killing strippers. Detective Sheehan has one weapon to stop him. Her body.”, what's NOT to love about that premise? Chosen to play the title role was Kay Lenz, an actress of minor acclaim in the 1970s and 80s, including a highly memorable spot as the object of Rod Stewart's crossing the line stalker affections in the 1984 music video for his hit “Infatuation”. Helming the director's chair was Katt Shea, an actress turned director like many of the alumni of the so-called “Corman Film School”. Stripped to Kill was her debut film, though she would go on to find much bigger success in Poison Ivy and the Rage: Carrie 2.

Stripped to Kill has maintained an enduring legacy over the years to the point where it was just released on DVD earlier this month by the MAGNIFICENT distribution company Scorpion Releasing, who specialize in reviving long forgotten films that deserve some love. They're even planning a blu-ray release of this down the road, showing they have a true understanding of how movies should be done. I think it's high time to see what Stripped to Kill has done to inspire such a loyal fan base, so get out your dollar bills and get ready to make it rain with A Ghoul Versus Stripped To Kill!

We open with a woman meditating on the themes of isolation and alienation in Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel Brave New World, and by that, I mean she's stripping. We see this is her audition to work at a strip club owned by a man named Ray, who is played by... NORMAN FELL?! No way, THE Norman Fell? Mr. Roper from Three's A Company is acting in a sexploitation film? Well, I think I've officially seen everything. We catch up with the woman, Angel, back at her girlfriend Roxanne's apartment. They're making out, unknowingly being watched through the door by Roxanne's CREEPY ASS and Flock of Seagulls haircut having younger brother Eric.

Angel leaves to go to work, finding Eric standing there. He asks Roxanne when she's planning on moving out, obviously very upset at Angel for taking his big sis away. He viciously grabs Roxanne, and then viciously hugs her. Ohh-kay, I think I already have an idea on who the killer might be... Even the movie is getting awkward, so it cuts to another stripper that may or may not be Brigitte Nielsen or possibly Dee Snider. She dances for the entire length of the song as I begin to wonder if this film wasn't more interested in showing naked women than trying to tell a story? Nah, I'm sure I'm just imagining things.

After her number, she goes back to the dressing room to engage in some witty dialogue with the rest of her coworkers. Something we see very early on is this film has some GODAWFUL editing, to the point characters almost look like they're teleporting back and forth between scenes. Roxanne is late from work so Angel warps over to a payphone to call her, Roxanne sounding very out of it on the other side of the line. They agree to meet at a bridge later, Angel interrupted by a creepy patron who tries to give her flowers and talk about how she dances ONLY for him. Scratch Eric, this guy is the killer! Angel screams for help so he runs away.

We smash cut to the bridge where Angel is waiting, but is met by a hooded figure instead. The figure shoves Angel off the bridge and pours gasoline all over her, running down to rip her dress off. Before things can get any more fucked up, we cut to the hero of this story: Detective Cody Sheenan. Cody is working undercover in a nearby park trying to catch a thief, chasing him when he grabs money out of the guitar case of a nearby player. She ends up tripping over Angel, only Hoodie is now gone. And here's where the editing goes to complete shit, as Hoodie appears out of thin air and throws more gasoline on Cody. He then warps right in front of her to kick a gun out of her hand, following up by throwing a match at her.

Cody's partner magically teleports out of NOWHERE to drag her to safety, but alas poor Angel goes up in flames. Hoodie escapes in the chaos, opening up a wormhole to safety. I didn't realize this was going to be a sci-fi sexploitation movie, it really seems like something they should have explored more. An alternate reality human race where everyone can teleport seems like it would make for a pretty interesting movie, instead of the one they're currently throwing at us. We abruptly transition back to the club for another strip scene, although this one only lasts a couple of minutes instead of a full song. Gotta admire their restraint on that one. Fortunately, it's Roxanne to the rescue as she shows up to do a number.

What happened to meeting Angel on the bridge? Was that just a setup to kill her girlfriend? Does she even know Angel is dead? WHAT IS THE TIME FRAME OF THIS MOVIE?! This actually gets answered in the next scene in the dressing room with Ray wondering where Angel is, so I guess it's the same night? Roxanne throws her hat in the ring for “I'm the killer!” status by blankly replying she doesn't know. A jump cut takes us back to Cody, who has just learned Angel's identity. She meets with her partner No First Name Heineman, who so far is the only bright spot in this entire film. He's played by the highly charismatic Greg Evigan, an actor who has been working steady for over three decades but is probably best known for co-starring in NBC's oddball 1987 sitcom My Two Dads.

Over the drive to the police station, Heineman fills Cody in on how Angel's coworkers have been most uncooperative in the investigation before a warp cut takes them to a doughnut shop. This movie probably should have opened with a warning about how if you have epilepsy, you shouldn't be watching this. Or taste in good movies, either one. Heineman suggests she go undercover as a stripper to find out more, then pulls out a switchblade and pretends to stab her? Huh?! They engage in an impromptu “knife training session” in full view of the rest of the patrons of the store, which you think would have prompted someone to call the police since neither are wearing a uniform. But again, alternate reality so perhaps this is a custom of Earth-619 or whatsoever.

Cody agrees to do it, as there JUST HAPPENS TO BE an amateur contest that very night where the winner gets a job at the club. Wow, Cody better go out and buy a lottery ticket since this is obviously her lucky day! There's shockingly a smooth transition to her stage debut, where we quickly learn Cody must have taken a crash course in dance lessons from Seinfeld's Elaine Benes. She is HORRIBLY awkward as she tries to get her groove on, which is genuinely hilarious. More laughs come when she can't figure out how to undo the back of her fancy dress, so she just rips it off. She starts feeling the music now, cementing her win by taking her bra off to the delight of the men in the club and half of the police department who showed up in plain clothes.

She goes backstage and starts earning the trust of the strippers, but it's been like a minute since we saw someone taking their clothes off so Cinnamon takes the stage to correct this grave oversight. During her dance she accidentally falls off the stage, right into the lap of the Flower Creep. After the dance Ray fires her for being high all the time, so she storms off in a huff. She teleports outside to try to catch a taxi, but can't find one. Gee, I wonder what's going to happen to her now on this empty dark street? Oh never mind, back to the club because the “editor” of this film doesn't understand what tension is. This scene is also pointless, so let's go back to the stage for more stripping!

To try to develop that whole “plot” thing, the movie has Cody become suspicious of Flower Creep. She puts Heineman onto him, so he follows him into an alley where he sees him buy a butterfly knife from a street vendor. I'm not believing for a second this guy is the killer, but thanks for trying movie. We return to Cinnamon, who gets jumped by Hoodie on a dark street and viciously strangled to death. He ties her body to a truck and leaves, which is odd cause I thought fire was his thing. An arsonist killer is certainly more interesting than just a random killer, but again, I don't think the movie's main focus was on characterization.

The next day Cody goes to the police station after a morning of shopping for stripper clothes, which sets up another funny scene where she asks Heineman how much he thinks a pair of fishnet stalkings cost. Without even hesitating he replies “fourteen bucks”, a knowingly smile on his face. Damn, I love this guy! More stripping follows, but then things get going when the rest of the strippers lure Flower Creep into an alley and try to attack him as they believe he's the one who killed Angel. Cody intervenes and he runs away, the women telling her they did this for Roxanne. After learning about Angel's relationship with Roxanne, Cody begins to suspect her because it's “always the lover” who did it. My thoughts exactly, although knowing this movie it'll turn out to be Ray or Random Stripper #11.

Stripping and more stripping, and yep Cody is still AWFUL at this whole thing. It's a good thing she's the main character or her ass would have been fired ages ago. Heineman graces us with his presence in a scene where he breaks into Roxanne's apartment looking for clues, but ends up getting caught by her shotgun wielding neighbour. It turns out the man is an ex-cop, lowering his gun when he learns Heineman is a detective. This goes nowhere so we warp cut to Heineman talking with Cody in her apartment. These rapid cuts are REALLY wearing me out, my brain keeps trying to fill in the continuity behind them and starts hurting every time. The police chief calls and says Cody is going too far by working at the club, so she has to cease immediately. In case you've been wondering how cheap this film looks, you can SEE THE BOOM MIC during part of this scene just hanging out at the top of the frame. Yikes.

Cody is confused by this, as this was her assignment. Heineman fesses up and reveals it was all his idea, as he was hoping catching the killer would lead to a promotion for him. Cody goes to the club to quit, but Ray guilts her into working one last shift. She goes on stage with Heineman angrily watching in the crowd, but he could just be mad because she still can't dance worth a damn. He confronts her after the show, revealing they found Cinnamon’s body. Oh yeah, her! I kind of forgot this was supposed to be some kind of murder mystery story or something, because after Cody got hired SO DID SHE. Some very abrupt cuts follow as the two violate the laws of time and space until they exit a black hole to find themselves at Cody's place, where they end up having sex on her filthy floor. This does nothing to help the sexual tension they've had brewing all movie, and only serves to drive them apart.

Heineman takes off to find Flower Creep while Cody works on digging a little deeper into Roxanne by looking her file up at the station. While talking with the clerk she brings up No First Name Margolin, the ex-cop who almost fired on Heineman. The clerk says he was crooked, forced into retirement after making underage prostitutes sleep with him to avoid jail time. I really hope this movie isn't going to have a character that's been in it for all of a MINUTE turn out to be behind everything. Showing off her mad detective skills, Cody goes to Roxanne's without telling ANYONE where she's headed. No way THAT'LL bite you in the ass until Heineman bursts in for the last second save, no sir.

She meets with Eric, who is trying his hardest to out-red herring Flower Creep but failing miserably. Eric leaves, so Cody searches his room and finds... Margolin's body. Phew, so at least this movie isn't THAT incompetent. And there's Roxanne holding a knife, attacking Cody with some of the MOST INEPT knife attacks ever captured on film. I honestly think she thinks a knife is for hitting instead of stabbing. Unfortunately for Roxy, Cody has spent the entire film learning how to defend herself against a knife so she grabs it and stabs her in the chest. I was kind of expecting... more.

Heineman kicks in the door with his gun drawn a minute too late, so at least we got a nice subversion of that particular cliché. But then we revert to well worn territory as Roxanne gets up and shoots Heineman in the chest two times, pulling the knife out of her bloodless chest. A subversion within a cliché within a subversion... we are hitting Subversion-ception here now, folks! “Roxanne” RIPS OFF HER BREASTS to reveal it's a prosthetic, and that she's really... Eric! DU DUN DUUUUUN! It seems he had no choice but to kill his beloved sister when she said she was moving out with Angel, and is now killing everyone else... because reasons. Sure whatever, let's just wrap this thing up already.

Eric starts to pour gasoline on Cody, but she throws him into a glass table and runs out the door. Hey, you know what this movie hasn't had in forever? STRIPPING! Yes, they actually splice the climactic final chase scene with shots of one of the strippers dancing. Good Lord. The club ends up being the destination of Cody's poorly edited escape, Eric entering the club hot on her heels and begins to shoot everyone in sight. This proves to be his undoing though, as one of the shots ends up igniting the gasoline on his body and he goes up like a roman candle. This was probably the hardest ending I've had to follow in a movie YET on this blog, I rewound it like five times trying to figure out what exactly was going on before giving up.

The fire begins to spread towards Cody, but fortunately Heineman makes up for his failed cliché earlier by NAILING IT this time thanks to his powers of dramatic teleportation. Two cliches really, because he has wearing a bulletproof jacket the entire time. Cody tells him she can't feel her foot because apparently she got shot at some point during the ending clusterfuck, but Heineman checks and says she just got shot through the fatty part of her thigh. Cody, can you send us out of here in style?

“My thigh is not fat!”.

Oh. Cue the credits.

I imagine this was a pretty good movie because Roger Corman got a hold of it and edited it to shit. Buried deep beneath the endless scenes of strippers is a solid tale of a woman tricked into becoming a stripper to further her partner's career, and then slowly losing herself to the sensation of empowerment over the patrons of the club. You REALLY have to reach to find this though, as all of it takes a backseat to boobs, boobs, and more boobs.

What little acting that survived the editing process was quite enjoyable, Kay Lenz and Greg Evigan both did bang up jobs with their characters. Lenz is on record for complaining about the editing of the film, which is understandable considering how it undermined her performance and the story. In the rare scenes where she wasn't upstaged by five minutes of a random stripper, she was very compelling as a tough as nails cop trying to solve the mystery. It is something how many good actors must have signed on for Corman's films thinking “THIS is the one that'll be different, it won't be a mindless T and A-fest!”. No such luck here, but maybe the sequel will finally break the streak. Oh yes, there is a sequel to this movie, which was also directed by Katt Shea but that's a story for another day.

The numerous stripping sequences do halt the film dead in its tracks every single time, but outside of those the story constantly had me guessing and the ending was a genuine surprise, even if there was almost nothing to set up the twist beforehand. Still though, I'd check this out if you're a fan of sexploitation films, especially the bumper crop of ones we got in the late eighties. This is head and shoulders above most, thanks to Shea trying her hardest to make a movie that wasn't instantly forgettable.