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Sunday, September 7, 2014

10 To Midnight (1983) review


Charles Bronson (Leo Kessler), Gene Davis (Warren Stacy), Andrew Stevens (Paul McAnn), Lisa Eilbacher (Laurie Kessler), Geoffrey Lewis (Dave Dante), Wilford Brimley (Captain Malone), Robert F. Lyons (Nathan Zager), Kelly Preston (Doreen; billed as Kelly Palzis)

Directed by J. Lee Thompson

***WARNING! This review contains nudity***

The Short Version: Charles Bronson does a dirtier Harry in this 1983 Cannon thriller. Both sleazy and slickly made, J. Lee Thompson's fourth directed Bronson vehicle is among the actors best remembered works. Often offensive, frequently compelling, Bronson takes on a sadistic naked killer with a penchant for disemboweling women, and will stop at nothing to put him away. Not for the squeamish, this trashy quasi-horror movie brilliantly balances its exploitation and exposition, then blows you away with one of action cinemas most shockingly rewarding endings ever.

Warren Stacy is an office equipment repairman who has trouble meeting women. His self-imposed sexual frustration leads the disturbed Warren to kill the women that refuse his advances. No-nonsense cop Leo Kessler knows who the killer is, but hampered by a legal system that seems to protect the guilty and endanger the innocent, Leo takes matters into his own hands to stop Warren before he can kill again.

Charles Bronson followed up the unpleasant DEATH WISH 2 (1981) with this even more unsettling slasher movie decked out in murder thriller tresses. Rarely has trash been directed as well as it is in J. Lee Thompson's morbid movie. It's never extremely graphic, but there's something inherently uncomfortable about nude, or scantily dressed women being terrorized and killed by a knife-wielding psychopath with a preference for butchering in the buff. 

The script by William Roberts covers more bases than this sort of material normally does -- carving some strikingly well-rounded characterizations in a way that Michael Winner's sordid DEATH WISHers from the 80s never mustered. It chastises an inadequate legal system and the slimy counselors whose job it is to help get sick bastards back on the streets; special attention to Geoffrey Lewis as Dante, a lawyer who pushes for the truth, but his truth comes in the form of a dollar sign. Meanwhile, the script portrays Kessler as a gruff old-timer with an abhorrence for red tape and all those sticky formalities. Kessler is saddled with a much younger partner in the form of Paul McCann (Stevens), and he's strictly by the book. 

Bronson does wonders as the hardened lawman, coming to life in ways Paul Kersey never did. Aside from one being an architect and the other a cop, Kersey is like a silent, tortured soul whose only lot in life is to sweep up street scum, and operate as an inadvertent jinx to any potential female companions. Leo on the other hand, is alive with an angry verve often associated with an elder statesman longing for simpler times. Kersey was a vigilante and Leo is driven to it by the end upon realizing the (f)law will likely set Warren free. 

By comparison, Leo Kessler is more Harry Callahan than Paul Kersey. Leo's words of wisdom often include such pearls as "The way the law protects those maggots out there you'd think they were an endangered species", and "I remember when 'legal' meant 'lawful'. Now it means some kind of a loophole".

Despite their glaring differences, and McCann being a "profound pain in the ass", both men get along, and work very well together. Some of the dialog riffs off the age difference between them. This dichotomy is a balancing act with some heavy exploitation elements while giving the audience something to think about between two men with different views of the law -- one who follows the rules, and one who opts to break them. Scriptwriter Roberts even finds time to develop a bit of romance for McCann and Kessler's aggressive, but perky, and very attractive daughter, Laurie. As to be expected, she becomes a target of the naked killer, Warren Stacy. 

Gene Davis redefines creepy in the role of Warren, a young man with a massive amount of social and mental issues. Incapable of co-existing -- much less having relationships -- with women, Warren's easy out is to simply exterminate them. Lacking any refinements in manners, or social graces, the charmless, frustrated slasher is resigned to stabbing with a different sort of knife. Warren is instantly unlikable. It's almost as if he doesn't want women to like him. It's one thing to be uncomfortable about meeting a woman, but Warren is forceful and abrasive; often ruining any chance with the opposite sex as soon as he opens his mouth to speak; and this is a good thing since any sort of co-mingling with this sadist will result in a knife to the gut. 

Davis the actor is a real trouper, though, considering he runs around minus clothing the bulk of his screen time. In a time period where DNA wasn't an option, killing in the nude works in Stacy's favor, while acting as a metaphor for his sexual performance -- substituting a knife for his penis.

Warren's interactions with the fairer sex may all end in bloody disaster, but his run-ins with Kessler are all gems. It's in these bits that some minor humor emerges from the cesspool of sleaze 10 TO MIDNIGHT is dipped in. One of the best is when Warren is brought in for questioning, but is released because of a lack of evidence. Moments before he's let go, Kessler indulges in some good old fashioned excessive force after whipping out Warren's dick gobbler in a bit of 'evidence obtained under duress'. Even so, Leo knows he's got the right man -- it comes with age.

The final 15 grueling minutes when Warren gets inside Laurie's dorm room she shares with three female friends mirrors the sickening Richard Speck murders of 1966. One of her roommates is a young Kelly Preston (billed here as Kelly Palzis). Up to this point, 10 TO MIDNIGHT has been provocative in its message, and gratuitous in its violence; now it becomes harrowing and right disturbing as the buck naked slasher systematically disembowels Laurie's roomies while searching the place so as to put his knife in her. It's modestly gory, but the scene is shot and edited so masterfully, it ends up feeling even more nasty than what is shown.

10 TO MIDNIGHT (1983) was a success for Cannon and another intensely violent thriller headlined by Bronson. The actor had already done a Dirty Harry impersonation in 1973 with THE STONE KILLER. In this picture, Bronson is a dirtier Harry. Copiously padded with male and female nudity, and capped by an incredible shock ending, 10 TO MIDNIGHT ranks high on the Bronson meter; as well as being a greasy high point in Tough Guy cinema.

This review is representative of the MGM DVD.

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