Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Maniac Is Killing Strippers

It’s common knowledge that Roger Corman, first as the head of New World Pictures in the 1970s and ‘80s and later with Concorde/New Horizons in the late ‘80s and 1990s, loved to discover new directorial talent. But it has also been said that he especially liked to hire women directors because he could pay them less. I don’t know whether that part is true—no director got paid very much working for Roger—but it’s difficult to argue that any other Hollywood producer has given women more chances to write, produce, and/or direct films than Corman.

Katt Shea Ruben, a model and actress who had small roles in not-so-notable productions as HOLLYWOOD HOT TUBS and BARBARIAN QUEEN, was 29 years old when she convinced Corman to let her, along with her husband Andy Ruben, make STRIPPED TO KILL, a grimy crime drama with an irresistibly lurid premise and, surprisingly, name stars. It not only made money for Concorde, but also landed some surprisingly approving reviews, leading the studio to hire Ruben to direct more of the same, including the inevitable STRIPPED TO KILL II, DANCE OF THE DAMNED (which combined stripping with vampirism), and STREETS, which basically remade STRIPPED TO KILL with streetwalkers instead of strippers.

Ruben later broke through to the mainstream with POISON IVY, a steamy thriller with Drew Barrymore as a cunning teen who seduces Tom Skerritt, but, outside of the major studio release THE RAGE: CARRIE 2, has been unable to carve out the directing career she probably deserves. Certainly she’s proven herself many times over most men being asked to direct the many insipid action, horror, and thriller films oozing out of Hollywood these days. No doubt—a Katt Shea (she has since divorced her husband) JONAH HEX would be more interesting than the sludge Warner Brothers actually released.

STRIPPED TO KILL may be about a serial killer of exotic dancers, but I’m not so sure Ruben isn’t more interested in the potential victims than in the cops and their investigation. She certainly spends an inordinate amount of screen time showing the various acts, which have nothing to do with the plot, but don’t play as exploitative either. The Rubens’ screenplay humanizes the women and is genuinely interested in them as people, not just objects of sex or plot. However, I think Ruben goes too far with the dancing. Perhaps she didn’t care about the story, but it could have used some extra time to develop.

At least the Rubens spent quality time on the murders, which aren’t gory (this isn’t a slasher movie), but are inventive, and the twist ending, which is confusing, but lively. Kay Lenz, whom you don’t expect to see in a stripper film, plays an L.A. detective, Cody Sheenan, who’s investigating the murder of a dancer who is pushed off a bridge, raped, and set on fire. Her partner, Heineman (Greg Evigan from BJ AND THE BEAR), convinces her to take a job performing at the Rock Bottom strip club, run by crusty Ray (THREE’S COMPANY’s Norman Fell), to investigate from the inside.

Having a decent cast always helps. Evigan and Lenz share an easy chemistry, though an uneasy romantic subplot between them feels shoehorned in. Ragged editing gives the impression some scenes weren’t shot, but the two stars manage to keep their scenes lively. Lenz, a two-time Emmy winner, is a very good actress—good enough she didn’t have to do Roger Corman movies at that stage of her career. She was certainly drawn to her character, a straight-laced cop who is unexpectedly drawn to a new seedier lifestyle. The writing isn’t up to her level, but Lenz is terrific anyway.

I don’t want to give the impression that STRIPPED TO KILL is any kind of lost classic, but it’s certainly one of the better Concorde movies in the great Corman tradition. It’s at heart a trashy drive-in movie, but made with a modicum of intelligence and respect for its audience that sets it above the rest of the Cinemax-at-1:30am crowd.


Christopher Mills said...

I remember thinking that this - and her other films for Corman - were pretty good, back when I rented them on VHS. Maybe Shout! Factory will get around to some of these if their Roger Corman line does well.

Gunnar Jonsson said...

According to Beverly Gray's Corman Book, Shea showed Corman a rough cut that was over two hours long. Corman then stormed into the editing room and began to cut out a lot of footage(none of it stripping of course!).

Ed Gorman said...

For awhile there I tried to keep up with Shea's career but I lost track of her. Wonder what she's doing today,s