Charles Bronson in a slasher movie? Less than a decade after DEATH WISH made him one of the world’s leading movie stars, the 61-year-old tough guy entered into an exclusive association with Cannon schlockmeisters Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, an alliance that resulted in the sleazy but slick 10 TO MIDNIGHT.
Someone is killing beautiful and usually naked young girls in Los Angeles. “Mean, selfish sonuvabitch” cop Leo Kessler (Bronson) is on the case, teamed with a by-the-book new partner, Paul McAnn (Andrew Stevens), a college graduate with a more cerebral approach to catching bad guys. The two latest victims were friends of Kessler’s daughter Laurie (Lisa Eilbacher), a nursing student who feels neglected by her father and attracted to his new partner.
The killer’s identity is no mystery to us and barely one to Kessler: Warren Stacey (Gene Davis), a sexually repressed film buff striking back at women who reject his advances by stripping completely naked and stabbing them with a large knife. You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud—or even a first-year psychology student—to understand the symbolism hammered into our heads by director J. Lee Thompson (THE GUNS OF NAVARONE) and scenarist William Roberts (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN).
Kessler is an old-fashioned cop who remembers when “’legal’ meant ‘lawful’,” instead of loopholes intended to set killers free to murder again. Sure enough, when his attempt at planting evidence fails, freeing the arrogant young madman and costing Kessler his badge, the determined veteran becomes obsessed with stopping Stacey’s bloody reign, maybe even at the cost of Laurie’s life.
The closest Bronson ever came to a straight horror movie (outside of 1953's HOUSE OF WAX, when he was still being billed under his real name of Charles Buchinsky), 10 TO MIDNIGHT (the title is meaningless, one presold by Cannon to foreign backers and tacked on to the movie in post-production) is certainly the best film he made for Golan and Globus. What it lacks in typical cop-movie shenanigans like shootouts and car chases, it makes up for in gore and nudity. Indeed, it’s a bit surprising to see such a sleazy movie being created by the likes of Bronson, 70-year-old Roberts, and 69-year-old Thompson.
Bronson fires his gun just once, demonstrating his rage through acting rather than action. He could play this type of role in his sleep, and he did in his later films, but his presence and power are at full strength here. Kessler’s frustration and old-fashioned view of law and order very much echoed the feelings of many Americans during the Reagan administration, and Bronson keys into that expertly.
The bravest performance is by Davis, who plays his slashing scenes completely in the buff, even one set in a cold forest in the middle of the night. He takes an unusual approach to his mad killer, underplaying instead of the raving histrionics we usually see in serial-killer movies. While 10 TO MIDNIGHT doesn’t seem to have done much for his career, the dedication he shows is appreciated.
TV vets Eilbacher (THE HARDY BOYS MYSTERIES) and Stevens (CODE RED) have less to play, but handle their supporting roles as well as anyone could. Also appearing are Wilford Brimley (THE THING), Robert F. Lyons (also in Bronson’s MURPHY’S LAW), Geoffrey Lewis, a young Kelly Preston (JERRY MAGUIRE), Ola Ray (48 HRS), Jeana Tomasina (THE BEACH GIRLS), June Gilbert, Paul McCallum (Bronson’s stepson from his marriage to Jill Ireland), Sam Chew, Jerome Thor, future director Deran Sarafian (TERMINAL VELOCITY), and Cosie Costa.