Thursday, September 10, 2015

10 To Midnight

Charles Bronson in a sleazy slasher movie? You bet, and it’s one of his most popular films for Cannon, the studio that employed him consistently throughout the 1980s. The title 10 TO MIDNIGHT is meaningless, merely one presold to foreign backers by Cannon heads Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus and tacked on to the film in post-production.

10 TO MIDNIGHT is certainly the best of Bronson’s Cannon films and among his best that decade. Its status as a horror movie may be debatable (Bronson’s only straight horror film was 1953’s HOUSE OF WAX, in which he was billed under his real name of Charles Buchinsky), but it certainly leans more on gore and nudity than typical cop-movie shenanigans like car chases and gun battles. In fact, Bronson fires his piece only once in the film during its memorable finale. It’s a bit surprising to see such a tawdry movie being created not only by Bronson, but also its 70-year-old screenwriter, William Roberts of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, and its genteel 69-year-old director, J. Lee Thompson, who made THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, CAPE FEAR, and, yes, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME.

It doesn’t take long to reveal 10 TO MIDNIGHT is more than a typical Charles Bronson crime drama. Someone is slashing beautiful and often naked young women in Los Angeles — an act Thompson shows us in an extended, blood-drenched setpiece that fits more comfortably with FRIDAY THE 13TH than DIRTY HARRY or even DEATH WISH. The killer’s identity is no mystery to us. He’s Warren Stacey (Gene Davis), a sexually repressed film buff striking back at women who reject his advances by stripping nude and stabbing them with a large knife.

You don’t have to be Freud or even a first-year psychology student to understand the symbolism Thompson and Roberts are hammering into our heads. Even “mean, selfish son of a bitch” detective Leo Kessler (Bronson), investigating the murders with his by-the-book partner Paul McAnn (Andrew Stevens), gets it. Stacey’s latest victims were friends of Kessler’s daughter Laurie (BEVERLY HILLS COP redhead Lisa Eilbacher), a nursing student who feels neglected by her father and attracted to Paul, a college graduate with a cerebral approach to chasing killers.

Kessler, old-fashioned enough to remember when “legal meant lawful,” instead of loopholes intended to set killers free, tries to plant evidence to secure a conviction against Stacey. In an interesting twist involving the star of DEATH WISH, Kessler’s attempt at vigilante fails, and Stacey does indeed go free — not because of any loopholes, but because of Kessler’s own actions. It costs the cop his badge and spurs him obsession with stopping Stacey’s bloody reign, maybe even at the cost of Laurie’s life.

While 10 TO MIDNIGHT doesn’t seem to have done much for Davis’ career, his dedication to making Stacey as creepy as possible is appreciated. Obviously inspired by real-life Chicago mass murderer Richard Speck (as was Roberts in writing the script), Davis’ unusual approach to his character involves underplaying, rather than the expected histrionics and “witty” one-liners, and playing his slashing scenes in the buff, even in a cold forest in the middle of the night.

Bronson, who played many a cop in his day (and would go on to play more for Cannon and others), could have played Leo Kessler in his sleep, but he seems charged by the role. Certainly his presence and power are strong enough to propel him through. Eilbacher and Stevens have less to play, but handle their supporting roles well, as do Wilford Brimley (COCOON), Robert F. Lyons (also in Bronson’s MURPHY’S LAW), Geoffrey Lewis (EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE), a young Kelly Preston (JERRY MAGUIRE), Ola Ray (48 HRS.) and THE BEACH GIRLS’ Jeana Tomasina.

10 TO MIDNIGHT opened at #2 at the box office — sandwiched between TOOTSIE and GANDHI (!) — but went on to gross less than other Cannon productions that year, HERCULES and REVENGE OF THE NINJA. Bronson’s next Golan/Globus production, which Cannon also released, was DEATH WISH 3, which was one of the studio’s biggest hits and led to it making a Bronson film every year the rest of the decade.


English Teacher X said...

Yeah, watched this and VICE SQUAD the same year on HBO, and the damage was done. They talk about the effect all the free internet porn has on kids today, but at least the sex scenes don't conclude with bloody stabbing these days.

Felicity Walker said...

The name “Leo Kessler” sounded familiar, so I Googled it, and apparently there’s an author by that name. I’m not sure if that’s why it sounds familiar, though. I wonder if there’s a third instance of it that I’m forgetting.