Friday, May 18, 2012

The Angel Collection

From time to time, I plan to use this space to repurpose film reviews I wrote for several local independent newspapers during the previous decade:

THE OCTOPUS: 1999-2000
THE PAPER: 2003-2004
THE HUB: 2005-2006

During my tenure as a professional (re: paid) film critic, I wrote about both new releases and cult classics. The date provided below is the date the newspaper issue containing the review hit the streets.

This review has been slightly edited from the original published piece.

Perhaps no other drive-in franchise is as consistently entertaining as the ANGEL movies. None are a whole lot better or worse than the others in the series, and none are particularly great. The novelty of child prostitution being presented in a relatively positive fashion, as well as the unusual camaraderie among the street people, puts ANGEL at the top of the heap, with ANGEL III slightly edging out the more exciting AVENGING ANGEL, which suffers from Russell’s lifeless acting. While THE ANGEL COLLECTION is no must-see—and would definitely hold little interest for non-fans of 1980’s drive-in fare—late-night movie watchers on the lookout for titillating sex and violence could do a lot worse.

"High School Honor Student By Day, Hollywood Hooker By Night."

A great ad campaign featuring that tag line was instrumental in ANGEL becoming a box-office hit in 1984. After being abandoned by both her parents, 15-year-old Molly Stewart (Donna Wilkes) puts herself through private school by turning tricks on the sleazy streets of Hollywood as an underage hooker named Angel. A makeshift family of colorful street people—including silent movie cowboy star Kit Carson (Rory Calhoun), cigar-smoking lesbian Solly (Susan Tyrell), and flamboyant transvestite Mae (comic Dick Shawn)—watches over her. Angel needs all the help she can get after an egg-sucking necrophilic serial killer (MIAMI VICE’s John Diehl), who disguises himself as a Hare Krishna and dismembers prostitutes, learns Angel can identify him. Top-billed Cliff Gorman is good as the detective investigating the murders.

Not as much skin as you might expect, considering the subject matter (except for some completely gratuitous locker-room shots). In fact, ANGEL’s biggest flaw is its timidity. Angel does a lot of street-walking and posing in sexy clothes, but not much hooking. While this was probably an issue of taste, the film’s antiseptic view of street life and frequent comic relief dispel any tension in the story. Director Robert Vincent O’Neil would have you believe that Hollywood Boulevard at night presents about as much danger as a Coney Island Ferris wheel. The veteran cast members are fun to watch, I guess, but Wilkes, who does at least look the part, isn’t tough enough and is never believable as either a high school honor student or a Hollywood hooker.

The cinematographer was future director Andrew Davis (THE FUGITIVE). 25-year-old Wilkes was formerly McLean Stevenson's daughter on TV's HELLO, LARRY. This was a step up.

Four years after the events portrayed in ANGEL, former child prostitute Molly Stewart (Betsy Russell, replacing Donna Wilkes) has escaped the streets of Hollywood to become a college track star in 1985’s AVENGING ANGEL. However, when her mentor, Lt. Hugh Andrews (Robert F. Lyons, replacing Cliff Gorman), is murdered, “Angel” squeezes into her old working clothes and hits the seamy streets of Los Angeles to find the killers.

Reuniting with foulmouthed lesbian Solly (Tyrell) and flamboyant ex-cowboy star Kit Carson (Calhoun), Angel shoots her way through the ranks of mobster Arthur Gerrard’s (Paul Lambert) private army, culminating in a standoff in L.A.’s historic Bradbury Building.

More comic and less sleazy than the original film, AVENGING ANGEL still provides decent entertainment, mixing a few bare breasts into the steady stream of squealing tires, flying bullets, and unusual characters. What Russell lacks in acting chops she makes up for in looks, and she was already well-known in exploitation circles for her topless scenes in PRIVATE SCHOOL and OUT OF CONTROL. Today, Russell is likely better known for her roles in the lucrative SAW franchise. She’s a looker for sure, although her “of age” casting takes away the kinky thrills that Wilkes’ jailbait streetwalker provided in ANGEL.

ANGEL creator Robert Vincent O’Neil had nothing to do with 1988’s ANGEL III: THE FINAL CHAPTER. Neither did Donna Wilkes and Betsy Russell. It’s now 14 years after ANGEL, and Molly Stewart (future SILK STALKINGS star Mitzi Kapture) appears to have forgotten all about law school, as she’s now a freelance photographer working in New York City. Tom DeSimone (CHATTERBOX) directed.

After glimpsing a woman she believes to be her long-gone mother, Molly hops a flight to Los Angeles to discover that not only is her mom, Gloria (Anna Navarro), a successful art dealer, but she also has a 14-year-old half-sister Michelle (Tawny Fere). Unfortunately, just a few hours after Molly’s tearful reunion with the mother who left her alone to a life of child prostitution, Gloria is murdered by drug-smuggling white slaver Nadine (OCTOPUSSY’s Maud Adams), who also holds Michelle in her mansion to “entertain” wealthy criminals. Rounding up a new posse of colorful helpers, including gay hustler Spanky (Mark Blankfield, the FRIDAYS funnyman who headlined JEKYLL AND HYDE…TOGETHER AGAIN) and bland film editor Neal (Kin Shriner), “Angel” tarts up and becomes an actress in porn movies in an attempt to infiltrate Nadine’s harem.

Kapture’s performance is better than those of Wilkes and Russell, but, despite the presence of pornography, prostitution, murder, white slavery, and dope in DeSimone’s screenplay, ANGEL III isn’t as gritty or sleazy as it should be, presenting an antiseptic feel more akin to a SILK STALKINGS episode than an R-rated feature meant for drive-ins. Richard Roundtree (SHAFT) pops up occasionally as Angel’s new police contact, and Dick Miller plays Molly’s boss.

Anchor Bay Entertainment previously released all three movies as THE ANGEL COLLECTION, a 3-disc set featuring each film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 viewing. ANGEL includes a trio of deleted scenes, albeit with subtitles, since the original audio tracks have been lost, and a pair of interesting trailers. The first is action-oriented, playing up the murder plot and showing the various chases and murders accompanied by a throbbing fast-paced score (“ANGEL—a very special motion picture. Coming this January.”). The second is reminiscent of an ABC Afterschool Special and concentrates on Angel’s life on the streets. You would never know ANGEL’s plot actually involves a serial killer (“Angel. It’s her chance, her choice…and her life.”).

For AVENGING ANGEL, ABE included a healthy still gallery, in addition to two trailers carrying New World Pictures‘ logo (“When you get to Hell, tell ’em Angel sent you.”). Both use more or less the same clips that emphasize both the violence and the eccentric supporting cast, but the second trailer wisely eliminates many of Betsy Russell’s stilted line readings.

Only a trailer is present to represent ANGEL III, but it does confirm that the ’88 release was intended for theatrical release, although the New World International logo could mean it played in theaters only overseas. Each disc is adorned with a glamour shot of its particular Angel, and art from the provocative posters covers both the interior and exterior package, although ANGEL’s notorious tagline isn’t prominently featured. Jay Marks provided copy for the eight-page insert.


English Teacher X said...

Yeah, the first ANGEL movie is so matter-of-fact about her child prostitution she may as well have had an evening job selling ice cream on Hollywood Blvd. The gratuitous locker room scenes of supposedly high-school age girls are a nice touch -- a nostalgic look at the days when "bearded clam" could still be accurately used to describe a woman's private parts.

eillio said...

"Angel III: The Final Chapter" is actually set 12 years after the events of "Angel", but Molly's mother did abandon her 14 years prior.