Slashed To Thrill: Brian De Palma’s DRESSED TO KILL (Filmways 1980)

Brian De Palma was a big deal back in the 70’s and 80’s, and his films like CARRIE, SCARFACE, and THE UNTOUCHABLES are still discussed. Yet works such as SISTERS, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, OBSESSION, BLOW OUT, and BODY DOUBLE seem unjustly neglected today, and some critics deride him for his over the top sex and violence. DRESSED TO KILL finds De Palma in full Hitchcock mode, an homage to PSYCHO that The Master of Suspense himself cited as more like a “fromage”, but one I find still entertaining.

The film begins with a sizzling hot shower scene with Angie Dickinson as Kate Miller, remarried mother of  science nerd Peter  (Keith Gordon, CHRISTINE ). Kate has problems in her marriage and with her own mom,  not to mention being a nymphomaniac! She’s seeing psychiatrist Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine ), but seemingly getting nowhere. We follow her to  New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she engages in an erotic game of hide-and-go-seek with a complete stranger. They have sex in the cab, and at his apartment. Leaving the encounter, Kate steps into an elevator… and is brutally slashed/hacked to death by a tall, blonde woman in dark glasses brandishing a straight razor!

When the elevator stops, young Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) witnesses the horror within. She’s brought tp police headquarters where Detective Marino (Dennis Franz) is investigating, where we discover Liz is a call girl, “a Park Avenue whore” as Marino calls her. Peter and his stepdad are devastated, as is Dr. Elliott, who refuses to give nay information out on his clients. Liz becomes the prime suspect, but Peter starts his own investigation, learning the tall blonde woman is one of Elliott’s patients, a patient who is now stalking Liz…

De Palma keeps things suspenseful, with a jolting scene in the subway, and the gripping psycho-sexual drama played out in Elliott’s office while a thunderstorm rages outside. I won’t spoil the killer’s identity for those of you who haven’t viewed this thriller (though it’s not hard to figure out if you’ve seen PSYCHO)… but I will tell you De Palma wraps things up with a double – make that triple! – twist ending. The director (who also wrote the screenplay) draws not only from Hitchcock, but other sources like Goddard and Antonioni, especially in the art museum scene. His use of sound, like that of Hitchcock, adds immensely to the atmosphere, and split-screen imagery is utilized in a scene with Caine and Allen. Pino Donaggio’s score evokes Bernard Herrmann , and DP Ralf Bode’s imagery is superb.

Let’s talk for a minute about Nancy Allen. The cute-as-a-button actress, who was married to De Palma at the time, makes a great woman-in-jeopardy as Liz, and was one of the brightest stars of the late 70’s/early 80’s. Allen made her film debut in 1973’s THE LAST DETAIL at age 23, and gained major recognition as “mean girl” Chris in De Palma’s CARRIE. She starred in Robert Zemeckis’s first movie I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND, and was well-known for her roles in BLOW OUT, STRANGE INVADERS, THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT, and the first three ROBOCOP flicks. Nancy’s pretty much retired from acting, working with environmental and breast cancer causes, but it’s always nice to go back and view her work (and yes, I still have a crush on her!).

Michael Caine seems more invested in the part of Dr. Elliott than he does in other films of this era. It’s a good, juicy part, and Caine is more than up to the task. Angie Dickinson, in the Janet Leigh role, is still sexy at 49, though that’s not her nude in that shower, but a body double (former Penthouse Pet Victoria Lynn Johnson). Dennis Franz as Marino is practicing for his Detective Sipowicz in TV’s NYPD BLUE, which isn’t a bad thing. Keith Gordon is good as nerdy Peter – so nerdy he even rides a moped!! And in an interesting side note, former AIP honcho Samuel Z. Arkoff is the film’s executive producer.

I don’t know exactly why Brian De Palma’s work is largely ignored today, save for a handful of films. He’s still cranking ’em out, and has an upcoming production DOMINO scheduled for release this year. His movies, especially those made in the 1970’s and 80’s, are well worth watching, and the sexy horror DRESSED TO KILL ranks as one of his best in my book. It’s time for a new generation to rediscover De Palma!

Halloween Havoc!: CHRISTINE (Columbia 1983)

Stephen King turned 70 last month, and the Master of Horror’s grip on the American psyche is stronger than ever, thanks to the unprecedented horror hit IT!, now playing at a theater near you. King’s macabre novels have been adapted for the screen since 1976’s CARRIE with  varying degrees of success; some have been unabashed genre classics, others complete bombs, most lie somewhere in the middle.

Top: Stephen King 1983
Bottom: John Carpenter 1983

Director John Carpenter had a string of successes beginning with 1978’s seminal slasher film HALLOWEEN, but his 1982 remake of THE THING, now considered a masterpiece of the genre, was a box office disappointment. Carpenter took on King’s novel CHRISTINE as a work-for-hire project. I recently watched it for the first time, and think not only is it one of the best adaptations of King’s work to hit the screen, it’s one of Carpenter’s best horror outings as well.

Nerdy Arnie Cunningham and his best friend, jock Dennis Guilder are your typical late 70’s high school students, obsessed with cars, sex, rock music, and football. Arnie is the target of school bully Buddy Repperton and his posse of thugs, who get suspended after pulling a switchblade on the poor sap. But things change for Arnie when he’s drawn to a battered old ’57 Plymouth Fury, nicknamed ‘Christine’, which he buys from its creepy owner, elderly George Lemay, who inherited the wreck when his brother committed suicide in it.

Soon a change comes over Arnie, as he spends all his time lovingly restoring “Christine” to her former glory. He starts gaining confidence, and soon is dating the hottest chick in school, Leigh Cabot. His appearance and attitude also begin to change, morphing into a 50’s-style JD greaser, complete with pompadour and leather jacket! Strange things begin to happen when ‘Christine’ is around: Dennis gets injured on the football field, and Leigh is trapped inside the car at a drive-in, choking on her burger! When Buddy and his bullies extract revenge by trashing ‘Christine’, smashing it with sledgehammers and taking a dump on the dash. But ‘Christine’ and Arnie have developed a psychic bond: he tells the auto “Show me”, and Christine herself morphs back to her old self, dead set on revenge…

CHRISTINE is a whole lotta fun, with some marvelous, murderous set pieces devised by Carpenter. King’s material and Carpenter’s style mesh perfectly, aided and abetted by Bill Phillips’ pedal to the metal script and Donald M. Morgan’s crisp photography. ‘Christine’ herself, according to carponents.com , was played by 23 different autos, including a couple of modified Plymouth Belvederes and Savoys, allowing Ted Allen, Roy Arbogast, and the rest of the special effects team to create their “twisted” regeneration scenes. The roaring engine sounds were actually dubbed from a 1970 Ford Mustang!

Carpenter peppers his score with snippets from classic 50’s artists to accentuate the mood, including Johnny Ace (“Pledging My Love”), Danny and the Juniors (“Rock and Roll is Here to Stay”), Dion and the Belmonts (“I Wonder Why”), Thurston Harris (“Little Bitty Pretty One”), Buddy Holly (“Not Fade Away”), Ritchie Valens (“Come On, Let’s Go”), Larry Williams (“Bony Maronie”), and Little Richard (“Keep A-Knockin'”). You’ll also hear ABBA, The Rolling Stones, George Thorogood, and Tanya Tucker on the soundtrack, just not on ‘Christine’s’ radio – she only plays 50’s rock!

The cast was deliberately made up of at-the-time unknowns, chief among them Keith Gordon as the nebbish Arnie. Gordon went behind the cameras as a director of films (MOTHER NIGHT, WAKING THE DEAD) and television (DEXTER, HOMELAND). John Stockwell (Dennis) played in MY SCIENCE PROJECT and TOP GUN; he’s also a director today. Alexandra Paul (Leigh) is best known as Lt. Stephanie Holden on TV’s BAYWATCH. William Ostrander (Buddy), who looks like a cross between Jim Morrison and Vinnie Barbarino, later appeared in RED HEAT and MULLHOLLAND DRIVE. Oh, and speaking of Vinnie Barbarino, Kelly Preston has a role as hot-to-trot cheerleader Rosanne.

The adults in the cast include Robert Prosky as the gruff garage owner where ‘Christine’ is stored, Christine Belford as Arnie’s nagging mother, Roberts Blossom as the weirdo Lemay, and the late, great Harry Dean Stanton as State Police Detective Junkins, who’s investigating all the outlandish murders. CHRISTINE puts Stephen King and John Carpenter together for the first and only time, and it’s a match made in… well, you know! Add it to your Halloween viewing list, kick back, and enjoy the ride.