September 29, 2015



Charles Bronson’s association with the exploitation mavens at Cannon Films started with Death Wish II (1982), and continued through six years and seven more movies of profitable urban bloodshed. The second of these was 10 to Midnight (1983), a ultra-sleazy slasher film in which Bronson’s morally dubious cop attempts to protect his daughter from a loony who commits murders in the nude. Now out on Blu-ray from Twilight Time (available exclusively through Screen Archives), it’s a lowest-common-denominator product that gives the people what they want, and what they wanted in 1983 was healthy heaping of gently jogging nudity (male and female), a few spurts of blood, and Bronson looking constipated, apparently.


10 to Midnight began as a title without a story. Producer Pancho Kohner had been working with Bronson since St. Ives (’76), and was being pitched by Menahem Golan to come to Cannon Films to make Bronson’s next picture. In Paul Talbot’s book Bronson’s Loose!, Kohner described the strange development of the film. Initially he and Bronson wanted to adapt the novel The Evil That Men Do, but Golan was unwilling to reimburse them for the rights, so, Kohner recalled:

Golan said: ‘I’ll tell you what. We’ll go to Cannes anyway and we’ll pre-sell the next Bronson picture. When we come back in two weeks, we’ll find another story and we will not make The Evil That Men Do. What’s a good title?’ I always liked 10 to Midnight. So, we went over to Cannes and I sat in this suite at the Carlton and all the buyers came through. I explained that there was going to be great action and great danger and great revenge and it was going to be called 10 to Midnight. Everyone was pleased. We didn’t have a script yet. We got back to Los Angeles and I had to scramble to find a story that would be a Bronson project that Charlie would like. I called a friend of mine…and I asked him if he had any stories and he know of Bill Roberts’ screenplay called Bloody Sunday…. I said, ‘Would you mind if we called it 10 to Midnight?’ He said, ‘No.’ [Laughs].

10 To Midnight

William Roberts’ script was loosely based on the story of serial killer Richard Speck, who murdered eight student nurses in 1966. The screenplay transposes him into Warren Stacey (Gene Davis), a good-looking perv who gets his kicks by stripping naked and chasing down young women with a knife. Bronson plays Lieutenant Leo Kessler, a decorated investigator who has started cutting corners to imprison those he deems guilty. His partner Paul McAnn (Andrew Stevens) is more of an idealist, an educated upstart who wants to clean up the force. Both are interested in protecting Kessler’s daughter Laurie (Lisa Eilbacher), a student nurse and one of Warren’s potential targets. Note: the title has nothing to do with the story, though the posters promised “a deadline”, there is no such thing in the film.


Bronson had developed a stone face as inert as Buster Keaton’s, and opted for as little physical movement as possible. Watching a Bronson film from this period is a constant test of the Kuleshov effect. If the cutaway is to  a scumbag murderer, Bronson’s impassive face must be registering anger, but if he’s looking at his daughter, then it has to be affection. The closest he comes to “acting” is when he confronts some of the more ludicrous turns of the plot. While at the morgue standing next to the latest victim, he is forced to say, “If anybody does something like this, his knife has gotta be his penis.” Though he maintains a laconic volume, there is a rhythm to his delivery that lands “penis” as a punchline. His co-star Andrew Stevens recalled, “Charlie made continual jokes, and when he has to say the line, “The knife is his penis,” he cracked up over and over. Usually standoffisih on set, Stevens reported that Bronson was feeling loose and jocular, perhaps having fun with the absurdity of the script.


The crew was made up of professionals, from director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone), to DP Adam Greenberg (The Terminator), who frame the story as more of a horror film than a thriller. Warren is positioned as a Michael Myers-type, scarred by psychological damage here left unexplained, his only source of pleasure when he is able to strip and take another life. Once naked, he is a monster, appearing as a Psycho shadow behind the shower curtain. He is something like the male id run wild, and shows off his svelte behind more often than the any of the women he goes to out to kill. He is objectified more than anyone, though the film has its quota of buxom ladies running for their demise. Roger Ebert was disgusted by the film, calling it a “scummy little sewer of a movie”, and declaring that everyone who made it, including Bronson, should be ashamed of themselves. It is a cynical market-driven product that exploits all of its characters for cheap thrills. But it is consistent in its cynicism, depicting everyone as compromised or on the take, and contains a barely suppressed lunacy that threatens to overtake the film at every turn. This spark of madness makes it hard to look away from Brosnan’s rigid visage, in the hopes of watching it break.


June 18, 2013


The summer of 1985 was a chilly one for Hollywood executives, with box office grosses declining 160 million dollars from 1984′s take. In his Los Angeles Times moratorium, Jack Mathews blamed the lack of an all-ages “sequel to a blockbuster” for the downturn, with the adult arterial sprays of Rambo: First Blood Part II sitting atop the charts. Franchise hopefuls Explorers and Return to Oz tanked, while even the successes (The GooniesCocoon) didn’t crack $100 million. The family dollar was being kept in-pocket.  It was inauspicious timing for exploitation operation Cannon Films to release one of their few big-budget items, the eroto-horror whatzit Lifeforce. They signed Tobe Hooper, fresh off of Poltergeist, to direct, Henry Mancini to write the score, and John Dykstra (Star Wars) to head the effects team. Instead of a Spielberg theme park ride, they delivered an obsessive head trip in 70mm, one which details the ways in which quivering men fail to satisfy a voracious (alien) woman’s sexual desire. Ravaged by critics, Janet Maslin memorably described it as “hysterical vampire porn”, and it made only $11.5 million on a $25 million budgetIt comes out in a loaded Blu-ray today from Scream Factory.


Producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were Cannon Films, and they signed Tobe Hooper to a three-picture deal following the success of Poltergeist. To sign the contract Hooper dropped out of Return of the Living Dead (1985), for which screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (Alien) took over as director.  In their first meeting Golan and Globus handed Hooper the novel The Space Vampires (1976) by Colin Wilson. The production began a few days later, with Hooper fondly remembering how they “bypassed all the usual development things you have to go through.” One of those “development things” they went without was having a completed script. Hooper hired O’Bannon and Don Jakoby to write it, but it was far from finished by the time the compressed shooting schedule began.The tight schedule also frustrated the effects team led by Dykstra, who later complained that a rushed film processing job introduced flaws into the delicate optical printing work (read more about his analog techniques in the film here).


If Golan and Globus expected the Spielbergized Hooper of Poltergeist, they were to be disappointed. What they got instead was the uncompromising horror nerd who made Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Hooper recalled his own attitude as, “I’ll go back to my roots, and I’ll make a 70mm Hammer film.” Recognizing Colin Wilson’s novel as a variant on The Quatermass Xperiment, he made Lifeforce with ripe colors and riper melodramatics, his actors adopting the postures and tones of his favorite Hammer icons. Frank Finlay, for example, in his character of Dr. Hans Fallada, takes on the epicene inquisitiveness of Peter Cushing. The title was changed to Lifeforce and the producers cut down the film for US release by 15 minutes and replaced Mancini’s score, but it didn’t help at the box office. Hooper believes that changing the title was a mistake, that everyone then, “expected it to be more serious, rather than satirical. It isn’t quite camp, but we intended it to be funny in places.”


The film starts as exploratory sci-fi, with Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) leading a British-U.S. space mission to investigate Halley’s Comet. As they float on wires through matte-painted backgrounds worthy of Forbidden Planet, they discover the corpses of hollowed out devil bats. Then they enter a crystalline chamber modeled on the diamond-shaped alien pod from Quatermass and the Pit (1967), where they find three perfectly preserved human bodies, one a well-proportioned woman (only known as “Space Girl”, Mathilda May) who exerts a hold on Carlsen, even in stasis. Here the horror begins, as this female is, yes, a space vampire, sucking the life force out of anyone in her path. Once she and her two male companions (including Mick Jagger’s brother, Chris) reach Earth, they leave piles shriveled up human husks in their wake, which realistically twitch in the animatronics by Nick Maley.


Space Girl embodies female desire without socialized restraint, ignorant of Madonna/Whore complexes or slut shaming. She knows what she wants and she gets it. After she escapes a government facility, one of the doctors is asked how she overpowered him. He responds: “She was the most overwhelmingly feminine presence I’ve ever encountered.” If this were a male character, he would be a raffish romantic lead (Gerard Butler maybe?), but as a woman she could only be a (nude) world-devouring hell beast. It’s a thankless role for Mathilda May, who is tasked with striding naked with a zombified gaze for two hours, but she does get to cow the men and their toys.

The male characters are either insular pedants or macho creeps, playing with their spaceships or microscopes but utterly befuddled at the presence of an unprepossessing nude woman.  Railsback is in a perpetual cower, prematurely embarrassed at his inability to fully please the Space Girl. By the end he’s sweating and flinching so much he becomes Renfield to her Dracula. The only time he can gain some measure of control is by injecting her with gallons of sleep serum, and that’s only when she’s taken over the body of Patrick Stewart (yes, Captain Picard). She speaks through Stewart’s  mouth, ““I am the feminine in your mind, Carlson”. Railsback then kisses Stewart, in one of the more radical moments in 1980s Hollywood cinema. Railsback is, very literally, embracing his feminine side.