Angel (1984)

Robert Vincent O’Neill

Donna Wilkes - Molly ‘Angel’ Stewart
Cliff Gorman - Lt. Andrews
Susan Tyrrell - Solly Mosler
Dick Shawn - Mae/Marvin Walker
Rory Calhoun - Kit Carson
John Diehl - The Killer

Genre - Action/Drama/Thriller/Serial Killers

Running Time - 94 Minutes

PLOT (from IMDB)
15 year-old Molly (Donna Wilkes) is the best in her class in high school. Nobody suspects that the model pupil earns her money at night: as prostitute "Angel" on Sunset Blvd. The well-organized separation of her two lives is shattered when two of her friends are slain by a necrophile serial killer (John Diehl). She's the only eye witness and becomes a target herself. The investigating Detective Andrews (Cliff Gorman) helps her, not only to survive, but also to query why she keeps on humiliating herself and to stop it.

One of the more famous exploitation films of the 1980s, New World Pictures’ ANGEL was another film that was part of the whole teensploitation sub-genre that involved young women having to prostitute themselves as a plot device to tell the movie’s story. While the 1970s did have its share of films that focused on young women who did what they had to in order to survive - 1976’s TAXI DRIVER, 1978’s PRETTY BABY and 1974’s THE WORKING GIRLS come to mind - the 1980s really glamorized it with 1984’s SAVAGE STREETS and 1985’s STREETWALKIN’. I mean, just look at the tagline on the film’s poster, “High school honor student by day…Hollywood hooker by night!” It’s no wonder ANGEL was a sizable box-office hit, although it’s a wonder why anyone would feel scandalized about the film’s themes. It’s a Grindhouse exploitation film, duh!

Surprisingly, ANGEL isn’t as sleazy as one would expect from that tagline. In fact, the film looks and almost plays out as a TV Movie of the Week if it didn’t have swear words, nudity, and blood. But the message of “young women putting themselves in danger if they solicit themselves in the streets” is still very evident and works well enough in terms of storytelling. There’s not much to ANGEL other than that, playing out as an action-thriller where women close to Molly ‘Angel’ Stewart are being murdered one-by-one by a serial killer. She’s a witness to one of the murders, making her an obvious target to the point where she has to grow up fast and fight back in order to survive. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, but I do wish it was a bit more exciting and fun in terms of its execution. But ANGEL is never boring and it's easy to see why there were three sequels that followed to varied success. 

What really makes ANGEL the cult classic that it is are the interesting characters that Angel surrounds herself with. Drag queen Mae is probably the best of the lot, as she has the best dialogue in the film and seems to be the more fleshed out of all the characters. She’s sassy, foul-mouthed, tough, yet extremely caring and protective of Angel - considering Angel is only fourteen-years-old and working the streets. Mae is Angel’s mother and father figures all wrapped up into one, making her extremely likable and fun to watch. Landlord Solly is also up there, as she’s just as crude as Mae and just as loving towards Angel and sympathetic. Mae and Solly’s banter with each other give the most memorable bits of dialogue in the film, genuinely making me laugh at how unpolitically correct they are. Dialogue like this would get flamed in 2019. But in 1984, this was just standard exploitation storytelling. We also get Cowboy Kit Carson, who pretty much runs the part of Hollywood Boulevard that Angel frequents. He’s a bit of a western caricature on the surface, but there’s more to him that we learn by the film’s end. We also a magician dressed as Charlie Chaplin who befriends the prostitutes [even falling for one], leading to a memorable moment where he learns she was murdered and he just grieves for her. It gives the character a lot of depth in just a minute. And in a film like this, we obviously need a detective character, Andrews, who investigates the murders and befriends Angel to the point where he sort of takes her under his wing more or less.

And then there’s the killer himself, who is described by Andrews as “probably bisexual, impotent and was beaten by his daddy.” He’s also a necrophiliac, which makes certain scenes a bit uncomfortable to watch. He also doesn’t say anything until the very end of the film, just eating raw eggs, working out, and murdering hookers after charming them with his muscles and creeper face. He probably should have felt more of a threat than he did [the killer in 10 TO MIDNIGHT comes to mind] had more going on, but he’s still not a guy I would like to bump into the street.

The best character is obvious Molly, or Angel, who honestly has the most depth of any character. A fourteen year old, her parents had abandoned her and relied on hooking at age twelve to pay her tuition to prep school, as well as pay bills and rent. She has a lot of sass and is not a girl who is willing to let people step all over her. An issue pops up though, as both her lifestyles don’t ever seem to connect in a single film. Schoolgirl Molly and hooker Angel feel like characters from two different films than a natural progression. And if she had been hooking for over 2 years, why was she recently busted by schoolmates just now? And no one realized she wasn’t living without any parental units at all? These things feel like plot conveniences rather than something natural the character would have lived through. But it’s an exploitation film, so I’m not expecting a high quality of art here. 

The direction by Robert Vincent O’Neill is a mixed bag. Nothing about the film is all that stylish, as it feels like a TV movie made for a theatrical release. The tone is mostly balanced, although there are moments where one could struggle with the question of whether ANGEL is a drama made for ABC’s Afterschool Special, or a provocative thriller about a necrophiliac murderer targeting a teenage girl. There’s no real sleaze in the film besides a few men acting like pigs towards Angel. And the violence is quite tame, with no real graphic murder scenes at all. We do see the aftermath with bloody corpses, but they’re never really the focus of the film. I will commend O’Neill on the gritty look of the film, as it captures 1980’s Hollywood Boulevard extremely well and gives you a sense of how street smart you had to be to survive. And probably the best moment of the film - a drag queen fighting a Hare Krishna that was shot really well and was more amusing than it had any right to be. Only in the 1980s could a film like this had been directed. I’ve seen a lot better exploitation films of this kind, but at least it’s easy to follow and is short.

The acting is a bit hammy at times, but I didn’t hate it. Donna Wilkes, probably best known for JAWS 2 and ALMOST SUMMER, was actually 24-years-old playing a 14-year-old. But she kind of pulled it off and portrayed Angel as a fleshed out character who was vulnerable, tough, sassy and smart all in one. Wilkes actually followed prostitutes and spent time in halfway houses to make the role authentic. I respect that and Wilkes was very charming as the lead. Dick Shawn was a hoot as drag queen Mae, spouting off offensive one-liners and kicking butt to protect her girls. He also seemed to enjoy wearing that dress and being Mae, so respect. Susan Tyrell is just as funny and kooky as Solly, while Cliff Gorman played the stereotypical hard-as-nails police detective who gains a soft spot for our heroine. As for John Diehl, he played a pretty convincing silent killer, using just facial expressions and body language to give the character a bit of depth. For a film like ANGEL, the cast was perfectly fine for their roles.

While not the greatest 80s exploitation film out there, it’s pretty easy to see why ANGEL became the cult classic that it did. It has B-movie humor, interesting characters that elevate a generic plot, and a great look at what Hollywood Boulevard looked like back in the early 1980s. It also has charming acting - especially by Donna Wilkes as the title character, Dick Shawn as a funny and tough drag queen, and John Diehl as a creepy silent killer. It’s not the most exciting film and for an exploitation film, it doesn’t do a whole lot of exploiting. The violence is tame, the sex is barely there, and feels like an ABC Afterschool Special for much of its run time. But it does have a drag queen and a Hare Krishna battling each other for a bit, as well as a teenage prostitute fighting back against a slimy murderer. How many films can you say have either of those? ANGEL isn’t a must see, but it’s definitely worth a look if you enjoy Grindhouse exploitation cinema that could never be made in a politically correct modern world.

2.5 Howls Outta 4

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