Wednesday, September 8, 2010

10 to Midnight

Do you know something that you never hear Charles Bronson referred to as?  If you guessed "Hispanic," then you haven't seen Once Upon a Time in the West.  No, I was thinking of the phrase "actor's actor."  I'm not saying that Bronson didn't make some good (usually ensemble) movies, but his work was never a tour de force of the craft.  You already knew that, but I think it is important to point that out before discussing 10 to Midnight.

This film tells the story of a Los Angeles police detective, Leo Kessler (Charles Bronson) and his hunt for a serial killer.  The killer in question has a very particular MO.  He finds a girl he likes, makes obscene phone calls to her (partially in Spanish), and eventually gets completely naked before stabbing his victim to death.  The police have no leads, but Kessler has a hunch that the wealthy, socially elite Warren Stacy (Gene Davis) is the killer, despite several strong alibis.  Kessler's hunch is correct, but he is never able to get any evidence to back up his claim to others, or even to verify it to himself.  Sounds like a typical detective story so far, right?  Well, that takes up close to an hour of this 100 minute movie.

It then makes a peculiar shift in tone from a detective story to a call to vigilantism; Kessler plants blood evidence from a murder victim on some of Stacy's clothes to get Stacy arrested.  When Kessler's partner (Andrew Stevens) figures that out and refuses to back Kessler's play, Kessler admits to planting the evidence and Stacy is released.  You would think that conflict would take quite a bit of time, but it happened in about the time it takes to read that sentence.  Kessler then starts to do his best Dirty Harry impression and openly stalks Stacy in public.  Stacy gets mad and does the most logical thing a serial killer can do: punish the man that clearly has little to no problem going outside the boundaries of the law to catch you, and murder his daughter.  Serial killers are funny like that sometimes.  The film reaches a climax with Stacy, buck nekkid and armed with a knife, chasing Kessler's daughter (Lisa Eilbacher) through the curiously empty streets of Los Angeles at night.  SPOILER: When Stacy is surrounded by the police, naked and armed in the street, he tells Kessler that he will plead insanity and eventually get out of jail, and then he will kill Kessler's entire family.  Kessler just says "No you won't," shoots him in the head, in front of about thirty policemen, roll credits, the end.  Well, that wraps things up with a nice little bow, doesn't it?

With a story that "good," you can safely assume that the acting is around the same level.  Yes, Charles Bronson is the lead here, so you know that he will perform with all the energy of a mustachioed cactus, but surely the other actors will pick up the slack.  Or not.  Lisa Eilbacher (of Beverly Hills Cop fame) and Andrew Stevens (of Body Chemistry 4: Full Exposure, "fame") managed to spark a fairly unconvincing romance on the screen.  It's one of those movie romances that start out with the characters being all like, "I can't stand him/her" and then, magically (because there is no on-screen time given to the development of their relationship), they admit to a mutual attraction and affection.  Blech.  Gene Davis plays the killer and they decide to spend equal parts of the movie shooting from his point of view (okay, it's kind of a slasher film, that's fine) and from behind while he's attacking people.  That means that his butt gets about as much screen time as his face.  If they had just stuck some googly eyes on his butt, they wouldn't have needed to bother with the face; he's quite the actor, believe me.  There are some noteworthy actors in small roles, though.  A young Kelly Preston plays one of Eilbacher's roommates, who is apparently deathly allergic to knife wounds.  Wilford Brimley plays Bronson's police captain, although I have a hard time judging his work; whenever he speaks, all I hear is him rambling about oatmeal.

Director/co-writer J. Lee Thompson was certainly no stranger to serial killer movies or even vigilante movies at this point in his career, but the man had definitely peaked by 1983.  When a director willingly works with Death Wish sequels-era Bronson, you know they have really given up trying.  Thompson later directed Death Wish 4, too.  I blame Thompson for a lot of this film's problems.  The pacing is very lopsided; the vigilante part is not foreshadowed well, so it feels very abrupt, although nowhere near as abrupt as the ending.  Of course, the acting is just terrible, but some of it could have been fixed by just suggesting that Bronson not read his lines like he didn't understand the words.

The worst aspect of this movie is its lame attempts at being intelligent.  Thompson throws a lot of pseudo-psychology in the script and it just comes off as corny.  Why does Stacy kill all these people?  Because he hates his mother.  Oh.  I'm surprised there aren't more teenage girls out murdering strangers in the night.  Even Bronson gets in on the psychology, saying that "anybody who does something like this, his knife has to be his penis."  So...your best suspect is a bed bug?  Isabella Rossellini would be so mad!  And yet, there is no explanation given for the killer's motives.  Yeah, he seems to hate his mother, but if a movie is going to waste my time with stabs at couch psychology, then it might as well give him a tragic origin.  If he's just supposed to be a jerk monster, then why not cut out those motivational scenes and save us some viewing time?

This is a sloppy movie, too.  Where does a murder victim hide her diary?  In a cheap box labeled "My Diary."  How many stab wounds does it take to kill a person?  Just one, and they're all immediately fatal.  The killer spends a lot of time naked on-screen, so there are an awful lot of crotch-level props shown.  Grown women sharing an apartment share one bedroom with one closet and two double beds?  In what reality is this movie taking place?  Oh, and the title has absolutely nothing to do with the story at all.  What happens at 11:50 PM?  I have no idea.  I'm not saying that fixing these details would fix this movie, but it would help disguise the awfulness of it.

10 to Midnight starts out as a fairly conventional detective story that could have been half-decent.  Coulda, shoulda, woulda, I know.  Dabbling in the slasher and vigilante cop genres just muddled the story in a movie that should have been very straight forward.  The ending is what drops this from "bad movie" to "utter crap," though.  Is there a message in the ending?  Is Kessler to be admired for his actions, or condemned?  I don't really care, because the characters were unappealing, but I honestly don't know what the point of this movie was.


  1. Have you seen Death Wish 3? I recently read (a la the release of Machete) that it is an amazing exploitation flick. I get all of the Death Wish movies mixed up into one big Bronson goo (yes, that means exactly what it sounds like), so I am not sure if I have seen it or not.

  2. I think that's the one where thugs are breaking into Bronson's car and he's like "Hey, that's my car." And then he shoots them dead in the street.

    I know I've seen three full DW movies. DW1 is legit, DW2 is mediocre and definitely enjoyably stupid, and DW5 is god awful. Brad recommended either DW3 or 4, but I don't know if we ever found it.