Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Census Bloodbath: Naked And Afraid

Year: 1987
Director: Katt Shea
Cast: Kay Lenz, Greg Evigan, Norman Fell 
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Our slasher project Census Bloodbath has taken a bit of a backseat recently, especially thanks to the insane number of marathons I was running in October. But what possible better fit could there be for diving right back into the heart of the 80's slasher movement than Stripped to Kill? Birthed from the churning sack of tricks at Roger Corman's studio, it's a nasty sleazy exploitation movie that makes zero effort to hide its own intentions. That beautiful poster says it all. 

But included in that "all" is the single most important element that makes Stripped to Kill interesting. It was directed and co-written by a woman. That's right, Katt Shea, the auteur behind Poison Ivy and The Rage: Carrie 2 got her start as a surprising number of women in the industry did, from the buckets of slime at Corman's place (as much as you might distrust Roger Corman's quality control, he sure gave a hell of a lot of people chances that wouldn't have gotten them otherwise).


In Stripped to Kill, you guessed it, a murderer be killin' strippers. Detective Cody Sheenan (Kay Lenz) must go undercover at the Rock Bottom strip club, to the wolfish delight of her partner, Heineman (Greg Evigan, of My Two Dads, who is the most 80's of hunks and never not dressed like Kiefer Sutherland in The Lost Boys). Between lengthy stripping numbers that rival the sheer mass of aerobics exercise stock footage in Killer Workout, they attempt to track down who exactly might be mowing down these poor working women.

It's certainly not their hair stylist, because there doesn't appear to be one within a ten mile radius.

As the story goes, Katt Shea was inspired to make this film after losing a bet with her husband (and co-writer) Andy Ruben, after which she was made to go to strip club. She was dreading it, but during the performance she had a revelation that for certain women, stripping was a completely valid form of artistic expression for certain women. She decided to make a movie that reflected that, and you know what? She certainly did. 

The plot of Stripped to Kill lurches randomly as you sit down every six minutes or so for a full striptease routine, a rhythm that was she was most likely contractually obligated to use by Corman & Co. The film still suffers as a narrative for this, but certainly not as much as it would if it had a male director. Shea presents some bold, exciting routines that catch the eye with more than just nudity, using costuming, sets, acrobatics, and avant-garde concepts in increasingly bizarre and captivating routines to show off just how versatile the act of stripping really is. It's a mini performance art project shoehorned into producer-mandated exploitation, and it's a sublime act of subversion.

Plus, Shea respecting these women as artists then extends to her respecting them as human beings, go figure. The characters are still pretty indistinguishable and not particularly fleshed out (look, there's only so much you can do in an 88 minute movie with 35 minutes of stripping), but their offstage dialogue and personality quirks are far from stereotypical. The film explores their motivations for stripping, their reactions to the way the men in the audience view them, and how they seek to support one another. It's like a season of GLOW, but with more nudity. One scene is - dare I say - even quite powerful. When the detective is dropped off by a coworker, Cody mentions that she's an incredible dancer, to which she replies "It's nice to hear that from a woman." She only hears compliments from men who want to manipulate her into sex, and hearing it from another woman is a validation of her art and worth. And I'm crying.

The character of Detective Cody is also extremely interesting. The more she learns about the world of Rock Bottom, the more she finds that there is truth and power in the act of stripping that she hasn't found anywhere else in her professional career. I wouldn't say this arc is completed because like most slashers the credits roll the millisecond the immediate conflict is resolved, but none of this would ever be found in a movie like this made by straight men, it just wouldn't happen. Especially in the 1980's.

Girl power!

All that said, I would still like to remind you that this is a crappy slasher movie. That's exactly the type of movie that I enjoy, so I personally wouldn't say it's a problem, but I don't want you to walk away thinking it's even Daytime Emmy material. The production quality is low, with murky cinematography married to muddy sound over a series of sets that - when they aren't in the club itself - always extravagantly fail to resemble the places they're supposed to be.

Take Detective Cody's apartment set. She walks in through some sort of atrium into a big empty concrete hangar with random tricycles and junk scattered around. Then she walks up an indoor metal staircase to the second floor, which has a couch and a kitchen setup, including a massive industrial oven just sitting on the counter. You know, an apartment!

It's a wonky movie, to be sure, from the chilling lack of extras in any club scene to the egregiously sinful original synthpop songs that blare from the soundtrack. Most of this adds a satisfying layer of camp, if you're into that (especially the third act Final Girl sequence, which involves about eighty unmotivated walls of flame bursting up in random alleys), but it's all a bit thin as an actual work of cinema. And there's no getting around the problematic killer reveal, which is [SPOILERS UNTIL THE END OF THIS PARAGRAPH] a bog-standard "crazed man in drag" play that makes absolutely no sense, though at least it gives us a chase sequence involving a beautiful Hawaiian twink with a killer smoky eye.

There is also some hilarity to be found in how much Kay Lenz commits to being a terrible dancer, as well as what is maybe the best disgruntled secretary character in the history of the motion picture. But Stripped to Kill is unfortunately exactly as thin a premise as the title promises. This certainly would have been bottom-of-the-barrel muck without Katt Shea, but given what it is, she can only raise it to the middle of the barrel. 

It's no masterpiece, then. But at least it's never a waste of time, and there's not a lot of this type of slasher I can say that about. 

Killer: [Eric (Pia Kamakahi)]
Final Girl: Detective Cody Sheenan (Kay Lenz)
Best Kill: None. The kills here are nasty and not particularly gory, they're certainly not the reason to watch, if there even is a strong one.
Sign of the Times: Literally everything Heineman ever wears, says, or does.

Or maybe the moment where a customer tries to tempt one of the strippers on a date with Dire Straits tickets.
Scariest Moment: Any time the women use the payphone in the hallway, they're approached by slobbering customers, so every scene involving a phone call highlights exactly how vulnerable they are.
Weirdest Moment: One of the strip acts involves a kabuki mask and arms reaching out from a giant spider web.
Champion Dialogue: "I did not spend a whole night talking about my penis. I am NOT obsessed."
Body Count: 6
  1. Angel is pushed off a bridge and lit on fire.
  2. Cinnamon is strung up with fishing wire. 
  3. Margolin is killed offscreen. 
  4. Spotlight Guy is shot.
  5. Stripper is shot.
  6. Eric is lit on fire. 
TL;DR: Stripped to Kill rises above its exploitation premise thanks to a female director who actually gives half a crap about the characters contained therein.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1323
Reviews In This Series
Stripped to Kill (Shea, 1987)