Monthly Archives: October 2016

10 to Midnight (1983) 

 The Cannon group excelled at producing relatively low budget action movies, bordering on the line of exploitation, with the stars of yesteryear. As part of this enterprise, Charles Bronson and J Lee Thompson were something of a team for Cannon in the 1980s.

“10 to Midnight” is maybe the best of that collaboration. It’s a brutal picture with lashings of nudity of both the killer and his victims. In sophisticated film circles, it’s regarded as a vulgar piece of 80s sub-culture alongside much of the Cannon group’s offerings. But I wanted to write something against this opinion, because to me it’s childishly wrong.

Yes, this film is over-the-top.Yes, it’s an oddball mix of action and slasher. Yes, there’s an eye-popping degree of nudity for the time. And most importantly, yes, Bronson chews the scenery.  But things are not so straightforward. 

It’s worth remembering that J Lee Thompson was the director of 1962’s Cape Fear, and I see some of the themes in that movie here.  There’s a rallying against the perceived injustices of the legal system and the dubious morality of men who fabricate evidence to convict the dangerous when the system will not. Critics interpret “10 to Midnight” as a right-wing tirade against the ‘liberal’ law system but I feel this is to see the film in too much of a linear way. Bronson’s character may be a hero but he’s a fallen one; in conflict with those around him who are painted in a heavily sympathetic light (including his younger partner Andrew Stevens).

Secondly, the murder sequences are shot stylishly. It’s hard to see why this aspect of the film was flippantly dismissed as gruesome exploitation, but the director’s skill with the camera is quite evident for those willing to look. This is a pretty, if grimes, presentation of mayhem. Furthermore, the film’s violence could be seen as brave and its ilk soon became a characteristic of the genre’s highest-flyers – think David Fincher’s Seven (1997), which also shares a killer’s pursuit of the investigating detective’s family.

Thirdly, there’s an unusually interesting supporting cast here – Geoffrey Lewis as a slick defence lawyer and Wilfrid Brimley as the police chief struggling to contain Bronson’s increasingly vengeful cynicism. Gene Davis plays the good-looking killer with a dictionary definition of ‘creep’; a performance often mistaken as wooden is actually a solid attempt at portraying the autistic awkwardness of a psychopath. 

Once you throw in the pulse of an 80s synth and Bronson’s cold, cold eyes “10 to Midnight” is a decadent thriller and a memorable addition to cult cinema. Watch out for the knockout final scene with a killer punchline from Bronson.

Hotdog rating: 8/10

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The oddity of Dead of Winter (1987) 

Arthur Penn’s Dead of Winter (1987) is a film best-described as an elaborate – if silly in terms of plot – suspenser which primarily benefits from style behind the camera and a seasoned cast. 

Roddy MacDowell and Jan Rubes are the filmmakers hiring Mary Steenburgen’s struggling actress to replace another whose left their small production. Invited to the producer’s isolated home, the film is an increasingly disturbing game of cat-and-mouse between Steenburgen and her ‘hosts’, set against an ongoing blizzard. MacDowell plays the part of an innocent but creepily resourceful manservant to the hilt and Jan Rubes is the wheelchair-consigned producer whose wit and charm soon slide to reveal a malicious streak. Mary Steenburgen spends most of the screentime as a petrified woman unable to fathom what is happening to her. 

The film starts off with a sweetly choreographed murder sequence, which could be straight out of a DePalma or Hitchcock picture. Penn stays with these directors in terms of theme; there’s a sense of VERTIGO (1958) throughout with the idea of a doppelgänger and dual intendities featuring as prominent plot devices.  Out of nowhere really, the threat-level jumps during the last 40 minutes when previous pacing has led us slowly into a mystery more than a thriller.  To be sure, one of the film’s big successes for me is this transition away from a poignancy which had earlier characterised Steenburgen and MacDowell’s relationship. 

For an 80s movie, the film just feels bizarre. It’s an old-fashioned approach which relies on the strength of its characters and the draw of its photography. The decade’s excesses seem a million miles from the proceedings here – and it’s all run in something of a parallele universe, dominated by the rich and famous playing games with one another. Indeed, a perceived lack of realism was one of the reasons Dead of Winter achieved a hit-and-miss critical reception. It’s an unfair criticism of a film which is more interested in the fantastical than the real.

Well worth your time.

Hotdog rating: 7/10