Last night at the New Beverly Cinema, I was lucky enough to catch a triple feature of films directed by Katt Shea. She was in attendance briefly, gave a little bit of backstory on these films and how they came to be and was, of course, very gracious and thankful for such a huge attendance. I knew it was probably going to sell out quickly, but I had no idea of just how big of a draw this screening was going to have. My wife arrived before I did and grabbed a seat for us, but when I showed up the standby line was down the block.
I’m not sure how Katt Shea views her own work, but to me they embody the best of two kinds of worlds: She combines the sleazy thrills of exploitation but balances it with genuine artistry and pathos. This works particularly well because she has a knack for getting great performances from the actors. It’s easy to take her movies seriously when it’s clear she put in the effort necessary for the audience to care.
Poison Ivy was at the time, oddly enough, a box office flop. With a budget of $3 million, it was by far the most expensive film yet of her career, having moved on from Roger Corman’s Concorde Pictures and on to New Line Cinema. Where it ended up thriving and finding a life of its own was both on video and on cable television, where it ended up making lots of money for the studio and even spanned three sequels. Three!
It was sort of at the beginning of the “lethal lolita” genre as I call it, for lack of a better name (my wife is partial to “slutsploitation”), in which a woman uses her sexuality as a weapon to destroy a family. A month before this was The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and the next year was the release of The Crush with Alicia Silverstone. Drew Barrymore sort of revitalized her career as Ivy in this movie. At around this time, she was playing heavily against type, also appearing in one of those many Amy Fisher biopics. She really does a great job in the role, because even though she does monstrous things, she never thinks of herself as a monstrous person. Everything she does, every person she manipulates, she has an internal logic for why she does it that makes sense to her, and she never believes herself to be acting cruelly.
The center of the film is the friendship between Sylvia (Sarah Gilbert) and Ivy. They’re both lonely souls. Sylvia’s mother is dying and her father, broken with loneliness and sorrow, makes poor decisions and sleeps with the underage Ivy.
Out of the triple feature, Poison Ivy is by far the most polished. It looks like a Hollywood production. It’s clean, it’s glossy, it shows every bit of its budget through great set design, crisp cinematography and, hey, they even managed to destroy a classic-looking Corvette!
It’s amazing to me that I had never heard of Streets until I saw this triple feature, having had a crush as a young lad on Christina Applegate. In it, she plays Dawn, in a role that sounds like a super cliche: She’s an underage, streetwise prostitute, who knows her way through the rough and tumble seedy underbelly of Venice, CA. Dawn is really given a lot of dimension through the writing (courtesy of Shea and Andy Ruben, her then-husband) and Christina Applegate’s performance. She’s beyond imperfect. She’s a mess. She’s a heroin addict that’s in denial and thinks she’s got her shit together when it’s obvious to everyone else after only a couple minutes of meeting her that she doesn’t. She’s also smart and kind and only wants to be happy.
When she barely survives an attack from one of her johns who winds up being a police officer, she’s joined by a young kid named Sy (David Mendenhall of Over the Top fame), and together they evade the psychotic cop who’s out for revenge. Donned in a motorcycle cop outfit, complete with helmet, boots and sunglasses, he almost looks like a proto-T-1000. His specialized, silenced shotgun almost makes him feel like a precursor to No Country for Old Men‘s Anton Chigurh.
Streets sounds incredibly silly, which it is, but it’s also grimy in a very real way. The griminess reminds me of something like the original Death Wish, which is something you can’t bullshit, you can’t recreate it artificially. It’s not a “dark & gritty” Hollywood shade, it’s a real feeling that these are real people. There are also very dark moments of sadness that elevate its exploitation into something else, because the movie itself seems to abhor the actions of its villain… but also delights in seeing whatever may come to him.
Stripped to Kill
Stripped to Kill is by far the silliest sounding of the three films: Someone’s killing strippers at a local club and it’s up to Detective Cody Sheenan (Kay Lenz) to go undercover–as a stripper–to find, and stop, the murders. As you might expect, there is a lot of nudity in this one, there’s a lot of violence, but it also wisely doesn’t take itself seriously. It’s a pretty sly comedy at parts, self-aware of the absurdity of its plot, but uses the plot as a means to explore some really fascinating material. Every cop movie I’ve ever seen poses the same question which is, “What’s the difference between cops and criminals? We both got guns, we’re just on other sides of the law!” Heat does this, just about every gangster picture does this. Stripped to Kill asks a similar question, but poses it in a way that asks why we only value police officers who may be putting their lives on the line, but look the other way when strippers put themselves through potential murder, knowing no one will care if another sex worker gets killed.
The Rock Bottom, the strip club where most of the action takes place, is an amazing fiction, a type of club I wish existed in reality. Each dance is an elaborate number, a more nudity-laden burlesque. Each performer expresses themselves through a balletic number.
The ending of the film, a twist at the end, might not hold up as well today, but isn’t handled as ickily as other films have. It’s handled sensitively, and much of the film is. What makes Stripped to Kill work is that it has a lot of heart. Sheenan and her partner Heineman really like each other. Hell, even the owner of the Rock Bottom (Normal Fell; yes, that Normal Fell, of Three’s Company) is a nice-enough guy. The movie doesn’t delight in seeing woman after woman being butchered, the delight comes in seeing our detectives get closer and closer to finding the identity of the killer. The identity of the killer is an actual mystery, red-herrings and all.
The final verdict: I liked all three movies very much. Streets was my favorite, followed by Stripped to Kill, then Poison Ivy was my “least” favorite, but only because I felt like Shea had done a better job of balancing her salacious subject matter with the emotional themes better before. It was kind of fun seeing three movies from the same director in a row because you get to pick up on themes here and there, little inside jokes. Kay Lenz, for example, appears briefly in Streets, also as a police officer, maybe even playing the same character, who knows? And in Poison Ivy, someone repeats a joke from Streets that their name is Bob, only spelled backward.