The Underrated: Angel

This is a review that’s been a long time coming. I’ve really struggled with it, as this is not the easiest film that I’ve ever written about. As with Vice Squad, which was a thriller with a hefty dollop of street-level grit, Angel is also ostensibly a thriller mired in the sleaze of prostitution. Unfortunately, unlike with Vice Squad, the thriller sections of the film aren’t actually that successful. Sure, they’re watchable enough, but they pale in comparison to the other facets of the movie.

Angel is unfairly overlooked, but this time out it is fairly understandable. The STV sequels won’t have helped its cause, but I have to admit that the main reason is that the film, judging purely on the subject matter and the poster, looks like a nasty piece of sleazy schlock. That tag line “High School Honour Student by Day, Hollywood Hooker by Night” is very funny, but it’s actually misleading. You do see Angel on the game, but never doing anything explicit. That is to say, you see her soliciting, but not closing the deal- foreplay with no intercourse, so to speak. This is an understandable decision, as the character is meant to be under age, but I do wonder why they decided to put out such an obviously misleading piece of marketing. In all honesty, in comparison to Vice Squad, this is a very vanilla film, being more about the fringe characters that populate the boulevard, rather than the mechanics of prostitution and the violence that accompanies it.

Angel follows the story of Molly- a teenage victim of circumstances, who manages a double life of school attendance and prostitution. She also lives by herself, but manages to maintain the façade that she takes care of her invalid mother. By day, as previously stated, she attends school, where she’s something of a loner, although she is a brilliant student. By night, on come the hooker rags and she spends the evening patrolling the street and hanging around with the losers that populate Hollywood. Unfortunately for Molly, her delicately balanced life is about to come crashing down as a serial killer is preying on the whores.

Donna Wilkes plays the lead, despite being something like 11 years too old for the part, and to research this she spent time with the sex-industry workers. She’s got a certain spiky attitude and fragile confidence that is wholly convincing for someone that’s been on the street since her pre-teen years. It’s a demanding role, given that Molly is on screen for the vast majority of the film, but she plays is with some aplomb. The support, primarily Cliff Gorman, Susan Tyrell, Rory Calhoun, and an incomparable turn from Dick Shawn as Mae, are excellent, with Calhoun in particular superb as the washed up old movie cowboy. There’s a heart-breaking scene when he realises that all his old movie buddies are dead and he is literally the last man standing. Shawn gives one of the more hilarious performances that I’ve seen as the drag-queen mother figure, and Gorman is steady as the cop that tears the lid off Molly’s life. However, there is one actor that I haven’t mentioned: John Diehl as the unnamed killer, who gives a demented performance that is so utterly frightening that I’m now going out of my way to find his other roles. Watching this man eat an egg is an image that has seared itself into my cortex and one that I could quite happily live without ever seeing again.

The script it tight and convincing, although it does require a huge suspension of disbelief for the viewer to accept that Molly can run this double life with such success. Seriously, when does she sleep? Furthermore, the writer/ director O’Neill tried to find a balance between black humour and drama that sometimes veers too far into comedy (particularly once the killer dons his Hare Krishna disguise), as a rule the gallows humour is effective, especially from Mae, but I do wonder that with subject matter as gritty as this if perhaps it wasn’t the best choice. However, in comparison to this, some of the early dialogue, from Wilkes in particular, is excellent and has a ring of authenticity to it. There’s her exchange with an undercover cop, for example, that feels true, and this isn’t alone in the film.

As I briefly mentioned earlier, Angel is mostly a study of the fringe characters on the seedy side of life. Kit, the cowboy, scratches out a living telling stories about the old days, there’s a street magician, hookers, pimps, thieves, scumbags and the cops that attempt to hold the raging torrent of sewage in check. These are all, including Angel, pitiful marginalised characters, and the film unflinchingly looks at them and the ways that they cope. The humour when they are together is necessary, because the alternative is unthinkable for them. Angel is eventually forced into looking at the actual state of her life, and it’s an unpleasant realisation for her.

This isn’t a perfect film. The last act in particular with Angel chasing the disguised serial killer in an attempt to kill him is a bit of a let down, and to be honest, kind of silly. Not to mention that there are moments in the film where the attempts at humour fall flat and are grossly inappropriate. However, these are small blights on a generally very impressive film.

Overall, compared to other so-called gritty films, this is a minor entry in the genre. It is, however, an excellent entry, and although it doesn’t really stand in the same league as films such as Vice Squad, it is worth seeking out- just don’t expect a balls-out depiction of the street, because Angel is not that film. As a look at the fringe, it’s fascinating, compelling and often brilliant, but as a thriller it’s somewhat lacking. However, I liked it enough to recommend it as unfairly overlooked and I will be returning to watch it again at some point.

Anyway, where else are you going to see a middle-aged drag queen (in full frock) and a Hare Krishna beat the shit out of each other?

Until next time,

Jarv

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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

28 responses to “The Underrated: Angel”

  1. Jarv says :

    Thank fuck that’s done.

    That took me ages and I’m still not happy with it.

  2. Droid says :

    This sounds pretty good, but that poster makes it look like complete z-grade shit.

  3. Tom_Bando says :

    Ha I remember this came out when I was starting College, the tagline was she was 15(!) and a hooker, something like that? the premise almost sounds like a bad sitcom plot-student by day, boned at night, etc.

    Typical Hollywood, cast someone who is 25 to play a HS kid. It sounds much better than it looks though from what Jarv sez. Interesting!

    • Jarv says :

      To be honest, she does look about the right age as her contemporaries.

      Her whore clothes are NOTHING like that poster, and on more than one occasion she manages to convey lost and frightened kid.

      It’s a good performance.

  4. xiphos0311 says :

    Angel was very good at showing Life on Hollywood Blvd in the early 80s and I agree the fringe characters in the movie were probably the most interesting part.

    John Diehl has had a long career playing slightly seedy to down right psychotic characters. He was on the the TV show the Shield as very corrupt commander, he was great in that role.

    Why don’t you like the way the review turned out? I think it is very well written and a good read for what is a hard movie to describe and do justice to.

  5. xiphos0311 says :

    To bad the Word Press generated related posts didn’t come up with the Supernatural episode entitled “Criss Angel is a Douchebag”

    I still chuckle over that title and it would have been funny to see it at the top of this post.

  6. Continentalop says :

    So am I forgiven for Thunderstruck! ?

  7. Continentalop says :

    One scene that always stuck with me from this movie is the scene where she meets some of her classmates on the street, and then her hearing how they have spun the encounter the next day she is in school. I have to say, that seemed as honest portrayal of how high school operated as anything I have ever seen.

    • Jarv says :

      I’ve got mixed feelings about that bit. When they pick her up strikes me as untrue- they were all out to rape one of their classmates, but then when the driver pisses himself strikes me as very authentic.

      I do agree about the spin the next day- and the little bastard ratting her out. That’s as accurate a depiction of what a little turd like that would do as I’ve ever seen.

      • Continentalop says :

        Well the actual scene of meeting them was forced, but the next day at school felt really real to me.

        SPOILERS

        Even the nerd offering her money felt kind of like a warped version of a John Hughes scene.

      • Jarv says :

        Christ that was tragic.

        I don’t know what was more sad about it. Him offering or that his life savings amounted to $23

  8. Continentalop says :

    And one last comment: now that you have seen two seminal films in the sleaze genre, what film are you going to see next? Hardcore? 10 to Midnight? Streets? Or can I suggest The Exterminator?

  9. ThereWolf says :

    The poster looks very familiar. If this was on the VHS box art it’s possible I picked it up while browsing in Ye Olde Video Rental Shoppe, in the dim distant past.

    None of the scene descriptions ring any bells though. I think that cover would’ve made me put it back on the shelf and choose something else…

    Sounds okay.

    • Jarv says :

      I thought I’d never heard of it, until I saw that cover, then thought “shit, must have seen it” but I reckon I would have been too young- and no way my parents would have bought home a film about underage hookers.

  10. Stuntcock Mike says :

    Dick Shawn is a fucking maniac. Watch the original Producers for further evidence.

  11. Tom_Bando says :

    He also made for a mean Freeze Miser.

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