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Retro Review: ANGEL (1984), AVENGING ANGEL (1985) and ANGEL III: THE FINAL CHAPTER (1988)


(US - 1984)

Directed by Robert Vincent O'Neil. Written by Robert Vincent O'Neil and Joseph M. Cala. Cast: Cliff Gorman, Susan Tyrrell, Dick Shawn, Rory Calhoun, Donna Wilkes, John Diehl, Elaine Giftos, Donna McDaniel, Graem McGavin, Mel Carter, Steven M. Porter, Peter Jason, Ross Hagen, David Underwood, David Anthony, Dennis Kort, Joseph M. Cala. (R, 93 mins)

With the help of veteran producer Sandy Howard (A MAN CALLED HORSE, THE DEVIL'S RAIN), Robert Vincent O'Neil really had his finger on the pulse of L.A. grime in the early 1980s. O'Neil spent the early 1970s directing drive-in fare like BLOOD MANIA and WONDER WOMEN before finding his niche when he co-wrote the Howard-produced 1982 hit VICE SQUAD, which kickstarted the whole Hollywood Blvd/Sunset Stripsploitation craze (SAVAGE STREETS, CRIMES OF PASSION, SUNSET STRIP, HOLLYWOOD VICE SQUAD, etc.) and cemented Wings Hauser's place in film history with his insane performance as psycho pimp "Ramrod." Following the surprise success of VICE SQUAD, Howard rewarded Hauser with his own "cop who plays by his own rules" actioner with 1983's underappreciated DEADLY FORCE, again written by O'Neil. DEADLY FORCE disappeared from theaters quickly, but Howard and O'Neil (now promoted to director) struck gold in early 1984 with ANGEL, one of the first releases from the post-Roger Corman incarnation of New World Pictures. With its memorably salacious tag line ("High school honor student by day...Hollywood hooker by night"), ANGEL became a sleeper hit in theaters and would spawn three sequels, two of which join it in Vinegar Syndrome's new extras-packed ANGEL COLLECTION Blu-ray set, because physical media is dead.

15-year-old, pig-tailed Molly Stewart (24-year-old Donna Wilkes) attends the exclusive North Oaks Prep School, where she studies hard, gets straight As, and keeps to herself. She has no close friends, doesn't participate in extracurricular activities, and turns down a date with dweeby classmate Wayne (Dennis Kort, who doesn't look a day under 45), claiming to everyone that she's the sole caregiver for her paralyzed mother, who we never see. But Molly has a secret: after dark, she's "Angel," an underage prostitute walking the sleaze-drenched, crime-infested area surrounding Hollywood Blvd. She rakes in the cash, and has a surrogate family of outcasts and boulevard denizens who look out for her, including fiercely protective drag queen "Mae" (Dick Shawn), old-time western stuntman Kit Carson (Rory Calhoun), street magician Yo-Yo Charlie (Steven M. Porter), and her eccentric landlady Solly (Susan Tyrrell), who spends her downtime doing terrible paint-by-numbers art. Perhaps playing it safe, O'Neil never lets anything get unpleasant or even remotely explicit in terms of its depiction of Angel on the job (for instance, we never see her with any johns, even though Wilkes was nearly a decade older than her character and already had several credits to her name, including 1978's JAWS 2 and 1980's SCHIZOID, and she co-starred in the much-maligned McLean Stevenson sitcom HELLO, LARRY). Instead, he saves the nastiness for the crux of the plot, which involves a deranged, necrophile serial killer (John Diehl) who's been offing hookers, including two of Angel's friends, Crystal (Donna McDaniel) and Lana (Graem McGavin). Hard-nosed but sympathetic vice cop Lt. Andrews (Cliff Gorman) is on the case, and eventually becomes another of Angel's protectors when she picks the killer out of a lineup and ends up becoming his next target.

There's some great seedy location work (and theater marquees showing RETURN OF THE JEDI, BLUE THUNDER, and THE SURVIVORS have it being shot in the summer of 1983), but ANGEL often has a rose-colored glasses view of street life that's often about as gritty as PRETTY WOMAN. All of the people Angel knows in her secret life are presented as a bunch of lovable misfits cheerfully making the best of what life has handed them, which I guess makes it more enjoyable than watching a more realistic take that sees her turning into a Sunset Strip version of CHRISTIANE F. We eventually find out the improbable truth behind Molly's mother--she abandoned her three years earlier, and that was six years after her father walked out on both of them. Left with $100 and a note wishing her good luck, then-12-year-old Molly turned to the streets and has made a good living at it, enough to pay the bills and afford private school, all while convincing everyone (only Mae knows the truth) that her mother is an invalid. In a way, Molly/Angel is a mash-up of two early Jodie Foster characters: the teenage hooker Iris in TAXI DRIVER and the fiercely independent loner Rynn, who struggles to maintain the illusion that her dead father is still alive in the unsettling THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE.

But ANGEL wisely never takes itself too seriously, plus it offers some great character roles for Shawn and Calhoun, the latter waxing rhapsodic on old cowboy stars like Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, and William S. Hart, and getting the biggest crowd-pleasing moment of his career at the end of the movie. And every few minutes, there's some diva bitchiness from Shawn, some quirkiness from Tyrrell (at her most Susan Tyrrell-ish this side of BUTCHER BAKER NIGHTMARE MAKER), or some amusing outburst or other random, bizarre vulgarity from someone, whether it's a shrieking Solly calling Mae a "cunt," the killer's repulsive O-face when he plunges his knife into a victim, or a douchey football jock and his idiot buddies at school asking Molly to "Show us your whisker-biscuit" when they find out what she does at night. ANGEL also offers an early gig for future exploitation mainstay David DeCoteau, who's credited with craft service, and O'Neil's cinematographer is Andrew Davis, a year before he directed the terrific Chuck Norris cop thriller CODE OF SILENCE, followed by two of Steven Seagal's best movies (ABOVE THE LAW and UNDER SIEGE) on his way to hitting the A-list with 1993's THE FUGITIVE.

ANGEL opening in Toledo, OH on 2/17/1984

(US - 1985)

Directed by Robert Vincent O'Neil. Written by Robert Vincent O'Neil and Joseph M. Cala. Cast: Betsy Russell, Rory Calhoun, Susan Tyrrell, Ossie Davis, Robert F. Lyons, Steven M. Porter, Paul Lambert, Barry Pearl, Estee Chandler, Ross Hagen, Tim Rossovich, Frank Doubleday, Howard Honig, Tracy Robert Austin, Michael Andrews, Paul "Mousie" Garner, Hoke Howell, Debi Sue Voorhees, Robert Tessier, Liz Sheridan, Edward Blackoff, Karen Mani, Lynda Wiesmeier, Joseph M. Cala. (R, 94 mins)

"When you get to Hell...tell 'em Angel sent you." 

ANGEL gave the new regime at New World a hit right out of the gate, so of course, a sequel was quickly commissioned and in theaters exactly one year later. AVENGING ANGEL offered a new Angel, with Betsy Russell (PRIVATE SCHOOL) replacing Donna Wilkes who, emboldened by the box office success of ANGEL, apparently demanded more money than the producers were willing to pay, something director/co-writer Robert Vincent O'Neil still seems pretty bent out of shape about in an interview on the new Blu-ray (he blasts the "stupid producers" for not giving Wilkes what she wanted, though he's quick to point out that "Betsy was a sweetheart"). While ANGEL had some lighthearted moments courtesy of its colorful supporting cast, AVENGING ANGEL almost feels like an outright comedy much of the time after a downbeat opening. Set four years after the events of the first film, Russell's Molly is now a collegiate track star studying law and enjoying a normal life with boyfriend Teddy (Tim Rossovich), who's unaware of her sordid past. She maintains a close father-daughter relationship with Lt. Andrews (Robert F. Lyons replacing Cliff Gorman), but her new life comes crashing down when Andrews is killed after being caught in the crossfire of a mob hit on an undercover cop (Karen Mani) that's witnessed by New Wave-y looking street kid Johnny Glitter (Barry Pearl). Vowing revenge, Molly returns to the mean streets of Hollywood Blvd as "Angel" and puts the band back together in what's basically a "Denizens Assemble!" move, teaming up with Yo-Yo Charlie (Steven M. Porter) and her kooky former landlady Solly (Susan Tyrrell) to bust a senile Kit Carson (Rory Calhoun) out of a sanitarium in Solly's backfiring jalopy of a hearse (complete with "wacky" music). Angel and crew eventually recruit an on-the-run Johnny Glitter--the witness who now has a target on his back--and go after Lt. Andrews' killers.

O'Neil and co-writer Joseph M. Cala really struggle to settle on a tone. After a blood-splattered, shotgun-blasting opening that sees the undercover cop, her family, and Andrews all get blown away with some enthusiastic squib work, O'Neil throws in the Kit Carson sanitarium breakout in a long slapstick sequence that feels like something out of a lesser Blake Edwards movie of the period. It's uneven to say the least, veering wildly from Cannon-style action to goofy comedy, including a ridiculous climax at the iconic Bradbury Building where they pull a pre-WEEKEND AT BERNIE's move with the dead body of Miles Gerrard (Frank Doubleday), the sniveling son of powerful mobster Arthur Gerrard (Paul Lambert, in a role that really seems like it should've been played by John P. Ryan), who has a nefarious plot to...buy up real estate on Hollywood Blvd so he can run all the vice rackets himself? It's not exactly as suspenseful as a younger Angel being pursued by a corpse-fucking serial killer, but AVENGING ANGEL is intentionally amusing enough to be just as entertaining as ANGEL in its own way. The camaraderie among Angel and her odd squad of cohorts remains surprisingly heartfelt, even with Tyrrell's overacting and the total sitcom move of having an adorable infant named "Little Buck"--left in Solly's erratic care after his hooker mom was found dead in the alley behind her building--become part of the crew, along with a pair of bitchy, eye-rolling drag queens named Pat (Tracy Robert Austin) and Mike (Michael Andrews, who played a very similar role in Andy Sidaris' MALIBU EXPRESS the same year). Little Buck actually becomes integral to the plot when he's taken by Gerrard, leading to another ludicrous crowd-pleasing Kit Carson moment for Calhoun.

With a bigger emphasis on "family" than a FAST & FURIOUS sequel (Gerrard calls them "a ragtag group of pissant vigilantes"), AVENGING ANGEL succeeds despite a rushed production and some underdeveloped characters, including a 13-year-old runaway (Estee Chandler) that Molly briefly takes under wing, plus Yo-Yo Charlie doesn't get much to do, and the great Ossie Davis turns up for some quick cash in a thankless role as another hard-nosed but sympathetic police lieutenant. AVENGING ANGEL wasn't nearly as successful as ANGEL, but while Wilkes' career pretty much flatlined, limited to some TV spots and a role in the terrible 1988 Linda Blair horror movie GROTESQUE, Russell had a more successful post-Angel run in TV and B-movies. She married Vincent Van Patten in the late '80s and quit acting in the early '90s to focus on raising their kids, though she enjoyed a major cult and convention circuit resurgence when she came out of retirement in 2006 for what became recurring character Jill Tuck in parts III-through-VII of the hugely popular SAW franchise.

AVENGING ANGEL opening in Toledo, OH on 2/1/1985

(US - 1988)

Written and directed by Tom DeSimone. Cast: Maud Adams, Mitzi Kapture, Richard Roundtree, Mark Blankfield, Kin Shriner, Emile Beaucard, Tawny Fere, Barbara Treutelaar, Susan Moore, Anna Navarro, Floyd Levine, Kyle T. Heffner, Dick Miller, Toni Basil, S.A. Griffin, Bob DeSimone, Julie K. Smith. (R, 99 mins)

Set ten years after the events of AVENGING ANGEL, ANGEL III: THE FINAL CHAPTER finds Molly (now played by future SILK STALKINGS star Mitzi Kapture) working as a police photographer in NYC while doing freelance gigs on the side (Dick Miller sighting as a cranky newspaper editor!). While covering the opening of a posh art gallery, something about visiting L.A. gallery owner Gloria Rollins (Anna Navarro) catches her eye and prompts her to investigate. Yes, she's her long-lost mother, who abandoned her a decade and a half earlier. Molly follows Gloria back to L.A. and confronts her only to have her killed shortly after by a bomb planted in her car. It turns out Molly has a younger half-sister named Michelle (Tawny Fere), who was kidnapped six months earlier by art dealer Nadine (two-time Bond girl Maud Adams), whose gallery business is a front for a cocaine/pornography/white slavery operation with a Middle Eastern crime syndicate headed by Shahid (Emile Beaucard). This means only one thing: it's time for Molly to once again become "Angel" and tear up the streets of L.A. looking for her sister, this time with the help of street magician and ice cream truck driver Spanky (Mark Blankfield of FRIDAYS, JEKYLL & HYDE...TOGETHER AGAIN, and THE JERK, TOO) and his filmmaker buddy and Molly love interest Neal (Kin Shriner). The shamelessly mugging Blankfield and the boring Shriner aren't exactly on the level of the absent Rory Calhoun as the rootin' tootin' Kit Carson or Susan Tyrrell as Solly (the latter is mentioned but never seen), while Adams approaches this as if she's still in OCTOPUSSY mode, hissing bitchy and culturally insensitive Bond villain bon mots like "Enjoy the scenery while you can, Angel...in a few days you'll be on your back in a whorehouse in Calcutta, fucking the locals for fish heads and rice," or admonishing Shahid's extreme intimidation tactics with "This is the United States of America! We don't do car bombs here!" Richard Roundtree also periodically appears as yet another hard-nosed but sympathetic police lieutenant who warns Angel to stay out of the investigation while basically letting her crack the case for him and reluctantly complimenting her "chutzpah."

Neither Sandy Howard, Robert Vincent O'Neil, nor Joseph M. Cala were involved with ANGEL III: THE FINAL CHAPTER (O'Neil and Cala had to threaten legal action to get a "Based on characters created by" credit). The film was written and directed by Tom DeSimone, best known to grindhouse fans for 1977's CHATTERBOX, 1981's HELL NIGHT, 1982's THE CONCRETE JUNGLE, and 1986's REFORM SCHOOL GIRLS, the poster for the latter improbably hanging in Spanky's apartment (prior to his drive-in days, DeSimone also had a busy career directing '70s gay porn under the pseudonym "Lancer Brooks"). The jacked-up quotient of skin and sleaze is instantly evident with DeSimone at the helm, and while there's a hard-R edge to ANGEL III that's lacking in the first two films, it's not nearly as enjoyable, due in large part to the lack of Tyrrell and Calhoun, who provided the unlikely heart and soul of the series amidst ever-changing Angels. Kapture is an engaging heroine, and there's a great Lou Rawls closing credits jam called "Secrets," but the market for the "Hollywood hooker by night" was long gone by this point, as ANGEL III: THE FINAL CHAPTER skipped theaters altogether and went straight to video in the fall of 1988.

The title proved false however, as 1994 saw the release of the straight-to-video ANGEL 4: UNDERCOVER (not included in the Vinegar Syndrome set), with future PACIFIC BLUE star Darlene Vogel as Molly, this time using her Angel persona to pose as a groupie in pursuit of the killer who offed an aspiring rock star. Universally regarded as the franchise nadir, ANGEL 4 features a seriously slumming Roddy McDowall as an duplicitous record exec, and was an early directing effort by Richard Schenkman (hiding behind the pseudonym "George Axmith"), who went on to make a pair of minor late '90s cult movies with his friend Jon Cryer: THE POMPATUS OF LOVE and WENT TO CONEY ISLAND ON A MISSION FROM GOD...BE BACK BY FIVE. As tame as they might seem now, given the subject matter and changing times and attitudes, there's little chance of something like the ANGEL franchise being rebooted today. And that's a damn shame because Sam Elliott or Kurt Russell would absolutely rule as Kit Carson.

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