Monday, March 22, 2021


Last night's watch. The first of a two-part documentary that investigates the 1979 fire that tore through the Ghost Train ride at Sydney's Luna Park, a tragic event that claimed the lives of seven people - a father and his two young boys, and four schoolboys who were enjoying their first night out without parental supervision. While faulty wiring was the official cause of the blaze, arson has long been suspected, and in this documentary, Caro Meldrum-Hanna investigates the event, sifting through the volumes of documents, photographs, and tape recordings which Martin Sharp, a Sydney artist who helped revive the park in the early-70s, compiled over the last thirty years of his life.

There are some devastating moments in this documentary. I was a boy of around the same age as the young victims when this happened, and can remember it being all over the news. As a kid who grew up just around the corner from Melbourne's own Luna Park, and who frequented it and the rides often, it haunted me for a long time. One of the most harrowing moments in EXPOSED: THE GHOST TRAIN FIRE involves the recollections from people who were outside the ride as it happened, listening to the chorus of terrified, high-pitched screams coming from within as the structure was quickly engulfed in flames.
It is sad to also see how much guilt remains in the minds of many - the parents who decided to let their kids go into the city on their own for the first time, the friend of the four boys who had to ride in a separate car and was plucked from it just in time, and the people who spotted the fire when it was still small and containable, but failed to report it to anyone when they emerged from the ride (they were kids themselves at the time, and since the fire broke out in a section of the ride that featured a fake fireplace, they all assumed the fire was a part of the attraction). Also heartbreaking is the recollection of the wife and mother of the man and two boys killed, who missed getting on the ride because she was buying an ice cream cone, and had to watch on in horror as the ride burnt to the ground.
There is a lot of old footage, photos, and news reports featured in this doco, which in Australia can be viewed on ABC i-view (not sure if it can be watched from outside Australia). The concluding episode airs this week.


Sunday matinee. First time viewing of this low-budget 1951 film from writer/director Arch Obeler, and what a haunting experience it is. One of the first movies to try and realistically depict what life may be life after the ravages of an atomic war, FIVE is a very baroque and grim movie, as a handful of survivors hole up in an amazing mountaintop home (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright), trying to decide whether to stay put or go in search of other survivors. There is no radioactive monster, or even much visual action, in FIVE, but its remarkable bleakness, and genuine intelligence, draw you completely into its world. Some of the ideas and themes in the movie seem quite brave for its time, the character dynamics are terrific and the small cast is all great, especially James Anderson as a racist South African explorer, who brings tension and violence into an otherwise balanced environment.

Saturday, March 6, 2021


“High School Honor Student by Day. Hollywood Hooker by Night”

The seedy side of Hollywood has long held a fascination for filmmakers, particularly those low-budget exploitation producers who saw the commercial potential in taking their audience on a rocky ride through the sleazy underbelly of Tinseltown. The Sunset Strip of the 1960s-80s was the L.A. equivalent of New York’s infamous Times Square and 42nd Street of the same era, though the later did not have the Jekyll & Hyde facade that L.A. radiated as it shifted between day and night (while the Times Square of old, according to tales told by those who lived through it, was an intimidating danger zone 24/7).               

The late-sixties saw movies like Dave F. Friedman’s sexploitation film Starlet (1969) depicting the sordid side of the Hollywood rainbow, while Ray Dennis Steckler’s astounding The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher (1979) captured enough of the grotty locales of the area to make it an indispensable document for sleaze scholars to study. The early-to-mid-1980s, however, seemed to be a particularly fertile period for films which took the viewer on a low-budget trawl through the dark alleyways, cheap hotels, grimy adult shops, and neon-lit streets on which the denizens of Los Angeles sought an easy score, anonymous sex, and a brief respite from life’s drudging realities. Vice Squad (1982), Death Wish II (1982), 10 to Midnight (1983), Alley Cat (1984), The Glitter Dome (1986), and Hollywood Vice Squad (1986) were just some of the titles turned out during this period that wallowed in the kind of violence and lurid excess which the City of Angels had to offer. But the film which best encapsulated the flashy fantasy of early-eighties seedy L.A. noir was, perhaps, Robert Vincent O’Neil’s Angel (1984) and, to a lesser extent, its three subsequent sequels.

Donna Wilkes as the original, iconic Angel.

Angel tells the tale of fifteen-year-old Molly Stewart (Donna Wilkes), an A-student at an exclusive prep school in Los Angeles who, once the sun goes down, teases her hair, paints her face, and dons stilettos and leather mini-skirts before heading out to the Sunset Strip, where as “Angel” she turns tricks in order to keep a roof over her head, since both her parents had abandoned her some years earlier, a fact which she keeps to herself. Looking out for Angel on the streets is a memorable cast of eclectic characters including Kit Carson (Rory Calhoun), an aging star of western movies who now spends his nights wandering Hollywood Boulevard in full cowboy regalia, Mae/Marvin Walker (Dick Shawn), a transvestite who lives in the same apartment building as Molly, and Solly Mosler (Susan Tyrell), her foul-mouthed landlord who also paints childish abstracts.                                        

It’s a good thing that Molly has such people minding her back, as there is a vicious serial killer with necrophilic tendencies (played by John Diehl), who is stalking the Strip carving up prostitutes, much to the frustration of Lt. Andrews (Cliff Gorman), the cop who is assigned to the case. The terror hits closer to home when two of Angel’s streetwalker friends, Crystal (Donna McDaniel) and Lana (Graem McGavin), fall victim to the vicious killer, with Angel clearly next in the unnamed psychotic’s sights. With Lt. Andrews and high school teacher Patricia Allen (Elaine Giftos) closing in on the truth behind Molly’s lack of parental guidance, not to mention the extra harassment from a group of her obnoxious male classmates who stumble upon her dual identity, Angel helps herself to Solly’s long-barrelled magnum and, with the aid of Kit Carson and his colt 45s, confronts and takes care of the psycho killer in a memorable finally that is fitting of Carson’s Wild West persona. We last glimpse Molly as she walks away from the crime scene with a wounded Carson and Lt. Andrews, presumably to leave her alter-ego behind for good.                          

Angel and some of her crew.

Though surprisingly restrained for an exploitation film which such a provocative theme and potential for titillation, Angel works so well because it delivers on tension and character, and features an effective and endearing performance from Donna Wilkes in the role of Molly/Angel. Wilkes, who was twenty-four at the time of filming and was best known for her role as teen Jackie Peters in Jaws 2 (1978), really handles the dual elements of frightened innocence and provocative sexuality that was pivotal to her character, and gets terrific support from her main co-stars, who help create a unique world for Angel to exist in (Wilkes researched her role by spending time with real Hollywood hookers, street kids and members of the L.A. Police). The use of real locations on and around Hollywood Boulevard also helped add to the film’s air of authenticity, and the El Royale Hotel on Ventura Boulevard, which features in the movie, is still standing and has been a been a haven for struggling writers, directors, actors, and musicians, not to mention curious Hollywood sightseers, since the 1940s.

also benefits from a great soundtrack, propelled by the film’s highly-infectious theme song, “Something Sweet”, which was composed and performed by The Allies, a new wave-tinged pop/rock band formed by guitarist/vocalist Matt Preble and Pam Neal, who played the L.A. and San Francisco. 

Released in the US on January 13, 1984, Angel’s initial opening weekend proved to be somewhat disappointing, but positive word of mouth helped turn the film into a substantial hit for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, with the movie eventually raking in nearly $20 million on a $3 million budget. Not surprisingly, a sequel was soon put into production, and Avenging Angel (1985) hit the screens exactly one year after the original. Once again directed by Robert Vincent O’Neil from a screenplay co-written by himself and Joseph Michael Cala, Avenging Angel saw the title role being recast, with Donna Wilkes replaced by Betsy Russell, starting a trend of revolving lead actresses which would continue through the two subsequent sequels in the series (Wilkes reportedly did not reprise her role due to a salary dispute).                        

In Avenging Angel, Molly Stewart is off the streets, out of high school, and studying hard at UCLA to make it as a lawyer. But she soon brings Angel out of retirement, and back on the streets, upon learning that Lt. Andrews, the man who helped save her in the first movie, has been murdered. Enlisting the help of her old friends Solly and Kit Carson (the later of whom she has to break out of a sanitorium to which he has been confined), Angel sets out to avenge Andrews’ murder and uncovers a scheme to buy up Hollywood Boulevard properties, which a feared gangster is instigating, using violence and intimidation to persuade those owners reluctant to part with their businesses.

Betsy Russell takes over the title character in Avenging Angel.

While it has its moments, Avenging Angel did not build on the promise of the original, and the film failed to make any significant dent at the box-office, barely ear1977), the later starring Jack Wrangler and a favourite of John Waters. Under his real name, DeSimone also helmed the infamous sex comedy Chatterbox (1977), starring Candice Rialson as a hairdresser with a talking vagina, before moving on to cult exploitation and horror fare like Hell Night (1981), The Concrete Jungle (1982), and Reform School Girls (1986). He was also an uncredited co-director on Danny Steinman’s brilliant Savage Streets (1984), a story of female street justice which certainly took some of its ques from the first Angel film, and featured a soundtrack by none other than a pre-Whispering Jack John Farnham!                                                                                          
While it has its moments, Avenging Angel did not build on the promise of the original, and the film failed to make any significant dent at the box-office, barely earning a quarter of what Angel took in the year before. The absence of Wilkes certainly hurt the movie, though Betsy Russell tries her best, and at least Rory Calhoun and Susan Tyrell return to provide a bit of continuity. The film proved to be significantly more popular on home video, however, which led to a third film being put together under the guidance of a completely new production team. Angel III: The Final Chapter (1988) was written and directed by Tom DeSimone, whom under the name of Lancer Brooks had developed his filmmaking skills in the burgeoning gay XXX market of the early-seventies, helming such choice titles as How to Make a Homo Movie (1970), Swap Meat (1973), Black Heat (1973), and the classic 3D porn, Heavy Equipment (1977), the later starring Jack Wrangler and a favourite of John Waters. Under his real name, DeSimone also helmed the infamous sex comedy Chatterbox (1977), starring Candice Rialson as a hairdresser with a talking vagina, before moving on to cult exploitation and horror fare like Hell Night (1981), The Concrete Jungle (1982), and Reform School Girls (1986). He was also an uncredited co-director on Danny Steinman’s brilliant Savage Streets (1984), a story of female street justice which certainly took some of its ques from the first Angel film, and featured a soundtrack by none other than a pre-Whispering Jack John Farnham!

Taking over the titular role in Angel III was the exotically-named Mitzi Kapture, who would later go on the play Sgt. Rita Lee Rance in the first five seasons (1991 – 1995) of Stephen J. Cannell’s long-running late-night crime drama Silk Stalkings. Kapture plays a more mature Molly Stewart in Angel III, which sees the character now working as a freelance photographer in New York, a far cry from the burgeoning lawyer we saw in the previous entry. While on assignment at an art show, Molly faintly recognises a woman who turns out to be her long-lost mother, whom she follows back to L.A. and gets reacquainted with long enough to discover she has a younger sister she did not know about, who is in grave danger at the hands of some mysterious criminals. Unfortunately, mom gets tragically killed by a car bomb soon afterwards, forcing Molly to once again hit the streets as Angel as she tries to rescue her sister Michelle (Tawny Fere) from a white slavery prostitute ring ruthlessly overseen by a woman named Nadine (Maud Adams).

Mitzi Kapture: the third Angel in as many films.

Featuring plenty of sleaze and nudity (a DeSimone trademark), Angel III is probably the most enjoyable of the three sequels, moving along at a decent pace and featuring an interesting cast of supporting players including Richard Roundtree (the original Shaft himself), cult favourite (and Roger Corman regular) Dick Miller, and Toni Basil as a posh art gallery owner. Though well-known for her catchy 1982 pop hit “Mickey” (and its inventive music video), the multi-talented Basil has had a fascinating and varied career dating back to the 1960s, dancing in Beach Party and Elvis movies, choreographing David Bowie tours, and appearing in films such as Easy Rider (1969), Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976), and Slaughterhouse Rock (1988). As the villainous Nadine, Maud Adams channels the same measure of glamourous menace which she projected in her two James Bond outings, The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) and Octopussy (1983). Also popping up in the movie are XXX star Ashlyn Gere, late scream queen Roxanne Kernohan (tragically killed in a car accident at the age of only 32), and Tom DeSimone’s younger brother Bob (ironically cast as a porn film director).

Despite its subtitle, Angel III did not prove to be the final chapter in the Molly Stewart saga, which would come six years later in Angel 4: Undercover (1994). Now played by Darlene Vogel, Molly is reinvented as a blonde in her fourth (and last, to date) cinematic outing. Now putting her skills with a camera to work as a police photographer, and romantically involved with a local DJ, her alter ego emerges once again when an old friend from her street days arrives in town to catch a rock band and soon turns up dead. With the killing linked more to the rock & roll scene rather than prostitution, Angel this time assumes the guise of an eager groupie in order to turn up evidence that the brilliantly-named, and extremely drug-addled, British rock singer Piston Jones (Shane Fraser) is responsible for her friend’s death.

Angel in name only.

Directed by Richard Schenkman under the alias of George Axmith, Angel 4 was unfortunately a pretty disappointing note for the series to end on. Schenkman’s background in music videos and Playboy video documentaries certainly hold him in good stead when it comes to the flashy visual side of the production, but it ultimately comes across as an Angel film in name only, and more of an illegitimate daughter than an official continuation of the same character’s life journey. With only a slumming Roddy McDowall providing any real interest amongst the faces in the cast, Angel 4: Undercover (also known as Angel 4: Assault with a Deadly Weapon) was a rather sad ending for a memorable character who perhaps should have stayed in the big hair and neon-electric colour palette of the 1980s, the decade for which she was created and felt most at home in.

While Angel 4 has so far only surfaced on VHS and laserdisc, the first three films finally received the release they deserved when Vinegar Syndrome issued The Angel Collection Blu-ray box set in November of 2019. House in a creative slip-box, The Angel Collection featured stunning, restored transfers of each film, which instantly rendered previous bare-bones DVD releases obsolete, along with a number of interesting featurettes (particularly on the first film). A good companion piece to the Blu-ray set is the nice single-disc soundtrack CD, released by BSX Records by 2014, featuring music from the first three films (though the version of “Something Sweet” included is sadly a recent re-recording, performed by Melody Michalski).

Vinegar Syndrome's impressive Angel Blu-ray box set.

Copyright John Harrison 2021