Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #489
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: March 11, 1983 (U.S.)
Sub-Genre: Suspense Thriller
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $7,175,592 (USA)
Running Time: 101 minutes
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Producers: Pancho Kohner, Lance Hool
Screenplay: William Roberts, J. Lee Thompson
Special Effects: Alan Marshall
Cinematography: Adam Greenberg
Score: Robert O. Ragland
Editing: Peter Lee Thompson
Studios: Cannon Group, City Films
Distributor: Cannon Films
Stars: Charles Bronson, Lisa Eilbacher, Andrew Stevens, Gene Davis, Geoffrey Lewis, Wilford Brimley, Robert F. Lyons, Bert Williams, Iva Lane, Ola Ray, Kelly Preston, Cosie Costa, Paul McCallum, Jeana Keough, June Gilbert, Katrina Parish, Shawn Schepps
Suggested Audio Candy
 Robert O. Ragland “Van Heaven”
 Robert O. Ragland “Look At Me”
 Robert O. Ragland “10 To Midnight”
By 1983, the short-lived slasher craze was in full swing, and the unprecedented theatrical success of Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday The 13th had opened doors for all manner of knock-offs to grab their quick return. It also presented a small window of opportunity for cross-genre experimentation. Michael Miller’s Silent Rage got in first and this little known Chuck Norris vehicle fused thrills with spills to reasonable effect. J. Lee Thompson’s 10 to Midnight arrived soon after, bridging the gap between Death Wish 2 and The Evil That Men Do and offering Charles Bronson an opportunity to appeal to a teen audience. Thompson and Bronson were as thick as thieves and their association yielded no less than nine collaborations across a thirteen year period. 10 To Midnight represented their fourth time teaming up and was met with a largely negative response by critics.
Among the haters were Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times who famously awarded the most stingy possible rating of zero stars, opening his scathing review with by referring of it as “a scummy little sewer of a movie.” He wasn’t alone either and it was unanimously blasted for its misogynistic treatment of women and opting for sleaze over substance. Ultimately, and like numerous other Bronson movies during the eighties, it had to be content with making its return outside of North America and was soon forgotten by the everyone excluding die-hard fans and completionists. It seemed a rather harsh fate for a quietly effective cross-genre hybrid which got enough things right to more than justify its existence.
Its detractors were quick to point out that 10 to Midnight, originally titled Bloody Sunday, was little more than a lazy cash-in for Bronson that exploited his vigilante persona to make a few bucks between more paramount projects. While that may be true to a certain degree, it had a little more going for it than it found itself credited with. Inspired by a triage of real-life murder cases, Richard Speck’s eight strong student nurse bloodbath, a Scotland Yard investigator’s botched frame job when bringing the notorious Thames River Killer to justice, and everybody’s favorite deviant, Ted Bundy, the killer here was modeled with the latter in mind and even slinked around in a similarly second-hand VW Beetle as he scoured the streets for street sluts to slaughter.
Bronson was sixty-one when filming commenced and, anyone who believes he took the gig purely for financial gain, should get that reality check they’ve been promising themselves as he underwent plastic surgery to prepare for the role of local hero Leo Kessler to appear more youthful. Now that’s method acting for you. Christian Bale would later take that to the über-extreme by shedding a large percentage of his body mass for the role of Trevor in Brad Anderson’s The Machinist but a few nips and tucks were sufficient for Bronson to revitalize any flagging dad sex-appeal.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of 10 To Midnight, however, is that this isn’t your average search and destroy affair. The emphasis here was firmly on destroy as decorated cop Kessler didn’t stumble across his numerous medals of valor without bending a few rules to apprehend his perp. Before the opening credits have even rolled, he is shown sitting awkwardly behind a typewriter and clearly that’s the last place you want your Bronson. He should be out on the streets, mopping up meatbags with his .475 Wildey Magnum, not writing some other douche’s memoirs. It’s like sitting Gilbert Gottfried at a fundraiser for hemorrhoid treatment. As opening scenes go, this one’s right up there and its great to see that Bronson’s GSOH is still intact.
The focus shifts soon after as we already know all we need to about our grizzled veteran for the time being. Instead, we spend the opening act in the company of budding repeat offender Warren Stacy (Gene Davis). If you have had the pleasure of watching Mary Harron’s cinematic translation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, American Psycho then you’ll have some idea of the kind of light entertainment that populated his toploader. Parallels are numerous between the two men and, while clearly no Bale, Davis has just the right look and arrogance to pull it off rather splendidly. He prowls mostly, weighing up each option deliberately before each strike. When he’s not killing, chances are that you will find him at the office, repairing equipment for an otherwise entirely female workforce. That’s right, this one definitely has some unresolved mommy issues.
Warren, as we are quickly on first name terms with, prefers to do his foul bidding in the altogether as he has no great desire to sully his one good suit. He’s also not averse to his opposite number stripping off also as sexual instinct fuels his predatory side. He’s fully aware that he should be modeling underwear but a few bum life choices have left Warren perilously poised to slip through the cracks. When not being downtrodden by bitches in season, he also likes to get out and about as, just like Bateman, there’s an image to uphold. Trips to the movie theatre buy him his alibi and, midway through the matinée, he’s somewhere else entirely, adding to his tally. Seems pretty smart huh? Not smart enough it appears as Leo sniffs his menstrual trail like the proverbial basset hound.
This is an interesting dynamic and I applaud Thompson for taking a different approach to making him oblivious to the obvious. He knows it’s Warren, Warren knows its Warren, and we all sure as shit know it’s Warren so we may as well call a spade a spade as it clearly ain’t no club. The usual cat-and-mouse shenanigans are here in abundance but it becomes more about procedure than pursuit. The emphasis isn’t on whether or not Leo’s going to deploy the net but when. 10 To Midnight suddenly gains meaning as time is the true enemy here, especially with Leo’s own daughter becoming increasingly implicated. Our mouse is ready to plunge for his cheese and feline instincts are all Leo has to outwit his adversary.
“You go in that courtroom and forget what’s legal and do what’s right.”
While cats admittedly make delightful domestic pets, adhering to rules and regulations isn’t their strongest suite. Kessler is one of the last of its breed, more than willing to hunt his prey through any means necessary, and feral in his dogging. By 1992, DNA had still not been introduced to criminal investigations but the rules were about to change and, indeed, already had. The fun of playing detective was becoming less and less joyful and loose cannons like Leo Kessler were no longer considered invaluable and, instead, aggravations. While these foot soldiers are out there spending taxpayers’ money by engaging in high-speed car chases and shooting from the hip, some infernal machine is coming up trumps at a fraction of the cost. Bronson looks weary in precisely the right way but the flame in his eyes still burns brightly. He’ll get his man, even if that means applying Murphy’s Law as opposed to conforming to theirs.
His partner Paul McAnn (Andrew Stevens from The Fury) comes from the other side of the fence and learned the tricks of his trade from endless books and seminars. He’s as straight as they come or, at least, to begin with although ultimately he just wants to be loved and looks up to Leo as his own personal Simba. Leo likes the guy but that doesn’t mean he’s going to let him know as time’s a ticking and there’s only one priority right now, that being to catch his killer. Despite playing down his fatherly affection, Paul is Leo’s voice of reason and, one of the few that he’ll listen to when push comes to shove.
Speaking of playing dad, Leo isn’t doing what you would call a bang-up job on his own flesh and blood. His long-suffering daughter Laurie (Lisa Eilbacher), has bared the brunt of his inability to come to terms with his wife’s death and has trouble getting noticed by her dear old pops. Paul fills in admirably for Leo by keeping Laurie firmly in his sights and, after a fair deal of foreplay, the pair engage in a spot of horizontal sliding. Meanwhile, the net is closing in on Warren, and any action is about to be thrown to the wind. The four-way dynamic works decidedly well and provides 10 To Midnight with its own angle, to the contrary of its many critics’ ill-informed blathering.
Thompson had already whetted his blade two years prior with one of the better slashers to surface during the early flurry, Happy Birthday To Me. He applies that same meanness of spirit and this makes Warren the most fearful of villains. Davis skits between calm and composed, ruffled and growling, and borderline desperate as Leo takes the law into his own hands, preserving his daughter’s safety first and foremost as he prepares to hand over his badge of honor and take that well-earned retirement. This is his way of showing he cares and Warren knows precisely how to hit him where it hurts. Davis makes a disquietingly effective psychopath and he sure does throw himself into the role.
Key also is the character of Laurie, particularly given any accusations that the film itself be misogynistic. Quick thinking, fast tongued, and drop dead gorgeous to boot, she is also more than a match for dear old pops and his obedient puppy partner. When danger presents itself, which it does quite brilliantly in the breathless final act, her pluck is apparent and Eilbacher brings much more than just her undeniably pretty face to her character. Admittedly there is not a great deal of empowerment going on elsewhere as all other females line up like perky lambs. Thompson doesn’t mince either his words or visuals, dropping the word “cunt” casually into conversation when few would have been so ballsy and filling the screen with all manner of nubile eye candy to leer at like the reprobates that we are.
I think the time has come to do a little Kessler-style straight talking. Is 10 To Midnight a dash chauvinistic in its treatment of the fairer sex? Of course it is. Get over it. It’s also a fast-paced, refreshingly frank piece of entertainment which dares to stray from the pack. Its unapologetically blunt ending is a breath of fresh air and says everything that needs to be said, without pandering to tiresome rules and regulations. Movies like this just aren’t made anymore and that saddens my soul. Even more reasons to cherish it and stop getting on our soap boxes every time it supplies us some harmless thrills. Now, if you will excuse me, it’s ten to midnight and I have to return some videotapes.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10
Grue Factor: 2/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Don’t be fooled by the lowly grue rating, Thompson’s film has a streak far meaner than you would expect, given the lack of actual on-screen violence. Here it is more about the injury detail than anything else but that doesn’t make any of the kills less satisfying. We get to look right into the whites of Warren’s eyes and the fast-filling red peepers of his hapless victims as he plunges the blade in and twists it for additional discomfort. Nudity is abundant and, a dorm full of nurses, not frittered while Warren’s first victim suffers the indignity of having to navigate the woodlands completely in the buff. Thank God for perversion.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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