Sunday, June 24, 2012

Stripped to Kill II: Live Girls (Katt Shea, 1989)

What do my eyes see gyrating in front of me? Are those healthy gams encased in the finest fishnet stockings fourteen dollars can buy? Why, yes. That's exactly what they are. And on top of getting the price right, you weren't kidding when you said they were healthy. In fact, they're so healthy, they should be featured in Leg Show magazine (which, get this, is a real publication). Anyway, it would seem that writer-director Katt Shea has somehow convinced producer Roger Corman to allow her to make a sequel to Stripped to Kill, because it totally looks like I just watched Stripped to Kill II: Live Girls, the absolutely necessary sequel to the strip club set slasher flick starring Kay Lenz and Norman Fell, and featuring a shitload of lingerie. Well, I'm afraid to say that Miss Lenz and Mr. Fell are nowhere to be found in the second chapter (their existence isn't even acknowledged), but the lingerie, my god, the lingerie, it's more prevalent than ever. Actually, the same could be said about the film's overall temperament, as Katt Shea seems extra determined to create something spectacular. And you know what? That determination pays off quite handsomely, as the sequel is not only superior in every way to the original, but it manages to out dream Rinse Dream on several occasions. If you're in anyway familiar how I feel about the Rinse Dream aesthetic, then you know I don't say that lightly. A vast improvement in terms of acting, choreography, costuming, music, production design, and, of course, direction, part two takes no prisoners when it comes to delivering a weird mix of surrealism and erotic horror with a steamy dose of noirish cool. Even though there's no way I can confirm this, but I feel the success of the first film must have enabled Katt Shea to take more risks artistically this time around, just as long as every dance number ends with a woman topless. And you can see this art proceeded by toplessness in almost every scene. Your average perverted mind simply wants to see naked breasts, so it doesn't really matter what takes place before they're exposed for all to see. Really? You mean they'll sit through interpretive dance just to see boobs? Are you kidding? They'll watch an old man change his colostomy bag if it means they'll be rewarded with unclothed titties.      
 
 
Freeing up their ability to satisfy their own artistic endeavours, while, at the same, delivering the sleazy goods the marketplace expects, Katt Shea uses this technique to her advantage, as every scene practically oozes this dichotomic construct.  
 
 
Wasting little time establishing this new-found freedom, Stripped to Kill II: Live Girls opens with an erotic dance routine featuring zombie-esque women in rags menacing a lone stripper in white. You can tell almost immediately that this isn't your average strip club. For starters, there's this wind, and not just any wind, a howling wind, that seems to be creating an air of extreme disquietude. Wind aside, the blonde swinging on the poll is Victoria (Lisa Glaser), and she's wearing white hold up stockings and being harassed by her stripper peers, who are, of course, dressed like dishevelled devil worshipers. Suddenly, a panic stricken Shady (Maria Ford) enters the frame. A shock-haired, or maybe that was just her normal hair? Whatever. A clearly frazzled Shady is being harassed not only by her peers (who are, like I said, in desperate need of a makeover), but by mysterious figure in a mask wielding a razor-blade between their teeth. 
 
 
Just as she's about to learn the identity of the masked individual, Shady wakes up on her friend's couch with a bloody mouth (the skylight above the couch is covered with mannequins). Concerned for her well-being, Shady's friend, an English woman named Cassandra (Karen Mayo-Chandler), offers her some tea (yep, she's an English woman, all right). There's no time to dilly dally, the neon and zebra print adorned walls of the Paragon need strippers to tie the room together, so Shady and Cassandra head down to fulfill their contractual obligation. As they enter the club, I was quite taken with its stylish decor. The aforementioned neon and zebra print give it that new wave flavour everyone with a pulse savours, but the addition of chain link fence material and sharp angles gave the club an almost industrial feel.
 
 
While Shady and Cassandra are making their way backstage, we meet a dancer named Something Else (Marjean Holden), who is explaining the genesis of her unique stage name. Since Shady dreamed about Victoria in distress, she asks Ike (Tom Ruben), the Paragon DJ, where she is. Pointing the spotlight on her just as she was about to receive a generous tip (fifty bucks), a sense relief washes over Shady when she sees that Victoria is alive and well. Though, if you were to judge by Shady's body language, relief is something she's got in short supply, as she constantly looks like a delicate flower that's got the weight of stripping world resting uncomfortably on her lightly freckled shoulders. Her flowery state of mind isn't helped by the fact that her fellow dancers can't stand each other. We get a taste of this stripper-on-stripper animosity when Victoria tells Something Else to go fuck herself in the dancer's dressing room.
 
 
Stressed out by the negative atmosphere in the club's dressing room, Something Else scolds Dazzle (the E.G. Daily-esque Birke Tan) for using her tweezers, Shady retreats to the alleyway behind the club for solace. Oh, alleyway behind the Paragon club, why are you so awesome? Seriously, the alleyway in Stripped to Kill II: Live Girls has got a personality of its own. After making a dinner date with Victoria, Shady and her super short skirt go home to change. Unfortunately, she falls asleep on the couch, and dreams that she is running toward the Paragon in a diaphanous dress made of  imitation silk. When she arrives, she finds Victoria hanging from one of the club's many chain link fence motifs with her throat cut.
 
 
Now, this is the time when we're usually introduced to my least favourite character in these type of movies: the gruff homicide detective in charge of solving the case. And don't get me wrong, he's gruff as fuck, but there was something off-kilter about Sergeant Decker (Eb Lottimer) that made me inexplicably like him the moment he appears on-screen. At the Paragon to ask Victoria's living co-workers about the crime, Decker sizes up the situation pretty quickly. While I'm sure he picked up some important clues, all I noticed is that Dazzle loves leopard print and that Something Else has a habit of correcting Dazzle's grammar. More importantly...wait a minute, what can be more important than leopard print?!? Trust me, this is more important than leopard print. We get to witness the first meeting of Shady and Decker, one of the most fascinating on-screen pairings in film history.
 
 
The backstage bickering and grammar correcting continues in the next scene when a stripper named Mantra (Debra Lamb) tells Something Else to suck her dick (as you know, I soft spot for women who refer to their non-existent male genitalia), and Something Else tells Dazzle the word is "geek" not "greek" when she attempts to mock Ike's ill-timed romantic gesture towards Shady (he tries to give her a rose). While all this drama is taking place, Decker is out sleuthing his ass off in the club's alleyway; kudos, by the way, to cinematographer Phedon Papamichael for creating one of the most stunning alleyways I have ever seen depicted in a motion picture.
 
 
While I was admiring the way the neon light twinkled in the puddles of water that litter the alleyway behind the Paragon, a Mr. Pocket-esque (Mr. Pocket was the lead creep in the first Stripped to Kill) patron inside the club is admiring Karen Mayo-Chandler's English thighs up close.           
 
 
The second meeting between Shady and Decker does not go well at all, as he gets an awkward lap dance from a woman who should be the prime suspect in a murder investigation. The reason she's not a suspect is because, well, Decker has got the hots for her. And can you blame him? At any rate, after the lap dance debacle, Decker tries to make things right by inviting Shady to get a bite to eat at his favourite Hawaiian taco stand; the fake–though, I'm sure they were real–palm trees over looking the joint added to the film's dream-like temperament. On top of seeing Maria Ford's bewildered kewpie doll schtick in a non-strip club environment, we learn that Decker is wearing woman's coat.
 
 
The sound of a harmonica gently being blown on the soundtrack (composer Gary Stockdale's music does a masterful job of creating the right mood), and Shady's knee-high hooker boots dominate the proceeding as they kiss for the first time. And just like the lap dance, it's pretty awkward. Mostly because Decker retreats mid-smooch, which upsets Shady. To be fair, a stiff breeze is enough to unhinge Shady, she's the world's most fragile and complicated exotic dancer. But his make out withdrawal was totally uncool. Sure, he's trying to act professional by not getting involved with a suspect in the murder case he's currently investigating, but you don't take a woman, especially one wearing a super-tight gold skirt (the kind that needs adjusting every five minutes) to a Hawaiian taco stand at 3 A.M., and then suddenly decide that you don't feel like pressing your tongue against their tongue; it's not the way a civil society works.     
 
 
Giving one the most oddly compelling performances I've seen in a long time, Maria Ford (Slumber Party Massacre III) is beguiling Shady, a.k.a. Margaret Albright, a stripper whose peers wind up dead after she dreams about them. Every gesture, every nuance, is filtered through the actresses' stainless steal bear trap of a brain. This filtering process is best observed when she's walking home from her "date" with Decker. If you pay close attention, you'll notice that she tilts her head to one side, which, to me, signified that the plethora of deep and disturbing thoughts rattling around inside her head were weighing her down.
 
 
Upon further reflection, her performance reminded me a lot of Isabella Adjani in Possession, in that, she was absolutely fearless when it came to putting herself in psychological jeopardy. Take the scene where wakes up in an alleyway behind her friend's apartment (a loft on the outskirts of a broken dream), she's dirty, she's covered in blood, and her stockings are torn, which, as most people know, are the hallmarks of a great performance. The way Maria Ford went from being a glamorous vixen (fingerless opera gloves paired with a vampy red dress) to a bloodied mess was mind-blowing.
 
 
Oh, the duality between Maria's two looks (glamorous and bloodied) and the alleyways she spent most of her time was not lost on me. The alleyway for the glam look, for example, had a neon sheen to it, whereas the narrow passage for the bloodied motif looked like an apocalyptic nightmare (the abandoned railway tracks were a nice touch).
 
 
Upping the ante when it came to just about everything, Stripped to Kill II: Live Girls manages to inject itself into the pores of everyone who watches it. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if they were completely unclogged by the time the film had finished. The state of my pores, aside, the dance numbers (choreographed, like in the first film, by Ted Lin), the costumes (Ellen Gross), and the production design (Virginia Lee) were all first-rate in terms of creativity. If you want to see all three working in perfect harmony, check out Shady and Cassandra's lion tamer routine, or Shady's naughty school girl number (white thigh-high hold up stockings paired with lacy white ankle socks), as both seem to capture the essence of this film's appeal in a nutshell. Actually, if you want to see the greatness of Ellen Gross's costume design, look no further than the alleyway scenes that feature Maria Ford and Eb Lottimer, as the chromatic cinematography and Shady's classic 1940s attire mixed with 1980s whore chic really seem to come alive when bathed in the neon shadows. 
 
 
A masterpiece of erotic horror, writer-director Katt Shea, her talented crew (kudos to Greg Maher for his amazing art direction), and the film's bevy of actors (Maria Ford is electrifying presence) and non-actors (Jeannine Bisignano, who plays a surly stripper named "Sonny" probably never acted before), have all come together to fashion a unique cinematic statement.

2 comments:

  1. Dude, is it just me, or does that new Steve Carrell/Keira Knightley movie look like a carbon copy of Last Night? Don McKellar should sue!

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  2. Just the like the producers of The Hangover should sue the people behind The Hangover Part 2. ;)

    I wonder who plays the Callum Keith Rennie role?!? Adam Brody? I mean, I can't quite picture Rob Corddry as a gigolo.

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