PCA Retro Review: Angel (1984)

PCA reminds you that the worlds best movies are not in the new release section at Blockbuster.

Angel (1984) – One of the last of the great cult films, Robert Vincent O’Neil’s Angel has a certain impact that stays within the subconsciousness of kids that grew up in the 1980’s.  For some it was the first exploitation film they ever saw.  For others it was the stunning poster that hung in video stores during the dawn of the home video market, which taunted them from the wall although their mothers wouldn’t rent it.  Yet, despite dealing with taboo subjects such as teenage prostitution and necrophilia, Angel is fairly tame, and earns nothing more then a PG rating.  However, while Angel may not deliver in terms of sex and violence, it makes up for it in charm, primarily thanks to the film’s star Donna Wilkes in the role of Angel.

The two faces of Donna Wilkes - as Molly Stuart (honor student by day) and Angel (Hollywood hooker by night)

For most high school girls the most they are ever going to have to worry about is popularity, boys and the prom.  However, for fifteen year old honor student Molly Stewart, life is way more complicated.  Not only does she need to worry about keeping her grades up, but she also has secrets to keep – like the fact that at night she becomes a Hollywood Boulevard child prostitute under the moniker Angel.  Now if being a hooker isn’t bad enough, things get even more complicated when a mysterious serial killer is hunting and slaying hookers and having sex with their dead bodies!.  As Hollywood Boulevard’s community of hookers, street performers and weirdos rally together in fear and outrage at the murder of their friends, Detective Andrews (played by Cliff Gorman) takes a special interest in the feisty Angel, especially when she becomes the only person who has ever actually seen the killer!  Now, as her two worlds begin to collide, Angel becomes hunted herself by the killer, seeking to finish off the only witness of his murder spree. 

Written and directed by Robert Vincent O’Neill, who was behind some of the most bizarre early sexploitation films of the 60’s and early 70’s, Angelhas all the elements of a sleazefest of massive proportions.  However, for some reason the film stops itself short of going all the way.  With nearly no nudity, barely any gore and absolutely no sex, Angel is only sleazy on reputation.  Instead Angeldepends on character and plot instead of cheap sex and violence to keep the film interesting.  As a result viewers are left with a very different kind of exploitation film filled with colorful and likeable characters and a sense of pathos when tragedy strikes.

25 years old when she played the role of 15 year old Angel, the role made Donna Wilkes a cult film icon

Easily, the shining star of Angel is actress Donna Wilkes.  A troubled young woman herself, Donna Wilkes had been involved in television for years prior to Angel, but due to her own demons had been fired from the notoriously bad sitcom Hello Larry, as well as soap opera Days of Our Lives.  As a result it would be the role of Angel that would make her a cult film icon, and deservedly so.  Donna, who was in reality 25 years old at the time she played 15 year old Angel, carries the film on her shoulders and gives the performance of her career.  As Angel, Donna Wilkes plays a character that is as divided as the two worlds that she lives in – tough and sweet, strong and fragile, spunky and sad.  There is a true sense of poignancy in Wilkes’ performance, making Angel, who could easily have been an unlikable slut, into a character that the audience quickly falls in love with and honestly cares about.  Wilkes’ performance is brilliant, endearing her immediately to cult movie fans.  Unfortunately Angel would be the biggest role of her career.  Floundering for a number of more years in the film industry, Donna had a reputation of being unstable due to addiction to drugs and alcohol.  Sometime in the early 1990’s Donna Wilkes quietly slipped out of sight where she got treatment for her addictions and settled into a peaceful life of anonymity far away from the glitter of Hollywood.

Angel and Mae (Dick Shawn) are joined by the other weirdos of Hollywood Boulevard gather to demand results from Detective Andrews (Cliff Gorman)

Possibly one of the reasons that the audience cares so deeply about Angel is the result of the colorful cast of co-stars that the producers surround her with.  An important part of the film is the Hollywood Boulevard community that looks out and takes care of Angel.  The characters are strange, but contain their own sense of eccentric charm.  As a result, O’Neill manages to realistically recreate the actual feeling of what it is like to walk up and down the boulevard, and beautifully captures the boulevard subculture.

1950's star Rory Calhoun in the role of Kit Carson, Angel's father figure and protector

1950’s western star Rory Calhoun parodies himself as a retired western actor known only by the moniker of Kit Carson who hangs out on the Boulevard entertaining tourists with his stories of Lash LaRue and Tom Mix and his gun handing techniques.  Calhoun’s role acts as a representation of “old Hollywood” which, by the 1980’s, was already fading into the past.  Acting as sort of a father figure to Angel, a tender relationship is created as Kit Carson becomes Angel’s friend and protector.

 Angel’s strange family is rounded out by comedian Dick Shawn in the role of six foot drag queen Mae.  Angel’s best friend and companion, Mae is the maternal figure in her life, making sure that she takes care of herself, gets her home work done and offers comedic relief via her/his strange sense of humor.  However, in the end, Mae makes an ultimate sacrifice, proving his/her true love for Angel.  Dick Shawn’s performance offers well needed relief to brighten up what often tends to become a sad and heavy handed film

Although it had the potential to be a sleazfest, "Angel" is actually fairly tame, depending on plot and character instead of sex and violence

What Angel seems to lack, however, is the back story of the actual killer, played by John Diehl.  Despite the fact that Diehl gets as much screen time as the main cast, he never has a name and his background and motives are never revealed.  At times it seems that O’Neil had a background story for the killer prepared, or that certain things are supposed to be hinted at, but we never learn much about the killer at all, making for a certain amount of dissatisfaction to the viewer.  What most likely happened was that the entire background story surrounding the killer was left on the cutting room floor, if filmed at all.  Yet, Diehl manages to give a disturbing and intense performance as a silent killer without a name or known motive, and creates a true sense of menacing danger.

Angel will never be considered one of the greatest films of the 1980’s, but it is without a doubt one of the iconic cult films of the decade.  As exploitation and cult films began to die out by the middle of the decade due to audience demands and the rise of the porn industry, Angel was one of the last of its kind.  Yet, the true appeal of Angelis the way that the film successfully recreates the feeling and the culture of Hollywood Boulevard.  Entirely shot on location near the corners of Hollywood and Vine (you can see the legendary Pantages Theater in many of the scenes) Hollywood Boulevard is not the fabled place of movie stars and glamour that it is believed to be.  It is dirty and dark and tacky and is inhabited by weirdoes, eccentrics and hookers.  Yet, even in this condition, it remains to be one of my very favorite places in the entire world.  Whenever my heart longs for Hollywood Boulevard all I have to do is watch Angel and I am immediately transported back there.  Angel shows the true experience of Hollywood, with the proper amount of pathos and drama to carry the viewer through.

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