Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Undressing “Dressed to Kill”

Here there be spoilers.

  Watching Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, a popular erotic thriller from 1980, I found myself remembering my Roger Corman years. Why? First, because the executive producer on Dressed to Kill was Samuel Z. Arkoff, who with James Nicholson had led American International Pictures, the company that taught Corman how to make movies fast and cheap for the drive-in market. Secondly, one of the big-name stars of Dressed to Kill is the drop-dead gorgeous Angie Dickinson, as a wife and mother eager for sexual kicks and kinks. When I worked for Corman’s New World Pictures in 1974, Angie starred in the sexy Big Bad Mama, showing off a beautifully toned body and a good-natured willingness to bare it on-set. (I suspect the franker version of Dressed to Kill that I just watched on video employs a body double for the scene in which Angie’s character graphically masturbates in the shower. Who could blame her for backing away from that sort of intimate reveal? But I still give her props for her willingness to approach material that is frankly erotic.) 

 The third reason that Dressed to Kill makes me think of my Corman days is that, in the wake of Fatal Attraction (1987), we at Concorde-New Horizons became enamored with the idea of producing our own erotic thrillers. Our Body Chemistry (1990), featuring a female medical researcher with perverse sexual proclivities, soon followed. But we also borrowed from De Palma’s work a title and some of his film’s more prurient kinks. The result: 1987’s Stripped to Kill, directed (and co-written) by a feisty young woman named Katt Shea. The official description tells the tale: “When Detective Cody Sheehan discovers the body of a stripper from the Rock Bottom dance club, she wants the case. But the only way Cody can get the assignment is to go undercover—uncovered—at the club.”

 Strippers and killers turned out to be such a lucrative combination that we went on to make Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls, as well as Dance of the Damned (a not-so-brief encounter between a vampire and a stripper). We also shot Midnight Tease (in which I have a minor role), before hanging up our g-strings for good.

 There are, I hasten to add, no strippers in Dressed to Kill. But aside from Dickinson’s hot-to-trot housewife, the film features De Palma’s brand-new spouse, Nancy Allen, as a prostitute who helps track down her killer. And then there’s the tall, mysterious blonde who seems to have lethal intentions toward both women. Who is this blonde when she’s at home? Let’s say Bobbi, and leave it at that.

 Without trying to blurt out the film’s secrets, I’ll simply assert that Dressed to Kill would not be made today, at least not in its current form. Many have accused it, in the words of the ever-smart Wikipedia, of perpetuating the myth that trans people are sexual predators caught in the grip of mental illness. Writing in The Guardian in 2020,  critic Scott Tobias referred to De Palma's grasp of trans issues as "disconcertingly retrograde . . . There's no getting around the ugly association of gender transition with violence, other than to say that it feels thoroughly aestheticized. ”

 De Palma admits that times have changed. He still insists, though, that the film has long been a favorite of the gay community, partly for the aesthetic flamboyance of its cinematography and the high pitch of its emotions. You’ll find Stripped to Kill full of all of that as well. At Corman’s we learned to be terrific copycats.