Here is a transcript of Darrell Buxton’s introduction from Friday’s Dressed To Kill Screening.
Welcome once again to Fright Club, and our latest presentation forming part of QUAD’s current Brian De Palma season. Although you’d never guess it from my get-up this evening – yes, I’m wearing my baggy old DEMONS t-shirt yet again – tonight, we’re DRESSED TO KILL.
Thirty five years ago DRESSED TO KILL caused headlines, for all the wrong reasons. Women’s rights had been on the political and social agenda for some years, with equality, the pay gap, the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, the emergence of a new strength and vibrancy among a younger female generation, all contributing to the shift. Violence against women was a hot topic – and caused anguish and fence-sitting for right-on, teenage, NME-reading, liberal, self-styled ‘male feminists’ like myself. As a keen horror fan I was thrilled to find myself in the midst of the stalk-and-slash boom, with the chance to watch insane masked killers carving up a string of helpless victims on an almost weekly basis; and when our moral guardians began their own carving-up acts, hacking all of the most bloody crowd-pleasing moments out of these entertainments, I was among those actively campaigning against such censorious outrages. It was hard to reconcile such anti-censorship beliefs with the wave of protests against media depictions of violent acts, however. The late seventies had seen a number of notorious serial-killing cases – Ted Bundy, Henry Lee Lucas, Peter Sutcliffe, Son of Sam among them – and women’s groups were becoming ever more forceful in challenging the powers that be to ensure levels of protection and detection.
One direct line of action taken by protestors here in Britain was to directly link violent activity by males to the product on offer at local cinemas. Organised American groups such as ‘Women Against Violence Against Women’ or ‘Women Against Pornography’ had staged action at movie theatres, and the British method seemed to combine those homegrown traditions of graffiti and ‘bunking in’, with gangs of aerosol-equipped objectors gaining access to movie auditoriums via the exit doors and spraying red paint across the screens playing films that particularly offended them. HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP, a Roger Corman production starring Doug McClure, was released in Britain under the title MONSTER and was one of the key targets, as its plot about sea creatures emerging from the depths to rape women in a small coastal town could barely have been worse-timed. Even pointing out that the film was directed by a woman, Barbara Peeters, failed to soften the blow. Hot on its heels came Brian De Palma’s DRESSED TO KILL, and the crimson spray hit the screen from within and without once again.
Whatever your thoughts might be regarding psycho films and their perceived influence on real life events, DRESSED TO KILL has survived the onslaught of those early 80s critics, be they typewriter-clacking media professionals or spray-can wielding amateurs. Seen from our nostalgic perspective 35 years on, we can judge it as a glossy, classy, star-studded addition to that surprise tidal wave of slasher flicks, and as a splendid example of Brian De Palma’s unique and impressive visual style and way with a tense thriller. Fresh from her hit TV show ‘Police Woman’, Angie Dickinson returned to the big screen as Kate Miller, a troubled and sexually unsatisfied middle aged New Yorker visiting her psychiatrist Dr. Robert Elliott, played by Michael Caine. Caine was quite the horror regular at around this time, also appearing in THE SWARM, THE ISLAND, and THE HAND between 1978 and 1981. De Palma stages one of his typical bravura set piece scenes early in the proceedings – you will simply marvel and watch open-mouthed as his camera prowls around the Metropolitan Museum of Art, pursuing Dickinson as she attempts to pick up some fleeting male company for the afternoon. Before long the cut-throat razors are out, the glistening blood is splashing, arcing artistically across our view, and the film is down to business.
In April this year, we screened De Palma’s breathtaking 1984 masterpiece BODY DOUBLE here at QUAD. The title of that movie was inspired by DRESSED TO KILL, as the then-almost-50-year-old Dickinson’s notoriously steamy shower scene required copious nudity. The 1976 Penthouse Pet of the Year, Victoria Lynn Johnson, was called in to strip and get soapy in Angie’s stead, though De Palma was quoted as saying “it wasn’t because Angie doesn’t have a great body or would have minded doing it”, adding “why weigh down your leading lady when you can use a stand-in?”. As for Dickinson herself, she went along with the whole thing but was surprised that the film company had revealed the use of a double for publicity means, saying at the time “Why destroy the illusion. Let (the audience) think it’s Tahiti, even if it is Burbank”. Angie held her own forthright view on the controversies stirred up by DRESSED TO KILL, too, stating “I suppose there are rapists and murderers walking around waiting to be triggered, and this could do it. But so could an innocent billboard of a woman cutting a melon”. She also turned the argument about sexism and the use of sexual imagery on its head, asking “what are people supposed to get erotic about? An elephant? A cup of coffee?”
De Palma regulars feature throughout the film as ever, with yet another lush, gorgeous score by Pino Donaggio plus appearances by Dennis Franz, Nancy Allen, and William Finley who makes an off-screen contribution as the voice of ‘Bobbie’ – and if you’re not sure who or what ‘Bobbie’ is, you’ll soon find out. Quentin Tarantino has admitted that Nancy Allen’s sassy prostitute character ‘Liz Blake’ was the key inspiration for his TRUE ROMANCE screenplay, as he aimed to write a story with a similar likeable, warm-hearted call girl figure at its centre. DRESSED TO KILL, in common with much of De Palma’s work, has always divided opinion. Alfred Hitchcock was told about the movie and informed that it was “an homage” to Hitch’s own style and technique. “Don’t you mean ‘fromage’?” the lugubrious legend drawled in response. The notorious ‘Razzie’ awards nominated De Palma as worst director, Nancy Allen as worst actress, and Michael Caine as worst actor. Yet the prestigious New York Critics’ Circle named DRESSED TO KILL as their fifth favourite picture of 1980, and De Palma came fourth in their directors list, while Angie Dickinson won the Saturn Award for best actress in a science fiction, horror or fantasy film.
As critic Maitland McDonagh has pointed out, DRESSED TO KILL plays like an Italian giallo, probably more so than almost any other non-Italian horror thriller. The mix of adult characters, warped psychiatry, sexuality, ripoffs from other movies, beautiful soundtrack, daring camerawork, and violent scenes staged in a manner designed to leave audiences visually stunned as well as psychologically unnerved, would appeal to precisely the same group of fans drooling over the masterworks of Dario Argento during the same era. It’s a key work among De Palma’s filmography and a movie that graces the big screen. High heeled horror at its most fashion-conscious.