The Film: 10 to Midnight
The Principles: Charles Bronson, Lisa Elibacher, Andrew Stevens, Wilford Brimley, Kelly Preston and Gene Davis. Directed by J. Lee Thompson.
The Premise: Leo Kessler is a hard-boiled cop who’s hot on the trail of a deranged serial killer loose in Los Angeles. The case becomes personal when the latest victim turns out to be the childhood friend of his daughter Laurie. Kessler zeros in on a suspect when the evidence (flimsy that it is) points to a creepy co-worker of the deceased named Warren Stacy. Thus begins a deadly game of cat-and-mouse between the two men where the veteran detective will be pushed to the limits of the law in order to deliver some justice, Bronson-style!
Is it any good: Goddamned right, you little punk! This is a brain-shattering post-Dirty Harry, post-Death Wish, slasher-noir and vigilante-cop fusion that satisfies like a Snickers bar for the skull! Nobody does middle-aged angst like Mr. Majestyk! Here he plays a self-described “mean, selfish, son of a bitch” L.A.P.D. homicide detective named Leo Kessler, who’s forced to break in a snot-nosed new rookie named Paul McAnn (B-movie 80’s icon Andrew Stevens).
Their first case involves a young couple that was attacked and killed while having sex in a van by a naked, latex gloved, butterfly knife-wielding psycho named Warren Stacy (played with an uber-creepy intensity by Gene Davis). The case becomes personal for Kessler when he learns that his daughter Laurie (80’s babe Lisa Eilbacher), a beautiful young nursing student, was the childhood friend of the female victim. A clue discussed at the funeral involving the victim’s diary is overheard by the killer, who breaks into the dead girl’s apartment to steal it because he was her co-worker and has had a history of harassing her at the work place. He discovers that the cops have already taken the diary, so he violently stabs her roommate to death and splits.
After questioning him at his home it becomes obvious to Kessler that this is his creep, but making a charge stick isn’t as easy as he would like, so he plants some of the victim’s blood on Stacy’s clothes. The illegal police tampering causes Bronson to lose his job, forcing him to go rogue in order to catch the maniac and restore peace to the city by any means necessary! There’s absolutely no difference in appearance, mood or acting style from Bronson’s Paul Kersey character in Death Wish with Leo Kessler from 10 to Midnight. It’s fantastic!
Veteran Hollywood director J. Lee Thompson directs this sleazy serial-killer thriller with mucho gusto! This is the man whose diverse career spans over forty decades and includes the original Cape Fear, the amazing Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the so-so Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the 80’s slasher-giallo Happy Birthday to Me, plus a small catalogue of Cannon Group produced gems that include the Bronson vehicles: The Evil That Men Do, Murphy’s Law, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown, Messenger of Death and Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects. He also knocked out two Cannon entries into the post-Raiders of the Lost Ark market with King Solomon’s Mines and the epic Chuck Norris-Louis Gossett Jr. team-up Firewalker. 10 to Midnight is his first film with Bronson and he delivers a really suspenseful, exploitive and graphically violent film that is years ahead of its time.
One of the things I realized while revisiting it is how it’s one of the first of its kind, which made it all the more creepy and realistic when it was initially released. Gene Siskel gave it a very positive review back then. By today’s standards it might all appear quaint, but at the time it was unusual to see a crime procedural film, which is exactly what this is. In a lot of ways it’s the predecessor to Mann’s Manhunter and Fincher’s Seven. The Warren Stacy character is actually based on serial killer Ted Bundy in that he’s good-looking, only murders beautiful young women and drives a Volkswagen Beetle. There’s also a reference to real-life mass murderer Richard Speck involving a bloody massacre in a dormitory for student nurses, in which a young Kelly Preston is butchered in one of her very first acting roles.
Gene Davis’ performance as Warren Stacy the totally unlikeable killer is nothing less than awesome. He really makes you want to see him pay for what he’s doing. The character is like a post-disco era version of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho in terms of both appearance and personality traits. His naked foot chase and epic monologue during the finale is some pretty amazing stuff.
Is it worth a look: Definitely! Reagan-era Bronson is unlike any other and this is a grisly cops and killer movie that goes for the jugular repeatedly. I myself can’t get enough of watching a crusty old policeman do whatever he wants to just because he’s white and has a badge and a gun. The ending is one of those amazing “Fuck Yeah!” conclusions where the audience bursts into thunderous applause because it’s EXACTLY what we all wanted to see happen. It’s also another one of those great time capsule captures of the scummy streets of Hollywood during the height of its decay, which has since gone through a Times Square-esque corporate makeover. This may appear at first to be just another cheesy psycho-thriller, but it’s far from ordinary and maybe a little bit visionary.
Random anecdotes: In the film the killer uses an old movie theatre in L.A. called the Aero to place himself for an alibi he uses later with the police. The Aero theatre still operates today as a completely renovated revival house run by the American Cinematheque. It’s a great place to see a movie.
Cinematic soul mates: Death Wish, Dirty Harry, The Evil That Men Do, Manhunter, Seven and American Psycho.