I'm from the home video generation, that time in the early 80's when video stores popped up everywhere and it was still a novel concept to watch movies at home at your convenience. One of the franchises of 80's b-cinema was the Angel series and it's box cover was on every video store shelf, a recognizable image up there with the I Spit on Your Grave or National Lampoon's Vacation covers. I know I saw it- I watched everything- but for the life of me, as I sat down to review this set, I couldn't recall if Angel was any good. It had faded from memory, and now I know why.
The first Angel begins and we are introduced to the round cherubic face of Molly, aka. Angel (Donna Wilkes). We quickly learn her story, fifteen years old, living a dual life of boarding school honor student by day and hooker hanging out with Hollywood Boulevard street freaks by night. Her main friends are Kit Carson (Rory Calhoun, Motel Hell) an old western stunt man who walks around in cowboy gear regaling passers-by with his tales working with faded western heroes and May (Dick Shawn, Its a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Producers) a burly, kind, drag queen prostitute. If it were anywhere else but Hollywood such odd pairings would seem silly. A teen hooker. An old cowboy movie star. A transvestite. Okay, I take it back, even in Hollywood it is weird.
There is a psycho (character actor John Diehl) running around killing hookers. The police say he is "a bisexual necropheliac." Angel identifies him after he kills one of her friends, but he escapes and still roams the streets. Angel finds her double life threatened when the main detective discovers her secret as do some jocks at school. With her lifestyle in jeopardy and a killer after her and her friends, she finally has enough and sets out to find the killer herself.
Well, now I know. The reason Angel left little impression was because it isn't entirely successful. That is, it is not exactly a sleaze-o romp, something that its tag line and selling point seem to suggest. No doubt the film was sold worldwide purely based on its concept of "innocent schoolgirl by day, hooker and killer hunter by night". Ahhhh, the good old days when you could sell a b-film based on a good premise. Sure it throws in some obviously gratuitous and unnecessary nudity and has all of the trappings of a camp exploitation film, but it also schizophrenically tries to be more heartfelt and comedic. Some bits are just weird, like Shawn fighting for his life with the killer, yet cracking dorky one-liners like telling the unhinged whacko he has bad breath (as if the scene wasn't strange enough, being that it involves a drag queen fighting a killer who's disguised himself as a Hari Krishna). It just doesn't live up to its premise and is too mundane and straight in tone and too mild in its excesses. Imagine an after school special writer being asked to dash off an exploitation screenplay. While Angel is colorful in character, something like Abel Ferrera's Fear City handled the whole similar "strippers stalked by a killer" with the appropriate amount of urban grime and fun maximum sleaze. I would like the film more if it were something along the lines of Jodie Fosters teen hooker in Taxi Driver taking a page from Travis Bickle's book and going all beastly revenge fueled rage on some nutjob that was killing her friends. Instead you get a film more concerned with being endearing and cute, which is not what I personally want in my exploitation.
In Avenging Angel, Betsy Russell is now in the role of Molly/Angel and has a sort of Adrienne Barbeau meets Angie Harmon but with a Paula Jones hairdo look to her. It is four years in the future, Molly has put her street life behind her and is attending law school. When the detective who helped her in the first film (once again a recast actor) is killed, she returns to her Angel persona and takes to the streets to find his killer. Of course she needs her wacky friends help, and they end up uncovering a plot by a land developer who is trying to take over the boulevard.
This sequel is even more light hearted than the first, including sequences more akin to The Apple Dumpling Gang and Disney family fare than exploitation. If not for Angel being a former hooker, with some minor trimming of gunfire and a few throwaway nudie bits, Avenging Angel could have been a PG rated family film. The action is purely old tv movie quality, and a bit where some tough thugs tussle with a couple of drag queens would seem inspired had it not already been done so much better in the Euro-crime film Blazing Magnum.
Angel 3: Avenging Angel finds yet another girl in the role, this time out Mitzi Kapture, and a new director with b-helmer Tom DeSimone (Reform School Girls) replacing Angel creator Robert Vincent O'Niel. Now Molly is a photographer (apparently law school was just too good for her) living in New York. She crosses paths with her mother who abandoned her twelve years before, but no sooner are they reunited than she finds out she has a sister who is in trouble and her mother is killed. So, it is back to Los Angeles and the streets to find her sister and her mothers killer. With the help of Spanky an ex-gay hustler turned ice cream vendor, she uncovers a ring of dope smuggling, art forging, white slavery goons and tries to pry her sister form their clutches.
I think it is safe to say by the third sequel, despite the fresh new blood onscreen and behind it, the series is pretty maxed out. Once again its pretty low on interesting action, titillation, or involving story. I'm guessing the drug dealers taking the trouble to smuggle drugs in phony art must be the same guys who thought of the bright idea to hide drugs in imported Japanese artifacts in Revenge of the Ninja. The movie also has Toni "Oh Mickey, you're so fine. You're so fine. You blow my mind" Basil as a gallery owner and Richard "He's one bad mother-" Roundtree in a thankless detective role.
The DVD: Anchor Bay
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. I was actually quite surprised at the image quality. Okay, so they are low budget movies and there are some quibbles in terms of the photography, but the transfers are much clearer than I thought they would be. For 80's b-films they all look quite crisp, with vibrant color, fairly even fleshtones, and deep contrast. There is some grain and the occasional soft scene here and there, but that is more to do with the film production. I didn't notice any edge enhancement issues or artifacts. Anchor Bay does a top notch job, and given the nature of the genre, I doubt they could look much better.
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono. The sound is fine on all of them. Clear and clean with no annoying pops, hiss, or age distortion. Of course, it is mono, so there is only so much range, but it does a good job. Music pumps in loud and clear, and the only problems with the fx and dialogue are low budget limitations. Considering the material, a good presentation.
Extras: Chapter Selections--- Liner notes--- Angel features two trailers and three deleted scenes (#1 is 41 sec, #2 is 2:13, #3 is 36 sec) that have no sound but are subbed. Not much really, Shawn playing craps, a slightly extended restaurant scene, and the killer watching Angel get into a johns car.--- Avenging Angel has two trailers and a poster and still gallery.--- Angel 3 has chapter selections and a trailer.
Conclusion: Pretty minor exploitation that, I think, purely because of its premise gained some sequels and a cemented exposure in the annals of 80's cinema. Its certainly one of the more niche exploitation sub genres (Fear City, Street Girls, Vice Squad, Streetwalkin'), call it "Hookers In Danger." The transfers are all fine, certainly better than the way most us were first exposed to the films on video. If they were stand alone releases I'd say they were only, at the most, rental worthy. By collecting them all together, Anchor Bay is clearly aiming at the nostalgic 80's Angel fan and they do a good job, so therefore I'll give it a recommendation. For those unfamiliar with the films, a blind purchase may not be the best idea because I don't think that the series lives up to the concept.