Angel (1983)

Angel was always a movie I knew about but had never seen.  As a preteen there was no way I was going to ask my parents to rent this for me and, as an adult, it didn't seem the kind of thing I would want to get unless I felt like ending up on an FBI list.  Donna Wilkes, who plays the title character, was 24 when she made the movie, but try explaining that when renting something that appears to be just this side of child pornography. 

The last thing I expected of Angel was for it to be a good movie.  I figured it would be sleazy, featuring lots of nudity from 30-year-old actresses playing teenagers and generally be an excuse to show lots of skin.  There is gratuitous nudity sprinkled throughout - none of it Angel - but instead of exploiting child prostitution the film somewhat explores how she gets into it and concentrates on a number of strange characters that she interacts with on regular basis who become her family.  The production values are great, the grittiness of 1980s Los Angeles is all there, but this never goes in the uncomfortable direction the tagline hints at. 

Molly Stewart is a straight-A honor student at a private school in Los Angeles.  In order to fund her education, as well as keep a place to live, she works as a prostitute.  Although things are just as rough on her as everyone else on the street she finds a surrogate family in a gay male hooker named Mae (Dick Shawn) and an old western star named Kit Carson (Rory Calhoun) who is one of many people working the boulevard for the entertainment of tourists.  The problem is that a necrophiliac serial killer (John Diehl) has taken to murdering the ladies of negotiable affection.

The person assigned to catch him is Lt. Andrews (Cliff Gorman), who tries to encourage the women to stay off the street until the threat has gone away.  Since they have to earn a living the warnings fall on deaf ears.  When one of Angel's close friends is killed she sees the man she picked up and begins working with Davis, only to find out that has put her in the killer's crosshairs.  Meanwhile, the careful separation of her two worlds begins to crumble. 

The one thing I admire that Robert Vincent O'Neil, the co-writer and director, did with Angel is never show the title character in a graphic sex scene.  Despite the movie poster it feels as if there was an effort to de-sexualize the character, although he certainly could have gone in another direction due to the actress's age.  There are some of the usual locker room scenes one would expect from an '80s film that features various amounts of female nudity, but Angel concentrates both on the serial killer plot as well as focusing on the family dynamic.  Wilkes isn't bad, but it is Dick Shawn and Rory Calhoun that shine, as well as Susan Tyrell as Angel's lesbian landlord. 

Cliff Gorman is top-billed and does the hardboiled police officer schtick well, although there is a scene that subtly reveals how everything is getting to him.  Meanwhile, John Diehl is silent throughout most of the movie, and makes for a creepy killer.  Production values seem better than they are; Angel looks like a major Hollywood production rather than a cheap drive-in film, and it did make a fair amount of money based on word of mouth.

There are some hints of Midnight Cowboy in here as well as other similar films but, if tempted to give this a pass because it looks like exploitation sleaze, I would suggest giving it a look.  There are sequels, but with different actresses and, after Avenging Angel, different directors.  It is a pleasant surprise, especially after knowing next to nothing about it other than the video cover for all these years. 

Angel (1984)
Time: 94 minutes
Starring: Donna Wilkes, Cliff Gorman, Dick Shawn, Rory Calhoun, John Diehl
Director: Robert Vincent O'Neil



  1. I haven't seen it but it's mentioned in an episode of "Mike Tyson Mysteries" when Pigeon (Norm MacDonald) talks about how in the 80s that movie was always playing on HBO, which for younger viewers was pretty hot for its time.

  2. I quite like this one AND the sequels, although a lot of film fans like it more than me. It certainly does a good job of getting the balance just right.


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