DVD Insomniac: Touched by an ”Angel”
The multiplex is about to be lousy with trilogies. Pirates of the Caribbean 3. Rush Hour 3. Spider-Man 3. The Bourne Ultimatum. Ocean’s 13. And it doesn’t even end there. By Labor Day, just when you think Hollywood’s had its fill of summer threesomes, there’s September’s Resident Evil 3 to look forward to.
Now, I could point out that these three-parters prove just how lazy studio execs are. But instead, all of this trilogy madness got me thinking about one of my favorite franchises from my teenage years — a trilogy, in fact, about a high school honors student by day turned Hollywood hooker by night. Yes, I’m talking about the Angel saga.
I’ll grant you that the Angel movies aren’t timeless trilogies like Star Wars or Indiana Jones. But in certain ways it illustrates everything that can be so wondeful (and wonderfully awful) about trilogies and tales of prostitutes packing heat. First off, it perfectly exemplifies the standard arc of these kinds of three-chapter epics: 1984’s original Angel starts things off strong, coming out of the gate like the ’80s exploitation juggernaut that it was — it’s a lean, mean killing machine. 1985’s Avenging Angel, on the other hand, is slicker, seems to have a bigger budget, and comes with all of the bloat you’d expect from its bigger budget; 1988’s Angel III: The Final Chapter not only uses classy Roman numerals in its title, it also looks and feels like it was directed by Nero. It reaches for slick, Big ’80s we-built-this-city-on-rock-n-roll grandeur, and winds up burning to the ground. It’s the perfect trajectory for any trilogy.
One of the things I love best about the Angel series is how upfront it is about its own shlockiness. Take the fact that the title character is played by a different actress in each installment. It’s never explained why. And the three leading ladies don’t even look remotely like one another. The masterminds behind Angel were so confident in their B-movie premise they didn’t even try to pull the wool over our eyes. You have to respect that.
I’m proud to say that I saw the first Angel in the theater. It was the bottom half of a double feature paired with the early James Spader vehicle Tuff Turf. I was in pig heaven. After watching Spader as a young loner in a leather jacket taking on a street gang at his new high school and pitching brooding-rebel woo to a trampy Kim Richards, I would’ve sat through anything.
But as Angel began to unspool I quickly realized that this was the movie I’d been waiting to see without even knowing it. The movie opens with a pair of penny loafers and knee socks walking along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. As the camera pans up we meet Donna Wilkes’ babyfaced 15-year-old Angel. She’s a bright loner (she reads King Lear at recess), she’s attractive (the jocks hit on her and get shot down), and she’s got secrets. Lots and lots of tawdry secrets.
Angel’s dad left when she was a kid. And her mom recently walked out on her to live with another man, leaving behind a note and $100. So Angel trades in her school uniform for hot pants and stilettos and starts turning tricks. When she’s not hustling johns, she hangs out with a motley-but-loving crowd of street people, including an old (and not very convincing) drag queen, a Kit Carson impersonator, and a street magician named Yo-Yo.
But her dueling lives meet head-on when a serial killer starts murdering ladies of the night. As her friends start dropping like leather mini-skirted flies, she reluctantly joins forces with a grizzled police detective to catch the creep. The killer, played by Jurassic Park III‘s John Diehl, maniacally pumps iron in his skidrow apartment like Max Cady in Cape Fear and caps his workout routine by punching a pinhole in an egg shell and sucking out the yolk while staring at a portrait of his mother. You have to admit, that’s easily as twisted as anythig in Seven.
Anyway, as the detective warns Angel that she needs to stop hooking (”You know what happens to old whores? They don’t go to Lesiure World, baby!”) and Angel and her motley posse pursue the wacko, the tension escalates until Angel gets a gun, goes to church to say a silent candlelit prayer, and heads out to the mean streets to hunt the killer down.
The Angel saga would never reach those dizzying heights again. But there’s still something extremely watchable about the sequels. In Avenging Angel, Wilkes is replaced by Betsy Russell — best known for her topless horse riding in Private School. The story kicks off four years later and Angel is now in college. Then the cop who was so kind to her in the first film is shot and killed by the mafia. Angel wants payback — hence the film’s title — and she heads back to her old hood and goes undercover as a hooker to nail the bad guys. As an actress, Betsy Russell makes Wilkes seem like Maggie Smith. But the film is noteworthy if for no other reason than the line Angel says right before she blows the villain away: ”When you get to hell, tell ’em an angel sent you!”
I wish I could say something as nice about Angel III: The Final Chapter. Well, there is Richard Roundtree as a cop with a heart of gold and Octopussy‘s Maud Adams as an evil madam. The entire plot revolves around a crime syndicate that traffics in white slavery — which you have to admit doesn’t get trotted out nearly enough these days.
This time, Angel, who is now a struggling photojournalist, is played by Silk Stalkings‘ Mitzi Kapture. And guess what? She finds out she has a long-lost sister now in Octopussy’s evil clutches. It’s not nearly as interesting as it sounds. But at least Angel III had the good sense to know its place in the saga. After all, it was called The Final Chapter.
Watching it, you knew there was no chance in hell there’d be an Angel IV: A New Beginning or an Angel V: The Wrath of Yo-Yo. If only some of the part threes coming out this summer had the same respect for the audience.