Horror was so prevalent and popular in the early ‘80s that even the action genre wanted in on the…uh, action. Chuck Norris haiyah’ed a Michael Myers wannabe in Silent Rage (1982), so next up it was granite faced Charles Bronson’s turn to take on slashers with 10 to Midnight (1983), a sleazy yet fascinating trip through the mind of a serial killer. While it’s never as deep as it thinks it is, it’s smarter than it has any right to be.
Released in March, this Cannon production, co-distributed by MGM, recouped its 4.5 million plus a few million more at the box office. Certainly not Death Wish numbers, but it’s not really a Death Wish type of film (until it is). As for the critics, Mr. Ebert called it “a scummy little sewer of a movie”. He’s not completely right, though; the misogynistic male gaze is upended long before the final credits roll. Besides, I’d have a lot less to write about if I didn’t splash through the sewers now and then.
Our film opens on police detective Leo Kessler (Bronson adopting a similar moniker to Death Wish’s Paul Kersey, in case you needed a reminder, I guess) grumpily filling out a report when he really needs to be out on the streets mopping up crime. (I would have killed for a Ralph Kelson tax attorney movie, though.) Cut to credits and then we’re right in the thick of it, as we meet Warren Stacy (Gene Davis – The Hitcher), doing typewriter repair in an office and thinking of the woman who spurned his advances. Before long, Warren is chasing her naked through the woods after disposing of her boyfriend mid coitus, knife in hand. Kessler and his new partner Paul McAnn (Andrew Stevens – The Fury) find connections between the victim and Warren, which leads to Kessler’s estranged daughter Laurie (Lisa Eilbacher – Beverly Hills Cop), the victim’s best friend, being put directly in Warren’s path.
As Kessler and McAnn grow increasingly frustrated with Warren’s ability to slip through the tenuous grip of the law, desperate measures are taken to keep Warren behind bars. When that falls apart, Kessler must race against time to save the one thing he truly cares about. But will he be too late?
10 to Midnight certainly lives in the shadow of Bronson’s more famous property, even though the unpliable actor turned not to Michael Winner, but rather focused on another collaboration with director J. Lee Thompson. They had worked together previously on St. Ives (1976), The White Buffalo (’77), and Cabo Blanco (1980), and would finish out most of the ‘80s together, including the terrible final two Death Wish films. (Not the most dignified series, anyway; although the first has some social residue and the third is just a straight up fun cartoon.) This and the eerie Buffalo are their best efforts together; I’d like to believe that they work due to the infusion of horror, but I think any steps away from Bronson’s tired and dreary vigilante tropes could only lead to a more positive light.
But that light is still fraught with pinholes of darkness that threaten to eat through the very fabric and engulf the film. We start very firmly with Warren’s angry gaze, contempt for not only this particular woman, but as we can see in his unblinking stare, for all. He feeds this leering contempt with a full on narcissistic streak, most evident not only in his insistence in forcing the women to view him as a (literal) male god laid bare, but in his total disconnect from communication. He does nothing but make proclamations, or if he does offer a question, he’s already certain the answer will not be what he wants to hear. Warren is a psychopathic monster, incapable of female interaction that isn’t fueled by rage. The first half of the film really leans into his psychoses, and becomes almost a character study (mirroring Ted Bundy’s behaviors somewhat, even driving a VW to give the film a faux realism it doesn’t truly earn), albeit one that has no bones about fixating on the helpless female form. (To be fair, Davis spends most of his screen time in the buff as well.) The first half has a greasy veneer that’s hard, but not impossible, to shake.
Where the film upends the audiences’ expectations is in the second half, when Warren is brought in after Kessler frames him with tainted evidence. Thinking he’ll be in and out within 30 days on minor charges, Kessler tells him about this “new” evidence prompting Warren to react with rage, which quickly turns to…petulant whining. He’s reduced to a toddler whose favorite toy has been taken away; brilliantly punctuated by Davis shrieking “HE’S LYING!” into his lawyer’s (an oily cameo from Geoffrey Lewis) face, leaving any traces of Warren’s power crumbling on the interrogation room floor.
From this point on, 10 to Midnight shrugs its shoulders, heaves a sigh of relief and turns into a slasher as Warren stalks Laurie and her roommates, all in various stages of undress for Warren to employ a robotic killing spree until his final showdown with Kessler. It earns its popcorn reputation at this point because Warren has been reduced to a shell of his delusional glory, at least to the audience; for his victims, it’s business as usual with Horror’s Greatest Hits, replay value offered to Screaming and Cowering, respectively. (Except for Laurie, who is fleshed out well by Eilbacher, and pushes back until the script says she shouldn’t.) No longer complicit in Warren’s actions, we can just enjoy the film from this point on as an efficient, bloody thriller.
It is notable that even in the more exploitative moments, there is a certain restraint in Thompson’s approach to William Roberts’ (The Legend of the Lone Ranger – oh boy) lurid screenplay. Which is to say he doesn’t dwell on the seediness in any given scene for too long. Having said that, when your film is wallpapered with grime, it’s hard not to run into it.
Would you believe me if I said this offers a good Bronson performance? Okay, would you at least buy that he’s trying and animated compared to the very glazed over final act of his career? I think you should; he has a couple of terrific, subtle moments that certainly show up Andrew Stevens’ stiff and underwritten McAnn. (A small victory, but it still counts.) Eilbacher is a strong and smart heroine, and god help them if they hadn’t made her that way; balancing out Warren’s misogyny is crucial to making the material palatable.
Which it most certainly is as soon as Warren (Davis’ somewhat awkward and uneven take actually works in giving him an unpredictability) is stripped of his ability to shock and dominate. Once he’s exposed as a physically strong but psychically stunted baby, 10 to Midnight breezes by on showers and stabbings right up until the denouement. And if you’re wondering how we got this far without any heavy handed statements about the impotence of due process, relax and let movie magic unfold before your eyes (and Warren’s) as a Kessler becomes a Kersey. That tax attorney movie was definitely not forthcoming.
10 to Midnight is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.