Every Thursday throughout 2014, we’ll be looking at a film from 1989 that wouldn’t otherwise get a grand 25th Anniversary Celebration. These films may be overlooked, obscure, or downright invisible, and while only a few are undiscovered would-be classics, together they form a look at the psychotronic cinema landscape of a quarter-century ago.
I should be on board for LETHAL WOMAN. No, I should be more than on board – I should be screaming to high heaven about how LETHAL WOMAN is an underrated exploitation classic, one that takes a great premise and runs with it. It’s got a great idea, solid direction from Christian Marham and an energetic lead performance from model Merete Van Kamp. It’s got crossbows, an island of beautiful women, and Shannon Tweed. LETHAL WOMAN shouldn’t miss.
I’ve made no secret of my love for rip-offs of Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game.” A couple weeks ago, I looked at DEADLY GAME as part of our look at the world of the USA World Premiere Movie, and praised the flick because it delivers exactly what it promises, and it’s structured in a highly entertaining way. Give me a bunch of people hunting another bunch of people for sport, and I’m a satisfied viewer.
LETHAL WOMAN, shot under the title THE MOST DANGEROUS WOMAN ALIVE (and aired on Cinemax under that moniker) is another “Most Dangerous Game” rip-off – to the point where the lead character even mentions that he’s read a story similar to the events he’s involved in. And it should be even better, because it’s a “Most Dangerous Game” rip-off featuring an island of beautiful women who lure men to their land with the promise of an “erotic adventure,” sex them up a bit and then hunt them down with crossbows, garbed in war paint and amazon outfits. They include Shannon Tweed.
“How the hell can this miss?” you ask. “This is clearly the greatest film ever made.”
Like DEADLY GAME, LETHAL WOMAN begins with our ladies pursuing an unnamed gentleman, taking him own easily at the hand of leader Diana (Van Kamp). Unlike DEADLY GAME, the man’s head is then severed and placed on a trident. Good start!
The latest man to be wooed by their magazine advertisements is Colonel Jerry Maxim (James Luisi), who’s whisked away via plane and even allowed to keep his gun because, as lead henchwoman Tory (Tweed) says, “We’ll make an exception for you because you’re so special.”
While Maxim enjoys himself and is later offed, the military starts getting suspicious about their disappearing personnel and brings Major Derek Johnson (Robert Lipton, Peggy’s sister) out of retirement (and now writing spy novels) to investigate. Johnson’s not inclined to help out, though his token black best friend states “You’re the slimiest, sneakiest white boy I’ve ever met,” so we know he’ll give in eventually. Johnson agrees to investigate the island undercover, and soon enough, we learn the full truth.
The origin of the island is related in flashback, as we learn that Diana was once Lt. Christine Newhouse, a military lass who was on her way to the top. The problem is that she kicked way too much ass, and when Colonel Maxim asked her to stop being better than her male counterparts, saying “My future officers shouldn’t have to worry about a socialite asshole who’s trying to outthink them and beat the shit out of them,” she declined. He responded by raping her, and then saying it was consensual (“Two excited people took advantage of a sexual situation”), even threatening her fiancée to deny her story. She then swore revenge, banding together a band of similarly-assaulted women to train and then take revenge on the military court that found her rapist not guilty.
The films of Jack Hill and Andy Sidaris showed that you can have badass female characters and still feature plenty of exploitation standbys – even ass-kicking ladies need to take showers once in a while. LETHAL WOMAN certainly could have treaded this line well, and Marnham shoots Diana’s rape scene respectfully, making the event have the desired dramatic impact without become sheer exploitation. The courtroom trials afterwards are conducted with similar tact, and for a while, you think that LETHAL WOMAN is certainly heading into an interesting direction.
Unfortunately, the format of the story means that once Maxim is inevitably dead, there’s not that much to do other than watch Johnson romance Tory (they go skinny-dipping!) in between some occasional training sequences as we wait out the inevitable climax. Specially-billed Deep Roy (!) appears briefly as a cross-dressing, purple-caped feature of a grand dinner, feeding everyone a leg of lamb (OR IS IT?) for no discernible reason, and we get some training sequences, but really, they couldn’t have thrown in a couple more shady characters for the ladies to get their revenge on?
In the climax, however, it quickly becomes apparent that the writers of LETHAL WOMAN have no interest at all in making a rape-revenge film, as Johnson has to fight his way out by slaughtering essentially every woman on the island save for his love interest, who turns against her would-be master because she wants to do more slaughtering when Tory wants them to stop. Johnson is just trying to protect himself, really, so his actions make sense, but they’re hardly heroic, and even the way he ended up on the island in the first place doesn’t make him feel like a character you should be rooting for. It’s more that he’s just the least deplorable male character in the film, the guy stuff just sort of happens around.
So, basically, an innocent guy who doesn’t want to be there is forced to kill a bunch of brainwashed rape victims in order to escape, but that’s okay because he’s got Shannon Tweed to comfort him. It’s not a satisfying ending at all, no matter how pretty the sunset over the final scene is or how catchy the ridiculous theme song (using the “The Most Dangerous Woman Live” moniker and sung by Stewart Irwin and Cindy Alter) is, even though the movie thinks it is. It’s like a rape-revenge film that doesn’t give you any sense of justice being delivered – it’s just a bunch of unfortunate stuff happening.
I’m fine with movies that end with everyone being miserable and everything being generally awful, but I’m at a bit of a loss when it comes to movies that have no clue how morally repellant they’re being, and LETHAL WOMAN sells its climax like it’s an action spectacle when it’s really just a guy beating the hell out of a particularly disturbed island-based sexual assault crisis center. It would be one thing if the women on the island were going after innocent men, or just declaring a huge war on the gender, but they seem very specific as to their targets. Now, I’m not implying that rapists deserve the death penalty (or that that don’t), but surely a group of women getting revenge on rapists is actually a pretty sympathetic group to be reckoned with in an exploitation movie.
The problem is that LETHAL WOMAN has a great concept and no sense of the morality involved that that concept creates. I’d love to see a re-do of the film done more in the style of, well, DEADLY GAME, where a group of accused rapists, thinking they’re getting a vacation, are all taken to the island together. One by one they’re picked off, but one (or maybe two! I’m flexi.) is innocent, and he ends up facing off against the grand leader, who’s determined to strike not just against rapists but against all men, and he and his potential love interest kill her, making an empowering speech to the other huntresses that they need to take the fight home and to the media. You’d still have plenty of people getting hunted down, a violent climax, women in sexy amazon outfits and everything LETHAL WOMAN has to offer, but it wouldn’t feel like it was so ill-conceived.
The subgenres of rape-revenge and human-hunting-for-sport are such staples of exploitation filmmaking that it seems like a natural pairing of the two should work like a charm. And LETHAL WOMAN certainly could have, had the storyline been approached with anything resembling tact or respect. Instead, some decent performances, interesting costumes and solid direction are wasted on a screenplay that doesn’t feel like anyone bothered to give it a second draft. LETHAL WOMAN isn’t frustrating because of it’s weirdly shady morality, it’s frustrating because it doesn’t even acknowledge that it has a weirdly shady morality. It’s a morality made even more squicky by the closing credits, when we learn that producer Joseph Goldenberg has dedicated the film to his wife and three daughters, who must have sat through the film with impressively baited breath.
Previously on the 25th Anniversary Project:
Rebecca De Mornay and Paul McGann in DEALERS
Richard A. Haines’ pulpy sci-fi flick ALIEN SPACE AVENGER
Paul Bartel’s all-star sex farce SCENES FROM THE CLASS STRUGGLE IN BEVERLY HILLS
Robert Forster takes on a crossbow-wielding prostitute hunter in THE BANKER
Paul Benedict peers through things in THE CHAIR
Lynn Redgrave tries on some amazing outfits at hoirror hostess MIDNIGHT
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