Monday, April 20, 2009

Sweet 16 (1983): or, It's My Party and You'll Die If I Want You To

There are a few things to like about Jim Sotos' 1983 pseudo-slasher Sweet 16 (aka Sweet Sixteen), but you kind of have to be looking for them. If you can glean a little joy from the incongruously TV-sitcom style acting, the occasional surprisingly ugly racism from some of the bad guy characters, interesting-to-completely out of nowhere plot twists, and barely capitalized subplot of the perils of burgeoning sexuality, then maybe you won't hate it.

But if you're a jaded horror geek who cut his teeth on 80s slashers many times nastier and more rollicking, the kind of movies that wove cautionary morality tales through scenes of copious nudity and goopy practical gore effects, then Sweet 16 is likely to strike you as more than a little bland, its reticence to GO THERE naive and frankly frustrating.

No points for guessing which side of the fence your ever-lovin' Vicar comes down on.

The movie actually starts out all gangbusters, hitting us right away with a gratuitous shower scene in which our 15-year-old main character Melissa Morgan (Aleisa Shirley, who was doubtless many years older than her character, so relax) stares mysteriously into the middle distance while displaying all her soap-slick nubility for everyone to enjoy. A slow pan across the girl's bedroom reveals the requisite band posters, a crumpled pack of smokes near an overflowing ashtray, an ominously ripped-in-half family photo, and a deck of tarot cards strewn across the floor, which in accordance with the Cinematic Tarot Cameo Act of 1910 of course HAS to have the Death Card prominently displayed. Cliched, sure, but still an okay opening with lots of subtext and possibilities. Not to metnion tits, ass, and bush.

"I hate you, Shower Head."

From there we cut to a rowdy cowboy bar out by the freeway, where gigantic shitkicker Billy Franklin (a gleefully assholic Don Stroud) is hanging out with his younger brother Johnny and some of their redneck compadres, shouting every line at top volume. They must not be far from the reservation, as within moments superannuated Native American Greyfeather (experienced character actor Henry Wilcoxon in his final film role) wanders in to have a beer. Billy immediately starts hassling the old man, casting aspersions upon all native peoples in surprisingly ugly terms. Just when things are about to get physical young Jason Longshadow struts in (could-be period romance novel cover-model Don Shanks, who six years later would take time out from his regular gigs as the Handsome Young Indian to portray Michael Meyers in Halloween 5), pulls a Bowie knife on the rednecks, and after a little Little Big Horn action escorts his old friend out into the parking lot while the rednecks lick their wounds and swear revenge.

As Jason's leaving, young Melissa is just coming in, all tarted up and looking a lot older than her almost 16 years. She makes a move on Jason, but the young warrior is having none of it, advising her to go home before piling the old man in his truck and hitting the road. Young Johnny sees what happens, and after some pick-up banter with more than the required amount of antagonistic ugliness between him and Melissa, convinces her to go for a ride with them, leaving goody-two-shoes Sheriff's son Hank Burke (Steve Antin, of The Goonies!) behind. They go parking (where else) on the Ancient Indian Burial Ground a few miles out of town, but when Melissa gets spooked before coming across, the blue-balled Johnny must drive her home.

"Whattaya mean, you don't know Willie Nelson? You look JUST LIKE HIM!"

At home they meet Melissa's old man, Professor John Morgan, played by a clearly slumming and none-too-happy-about-it Patrick Macnee. After delivering some murderously over-protective dialog meant to single him out as SUSPECT NUMBER ONE, he shoos the young stud away. Johnny runs out of gas (naturally), is stalked by a hand-held camera man, and eventually stabbed to death in a poorly shot but still rather bloody scene. Hey kids, looks like we got ourselves a slasher!

Or maybe not. After that one murder we jump into the family situation of widowed Sheriff Dan Burke (the always-working Bo Hopkins), his amateur sleuth daughter Marci (Dana Kimmell), and Hank, whom we've met. When good-boy Hank tells Dad about the ugliness last night, and then the call comes in that Johnny's body has been discovered, the Dan loads the kids in the car and off they go to the murder scene, where Marci assists in the investigation. I guess when you live in a tax-deprived rural frontier town, you keep the business in the family. However, Marci proves herself not exactly homicide department material when she theorizes that Johnny might have been stabbed to death by a BEAR. Check out a few more Encyclopedia Brown books, Marci, you're almost there.

It's Symbolic, Of Course

The movie really goes off the slasher rails here, turning into a would-be thriller/mystery as the director and script writer establish motives for just about everybody in town, including Professor Morgan's local-girl wife Joanna (Susan Strasberg, utilizing the Native-American folklore horror chops she gained in 1978's The Manitou). Another high schooler who was coming on to Melissa gets stabbed, she and the Burke kids become fast friends after some initial insult-swapping, and it all comes to a head at Melissa's sweet-sixteen party, to which the whole town is invited, just to make sure all the suspects are in the right place.

Like I say, there are a few things you might like about the movie, if you're feeling generous. Stroud is great as the gleefully bastardic Billy, needing only an audacious handlebar moustache to twist in order to reach Snidely Whiplashian status. His standout scene is the town hall meeting the mayor calls after the second murder, in which Stroud shows he could have been an excellent pro wrestling heel, getting on the mic to whip the townsfolk into an Injun-hatin' frenzy. And the lengths to which Sotos goes to get Don Shanks sweaty and shirtless, his long black hair trailing him sensuously in the breeze, are definitely good for a chuckle or two. Add some truly amazing 80s high-school mullets and one hilarious offer of drugs ("I might be able to score some HERB" [hard "h", accompanied by joint-smoking finger motions]), and there might be a smile to be had.

"I'll see you in the cage, Wahoo McDaniel! IN THE CAAAAAAAAGE!"

That said, like a geeky sophomore trying to get the hottest senior cheerleader in the school to make out with him after the prom, Sweet 16 misses far more often than it hits. While there is some interesting "burgeoning sexuality/burgeoning evil" subtext with Melissa's character, it's never really capitalized upon, since it's obvious that she could NOT have been the killer from kill #1. (Though her show-closing skinny-dipping scene with Hank, which is romanticized somewhat on the movie's poster, is not too bad.) And by piling on one red herring after another, Sotos attempts to generate tension but in the end just succeeds in generating apathy.

The acting is pretty bad across the board too. Macnee looks like he'd rather be ANYWHERE else most of the time, and I doubt he hung around for the wrap party once his check cleared. Marci and Hank play the whole thing like they're trying to solve a mystery on an episode of The Facts of Life, which is annoying but perhaps not surprising, since Dana Kimmell had actually guest-starred on FoL a year earlier. Hopkins is too aw-shucks for my taste, though his comic relief with a man-hungry clerk at the crime lab is periodically effective. And the less said about everyone else, the better.

"Please, Sheriff--don't treat me like a stereotype."

Even the revelation that the killer used some ancient Indian artifacts to commit the killings carries little weight, since the body count is pretty low--only two people dead before the big party, not counting Greyfeather, who is a victim of mob panic anyway. All in all, a movie that can't decide what it wants to be and thus ends up not being much of anything. Not enough sex to be sexy, not enough gore to be gory, for a sum total meh. 1.25 thumbs. Watch it if you have to--but why would you have to?

Teens and Drugs: The Ugly Truth


Tower Farm said...

Wow...this movie sounds completely bizarre...never seen it, but always loved the box cover. Poor Susan Strasberg -- her career nosedive must surely be up there with the best of 'em (Karen Black, Linda Blair, etc.).

Samuel Wilson said...

Henry Wilcoxson! I don't suppose that back in 1934 when uncle C.B. DeMille (or whatever their relation was) was loading him on the Nepotism Train to Stardom, he thought he'd end up here.

B-Movie Tony said...

On my site I wrote a review of "Hot Moves". Between that and Sweet 16 don't you think Jim Sotos has to be one of the worst directors. At least Ed Wood cared what he put on screen.

I have to agree about Strasberg's nosedive.

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