I’ve got a fond memory of piling into a packed car full of teenage friends and heading off all wide eyed and enthusiastic to see ANGEL at the local theater opening night in 1984. I’m sure teenagers still pack into cars on Friday nights and hit their neighborhood movie houses but certainly gone are the days in which they can witness, on the big screen, a fresh slice of exploitation concerning a peer who is a high school honor student by day and a Hollywood hooker by night.
Good Lordy, our hero Angel was meant to be all of fifteen! That certainly wouldn’t fly these days. Let me vouch for the eighties and state that the time period was not so much excessively permissive as it was chronically oblivious. As wrong-headed, ill advised and downright sleazy as ANGEL may come off as at first glance, it’s got its heart in the right place and I’ve always found it more inspirational than provocative. Yep, I said inspirational. As an awkward, sexually confused teenager, ANGEL had a lot more interesting things to say to me than any slobbering PORKY’S flick or conformity-courting JOHN HUGHES offering.
Molly “Angel” Stewart (Kinder-fave DONNA WILKES of SCHIZOID, BLOOD SONG, GROTESQUE, JAWS 2 and 14 out of 38 episodes of HELLO LARRY fame) is a bright, kind-hearted kid who lives in shame. Her deadbeat dad ditched her at a young age and not long after her abhorrent mother abandoned her for greener pastures and a new beau. With the foundation of her identity built on assumed inadequacy and rejection, Molly commits herself to keeping up the appearance that she is normal and cared for in a sterile dollhouse apartment. Her days are spent working hard and being harassed at school and her nights are spent working hard and being harassed on the street where she prostitutes herself in order to make ends meet and maintain some semblance of control. She’s a closet hooker and she knows that if she’s ever found out, she’ll be scorned and ruined. Poor Angel, it seems, is all alone and openly admits to never knowing the feeling of being truly loved…
Hold up, that’s not entirely true. Throughout the course of writer/director ROBERT VINCENT O’NEILL’s film we come to find that Angel is indeed loved and by many. Her birth family may be cold-hearted, self-centered shits but the family she chooses and assembles herself is impeccable, endearing and all kinds of awesome. And I think this is what makes ANGEL the movie so progressive, forward thinking and an unheralded touchstone in queer cinema (not because of any overt sexuality but because of the way it honors diversity and celebrates and defends deviation from the mainstream). What a valuable lesson to outsider youth, that there’s a world outside the window of the creepy dollhouse room of emotional neglect they’ve been dumped in. Molly’s not so different than many kids who take to the streets after their parents renounce them and her journey is about overcoming their dismissal and finding a support group of her own…
And by the way, what kind of nutcase wouldn’t be on cloud nine with the two pictured above as surrogate guardians? Although we never meet Molly/Angel’s real parents, I think it’s safe to say the upgrade of upgrades has occurred. No stagnant familial gender roles collecting dust here, everyone is allowed to be their true, ever fluid selves. I wouldn’t cross DICK SHAWN’s cross dressing Mae unless I was looking to get clobbered and the always outstanding SUSAN TYRELL’s tough as nails Solly Mosler doubles as the clan’s resident sensitive artist (If I had to vote for what would be this flick’s greatest misstep it would be that we are shown Molly/Angel preferring a stock figure drawing over one of Solly’s beautiful paintings. It’s a fun enough gag- it just doesn’t jibe with anything else we learn about these dear people). Sure, these folks engage in some biting banter at times but spoiler alert: there’s no doubt they genuinely care about each other’s well being. In any case, SHAWN and TYRRELL together on screen are pure gold. If I had anything resembling arms I’d get a tattoo of he on one and she on the other.
Did I mention that Angel has bigger problems than hooking and homework? Yes, there’s a killer on the loose! And what a killer! He’s actually listed in the credits as simply, “The Killer” and he’s pretty much the negative side of Molly’s psyche personified. Like our beloved heroine, the killer has an estranged relationship with his mother. We know this by the way he sucks the yolk out of a hole in an egg while staring at a photo of her. Rather than embracing difference and exploring eccentricity though, the killer is one of those gross eighties, slick & slimy well-built puritans who, like an OCD Nazi, wants to rid the world of anyone he perceives as imperfect or unclean. It’s worth noting that like many a deranged sociopath before and after him, the killer’s go-to camouflage for hiding his hateful ways is masquerading as a devoutly religious person (in this case a hare Krishna. Not for nothing, supposed sinner Angel is the one who secretly donates her extra earnings to those in need).
Can Molly/Angel and a rag-tag team of allies which include the aforementioned stalwarts Mae and Solly, a not to be discounted oldster cowboy with plenty of fight left in him named Kit (the legendary RORY CALHOUN) and two of the rarest of beasts; a principled cop (CLIFF GORMAN) and a concerned guidance counselor (ELAINE GRIFTOS), both oddly preoccupied with doing the jobs, defeat once and for all, Judgy McJudgster, a.k.a. “The Killer”? Yes! Because Angel is the best!
Yeah, yeah, I know she’s a prostitute and that’s hardly the type of lifestyle one should want to emulate but don’t worry she’ll leave the biz behind as soon as she dispels the darkness and integrates her two personas. Besides, being a hooker is still ten times more dignified and self-empowering than whatever the hell happened to ALLY SHEEDY’s character at the end of THE BREAKFAST CLUB.
Nope, ANGEL is not a perfect movie, the editing is weird and it almost seems like a couple scenes are missing but I think we all know by now that perfection is for egg sucking sickos and what are a few flaws anyway when a movie contains characters that are this memorably vibrant and so highly lovable? Let it be known, thirty plus years and counting, any friend of Angel’s is a friend of mine.
NOTE: In case anybody missed the FUNHOUSE today, I made this ANGEL puzzle. Can you spot the ten differences?