The Angel Collection (DVD)

The Angel Collection (DVD)

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Avenging Angel

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Angel III

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Angel

"High School Honor Student By Day. Hollywood Hooker By Night." With those 10 simple but sordidly evocative words of poster copy, the Angel series (which has just been released as a three-disc DVD set) achieved a level of notoriety and commercial success wildly disproportionate to its negligible artistic worth. Plenty of films and filmmakers have exploited the virgin/whore paradigm, but few have done it as crassly or profitably as Angel, which tells the story of an abandoned 15-year-old (Donna Wilkes) who earns tuition for an exclusive private high school by working as a prostitute on Hollywood Boulevard, where a necrophiliac Travis Bickle wannabe is killing prostitutes. Of course, if Wilkes were to settle for a public-school education, she could turn fewer tricks, but then again, sucking off creepy old men for money is a small price to pay for a top-notch education and new schoolbooks. Writer-director Robert Vincent O'Neill's film was reportedly inspired by his experiences researching prostitution for 1982's Vice Squad, but any resemblance between Angel and the real world is purely coincidental. Though reasonably believable as a baby-faced teen, the then-25-year-old Wilkes is utterly unconvincing as a prostitute: Whenever she's called upon to get angry and assert herself, she sounds less like a hardened streetwalker than like a valley girl who's just been informed that her favorite brand of frozen yogurt has been discontinued. A strange, unsatisfying mixture of shtick, sleaze, and sentimentality, Angel surrounds its blankly passive star with a menagerie of scenery-chewing hams eager to overcompensate for her dearth of personality. Wilkes' luckless little lady of the night has been abandoned by her parents, but her world is as crowded with parental figures as it is bursting with hookers and johns. For starters, there's Cliff Gorman's tough-loving paternal cop, as well as a guidance counselor who notices that Wilkes isn't making many friends, yet isn't savvy enough to determine that Wilkes is employed in the world's oldest profession. On the sleazier side of the street, there's also a lesbian landlady (Susie Tyrrell) with a big heart and a sailor's vocabulary, Rory Calhoun's grandfatherly urban cowpoke, and, best of all, The Producers' Dick Shawn as a Mae West-emulating transvestite prostitute with a mean left hook. Shawn treats the film like it's a vehicle for his comedic talents, and in a way it is: His character makes more of an impression in a supporting role than the series' heroine does in multiple films. Shawn's unexpectedly poignant performance is probably the reason Angel won the Audience Award at the 1984 San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, but the idea of Angel being submitted to film festivals is much funnier than anything any of its ostensibly comic characters has to say. Avenging Angel was released a year later, but takes place five years after the original. To account for the gap, the filmmakers replaced Wilkes with Private School's Betsy Russell, but as Jay Marks points out in his interesting if predictably fawning liner notes, Russell was actually five years younger than her predecessor. The second installment in the Angel saga finds Russell finishing college and preparing for law school. Her idyllic new life is shattered, however, when her beloved cop mentor (now played by Robert F. Lyons) is gunned down by mobsters. To solve the murder, Russell poses as a prostitute and meets up with much of the old gang, including Tyrrell and Calhoun. Shawn is absent and much-missed, and to help fill the vacuum, the filmmakers add an abandoned baby that brings the series even closer to sitcom territory. (Call it Angel & Pals.) A long way from delivering Malcolm X's eulogy, Ossie Davis pops up in a supporting role as a pragmatic cop, but unlike Shawn, he doesn't transcend either the film or his thankless role. Avenging Angel's climax—which involves a baby in grave peril, a spooky empty building, heroics from Calhoun, and some Weekend At Bernie's-style corpse-themed comedy—would qualify as self-parody if it weren't so heavy-handed and joylessly executed. The optimistically named Angel III: The Final Chapter (Angel 4, not included in this set, followed five years later) gives the title role over to the wonderfully named Mitzi Kapture. Having abandoned law school, she works as a New York photographer, but her old life comes back to haunt her when she rediscovers her long-lost mother. Hoping to trade in her oversized surrogate family for a real one, Kapture meets and confronts her mother, who suffers a grisly death shortly thereafter, but not before Kapture finds out about a sister who proves that prostitution runs in the family. The latter works as a high-class call girl for a swarthy hood connected to white-slavery kingpin Maud Adams, and to save the sister she never knew she had, Kapture must once again pose as a sex-industry worker, first as a porn star and then as a hooker. Embodying the series' queasy double blast of moralism and titillation, Angel III alternates between skuzzy grindhouse sleaze and shrill hectoring about the dangers and evils of prostitution. Though still not much of an actress, Kapture is almost by default the best Angel in the series, but otherwise, Angel III's biggest accomplishment is making white slavery, prostitution, pornography, and drug smuggling all look phenomenally boring. The three-disc Angel Collection doesn't offer much in the way of extras, but that's okay. This box set provides more than enough Angel for several lifetimes.

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