Friday, October 31, 2014


ANOTHER LOW BUDGET TRINKET FROM DIRECTOR FRED OLEN RAY: After Midnight boasts a few fun moments...
By Don Stradley

Just knowing that establishments like The Candy Cat still exist was enough to make After Midnight a fun experience. The Candy Cat is the sort of place I used to call a "daylight strip club," because men of my dad's generation would visit them on their lunch hour, sneak in a beer and a glimpse of female flesh before returning to their job. I vaguely recall trying to sneak into one when I was underage. I was there for only a few minutes before I was asked to leave, but I was there long enough to soak up the atmosphere. There were a couple of guys inside, and tanned dancer going through the motions on a tiny stage. I couldn't tell who was more bored, the dancer or the two guys. I also remember standing outside one of those places in Boston's old Combat Zone on a rainy Thursday night, because a buddy of mine was convinced a local dancer had a thing for him. He was wrong.

I don't know what happened to those places. Modern strip clubs seem like theme parks, and the performers leap around like characters in Cirque du Soleil. It's hard to imagine that at one time we schlubs in the audience could actually look the dancers in the eye and believe they were looking back. Sometimes you learned their names. The Candy Cat has the same vibe -- a juke box, a small stage, a few pool tables, and two or three guys at ringside. It's a real place, located in Chatsworth Ca., although I wouldn't have been surprised if director Fred Olen Ray built the place in his backyard. 

Ray is one of the oddball gems of American cinema.  He's been directing movies since the 1970s, and has over 130 features to his credit, including such gloriously dumb titles as Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and Bikini Frankenstein.   I met him once, very briefly, at a movie memorabilia show.  He seemed to be a nice guy, a fast talker, interested in collecting autographs and other ephemera.  I think it was shortly this convention that he switched from horror movies to late night cable porn. For a while Ray was a professional wrestler named "Fabulous" Freddie Valentine. He's worthy of a documentary, if there isn't one already.

After Midnight is one of Ray's lighter offerings, and I'm surprised Ray didn't call it The Strip Show Murders. It begins with an exotic dancer (Jeneta St. Clair) being shot to death in her car after a night of performing. Her sister (Catherine Annette) goes undercover and begins working at the Candy Cat to learn what happened.  There are many more murders, lots of stripping, and Annette's character is haunted by visions of St. Clair's ghost.  Ray throws in a few subplots too many, but this is part of his exuberance.  You either go with it or you don't. 

The movie has its flaws --  Annette gets hired as a stripper without so much as an audition, bullets tear through people without much blood (why so squeamish, Fred?) and most the dialog is nothing more than strippers yelling at each other, "I ought to kill you, bitch!" It reminded me of old 1960s exploitation flicks, which were often shot in strip joints, allowing directors to pad out their flimsy scripts with endless footage of the dancers. Ray has obviously seen a lot of those flicks, because we get at least five entire strip numbers.

But After Midnight does have a fresh feel to it, and at a feisty 86 minutes it never drags.  The cast even includes a pair of 1980s warhorses, Tawny Kitaen and Richard Grieco. Grieco seems a bit out of his element as a psychiatrist, but Kitaen's presence is still welcome in any movie.  It's Annette, though, who makes the movie click.   I like the way she finds her inner stripper, and she handles a gun like a pro. 

You could give Fred Olen Ray the budget of a typical Marvel Comics movie and he would probably make 30 movies.  He'd make them about dinosaurs and strippers and invisible dogs and at least half of them would have "bikini" in the title.  Some of them would be entertaining.  Most would be uneven. All of them would be the work of a man who has carved a unique niche for himself, partly because his artistic vision is vast enough to include places like the Candy Cat.

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