[review by JA Kerswell]
Rather than the other way around, SHE’S DRESSED TO KILL came out a good half year before Brian De Palma’s similarly titled big screen thriller. Whilst De Palma’s film had its own eccentricities, it didn’t have fashion models being killed with cyanide laced lipgloss and nerve agent infused hairspray! Not to mention a kung-fu final girl, deliciously bitchy dialogue and a killer whose motive monologue goes on for so long he stops for a cigarette break halfway through. This made-for-TV movie really has to be seen to be believed. Whilst it only really briefly flirts with the burgeoning slasher genre - in reality it owes more to Agatha Christie’s 10 LITTLE INDIANS and the small-screen women-in-peril nail-biters from Brian Clemens - it just well might be the campiest thriller I’ve ever seen …
Mixing fashion models and murder was something that the Italians had been doing for years. Mario Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964) set the template. Which is perhaps why SHE’S DRESSED TO KILL has sometimes been referred to as a North American giallo. Whilst it’s certainly not afraid to indulge in the pulpy excesses of the wildest gialli, it seems more than anything a near parody of US TV thrillers of the 1970s. Perhaps the most remarkable thing of all is that everyone manages to keep a straight face throughout.
Alix Goldman (Connie Sellecca) is a beautiful but low energy wannabe model who is flunking her trial photoshoot with fashion photographer Alan Lenz (John Rubinstein). That is until she inexplicably busts some kung-fu moves and they end up tangled in an embrace on the studio floor. Alix has been plucked from obscurity by Irene - “Toughest agent the business” - Barton (Jessica Walter), who is still unsure she has what it takes to be a top model. Regine Danton (Elenanor Parker), an old client of Barton, is a one time great designer who wants to make a comeback and persuades her to gather her best models for a fashion show at her remote clifftop mansion. Alix’s lucky break comes after another model drops dead after receiving a poisoned lipgloss in the post and she steps in to replace her. But not before Alan takes some snaps of the body. He reasons: “Nobody’s ever done a dead model before have they?”
Regine’s mansion can only be reached via a cablecar, so buyers, critics, models and associated hangers on take it to get to the show. This gives ageing model Camille (Joanna Cassidy) ample time to dish the dirt to Alix about the motley crew. This includes the bitchy fashion critic Victor De Salle (Clive Revill) - who remarks behind her back: “Her face looks like she’s stepped on a land mine!” And fellow model Kate (Cathie Shiriff), who Camille warns Alix is an “alleged full-time skirt chaser”. Not only is Kate portrayed as a ‘predatory lesbian’ (were any other portrayals of lesbianism allowed in the 1970s?) she's also a ‘big game hunter’ and parades around the orphaned cubs of the leopards she’s killed. Those at Regine’s place already are no less colourful and include Rudy (Jonathan Banks, who modern audiences will recognise from BREAKING BAD and BETTER CALL SAUL) the creepy handyman with the shady past, who - in true inexplicable 1970s fashion - goes from would-be rapist in one scene to good Samaritan in another. Plus Tony (Peter Horton), an army deserter turned fashion designer who Regine is blackmailing and passing off his designs as her own. And then there’s Regine herself. Eleanor Parker - the acting veteran probably best known for her role in THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965) - has a blast as the permanently sozzled and archly dramatic fashion designer who slurs: “Welcome to the renaissance of … elegance!” “She’s as drunk as a skunk!” quips DeSalle.
During the fashion show - where unless I hallucinated it I am sure I heard the line: “Regine’s newest colour … turnip!” - one of the models is found dead backstage after succumbing to the nerve agent infused hairspray. Regine is horrified, but more at the possibility it will derail things: “She’s not going to spoil my show!” she hisses without one shred of empathy. Despite the initial coverup, the show is a commercial disaster and most attendees exit via the cablecar leaving a dozen, or so, at the remote mansion. To make matters worse, news starts to filter through about a lunatic whohas just escaped from the local asylum. With the cablecar mysteriously out of action and the phone lines dead, the models start dying one-by-one …
<SPOILERS> (skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know the identity of the killer). The local Sheriff (Jim McMullan) scales the mountainside after saying he has been alerted by a model who abseiled (!) to the bottom. However, it turns out that he is actually Irene Barton’s ex-husband who is hellbent on revenge after losing his part of the business. The reason I mention this is because the faux Sheriff character sports perhaps the fakest looking false nose since that amateur production of CYRANO DE BERGERAC I once saw!<END SPOILERS>
If you are in the right mood for it, SHE’S DRESSED TO KILL is a campy delight. The cast seem to be enjoying themselves immensely and that translates to the screen. However, the film has its faults. There are so many characters that it does become a little muddled in places and it really would have benefitted from losing 10-15 minutes of running time. The slasher aspects are there but are minimal (final chase scene; a POV attack where the the victim says “It’s you!”; and a scene where the victims’ bodies are discovered arranged together). Subsequent VHS releases understandably overly emphasised the film’s slasher pedigree in their cover artworks too hook renters.
SHE’S DRESSED TO KILL was filmed in and around Palm Springs and was aired as the NBC Monday movie-of-the-week on the 10 December 1979. The Pensacola News review noted its roots in Agatha Christie, but bemoaned: “Without the sense of style and feel for suspense possessed by the late Dame Christie.” The Morning Call gave a 2 star review: “Slick nonsense for those wishing to turn off their minds and just wallow in the glossy world of high fashion and contrived murder yarns.” Curiously, NBC renamed the film as SOMEONE’S KILLING WORLD’S GREATEST MODELS and it was once again shown as their Monday Movie of the Week in June 1983. According to Amanda Reyes’ TV movie Bible Are You in the House Alone?: A TV movie Compendium 1964-1999, it worked as the film rated sixth for the week it was released.
The fashion in SHE’S DRESSED TO KILL was actually designed by William Travilla, who is perhaps most famous for designing costumes for Marilyn Monroe in eight of her films. Travilla quipped to the LA Times: “I hope I get the collection back without blood on it.” He also said of Eleanor Parker’s character: “[she] … is a different kind of person to me. She’s bitchy, drinks too much and is not a likeable person. I’m likeable.”
Veteran actress Corinne Calvet - who was one-time dubbed in the press “France’s Love Goddess” - plays Regine’s frumpy assistant. In an interview with Texan paper the Victoria Advocate she talks about the film briefly and says she was then currently “… studying with a guru who works with dream experiences.” Jessica Walter, of course, will be best remembered to classic thriller fans as Clint Eastwood’s unhinged love interest in PLAY MISTY FOR ME (1971). Walter, also appeared with Parker in the excellent TV-movie proto-slasher HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (1972). Director Gus Trikonis - who is the ex-husband of actress Goldie Hawn - was no stranger to horror and exploitation and already had the likes of THE STUDENT BODY (1976) and THE EVIL (1978) under his belt. The films over-the-top script was the work of George Lefferts - who also wrote THE NIGHT THEY TOOK MISS BEAUTIFUL (1977) (which has a fantastic sounding synopsis: “Criminals hijack an airplane that not only carries a dangerous organism that is to be used in bacterial warfare, but also five beauty contest finalists.”).
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female: 6 / male: 2
2) Female found dead (poisoned by nerve gas in hairspray)
3) Female found with broken neck
4) Female suffocated in plastic clothes bag
5) Female found dead
6) Male found dead
7) Female found dead
8) Male falls to his death