SOMETIMES LOVING THE movies can be a lonely business. We all have favorite filmmakers whose names, when we mention them, inevitably lead to groans from our friends, at least until we find a fellow champion. I'm starting to hit a brick wall, however, on a particular favorite of mine. Am I really the only person looking forward to The Rage: Carrie 2? Isn't anybody else going to admit they're a Katt Shea fan?
Katt Shea is certainly not one of the great directors of our time: her movies can be clunky, her narratives are usually awkward, and some truly wince-worthy moments sneak into all of her pictures. Plus, she's no innovator: when a glass shatters to the floor, it does so in a slow-motion close-up; her lovers are always having torrid sex in the rain while smoky sax music plays. But within the realm of sexploitation films, she has a unique perspective--not just because she's a woman, but because she's created a unique gallery of hurt-but-strong characters who happen to be strippers and prostitutes. Big-haired, bare-midriffed, stiletto-heeled, and no-nonsense, they're some of the more interesting women in movies today, and part of the reason is because they get to have it their way, even in slasher movies, eschewing casual sex and panic-stricken shrieks of terror for sad, level-headed talks about abandoned children and working for a living in the sex trade.
STRIPPED TO KILL (1987)
Where else could Shea have started but with Roger Corman? I'm sure he told her she could add all the meaningful conversations she wanted, just as long as the audience sees enough tits. No problem on that score: Shea always admires the physicality of stripping, and since the movie hinges on an undercover cop (Kay Lenz) posing in a club, there's plenty of opportunity for bare breasts. The film's almost about breasts: along the way they get exposed, nervously covered up, applauded, hooted at, molded from clay, and even stabbed. More significant for future films is the casual camaraderie of the strippers, the self-deprecation they put themselves through and then overcome (their dressing-room door is marked "SLUTS"), and Greg Evigan, first in a long line of Shea's brave male heroes who show up at the end only to get shot by the bad guy.
DANCE OF THE DAMNED (1988)
Two suicidal loners--a stripper separated from her child and a vampire who wants to know what the sun feels like--meet and talk through the night. One of Shea's weaknesses is transitions; her movies can feel like one disjointed scene after another. That's probably why this chamber piece, with at most four sets, hangs together so well. Also, Shea's unique, satirical romanticism comes into full bloom: the vampire's as dangerous/sexy as the genre demands, but he's also a pretentious loser embarrassed by his porn collection. The stripper gets her own hang-ups too, including a touching but sad ode to Barbie.
STRIPPED TO KILL II (1989)
An in-name-only sequel. This time a different serial killer is stalking a whole different group of dancers. The sleazy customers are the same, though, opening a conversation with an understanding line, but inevitably leading to a clumsy come-on. Visually, this is one of Shea's most arresting films; since the stripteases in this film are explicitly (psychic?) hallucinations, she indulges her taste for surreal theatrics and straight-in-the-camera stares. Shea takes solo writing credit here, and since it fits right in with her other movies, it suggests how independent she was of her former writing-, producing-, and life-partner, Andy Ruben (which explains why, if you're looking up Shea in a reference book, you have to check "Ruben, Katt Shea" for all but her most recent films).
From the beginning, Shea's films are fascinated by the seductive menace of night life. Every passing car seems to be driven by someone trying to buy or sell something. Here's her ultimate state- ment on that score, a heartfelt but never naive story of an illiterate 16-year-old prostitute named Dawn (Christina Applegate, who's actually quite good), struggling against both a psycho-killer cop and, even more dangerous, a sweet and innocent kid who's in love with her. Streets is Shea's most successful action film--the cop's vicious stalking is handled with the suspenseful ease of a pro--and, due to Dawn's unapologetic refusal to toss aside all her hard-earned wisdom because some weekend runaway has a crush on her, it's her best movie to date.
POISON IVY (1992)
It's a legitimate criticism that Shea never really transcends her low budgets. You can always tell how quickly and cheaply these movies are made. Give her a decent amount of money and a good cast, though, and she comes out with something so dreamy and odd it's almost universally misunderstood. Of course, part of that is because of the film's sly manipulation of the audience. Despite the salacious promise of Drew Barrymore as Lolita, what you really get is a sad, constipated family, complete with a pseudo-rebellious poor little rich girl and the social outcast who gives them everything they can't admit they really want. When I told that to a friend, he laughed and said, "So it's really a gender-swapped version of Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema." Yes, but without the Euro-Marxist pretensions, and with a more melancholic sympathy for the heroine than Pasolini could imagine. The third-act melodramatics do stray over the top, but until then I'm dead serious when I call this one of the most interesting American films of the decade.
LAST EXIT TO EARTH (1996)
THE RAGE: CARRIE 2 (1999)
After Poison Ivy, it was a return to Corman for the thematically consistent but disappointingly unimaginative Last Exit to Earth, and now The Rage: Carrie 2, a sequel nobody (to my knowledge) was asking for. I've no doubt Shea will do a better job with the Carrie legacy than could ever be imagined, but not enough people will notice, being so put off by the surface appearance of another white-trash heroine. Then again, Shea's whole career is a warning against such quick judgments. What Sarah Gilbert's character says of Ivy sums up this whole article: "I never knew anyone who looked more like a slut, and here she is, my best friend."