APRIL MOVIE THON DAY 12: Lady Beware (1987)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A.C. Nicholas, who has a sketchy background and hails from parts unknown in Western Pennsylvania, was once a drive-in theater projectionist and disk jockey, Currently, in addition to being a writer, editor, podcaster, and voice-over artist, he contributes to Drive-In Asylum. His first article, “Grindhouse Memories Across the U.S.A.,” was published in issue #23. He’s also written “I Was a Teenage Drive-in Projectionist” and “Emanuelle in Disney World and Other Weird Tales of a Trash Film Lover” for upcoming issues.

The explosion of the horror genre in the 80s gave us lots of slasher films and films loaded to the brim with gore. Every once and a while though, there was something different, something special, a small gem. Lady Beware (1987) sports a title that sounds like a Lifetime movie of the week and a visual aesthetic that sometimes looks good, but mostly looks like a TV movie. But it’s an endlessly fascinating film that straddles the line between art film and exploitation film. It’s not your typical woman-in-peril film. Director Karen Arthur with this, her passion project, is much too intelligent and sophisticated to make a simple young woman vs. stalker thriller. Instead, she gives us a smart, though flawed, film with a nice feminist slant that doesn’t beat you over the head with its gender politics, like so many current arthouse horror films.

Katya, played by a young Diane Lane, rides the bus from boondocks Pennsylvania to the big city–Pittsburgh, that is–to seek a career as a window dresser at Joseph Horne’s, one of Pittsburgh’s once-iconic department stores (the other was Kaufmann’s). She’s ambitious and aggressively convinces the store manager to hire her. Then she makes friends with co-workers, including dated 80s movie token gay guy and black woman, and designs some windows with lots of sexual content. (Arthur’s a good director, so you suspend your disbelief about these store windows that feature partially clad mannequins posed in “interesting” positions—and then there’s that use of aerosol-can whipped cream to top things off.) Soon, she’s attracted not only the attention of Cotter Smith, a Pittsburgh magazine reporter, but also a radiology technician from a building across the street, who has a family and is a closet stalker. He’s played by Michael Woods in a low-keyed, creepy performance.

Soon the expected stalking starts. Woods makes obscene phone calls, leaves messages, steals Lane’s mail, and even rappels down the side of her locked building in broad daylight to break into her apartment. (More suspension of disbelief on that scene.) Once inside, he does as many awful things as you can imagine from taking a bath in her tub, to writhing around naked on her bed, to using her toothbrush (Yuck!). This unhinges Lane to the point of a near nervous breakdown, but in the end. she finds her inner feminist strength, plays mind games with Woods, and eventually turns the tables on him. This leads to a memorable final shot, where the stalker symbolically becomes trapped in his own perverted fantasy. 

Unfortunately, the Scotti Brothers, successful record producers who had recently moved into movie production, took the final cut away from director Arthur and drastically reduced the film’s running time. Viveca Lindfors’ part as Lane’s mother was eliminated, and Smith’s ineffectual boyfriend was watered down even more. (I’m not sure either of those decisions was a bad thing; they strengthen Lane’s lone stand against her stalker.) Also, to make the movie more exploitable, the producers added repeated shots of a naked, nubile Lane, defeating the point of the film by objectifying its lead character. Arthur was unhappy and thought about taking her name off the film. She didn’t, and I’m glad she didn’t. Even in its bastardized form, it’s a film to be proud of. In addition to being a solid thriller with good ideas, it’s a beautiful travelogue of Pittsburgh in the late 80s. And those of us from the area who grew up during that era will enjoy spotting local actors in small parts, such as Don Brockett from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood; Bingo O’Malley, who was in just about everything filmed in the city from Dominick and Eugene to Creepshow, Two Evil Eyes and Bob Roberts; and even Ray Laine, the star of George Romero’s There’s Always Vanilla.

Lady Beware was clearly made on a low budget with an eye on home video. It didn’t have much theatrical play but became a staple of pay-cable in the late 80s. Then after a VHS release, it disappeared. It has never had an official DVD release in the U.S., and you can find a soft-looking rip of the VHS tape on the Internet Archive, where the poster noted that the film is in the public domain. I don’t know about that, but I do know that this film doesn’t deserve its obscurity. It’s striking in tone with an atypical handling of some fairly pat material. I liked it a lot. And I think you will too.

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