Fringe With Benefits: 10 TO MIDNIGHT

Fans of the quintessential rugged, American tough guy actor Charles Bronson can currently find a slew of his movies available on Amazon Prime. Among these, there is perhaps no better recommendation for the horror crowd than 1983’s 10 to Midnight. It is one of several collaborations that Bronson had with director J. Lee Thompson, a filmmaker not unfamiliar with the horror-thriller category himself, having helmed such pictures as Cape Fear and Happy Birthday to Me. Together in 10 to Midnight, they crafted a quite intriguing tale that deliciously melds the crime film and slasher film, and made it one that is especially interesting to watch today.

Bronson is hard-nosed Los Angeles detective Leo Kessler, on the hunt for a killer preying on the city’s women. He thinks he’s finally found his man, Warren Stacy, while investigating the death of a young office worker, but the police can’t hold him. Things get personal when Kessler’s daughter gets involved and seems to be Stacy’s victim, leading Kessler to try unethical means to finally catch him.

The movie quite literally never hides who the killer is from the audience. Bronson opens the film with a quick scene, informing us that he’s after a killer, then we immediately go right to the killer himself. Warren, played to creepy perfection by Eugene M. Davis, is quite good with a switchblade and carries out his murders while stark naked. While there is a slight sleaziness to this aspect of the story, it serves the characterization of Stacy well, and brings that extra level of creepiness to the murder scenes. Showing the victim partially clothed or naked is showing their vulnerability, and makes you more scared for them. A naked killer, though, shows their boldness and fearlessness in their actions, and makes you more scared of them.

The attack scenes are very reminiscent of slasher films. A girl and her boyfriend having sex in the back of a van in the woods. A subsequent chase scene through the trees. The killer shown in a dark silhouette as he’s about to murder a woman in her kitchen. The killer shown in shadow behind a shower stall door. There is hardly any blood to be found in the movie, but horror fans will no doubt still appreciate the movie’s obvious slasher vibes in the way that it is shot. The music matches the frenetic action, mostly at the climax, with quick, loud notes. There are also smart choices to keep certain scenes perfectly silent as a way to build tension and put the audience in a false sense of security.  

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about watching 10 to Midnight, especially in the current climate in Hollywood, is that the film shows the killer for what he really is. On paper, Warren Stacy is everything that we should fear from this type of predator. He is entirely cold and without empathy for anyone but himself. His narcissism is evident in the way he talks to other people and in the way he takes care of his body – he has a large picture of himself in his karate uniform on the wall of his apartment. An early scene also shows him getting ready, seeming to admire himself in front of the mirror in his high-cut underwear as he blow-dries his hair and applies lotion to his face. He butchers his victims in response to the smallest slight, and is smart enough to establish an alibi for himself.

Yet because the movie gives almost equal screen time to the killer as it does to the cops, the audience gets to see who Warren really is behind that façade of the powerful, cold-blooded killer. He’s pathetic. His narcissism causes him to lack social skills, especially with women, who all seem to be immediately turned off by him the moment he opens his mouth. Though there is no sexual violence involved in Warren’s crimes, they are absolutely sexually motivated, and not just because he is naked while he commits them. Kessler pegs him right away when he says that anyone who could do this must be using his knife as his penis. Warren’s murders stem from his sexual frustration, as he targets those girls who – rightfully – reject him. Warren is a loner, who has to watch all the girls he likes go out with other men (boo hoo).

But the movie smartly never gives the audience a moment where they feel any kind of sympathy for him. It does everything it can to establish that Warren is just an impotent loser. The women are in turn never shown as haughty bitches for rejecting him, and they are also shown as smart for going with their gut instinct about him. The small interaction that Warren has with the women at the movie theater to establish his alibi is simply cocky and annoying, yet one girl distinctly labels him as “repulsive,” and protects her friend who is humoring him. Warren’s flashback to his rejection by his first victim (that we see), Betty Johnson, shows him basically assaulting her as he comes up behind her at work and unzips her dress. She throws coffee in his face, but seriously, who would ever blame her? Warren has nobody but himself to blame for his inability to connect with women, and he will find no sympathy here.

Of course, Warren is still a dangerous man. This is exactly the kind of thing that women fear from any man whom they reject. But, just like any sexual predator, the power and control that Warren feels he is regaining from these women by murdering them is immediately compromised when he is outed and known to other people. Kessler turns the tables on Warren when he starts to follow him around, giving him a taste of his own medicine. Warren thinks he’s won when Kessler admits to planting evidence on him, but it really only serves to speed up his decline because he is no longer able to hide and hold onto that power he craves.

The once-arrogant control freak sees his control fading fast. The office girls he works with, who already didn’t like him, are now more openly hostile to him. His attack on the nurses’ dormitory when going after Laurie is not nearly as controlled as his previous attack on a victim – he is frenzied and desperate. In Warren’s final confrontation with Kessler at the climax of the movie, he almost breaks down completely as he accuses Kessler of the very things he did to his own victims, trying and failing to play the victim himself. He is again naked in this scene, but instead of inspiring fear of his audaciousness, it only makes him look like the pitiful man he is.

Because I never want to see a great female character not get her due, I also have to give a shout-out here to Lisa Eilbacher as Laurie Kessler. She is absolutely believable as the daughter of a Charles Bronson character, and is just an all-around, awesome woman. Laurie establishes her no-nonsense attitude right away, and has all the confidence in the world, saying what she means and meaning what she says, an always admirable quality. She takes the reins in her pursuit of her father’s partner, McAnn, who often remarks on her lack of shyness, and also respects it. Laurie doesn’t even really show that much fear of Warren, despite knowing she is a target. Basically, this is the kind of female character that I love to see in movies.

10 to Midnight is one movie that I think will be a surprise for horror fans who may not have given it a chance yet. It has equal roots in the crime and slasher backgrounds and plays both of them out in an incredibly enjoyable way. At the same time, the exploration of the characters goes a bit beyond what can normally be seen in either of those types of films, making it far more compelling than one would expect. Come for the Bronson, stay for the naked, switchblade-wielding maniac, and get 10 to Midnight in your eyeballs today!