Saturday, April 6, 2013

Pamela Hensley Brightens a Potentially Dim "Double Exposure"

Early 1980s slasher movies are not normally known for providing good parts for actresses over 30, much less two actresses over 30.  A rare exception to the case is the little-known Crown International release "Double Exposure" (1982) which featured Joanna Pettet and Pamela Hensley in the leading female roles.  Veteran actor Michael Callan stars as Adrian Wilde, a swinging bachelor and fashion photographer who lives in a fancy RV and suffers from horrible nightmares that he is murdering women.  He confides in his psychiatrist Dr. Curtis (Seymour Cassel) and his disabled stuntman brother B.J. (James Stacy) about these dreams as he pursues a romance with attractive young widow Mindy Jordache (Joanna Pettet).  Meanwhile, LAPD homicide detectives Sergeants Buckhold (David Young) and Fontain (Pamela Hensley) are investigating a series of murders of women across the Southland, all of whom turn out to be the same women Adrian has dreamed about murdering.

As Adrian begins to fear the worst about himself, and senses the police are closing in on him, he takes Mindy out on a camping trip near the beach in his RV.  While taking a walk in the canyons near the beach at night, Mindy is stabbed in the stomach by an unseen assailant.  Back at the RV, Adrian is knocked unconscious by his brother B.J., who has shown up out of nowhere.  Adrian awakens to find himself tied to the front bumper of his Mercedes only to learn that B.J., who still harbors resentment against their promiscuous mother, is the one who has been perpetrating the murders by patterning them after Adrian's dreams.  As B.J. is about to kill Adrian, a wounded Mindy shows up in the nick of time and stabs B.J. in the neck just as Fontain and Buckhold arrive on the scene.

A surprisingly ambitious entry in the early 1980s slasher genre, "Double Exposure" benefits from the fine performances of its veteran cast, who are mostly comprised of prolific TV performers from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.  Lead actor Michael Callan does a solid job as the tortured and charming Adrian, projecting the right balance of warmth and intensity to allow the audience to wonder whether he really is the killer until the last moment.  He is aided every step of the way by his leading ladies Joanna Pettet and Pamela Hensley, who both take a break from making episodic guest appearances on television by starring in this independently made slasher film.  Both Pettet and Hensley respond to their better-written-than-usual parts by delivering good performances that help to elevate this movie above others in the genre.

Joanna Pettet's Mindy is a sympathetic, believable character throughout the context of the story.  After meeting Adrian in an elevator, only to have him follow her to her car in the parking garage, Mindy gives in to his persistent attention by agreeing to a date that evening.  The two connect with each other right away and begin to fall in love.  However, Mindy starts feeling insecure about the relationship and wonders what Adrian is up to when he is out all night.  The remarkable thing about Mindy is that she comes across in the film as a real human being who is unaware of the danger she is in by virtue of falling in love with Adrian.  Mindy never becomes a fool for not knowing what is going on because the script takes great pains to demonstrate the extent to which Adrian has shielded Mindy from the darker aspects of his life.  Pettet and Michael Callan have genuine chemistry that brings credibility to Adrian and Mindy's romance.  Perhaps her most notable moment in the movie is her nude love scene with Callan.  Director William Byron Hillman stages the scene in a sensitive manner so that it comes across as an intimate moment involving two adults expressing their genuine regard for one another.  It never degenerates into something tasteless or exploitative.  Mindy also demonstrates a surprising sense of resolve at the end of the film when she arises out of nowhere and kills B.J. just as he is about to kill Adrian. We realize that her love for Adrian is so sincere that she is willing to kill in order to protect him.  As such, Mindy comes across as a unique and novel "final girl" in the slasher movie genre.

Pamela Hensley was a sophisticated brunette with wit and intelligence whose career suffered by virtue of the fact that she was born a decade too late to ever be hired by Howard Hawks.  As a result, Hensley built her career as a Unversal contract player in the 1970s and early 1980s, guest-starring on many Universal shows, appearing in countless Universal miniseries and TV movies, and had regular/recurring roles on the final season of 'Marcus Welby, M.D." (1975-76) as James Brolin's wife and, more memorably, on "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" (1979-80) as the delightfully villainous Princess Ardala.  When her Universal contract ended, Hensley started working for producer Aaron Spelling as the female lead on the series "Matt Houston" (1982-85) before marrying producer E. Duke Vincent, a Spelling associate, and retiring from acting.  Hensley always gave solid performances, whether it was at Universal or for Spelling, that elevated many of the light-weight television productions she appeared in.  But "Double Exposure" was unique in that it allowed her to play the sort of gutsy and gritty role that Hensley's earthy personality was naturally suited for.

In "Double Exposure," Hensley's Sergeant Fontain is a dedicated police officer determined to help capture the serial killer stalking women in Los Angeles.  We see Fontain throughout the movie on stakeouts,  meticulously investigating crime scenes, interrogating witnesses and suspects, and taking brow beatings from her sexist Chief of Detectives (Cleavon Little) who has no faith in Fontain because of her gender.  Unlike Angie Dickinson on "Police Woman," Fontain is a detective who we see doing real police work and is not assigned duties based purely on her looks or attractiveness.  Hensley brings credibility to Fontain with a direct, forthright and intelligent attitude that never degenerates into being overly "cute."  Fontain has wit and can hold her own against her colleagues and uncooperative witnesses, yet still has compassion and heart for the victims whose deaths she is investigating.  She's dedicated to solving the case to help ensure the streets of Los Angeles are safe from the killer and never portrays Fontain as someone who is determined to solve the case out of a sense of self-interest in proving her worth as a police detective.  She already knows what she brings to the table.

Hensley is particularly good in the opening scene when she learns that a male colleague disguised as a woman has been murdered by the serial killer.  Hensley fights hard to hold back the tears and then angrily hits her lap with her fists, yelling aloud in frustration "Damn you!  Why didn't you turn around?!"  In the hands of a lesser actor, it might have been a cheesy scene but Hensley makes it a touching and affecting moment.  If there is a drawback to the Fontain character, it's that she does not play as vital a role in the finale as we would have expected given the build up for her.  Nevertheless, this does not inordinately hurt the film since love interest Mindy ends up becoming the refreshing and unlikely person who dispatches the killer at the end.  Even though "Double Exposure" has its share of flaws, the fact that the script takes the time to provide the game cast surprisingly nuanced roles that they can sink their teeth into allows it to be a novel entry in a usually unambitious and imitative genre. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for pointing out this film, which sounds like a rare example of a slasher film with a thoughtful script with good actors and directors doing something new with a well worn genre.


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