Monday, January 3, 2022

“Yeah, Cash Flagg. All right.” - Las Vegas Serial Killer (1986) - Film #220

Eventually, all classics must receive sequels, and Ray Dennis Steckler's The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher (1980) is no exception. The Las Vegas Serial Killer--which asks what would happen if the Hollywood Strangler did not die at the end of the previous film, instead going to prison and moving to Las Vegas--was released six years after the original classic and expanded upon the significant mythology of serial killers walking around desolate urban locales.

Of course, some of your universe's critics misunderstand the sequel as blatantly as they misunderstood the original. For example, reviewer jamestkelly-93266 writes, "It maybe the worst thing I have ever watched."  Reviewer Sandcooler writes, "'Las Vegas Serial Killer' is the cinematic equivalent of elevator music. You barely notice its presence, but at the same time it's intensely irritating." And reviewer Woodyanders describes the film as "a meandering narrative that unfolds at a sluggish pace, dreadful post-sync sound, ineptly staged murder set pieces."

Read on for the truth about Ray Dennis Steckler's Las Vegas Serial Killer...

The film opens with a superimposed title: “Las Vegas, 6 years ago.” The flashback is a series of stranglings from The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher (1980). The film then cuts to a shot of a bright motel in the Nevada desert with another superimposed title: “Outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, Today.” A vintage radio in a motel room announces that “WQXQ has just learned that the Nevada Parole Board has approved the release of self-proclaimed serial killer Jonathan Klick from the state prison in Jean.” It turns out that Mr. Strangler did not die at the end of The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher; in fact, he went to Las Vegas, killed one woman, and was imprisoned for six years (paroled from his life sentence) at the Nevada State Penitentiary.

Two men named Clarence and Jack are staying at the little desert motel. After the radio explains the backstory, Clarence tells his friend, “Let’s go to Vegas, Jack.”

The film cuts to glamorous shots of Las Vegas hotels, where Wayne Newton headlines at Bally’s (recently renamed from the MGM Grand). Then it cuts to the penitentiary, where Mr. Strangler walks across train tracks while the radio report plays again on the soundtrack to remind us of the identity of the dangerous man we are watching.

The film then shows more glamorous shots of Las Vegas as Clarence and Jack walk past several hotels, nearly running into Mr. Strangler, who sits down at a bar to watch a burlesque show. He immediately sits down on a metal lawn chair at a table with a checkered tablecloth in front of a fireplace in a room that appears to be at least two states away from the burlesque show, though the filmmakers cut frequently to the stripper.

In an effective bit of face acting, Mr. Strangler communicates to the audience that his murderous impulses are returning, inspired by the stripper’s glitter-covered body and perhaps by the stereotypical stripping music.

Elsewhere, Jack and Clarence have continued walking past hotels, commenting in voiceover about the legs of the women they see. Ray Dennis Steckler shows his mastery of cinema verite in this sequence, as stolen shots of real crowds are enhanced with post-dubbed dialogue. The realism extends to a nocturnal pool party in somebody’s backyard populated with men in casual outfits and women in bikinis.

After several minutes of pool party banter, Mr. Strangler appears at the edge of the yard and abducts one of the bikini-clad women, repeating his ironic trick of strangling her with the strings of her bikini top—this time intercut with various partygoers jumping off a diving board.

Eventually, in a bizarrely artistic sequence, the partygoers become aware of a topless corpse lying in the backyard.

The film cuts to the next day, when Las Vegas is holding its Helldorado Days parade, which features a stagecoach and a group of Shriners driving motorbikes, and not much else. This footage has nothing to do with the film or its characters, but it cements the film as a realistic depiction of Las Vegas in the mid-eighties.

In the next sequence, Mr. Strangler lies on a motel bed reading a newspaper and listening to a radio. In a metatextual twist, the radio news reports, “The highly publicized birthday party for Las Vegas film star Cash Flagg came to an abrupt halt late last night when celebrants discovered the body of a young woman in the backyard of Flagg’s home.” (Cash Flagg, of course, is the name under which director Ray Dennis Steckler acts.)

Later, the characters of Jack and Clarence are revealed when they mug a woman, stealing her purse, and then briefly try to pick up two college students walking through a motel parking lot. 

In an effort to further deepen the film’s sense of place, the filmmakers cut to an event where people mill about in front of World War II planes siting on runways, an event sponsored by something called the Confederate Air Force. Jack and Clarence drive to the air show so they can go through the woman’s bag, which contains nothing of interest. They then wander around the WWII planes, saying things like, “Look at those props” and “Look at those guns” (not to mention more racist quips).

The film then cuts to Mr. Strangler walking around Caesar’s Palace while, for the second time, the soundtrack replays the radio report about Cash Flagg’s birthday party. Again, the point is to show how dangerous Mr. Strangler is—a point further reinforced when he goes to the famous Vegas gourmet restaurant Pizza N Pizza to ask for a job.

After several more shots of Caesar’s Palace scored with triumphant music, we again follow Jack and Clarence as they comment on the appearance of various women (women who clearly have no idea they are being filmed—the filmmakers are effectively making the audience complicit with Jack and Clarence’s voyeurism). After this, Mr. Strangler returns to his lawn chair in the room with the fireplace to watch a woman named Kat Carson dancing in a blue bathing suit. Of course, Ms. Carson’s desirable appearance triggers Mr. Strangler’s impulses, so he finds a prostitute on the street and strangles her in a parking lot.

The next day, in one of the film’s truly disturbing sequences, Jack and Clarence ogle a female jogger running through a park as she returns to her car. Their passions inflamed by her appearance, they run to assault her as the soundtrack blares the instrumental song Hit and Run, commonly heard in cartoons of the twentieth century. Fortunately for all involved, Jack and Clarence only steal the woman’s purse rather than attempt rape, and then they run back to their ridiculous orange car and get away scot-free.

Ironically, Jack and Clarence almost cross paths with Mr. Strangler again as they celebrate their recent string of purse snatches by eating at Pizza N Pizza. They also see a poster for Ray Dennis Steckler’s The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964), prompting pone of them to mutter, “Yeah, Cash Flagg. All right.” It also seems to prompt a radio report describing Mr. Strangler’s latest victim, though the radio report is not diegetic as we hear music continue on the radio in Pizza N Pizza.

Later, Mr. Strangler takes a pizza to his pickup truck for a delivery, but the sight of one attractive woman in shorts inflames his passions yet again and he can no longer control himself when he arrives at a residence to deliver pizza, only to find a tall woman in a bikini willing to disrobe in front of him.

This almost leads to a repeat of the jacuzzi strangulation scene in The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher (1985), but he is interrupted by a couple of swingers entering the woman’s backyard. Mr. Strangler drives away, frustrated.

Later, Jack and Clarence snatch another purse from an attractive woman, this time “upping their game” by throwing the woman in the trunk of her car, knocking out her business-suited lover, and stealing a large amount of money. Again somewhat fortunately, instead of stealing the car with the woman locked inside, they simply run away—however, in what can only be an incredibly strange coincidence, Mr. Strangler comes across the car and hears the woman struggling inside the trunk. Of course, Mr. Strangler opens the trunk, prompting the woman to say, “Thank goodness. I could have died in here.” Then he stranglers her.

On the plus side, he too decides not to steal the car.

The film cuts to Mr. Strangler listening to the radio describing Helldorado Days, and then cuts to the Helldorado Days rodeo, an event attended by Jack and Clarence, both of them in a rare non-misogynistic mood. The rodeo footage lasts for ten or fifteen minutes and features a brief appearance by Cash Flagg on the rodeo field.

The film then intercuts shots of Jack and Clarence driving through suburban Vegas with shots of a model shoot in what can only be described as an ugly backyard.

The shoot is interrupted by Mr. Strangler, who waits for a model to change clothes and then strangles her inside the suburban house while the photographer (who entices a model to show more of her backside by saying the immortal phrase “butt time”) continues shooting models outside. When another model is sent inside to look for the first model, Mr. Strangler succumbs to his sinister urges again, strangling her. Fortunately for the rest of the models, the strangler only gets two women before he is discovered, though in the confusion, Mr. Strangler manages to steal one of the photographer’s cameras, which further enhances his dangerous urges as he begins taking candid photos of the Vegas scenery, which is rife with scantily clad women (and one male, balding, middle-aged jogger).

Meanwhile, in a somewhat unexpected scene, Jack and Clarence mug a man carrying a small knapsack, but they run away when the man fights back somewhat tepidly. Clearly, Jack and Clarence are only competent at mugging women who do not fight back.

Mr. Strangler turns back to the habits he formed in Hollywood, hiring prostitutes to model for his camera, though in one scene he inexplicably has a non-American accent. As soon as his model takes off her sweater, he strangles her viciously. 

After more repetitive scenes of people walking around Vegas that clearly demonstrate Ray Dennis Steckler’s unique cinematic style, Mr. Strangler kills a prostitute in plain sight on the street, saying, “Die, garbage” as he strangles her. The next day, he manages to find Kat Carson, the stripper he watched earlier in the room with the fireplace. He attacks her in her apartment on a couch right next to a stuffed Papa Smurf doll, and he repeats his catchphrase “Die, garbage!”

After killing her, the strangler returns to his room. The film cuts back to Jack and Clarence wandering through the Vegas morning and pistol-whipping a man with a suitcase.

In the film’s shocking climax, Jack and Clarence run with the stolen briefcase, slam into Mr. Strangler, and discharge a revolver they have been hiding. The strangler dies unceremoniously on the sidewalk as Jack and Clarence toss the gun into a dumpster and run away with the briefcase. Two young boys find the revolver in the dumpster, pick it up, and grin at each other, implying they will become the next Jack and Clarence terrorizing Las Vegas.

Las Vegas Serial Killer might prove quite exciting for those who thought The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher was too plot-driven, as the Las Vegas-set film does away with the strangler's quest for love and the slasher's walks along the beach. Instead, the sequel includes even more cinema verite footage of Las Vegas sometime in the early to mid 1980s, when the town was becoming less mobster-oriented and more corporate and family-oriented. As such, this film is as valuable a historical document as the original film, which documented Los Angeles in the late 1970s. Where else can one see hotel marquees boasting stars as celebrated as Byron Allen, Les Brown, Bill Medley, Fats Domino, and The Four Tops?

Unfortunately, it is difficult to argue that the film's narrative is anything other than misogynist. In every depiction of a crime, whether it be purse-snatching, strangulation, or trunk-kidnapping, the impetus for the wrongdoing is a man seeing an attractive woman's body. The very sight of a woman, the film seems to say, inspires violence and evil. Wasn't there something other than misogyny on which a film set in Las Vegas in the early to mid 1980s could focus?

Well, no. Probably not.