In the fourth of his nine collaborations with director J. Lee Thompson, legendary screen tough guy Charles Bronson stars as Los Angeles police detective Leo Kessler, whose years on the force have worn him down into cynicism.
He wants to bring criminals to justice to receive the punishment they deserve, but the system doesn’t always work to his satisfaction. He laments cases like the one involving a wife-killing pharmacist who was given a lax sentence due to an insanity plea, soon releasing him from custody to kill again… The stage is set for Kessler to potentially take steps that go beyond the law. And now he’s dealing with a case that just might be the one to drive him over the edge.
The case is the murder of his twenty-year-old daughter’s friend Betty.
Betty is killed during the film’s opening sequence by a young man named Warren Stacey. Warren is a very strange guy in his daily life, with zero social skills and an intensely creepy way of hitting on women. Betty was one of the women Warren has hit on and been rejected by. He became infatuated with her, calling her at her apartment, vowing to get back at people who have put him down. Betty was afraid of Warren, and rightfully so.
After making a spectacle of himself at a movie theatre to establish an alibi, Warren sneaks out, tracks down Betty, strips nude, and then murders her in a very slasher-esque manner. Betty is just the first of several victims Warren will claim over the course of the film, and he always gets naked before pulling out his knife and going in for the kill.
When Warren’s threatening interactions with Betty to come to light, it doesn’t take Kessler long to deduce that he’s the murderer. But there’s no evidence to back up Kessler’s strong belief in Warren’s guilt, and due to the rules of the law he can’t just beat a confession out of him, which frustrates Kessler to no end. This guy killed his daughter’s friend, he’s killing more people, and he might get away with it.
It gets worse for Kessler when the presence of his daughter Laurie at Betty’s funeral brings her to Warren’s attention. She becomes his new infatuation. Warren stalks her around the college she attends, makes obscene phone calls to her apartment, we know it’s only a matter of time before a nude Warren will be chasing Laurie down with a knife. Unless Kessler can stop him before that happens.
In the role of Laurie, Lisa Eilbacher does a great job making her character likeable and sympathetic, although she does have a tendency to be harsh on her father, who has been largely absent from her life due to his dedication to his job. Despite this fact, over the course of the movie she gradually falls for her father’s partner, Paul McAnn (Andrew Stevens). Her father hasn’t been there for her because of his work, and yet she falls for a guy who does the exact same thing. The choices of a twenty-year-old.
Hanging around with Laurie to protect her and set up a tap on her phone, the gun-toting and paranoid McAnn does have some fun moments as he tries to mingle with the college crowd.
With Warren closing in on his daughter, Kessler has to resort to desperate measures to bring him in: he plants evidence. This tactic nearly works, but ultimately falls apart and leads to Kessler being fired from the police force. If he’s going to take Warren off the streets himself, he’s going to have to go vigilante.
The film builds up to a climactic sequence in which a buck naked, knife-wielding Warren raids the apartment which Laurie shares with a group of fellow nursing students. For Warren’s attack on the apartment, writer William Roberts drew inspiration from a true crime that was committed by Richard Speck in the summer of 1966. Like the character in the film, Speck entered an apartment inhabited by nursing students, but while Warren gets his rampage done quickly, the real life murderer spent hours tormenting and systematically killing eight women one-by-one. His downfall came in the form of two fingerprints and the fact that a ninth woman had managed to hide from him under a bed during the attack and was able to identify him.
The way in which Speck’s arrest was handled was affected by that year’s Supreme Court case that made Miranda rights part of routine police procedure, so that may also have been an inspiration for Roberts’ story about a cop who feels criminals have too many rights.
You can rest assured that Leo Kessler will make it so Warren Stacey has no rights by the time the credits roll. Nor will he have a pulse.
10 to Midnight is a very effective little thriller, a mash-up of police procedural and slasher. Its slasher just happens to be au naturel when he’s doing his slashing, so when you watch it you should be prepared to see a whole lot of actor Gene Davis’s rear end.
Davis was not only in top shape for this movie so he could handle the nude scenes, he also does some fine work in playing his unbalanced character, making Warren Stacey a very unpleasant creep. The audience definitely roots for Warren to get what’s coming to him, no matter how Kessler has to go about doing it.
Even though he’s the star with his name above the title, I actually feel like Charles Bronson gets overshadowed in this movie. Gene Davis, Lisa Eilbacher, and Andrew Stevens all make a bigger impression for me here than Bronson does. He seems very low-key in the role of Kessler.
10 to Midnight isn’t a great movie but it’s very good at being what it is, a distracting time killer of a cop movie. It doesn’t aim high, but it delivers what it intended to.