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“Girls Swinging Around on a Pole”: Katt Shea’s Stripped to Kill

I can’t be certain that Katt Shea’s sexploitation flick Stripped to Kill (1987) holds the record for most gratuitous butt shots, but it features so many of them in the first five minutes alone that I’m confident in declaring it at least a contender for the crown.

The story is almost elegant in its simplicity: Hot police detective Kay Lenz goes undercover as a hot stripper to find a serial killer who’s offing strippers. That’s it, that’s all you need to know. The rest is gravy.

That gravy is mighty tasty, though. Not only does the film costar Mr. Roper himself, Norman Fell, but also one of the dads from My Two Dads, Greg Evigan. Extra gravy: both Fell and Evigan are delightful here. As the strip club owner, Fell delivers a performance that’s part ornery boss, part father figure, and all great.

Evigan, as Lenz’s partner, is a revelation, though. Scruffy, earringed, and charming as all hell. The performance is world’s away from what I remember of him in My Two Dads or other 1980s TV, but it retains that certain je ne sais quoi you associate with a Greg Evigan performance—yes, I just used “je ne sais quoi ” and “Greg Evigan” in the same sentence. Basically, he’s like a softer, gentler, less scary Mickey Rourke in this film.

Writer-director Katt Shea, and co-writer and then-husband Andy Ruben, were just warming up with this ’80s trash masterpiece. Within a few years, they would unleash one of the better early ’90s erotic thrillers, Poison Ivy. You remember that one, where Drew Barrymore and Tom Skerritt make the beast with two backs in a forest. I’d rank it right up there with Single White Female as exemplars of mainstream early ’90s trash cinema—and I use the word “trash” lovingly.

Years before she gave us the mini-skirted, Lolita-esque temptress Drew Barrymore in Poison Ivy, though, Shea brought pole dancing to your local cineplex with Stripped to Kill. In an interview, she noted,

Before I did Stripped to Kill you had never seen a girl dancing on a pole, no one had ever seen that in a movie, to my knowledge. Girls swinging around on a pole—that had not been done yet. So I think that was spectacular; it was crazy, it was wild. This is how it happened. I went to a strip club for the first time in my life and I saw a girl swinging around on a pole and I thought, ‘Oh my god this has got to be in a movie!’ I mean, nobody knows this goes on except a bunch of guys with dollar bills, so it just had to be exploited, I guess. I thought they were very artistic and I just loved the girls, they were real artists and they were just using this particular venue to explore their art.

Shea’s appreciation for the artistry of pole dancing is evident throughout the film. She never rushes these scenes, instead setting the camera on the dancers and simply allowing them to shine. I’m assuming several of the actresses were or had been dancers previously, because they’re uniformly poised and confident with pole work. Or, maybe that’s just excellent acting.

Shea certainly doesn’t skimp on the dancing, especially over the first half of the film. There are so many stripping scenes that I lost count, but it has to be in the double digits, which seems appropriate for a film executive produced by Roger Corman and with “stripped” in the title. In a way, the movie stands as a fairly progressive look at the world of professional stripping. It makes us care for the women doing the work, and portrays them as people who might not fit in elsewhere but, together, have created their own sort of family. At times, it’s a humanizing portrait of women traditionally portrayed as nothing more than sex objects.

Stripped to Kill also features a subtly endearing lead performance by Lenz. She has an easy chemistry with Evigan, playfully bantering with him in a way that feels authentic, and lived in. She also conveys a believable hesitancy, and even fear, of exposure during her dance scenes. The character isn’t a professional stripper, remember; she’s a cop. So it’s entirely natural for her reluctance and anxiety to get in the way of her art. Yet it’s that vulnerability that makes her dance scenes work. When she struggles to express herself through dance, it feels real.

The film is certainly not without fault, of course. The slasher/serial killer elements could be stronger, and the climax, which I won’t spoil here, is madcap lunacy, just completely over the top, to say the least. For the most part, though, it’s a cut above similar movies, and a excellent example of the sort of seedy, gritty sex and death thrillers that exploitation filmmakers turned out with aplomb back in the day. I would not hesitate to recommend Stripped to Kill to any lover of trash cinema. You might come for the stripping, but you’ll stick around for Katt Shea’s artistry.

About Michael Campochiaro

Michael Campochiaro is Just your typical Gen Xer: cynical, sarcastic, hopeful, world-renowned expert on Michelle Pfeiffer. Your standard stuff, really. He is also a regular contributor to HiLoBrow, The After Movie Diner, Sequart, Horror Geek Life, and elsewhere. His writing on film covers the gamut, with a specific interest in cult classics of any genre, horror, critical favorites, and of course Pfeiffer films. He is currently working on three chapters for inclusion in various books of pop culture criticism. Read more of his work at his blog Words Seem Out Of Place.

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