[Video Vault] Cruising For Controversy in Brian De Palma’s Erotic Giallo DRESSED TO KILL

Hey-ho, welcome back to the NOFS Video Vault! I trust everyone has been keeping healthy and safe in these crazy times. A whole lot has changed in such a short amount of time, at times it’s hard to comprehend all of this madness. That’s where we come in! With so much static in the ether, we all need an escape and that is exactly what we’re here to provide.

This month we’re going with a Cops n’ Killers theme and oh boy do we have a gem ready for you. It’s noir, it’s lurid, it’s tension-filled, it’s Brian De Palma’s sultry Dressed To Kill (1980).


The Cover Box Review

When a prostitute witnesses the brutal slaying of a homemaker, she finds herself trapped in a dangerous game of cat and mouse. While the police think the escort is the murderer, the real killer wants to silence the crime’s only witness. Only the deceased homemaker’s son believes the lady of the night can help him find the real culprit, who has an unexpected means of hiding her identity and an even more surprising motivation to kill.


The Suspect List

Dressed to Kill stars Michael Caine (Death Trap, 1982) as both Dr. Robert Elliott, the shrink with an iron will and Bobbi which is a role that if I were to describe would be a huge spoiler, but it’s a doozy! Angie Dickinson (The Maddening, 1995) plays Kate Miller the ill-fated sexually frustrated housewife whose death sparks the central plot of the film. Nancy Allen (Carrie, 1976) plays Liz Blake the Park Avenue callgirl who witnesses the straight razor murder of Kate Miller.

Keith Gordon (Christine, 1983) is Peter Miller, the son of massacred mother Kate who ultimately teams up with witness Liz to bring down the diabolical slasher and save Liz’s life. Finally, Dennis Franz (Pyscho II, 1983) plays sleazy New York cop Detective Marino whose superior sleuthing skills place a bullseye on the case’s only witness as he ignores every bit of information pretty much everyone in the movie is giving him.


Dressed to Kill is a patient suspenseful neo-noir horror-thriller that grabs you from the opening scene to the twisted final frame.”


When it comes to casting, its tough to look past the people we see playing the parts in a finished film but quite usually there have been other actors up for these same parts and Dressed To Kill was no exception. The nude body of Kate Miller, Angie Dickinson’s character in the shower in the film’s beginning, is not actress Dickinson but that of Penthouse Pet Victoria Lynn Johnson.

Originally director Brian De Palma wanted Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann (Hour of the Wolf, 1968) to play Kate Miller but she declined because of the film’s violence. The role then went to Dickinson. James Bond himself, Sean Connery (Outland, 1981) was offered the role of psychiatrist Dr. Robert Elliot and was keen to play the part but ultimately had to decline due to scheduling conflicts. The role conclusively went to Michael Caine.


Theatres & Home Video

Dressed to Kill premiered in Los Angeles and New York City on July 25, 1980. With a gross of $3,416,000 in its opening weekend, the film bolstered up the following weekend with $3,640,000, a $224,000 uptick. At the end of its box office run, the film grossed a total of $31.9 million and was the 21st highest-grossing film of the year.

When it came to home video in 1984 the first VHS release was through Warner Home Video. Another VHS release from Goodtimes Video followed later and in 2002, MGM released the film for the first time on DVD, which included some special features. In 2010, MGM released the film a second time with both the R-rated and unrated versions on DVD and Blu-ray. The most recent release of the film came from The Criterion Collection as they released a deluxe Blu-ray edition of the film in 2015.

Dressed To Kill was, by its very nature, a lightning rod when it came to censorship.”


The critical and box office success of Dressed To Kill paved the way for accolades as the film was included in award season nominations. Nancy Allen was nominated for a Golden Globe New Star of the Year award while Angie Dickinson was both nominated and won a Saturn Award for Best Actress. The film itself also got Saturn noms for Best Horror Film and Best Music for composer Pino Donaggio’s chilling score.

Conversely, the film garnered three not-so-prestigious award nominations with Micheal Caine, Nancy Allen and the film itself receiving the Golden Raspberry Award treatment. All were nominated, none of which won.


Censorship and Cruising

Dressed To Kill was, by its very nature, a lightning rod when it came to censorship. If there are three things the Motion Picture Association of America love to cut from movies its sexin’, killin’, and cussin’ – and De Palma’s film has all three wholeheartedly.

The censor board quickly took the film to task by suggesting De Palma cut some of the nudity from the opening scene, blood from the elevator scene (including a close up of Kate’s throat being slit), and more lurid dialogue from Liz’s conversation with Dr. Elliott. These scenes were excised to avoid the X rating that leaving them in would produce. Subsequently, the film would be released some twenty years later as unrated with a grand total of an extra thirty seconds added back in.

Dressed To Kill will leave you on the edge of your seat.”


What’s cruising, you may ask? It’s quite simple. Cruising is nothing more than driving or walking around, looking for sex. If two people made the correct eye contact, then it was on. This nonverbal way of communicating was a way of avoiding the inevitable jail time a person would get if they were to be discovered soliciting same-sex intercourse which, at the time, was illegal. Cruising is still in practice today but was most prominent in gay communities during the times before the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s. De Palma dots the plot of Dressed To Kill with many of these detailed elements masterfully to meld with the overlying theme of transsexualism and the gay community as a whole.

For example, take the scene where Dickinson’s character Kate goes to the museum. While on the surface it looks as though she is there to view the Renoirs and Warhols, it soon becomes apparent that she is there for something else as she wanders the halls following a man around hoping for a hookup. While this is a heterosexual transaction, this is very much inspired by the cruising of gay men in the old days. De Palma purposefully overstated cruising as part of social life — the sexual license that even middle-class heterosexuals enjoyed.


Closing Credits

From the stellar cast to the legendary directing to the exceptionally progressive view on transexuals and the gay community, Dressed to Kill is a patient suspenseful neo-noir horror-thriller that grabs you from the opening scene to the twisted final frame. Does it have its flaws? Of course, it does. There are some undeniable similarities to De Palma’s 1976 classic Carrie and the ending is eerily identical. But don’t let that thwart you from seeing it. This is a very different movie. It just has some trademark De Palma flare to it. It’s a brave film that tackled the subject of transgender in a time when such things were kept firmly under society’s rug and it dares to tell the tale in a remarkably understanding, compassionate way. Not only that but this film is creepy to no end. From the long lingering takes to the constant building tension Dressed To Kill will leave you on the edge of your seat.

And there you have it, another soon-to-be satisfied customer! I trust that you’ll watch this responsibly. Remember to wash your hand, social distance (which I was born to do), disinfect and stay at home… with the NOFS Video Vault! And while you’re doing your civic duty be sure to check out our TwitterSubreddit and Facebook Fiend page. There you’ll find all the goods on what’s hot, old, new and everything in between in horror. Until next time folks… Stay Creepy!


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